Last Tuesday I set my alarm for 8:30 am with the intention spending the entire day in the Summer Palace. The night before I planned my bus routes, I planned which museums I wanted to stop in, I planned which neighborhood I would go to for lunch…. Needless to say I was prepared to be a super-tourist for the day.
Well, surprise surprise, I slept through my alarm and woke up at… 11:30. Whoops. Not wanting to waste the blue skies and sunshine moping, I quickly (ok, not really quickly. I may have moped for half an hour) threw on my most creative outfit and walked 20 minutes down the road to 798, Beijing’s “art zone”. Although it’s not nearly in the center of the city, 798 is a funky district comprised of old military factory buildings that now function as galleries, and studios. I could tell immediately tell when I had reached my destination. The narrow streets, bold graffiti, and presence of Chinese hipsters made me feel like I could have been on a side street of San Francisco rather than down the street from a business park in Beijing.
Before I hit any of the main galleries, I spent some time admiring the street art and wandering in and out of little shops along the road. While I found most of them a little touristy, I did find a tiny vintage store with stock surprisingly similar to what I could find on Haight back at home. It was packed with amazing watches, trinkets, coats, and dresses, but sadly for me and my student budget I walked away empty-handed.
I headed next to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, one of the largest galleries in 798, where I saw an exhibit of a Chinese artist Wang Xingwei. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a modern art aficionado by any means, I thought the exhibit itself was interesting and the space was light and beautiful. I also went inside the Farschou, another large gallery, where I saw Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat’s series of portraits called the Book of Kings. Maybe it’s because I’ve always liked portraits, or maybe it’s just because there was an excellent english translation of the ideologies behind them, but I enjoyed this exhibit the most by far.
Besides seeing the most popular galleries in the district, I also had fun just popping in and out of the tiny galleries run by local artists. Again, while I have always liked the oldies a little more than the modern, it was fascinating to see the spaces and the sometimes funky, oftentimes bizarre art that was in each one. Overall, exploring this place helped me understand another little piece of modern cultural China. There were dozens of references to Pop art, to the Chinese cultural revolution, to international and national politics… Honestly, I felt slightly uneducated, but it only made me realize how much more I want to learn about the place I am living. After about 6 hours and a few snack breaks, I headed back down the road. Thanks to the gorgeous, smog-free day and the expansion of my artistic horizons, I enjoyed my little slice of hipster-hood, and hope to go back and see more before I leave Beijing.