Beijing's 798 District an unexpected artistic enclave


District 798Picture a small, standing-room-only theater, pitch-black except for a large screen featuring an ultramodern interpretation of the human brain's physiology, recounted in painstaking detail through animation of wrathful Buddhist deity Vajrakilaya. Over a mix of jarring industrial sound effects, the voice of a seemingly despondent woman talks you through each of the brain's functions.

This is Chinese-born animator Lu Yang's groundbreaking "The Anatomy of Rage," and I'm bearing witness to it amid some of the world's most avant-garde modern art.

And no, I'm not in New York, Paris or Berlin; I'm in Beijing's 798 Art District.

From Bauhaus to art house

Formally known as the Dashanzi Arts District, the area evolved in the 1950s when East German architects and engineers designed and built a series of Bauhaus-styled factories as part of the Socialist Unification Plan of military industrial cooperation between China and the Soviet Union.

The project provided Beijing with state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, each named by a designated number, and the largest of them was Factory 798.

The area began to gradually decline as a manufacturing center in the 1980s, and nearly a decade later, Beijing-based modern artists, having always operated on the fringes of Chinese society, began to set up shop in the area, beginning most notably when Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, in search of cheap space, opened in the now-defunct Factory 706.

Soon, other artists moved into the area, and that's when travelers began to take notice.

A lasting presence

"I remember hearing about and visiting 798 about a decade ago," said Wendy Wu, owner and founder of Wendy Wu Tours, a longtime China tour operator out of the U.K. and Australia that opened offices in the U.S. last year.

"And so we went to visit the district, and we really couldn't be sure at the time what was going to happen with it, if it would grow," she said.

But grow it did.

"The second time I visited, things were already put in place, and now it's all done," she said. "There are lots of artists all over and a lot of new travelers wanting to visit 798."

Today, the 798 Art District is home not only to some of China's most prolific and high-profile artists; it also plays host to a slew of art galleries managed by some of the most famous names in the art world today.

"The art district is here to stay, which was not always a guarantee," said Megan Connolly, founder of ChART Contemporary, a Beijing-based tour company that specializes in District 798. "The Chinese government has invested time and lots of money into the area, making it a tourist destination teeming with local and international visitors."

Right guide is key

But not everyone is crazy about it. "The area gets mixed reviews," Wu said. "We usually only recommend the area to our higher-end customers, and we never send them there without a guide."

I can see why.

Admittedly, being jet-lagged and not being a modern-art enthusiast myself, I was initially a bit apprehensive about my foray into 798. Fortunately, I had Connolly as my guide.

The neighborhood has a rich array of offerings in the way of galleries, exhibits, restaurants, cafes and event spaces, but it is fairly spread out, so having the right insider is crucial for making the best use of one's time.

As Connolly put it, "798 is developing into a creative city within a city."

Born and raised in the U.S., Connolly moved to China 14 years ago. Watching Connolly -- outfitted in red, patent-leather Prada boots that matched her naturally red hair -- fire off questions at curators or order snacks or complicated coffee drinks in fluent Mandarin was a somewhat surreal treat.

While visitors to 798 can easily read English-language gallery placards to learn the name of a given artist and the materials he or she used on a piece, they'll need a guide if they want to hear, for instance, the murky details surrounding that artist having recently been detained by Chinese authorities.

I would without a doubt say the 798 Art District was a highlight of my visit to China, a large and complex country of many textures. Visitors should take time to see the very new world it offers adjacent to the very old one.

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