Travel to China for the modern art revolution

On 21/02/2014 by Site Default
Head to China for the modern art revolution
The 798 Space in Beijing is plastered with cultural slogans (Picture: Alamy)

Ever since Chinese contemporary art became the darling of the international market, hundreds of studios, galleries and private art museums have been opening in the country’s major cities: between 2010 and 2011, one museum reportedly opened every day in China.

The V&A’s current blockbuster exhibition, Masterpieces Of Chinese Painting: 700 to 1900, explains the history and tradition of Chinese art but where do you start if you want to experience Chinese modern art and design on the ground?

The 798 art district, in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, is your first port of call. The former ‘model factory’ zone was built in the 1950s by east Germans – you can get a bird’s-eye view of the Bauhaus architecture from the new high line metal walkway.

Artists began moving in during the 1990s and it’s now a thriving area, with nearly 50 galleries and art shops. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is one of the biggest spaces and the attached UCCA Store is a treasure trove of design pieces.

In the 798 Space, period machines and cultural revolution wall slogans provide a striking backdrop to the experimental art on show. Vintage prints from 798 Photo Gallery make for out-of-the-ordinary souvenirs and celebrated sculptors Xiang Jing and Qu Guangci sell accessibly priced limited-edition pieces from their X+Q Store.

Away from the tourist throng, Caochangdi is the art district founded by Ai Weiwei. Quiet, minimalist and uncommercial, it offers a different perspective on Beijing’s contemporary art scene. Look for the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, White Space and Galerie Urs Meile.

Back in the heart of the city, I meet up with Sarah Keenlyside of tour company Bespoke Beijing ( Its tours can be tailored to any specification, with guides and drivers or personalised pocket guides. For my art/design brief, we head to the Dongcheng/Gulou hutong neighbourhood, north of the Forbidden City, which combines independent boutiques with a slice of old Beijing.

The Chinese are just cottoning on to vintage: upcycling shop Brand Nu and the two Lost And Found outlets – where copies of government-issue 1960s chairs cost a cool £460 – are the height of hipster chic.

The Arrow Factory transforms a hutong alley storefront with site-specific installations. And even though Nanluoguxiang, the street that started the area’s boutique boom, is now a mass of crowds, loud music and food stands, it’s still worth visiting the famous Plastered 8 T-shirt shop.

Shanghai’s equivalent to 798 is M50, an old industrial area that now houses more than 120 galleries and studios. Highlights include the highly influential ShanghART and the OV Gallery.

Back in the centre, small galleries and boutiques dot the lanes around the Bund and the French Concession but confusing addresses can make them tricky to find.

At the other end of the scale, Shanghai’s new money and mega-city status has produced K11, the world’s first art shopping mall. The 61-floor centre opened in May and luxury shops sit alongside dedicated art spaces exhibiting pieces in the permanent K11 Kollection, including work by the likes of Damien Hirst and Yinka Shonibare, as well as up-and-coming local names.

Together with my guides – arts writers Gigi Chang and Frances Arnold – we’ve headed for RAM (the Rockbund Art Museum), a restored art deco building that’s part of a new development in central Huangpu. This gallery space shows everything from established Chinese names such as Xu Bing and Yang Jiechang to Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, as well as hosting film screenings, talks and experimental music.

Chang and Arnold are full of ideas for further excursions. The Power Station Of Art is the new home of the Shanghai Biennial, while Pudong’s Long Museum shows the massive private collection of billionaire couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei.

Beijing’s art scene may be more organised but the hectic pulse of Shanghai is invigorating.

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