5 Essential Galleries in Beijing
Getting your bearings in the Chinese labyrinth that makes up the art district of Caochangdi isn't always easy, but these days it's worth it. Story and photos by CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY.
Published on Dec 1, 2015
AS FAR AS ARTS ENCLAVES GO, Caochangdi is a work in progress. As such, it might just be the perfect microcosm of present-day Beijing, a city pinned between its rich history and a modern façade. Veer down one lane in Caochangdi instead of making an abrupt left, and you're more likely to come across a wizened Chinese grandmother perched on a wooden stool than a cutting-edge art space. While a handful of artists first moved to the village in 2000, not until the past few years has there been a concerted artistic bent to the area through public art installations and live events. Today, that shows. The village comes with pedigree: this is where artist and architect Ai Weiwei has set up shop, both in his own gallery and in designing other spaces, putting Caochangdi on the global art map.
A mix of styles in Caochangdi.
Still, en route to some of the city's best art spaces, you'll bypass open ditches, snarling dogs and locals simply going about their daily business. Wasn't it Ai Weiwei who described the Chinese capital as being two cities, one of power and money, the other of desperation? Split in two by a rail line, Caochangdi is where the airport expressway intersects Beijing's fifth ring road. That might not sound pedestrian friendly, and it's not. Fortunately, now there is some blue signage in English and Mandarin sprouting up, but navigating this village is still hit-and-miss. Have an up-to-date map in hand.
Once you do stumble across a gallery, there's always the unpredictable nature of the Middle Kingdom waiting to rear its head. Security guards barring access for reasons unuttered. Or closed because a corporate function is taking place, the crowd immune to the art around it. But persevere, because when you finally find that special space showcasing an artist whose works speak to you, it is easy to see the lure to this mishmash of a neighborhood.
As its name suggests, (1) Three Shadows Photography Art Centre focuses on photography and video arts, but also exhibits other forms, notably ink drawings. Like other galleries in Caochangdi, from the outside looking in, it comes across as a small, modern factory, one with several buildings. Designed by Ai Weiwei, the center presents photography and video in a stylized manner, hanging photography in midair—the setting becomes part of the art that is on display. There's also a permanent selection of photography here derived from the owner's growing private collection, including Man Ray and Robert Frank as well as innumerable Chinese camerapersons.
An ink sketch at Three Shadows.
Stroll across the one-lane street where (2) Platform China Art Institute typifies the evolving neighborhood. Sculptures pop up from a strip of weeds, a new concrete floor is being polished in another space, while another small exhibit has a sign-in sheet with a few names but no visitors. It's difficult to tell if the spot is in the early stages of decay or at the start of a new life.
On the other side of the rail tracks, (3) Galerie Urs Meile has been in Beijing since 1996, also designed by Ai Weiwei, continues to specialize in contemporary Chinese art.
Inside Galerie Urs Meile. Courtesy of Galerie Urs Meile.
Around the corner, down another narrow lane, (4) Pékin Fine Arts displays a range of works from across Asia, and like others in the neighborhood, aims to promote the artists in more established markets like Tokyo, London, Paris and New York City.
Art, whether paintings or sculptures, stands out against the pure backdrops offered at the aptly named (5) White Space Beijing. Originally part of the nearby 798 art district—an area that is now just as much restaurants and bars as it is a gathering place for original art—White Space promotes young, up-and-coming Chinese artists.
With each of these galleries, it's imperative to call ahead to make certain they are open, normally from Tuesday through Saturday. Also, book a car and driver for the return trip as the neighborhood is still rough around the edges, a white spot on the map even to the capital's residents. Yet, the original art on display makes the trip worthwhile. Ai Weiwei has long argued that Beijing needs to let people have space for their own interests. Caochangdi just might be the place.
Checking In: Beijing
If it's art you're after in the Chinese capital, few hotels can match the display put on by the Rosewood Beijing. The hotel simply flaunts its original art pieces every chance it gets—there are more than 1,500 in total—a great calling card for a small chain that is expanding around Asia in the coming two years. Staff here speak of the hotel being a curated space, an idea that permeates all public areas and the guest rooms themselves, which feature original cloisonné paintings and fine art prints. Art, books and historical accoutrements make up the décor at the chain's first hotel in Asia.
Rosewood Beijing's guest room.