Dashanzi Art District

Written on 24 January 2007

Beijing’s race against the clock as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics has been leaving very large footprints across the city.
As part of an unprecedented redevelopment, the city is undergoing a massive facelift, however the scale of this metamorphosis extends the boundaries of the built environment – Last year the Chinese government launched a campaign encouraging residents to shed previously accepted habits, like jumping queues and spitting in public.

While the scale of change is massive, some stones are being left unturned, giving birth to a new landscape as old and new are juxtaposed.

In a district north-east of Central Beijing, a cluster of old decommissioned military warehouses has become home for a thriving contemporary arts community. Dashanzi Art District, also known as 798 by locals, after the electronics plant which now houses one of the main exhibition spaces, initially attracted artists for the cheap rent and large spaces. Since 2002, tens of galleries, artist spaces, design studios, cafés, bars, restaurants and design and art shops have moved into the complex of derelict warehouses at Dashanzi, refurbishing them one space at a time, making the area popular amongst emerging artists as well as those with international acclaim.

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As you hop between one exhibition space to the next, it is not uncommon to come by a floor in a building which still houses old industrial machinery. A health and safety hazard by western standards, the raw materials and surfaces add a sense of realism to the whole experience of Dashanzi.

A highlight of my visit was Wang Fuchun’s exhibition Chinese on the Train. Trained as an engine driver and working as a train technician, Fuchun has been photographing people during their long-distance travels on China’s rail network. Almost like peering into a person’s bedroom, Fuchun’s photos depict the train as a transitory home for passengers as they become comfortable in this space they sometimes occupy for days en-route.

It appears that in between the orchestrated urban renaissance of Beijing–and despite it–some things are taking shape organically.

For a society known for its oppressed past, Dashanzi Art District provides hope and offers a better future, where individual thinking has a platform, an audience and where a decent glass of wine is available.

Where: Dashanzi Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianquiao Road, Chaoyang District.

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