One of the big visual arts attractions in Beijing is the 798 Arts District. If nothing else, the story of the district proves that artists face the same issues in every country: The abandoned factories were inhabited by artists; it became a hub of activity; it was decided the area was good for other things (including a highway) and artists were pressured into leaving (including turning off the utilities and services); international attention, interest and investment helped preserve the area; gentrification set in and many artists had to move elsewhere in the face of rising rents.
The district is a fun place to visit, especially since many of the buildings retain elements of the original East German factory design. Many online articles about the district feature pictures of the gallery below where machines remain amidst the display of works and faded slogans adorn the ceilings.
One of the more significant galleries in the district is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art which was established as a non-profit gallery. (Though non-profit status is a much more nebulous, still developing concept in China). I was taken a little aback when I went in and I saw what was essentially a massive BMW ad.
A large area of the gallery space was devoted to a lounge surrounded 360 degrees with screens showing a video in both English and Chinese that talked about BMW’s commitment to renewables, fuel efficiency and how awesome their cars were. Beyond that area was a showcase for their cars, including Rolls Royce and Mini, that included a bar with refreshments.
I was prepared to write a lengthy post about commercialization and debate the differences in expectations between US and Chinese gallery patrons. The fact that admission to the gallery was free on a Friday (Thursday is the posted free day) lead me to suspect that BMW was subsidizing admission to help sell/hype their cars to the Chinese market. I was also a little suspicious of the fact that they don’t list the BMW show at all as an exhibition on the website, only Wang Yin’s The Gift, show. (There was barely anyone in Wang Yin’s part of the building.)
None of this means the center isn’t heavily commercialized and wouldn’t come under heavy criticism for claiming to be non-profit were it in the US. I think the philosophy and approach to art of the European baron who founded the organization are probably different from those of the Chinese partners who assumed control.
There is a difference between a week long BMW adverting showcase and an event simulating an art show that occupies the space for months. Even if it didn’t fit your mission, if BMW wanted to rent your space for a week to show themselves off, what would your reaction be?
Granted, I would question whether the other visitors to the gallery would understand the distinction between the status of BMW show and the Wang Yin’s paintings in the adjacent space. Before doing a little research, I certainly thought the BMW show had been there quite a while given the amount of equipment and technology packed into that area. Now that I know they spent so much for such a short time, I am a little envious of the amount of money they have to throw around.
For your general enjoyment, here are some pictures of other works I took around the district and in various galleries.