Beijing's 798 district has evolved from a low-rent home for bohemians to a consumer and tourist mecca
Source: The Globe & Mail (Canada) (www.theglobeandmail.com), GEOFFREY YORK
BEIJING — It was the maddening mobs of tourists that finally drove Fu Lei from the art studio where he had been quietly painting his quirky and surrealistic canvases for the past six years.
Back in 2002, he was one of the first Chinese artists to find refuge in the 798 district, a jumble of abandoned military factories where cheap rents and empty spaces had allowed an underground art scene to emerge.
The bohemians were an odd sight in the factory buildings, attracting gawking stares from the passing migrant workers, but 798 was the perfect place for Mr. Fu and his friends to work in peace.
When the artists attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, they had to endure a wave of police raids and demolition threats by government officials, who failed to grasp the cultural value of a low-rent district of studios and galleries.
But in the end, it was 798's unexpected commercial success that ultimately killed its soul and forced the artists to flee.
It happened when Chinese art exploded into the mainstream, with its celebrities earning huge prices for their work at international auctions. Soon 798 became a hot new attraction for Chinese consumers and tourists, and although the threat of demolition has faded away, 798 now faces new threats. Its rents are skyrocketing. Its narrow streets are clogged with traffic. The construction noise is deafening. And tourists are everywhere.
"Every day there are tour buses here, as if this is the Forbidden City or something," Mr. Fu says.
"There are traffic jams, and I can't even open my door because tourists will walk in. Can you imagine how you would feel if strangers were constantly walking into your home without permission?"
His rent, meanwhile, has tripled. Most of his fellow artists can't afford to live in 798 any more. They have abandoned the district, leaving it in the hands of the commercial dealers and well-financed galleries.
"It's becoming vulgar," the 48-year-old artist says. "It's a place only for rich people. Almost all of the first group of artists have moved out of 798 now. It's impossible for us. The newcomers are obsessed with fashion and commercial opportunities, not art."
Like everything else in Beijing, the 798 district has evolved at warp speed. Just a few years ago it was funky, brave, cutting edge, postindustrial and vaguely dangerous, like the Soho district of New York in the 1960s. It took 30 years for Soho to become dominated by boutiques and chic restaurants. It took only five years for the same phenomenon to happen in Beijing.
The Beijing government, which had wanted to demolish 798, is now adopting it as a government project, the kiss of death for any true colony of artists. Small galleries are being demolished to make room for a parking garage and other massive developments. Rents for some spaces have leaped as much as tenfold since 2002.
"Eventually only the top global brands will be able to afford space here," a bookstore owner at 798 told the China Youth Daily. "None of us will be able to afford it."
The district, pioneered by artist squatters in the late 1990s, was originally known as Factory 798 in honour of the official code number of the munitions factory that occupied the site for half a century.
The armaments factory was built with the help of East German architects in the 1950s, and its Bauhaus-style workshops are still an extraordinary space for art. With their enormous brick rooms, tall ceilings, towering chimneys and old Maoist slogans on the brick walls, the industrial buildings at 798 are like a grungier version of the celebrated Tate Modern, which occupies a former power station in London.
As its popularity grew exponentially, the district endured the unwelcome attention of Beijing's city officials, who threatened to demolish it in 2004. Two years later, police raided the district and seized paintings on sensitive subjects such as Mao Zedong and the Tiananmen massacre.
Yet none of those threats were as dispiriting as the current commercial boom, with its glitzy redevelopment projects and financial obsessions. One huge gallery in 798 has a gift shop where merchandising is so rampant that customers can buy T-shirts and mouse pads emblazoned with the names of famous Chinese artists.
"Massive commercialization has happened here, and with it has come the swanking up of the type of galleries and the type of people," said Tamsin Roberts, owner of Red T gallery, which was opened in 2005 and demolished this spring to make room for a parking garage.
"This district used to be mostly artists and a few galleries, and now it's completely flipped on its head," she said. "It's becoming more elitist. The art has changed, and there's a real heavy focus on what sells. It's becoming saturated with money-hungry, brand-name galleries and artists. It's high-end stuff, focused at high-end people."
Ms. Roberts, who is British, says she spent more than $20,000 on renovations to her gallery, only to be told that the building would be demolished and she would receive less than $3,000 in compensation.
Leases have become so valuable in the 798 district that landlords and middlemen are demanding "move-in fees" of $150,000 or more, on top of the monthly rent, she said. "The powers that make these decisions aren't art people, and that's the shame of it. In a few years, I won't be surprised if we have luxury fashion brands moving in here."
Just before her gallery was demolished, Ms. Roberts turned it over to a group of graffiti artists, freeing them to do whatever they wanted with the space. Her goal was to create "the most beautiful and heartfelt pile of rubble in China."
Hundreds of people held a last-minute party to paint graffiti all over the gallery walls, just days before it disappeared forever. "They paved paradise," one person wrote mournfully on the walls. Another wrote: "C'est horrible. Non, c'est de l'art."