798 Art Zone – Tanks to Art

Poster for Red Memory, artwork from Yumeijuan, at Yi Art Gallery

Poster for Red Memory at Yi Gallery

BEIJING, China – Chinese artists clearly have a lot of past to exorcize, so somehow it’s fitting that a neighborhood of former East German-built munitions plants in northeastern Beijing is the place they’re doing it. Whereas tanks and Maoist slogans once filled this enclave, now it’s art that’s creating waves.

Like the rest of Beijing, the 798 Art Zone is massive, covering over 20 city blocks. The dominant style is contemporary, but works here go from traditional Chinese to outre works by world-renowned artists from Europe and the Americas, and tchotchkes inspired by traditional Chinese iconography (Chinese opera mask bottle openers) and Japanese anime. But if there’s one motif you see over and over, it’s riffs on Mao-Era art. The difference: instead of ruddy, fresh-faced, happy workers, the characters are puffy and ghostly, as if sculpted by Botero and styled by Tim Burton. Maybe it’s out of nostalgia, maybe it’s nervous laughter over an era that’s not completely over, but again, clearly there’s lots to exorcise.

798 Space is one of the largest, under soaring vaulted ceilings where once tanks were manufactured – and Maoist slogans still line the ceilings, painted red, naturally; one in another gallery reads “Chairman Mao is our red eastern sun.” Long March is another warehouse of a space with giant galleries for large-form art.

798 Space

Long March Space

Postcard Art at 798 Brother Camp

But most of the spaces are a lot more intimate, like 798 Brother Camp. The artist/owners aren’t actual brothers (they’re cousins, Liu Hao Wei and Zhu Si Ning), but “camp” is apt in both senses of the word. Down an alley and set up like a squatter’s den, it sells the cousins’ creations like posters and postcards recreating group portraits of expressionless military cadres from China’s not so recent past using expressionless GI Joe and Star Wars action figures, while  the Beatles “All You Need is Love” and “Yellow Submarine” fill the halls of faded brick and concrete. Inexpensive souvenirs here include bottle openers like Chinese opera masks and tiny black ceramic whistles brightly painted like animals of the Chinese zodiac.

At the highly regarded Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery was an exhibition called “Don’t Think Too Much,” of stainless steel signage by Ko Siu Lan, with hard-hitting slogans which the gallery notes call “a visual, mental, physical interaction with the viewer.” “Don’t think too much” is both the show’s motto and a way of looking at the work – probably best given the content of the signs:

Plastic Tree 8 by Pascal Marthine Tayou

Galleria Continua has exhibited big-name world-class artists including Anish Kappor, Daniel Buren, Ai Wei Wei, Cao Fei and Antony Gormley. Today the atrium was filled with Plastic Tree 8 by Pascal Marthine Tayou – a bare tree covered with with hundreds of colorful plastic bags; the only real greenery was the potted plants on the floor below.

Shadow Puppets

Shadow puppets

Amid all the galleries are tiny shops selling t-shirts and tin cups coated with enameled slogans, painted canvas shoulder bags, silk and tie-dyed scarves, fancy dresses, furniture and furnishings, books about art and architecture in myriad languages, Obama logos almost as plentiful as Chairman Mao logos, and, at the simply named Discount Shop for Art Books, shadow puppets that look like they’re made of plastic but are actually brightly colored donkey hide, from Shaanxi province. Most prices are very reasonable, making 798 a great place to pick up cheap and meaningful gifts.