798 and many more steps in search of Chinese art in Beijing

The best place to start if you wish to find the artists’ market in Beijing is Capital Airport, where I was met by my longtime friend, Shaohua, as always smiling, who had recommended this day trip.

It is just a 50 RMB taxi ride, to the distress of the driver. He drops us at a wide gateway, and we notice the address is 798, but not sure of the street. We remember that the district is Chaoyang, and I feel some comfort as Shaohua is leading the way in Beijing.

It is mid-summer, and always over 35 degrees C – today a fair bit hotter. The advantage of being in Beijing in summer compared to the southern cities is its dry climate. The disadvantage is that, without rain, the haze is oppressive when scanning the skies. But we are seeking out galleries so with eyes down, there is nothing but the heat and glare to interfere in our search.

The wide road goes ahead to the distance with no apparent signals of where to seek. Almost immediately on the right is a building with a gallery (entry 10 RMB) with copper work in the front window – the gallery of Bingren – we find that the workshops are in Shanghai not in Beijing. Near the glass door there is a large enameled copper camel of perforated metal, elegant and appearing to be subject of very controlled corrosion.

Inside, is a magnificent gallery of copper art – animalia, classical Chinese scenes, traditional trees, semi-abstract designs, with various metallic and enamel finishes – and prices up to 800,000 RMB, all due to the great artisan Bingren and, I assume, his team of eager apprentices. I am captured by the beauty and undoubted quality of the works, and only realize later that this will be the artistic highlight of the day in terms of traditional Chinese art forms.

We go upstairs to a Tibetan gallery and are confronted by a request to not photograph, that bemuses me as it makes it a bit difficult to later promote the artists. The art is diverse and representative of both traditional and contemporary techniques and designs.

Walking further up the road, I realized that in the middle of this area is a defunct power station, and it is apparent that the burghers of this district in Beijing have refurbished all of the buildings associated with the electronics manufacturing to create this art park, while leaving the power plant as a ’monument’ to the industrial birth of China.

Side streets stretch for about 400 metres each way, and the main road is longer. What Shaohua notices from a previous visit is the explosion of restaurants and cafes plus some very commercial galleries.

Today is Saturday. Several galleries have exhibition openings and we attach to a few, but cannot get excited by most of the contemporary offerings, while not criticizing the better judgment of the galleries. I am attracted to enter a China-Italy Biennale that has as its theme Memory, yet we find some difficulty in deciphering the works displayed and even the mission of this event.

A change has occurred in Chinese eating habits and now it is easy to find all-day dining. Close to 3pm Shaohua took us up and down side streets, past about 20 restaurants seeking directions here and there to find the one that she had recommended. Up some narrow winding steel stairs we trudged to sit for a beer and selection of local ‘hot’ cuisine and I chuckle over the sign at the bottom of the staircase warning to ’Watch out for the landslide’ – only in Beijing.

Yes, we did find some exciting art, some very odd ceramic souls that captured the heart of one of us, and traditional fans made on the premises. I found silk fashions from Shanghai that competed admirably with Hermes for price, yet fortunately exhibited more unique designs and weaving structures that would make Ilario Tartaglia proud.

Yet, by 5pm, despite, for Shaohua, her sun umbrella, we were both dizzy with heat exhaustion and had no more desire to search out galleries, if only to escape the heat and glare. When we found an air-conditioned taxi, we realized that ‘798’ is only about 400 metres from the airport expressway entrance, and I concluded that my next visit here, for a more ‘exhaustive’ tour, may need to be during somewhat cooler months, and my hostess agreed. We will be back