the scent of subversion

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We went to the 798 Art District 798艺术区 today, a 1950s factory compound northwest of the city that had been taken over by the art community in the mid-nineties.

Everyone here knows it, and especially the foreign crowd seems to enjoy the subtle ‘scent of subversion’ in the air.

A fun place:


But there have been some drastic changes lately…

The old factory buildings are still there:


And so are the hissing pipes that I’ve always liked so much:


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You can still wander freely through the artists’ different workspaces:

studio door

And the kids have never stopped selling their stuff on the market:

flee market

But besides that, everything has changed – there is heavy security all over the place, all the roads seem somehow freshly paved, and the whole place has the feel of some sort of major tourist attraction:

road in 798

“With the cafés and the tourists and the sunshades, it actually feels more like going to the beach”, my friend Lilu put it. Yeah, I thought, if only Beijing had a beach…

Well, to be honest I think this place has always incorporated some of the above – there have always been a few foreign cafés offering cappuccinos and pizza, and the occasional lush gallery with new storefront windows and nice parquet flooring.

But it felt definitely different now.

…more professional:


more international:

coffee place

(another classic WTF moment by the way.)

…and definitely more commercial:

Nike store

Yes, it’s exactly what it looks like, and it’s not a joke either – the corporates are in the building:

within the Nike store

Let’s talk about art for a change – I think there are several characteristics that can help figure out what we hope to see in a certain work of art.

We want to experience:

a) art that is displaying a certain degree of master skill,

b) art that is trying to appeal to our sense of beauty,

c) art that enhances or changes the way we look at things,

d) art that tricks our sense of curiosity,

e) art that has been made to a specific order,

f) art that openly or secretly incorporates some kind of public message,

g) art that communicates on a personal level,

h) art that is specifically attributed to a social group or a certain time.

There must be more aspects that I have only failed to come up with, and any work of art could of course be a combination of them or the above.

It’s kind of like a Dalì painting, equally amazing in technique and taste, attempting to broaden our minds to see the surreal, while at the same time making some people personally relate to the master’s paranoid unrest and thus allowing them to enjoy his art on another, more personal level.

This being said, I think that most foreigners who come to 798 are probably hoping to find something that is h) specifically Modern Chinese and f) incorporating some kind of public message. The ‘scent of subversion’ that I have mentioned before.

What about the pseudo-artistic sports “museum” built by the corporates?


Can a museum full of running shoes and sporting suits help the cause of art or will it eventually kill it?

I think that the recent changes at 798 are very interesting. You have to understand that the whole compound is geographically located in a highly developed zone just between the modern airport and the downtown area. Of course there have been plans to get rid of the old buildings and make space for something more “developed”, but it seems as though the administration has recently learned to appreciate the cultural value of the 798 Art District and has thus decided to save it.

Well, to put it short I think that it is the same tourist industry and the same corporates that I’d like to condemn that have actually allowed the artist community to remain in this place.

But what about our dear dear ‘scent of subversion’ though?

Honestly, I have absolutely no idea whether the artists here have actually ever considered themselves to be specifically Modern Chinese or anything, and neither do I know whether they were trying to spread any kind of public message.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and people are actually looking for completely different things in 798?

“Or maybe some artists will leave the scene”, as my friend suggested, “maybe there will soon be more and more 798‘s all around town?”

Could it be just that?


Could art live anywhere?

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