What to do with those pesky artists? Set them up in an enclosed industrial area near the airport and call it the 798 Art District! Just when I was about to give up on finding anything besides tourist trinkets or knockoffs of any kind -- "antique, antique, sir, Ming, Ming Dynasty -- I found the Chelsea of the East! Well, Pace Gallery got there before me, but their flashy new space is still under construction.
Nonetheless, 798 is a fabulous, walkable art village, loaded with a range of galleries, shops, and cafes, a magnet for hip, very fashionable Chinese, ready to spend their newly made billions. Up until the past month China had a record number of 66 billionaires, now down a smidge to 27 or 28. As with New York's Soho and Chelsea art areas, most of the artists have moved on for cheaper rents, leaving room for the high-end galleries to outdo one another with sleek white spaces. During my visit there was an Edward Burtynsky exhibit of his photos of China and a multi-video installation by Shirin Neshat, but the majority was the work of some quite good Chinese artists.
After my previous week's tours of factories, a particularly poignant exhibit by Ni Haifeng titled Para-Production at Joyart really caught me. A room is piled high with dark fabric cuttings, engulfing several sewing machines, and to the side are two more rows of machines. A large black sheet of quilted fabric drapes from the ceiling. In a smaller space at the rear the walls are plastered with HS codes - standardized trading codes that the artist states, "turn all objects and goods into a series of commoditized and depersonalized numbers."
A sound piece drawn from several days of collaborative work to produce the large wall hanging in the main space plays continuously - the hum of sewing machines.
Another exhibit I really enjoyed featured the 3-D vignettes of court scenes, the stock exchange, and political forums by Zhou Xiaohu at Long March Space.
It's truly becoming the art "world" now, and that's a wonderful thing. Looking for the next great art movement? It may come from China.
And as a reminder to never forget where I am, my next stop was Tiananmen Square. All its strange, eerie beauty called up images of past May Day parades and the infamous pro-democracy demonstrations. There are a thousands eyes watching -- there is still a ways to go.