One of the most interesting places I visited in China earlier this month was the 798 Art District in Beijing. Obviously, a westerner in China is keenly aware of the limits to free speech that are imposed (explicitly or tacitly) in China, and those limits are disturbing on a number of fronts. State controlled media, an internet that is monitored and severely curtailed, sedition laws that criminalize criticism of the state and the Communist Party, an incredibly disturbing number of journalists in jail, not to mention the human rights abuses at seemingly every turn... it's enough to make you want to turn tail and get outta Dodge. Then you check out 798 or run across an indie record store in Ho Hai or find yourself in a little reggae bar where teenagers are singing Bob Marley in English and Mandarin, and China begins to feel both smaller and more complicated than previously imagined.
That said, 798 was particularly interesting because it was packed with cafes, bookstores, galleries, shops, and restaurants. In some respects, it struck me as particularly western while in others, it seemed that this particular mix of art and commerce could only exist in a country that was really trying to redefine itself artistically. It'd be easy to go to 798 and wonder whether you were really seeing authentic contemporary Chinese art. Ai Weiwei, for instance, is known in the States because he was disappeared for 81 days last year, a move that caused international outrage and sparked a movement to find him asylum in the U.S. or U.K. That said, there were books and articles about Ai Weiwei all over the place in 798, though I didn't see any of his art. It was as if discussion of the artist was somehow in-bounds simply because his public persona and international celebrity was too big to contain. How does a censor put a cap on such a pervasive conversation and such a widely known figure? The answer, it seems, is that it doesn't.
Anyway, I'm certainly no expert and 10 days in China is hardly time enough to wrap one's head around these issues, let alone understand them in any sort of nuanced way. It is enough time, however, to snap some photos, so here they are, a few shots from the 798 Art District, which is well worth a visit the next time you're in Beijing.