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Art in Beijing! For Real

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.

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