798 artists' district

China is all about energy. The need for it, the consumption of it and the production of it. It’s also about brain power, the thirst for it and its desire for an outlet, whether practical or creative.

I visited the 798 Artist District on Sunday. Galleries, cafes and studios have taken over the buildings of 798, once an industrial complex that was the pride of the PRC. Here, the fervent talent of Chinese artists is on display, their energies splashed across canvases, molded into sculptures and installations, captured in photographs.

I’m no art major (I cheated in an art history test in high school) nor am I an art connoisseur. I usually go to museums and tune out, doing the obligatory walk around the galleries to make the admission worthwhile. Avant-garde impressionism, realism, abstraction — those words mean very little to an art ignoramus like myself. So take any analysis with a grain — no, shaker — of salt.

When I was walking from gallery to gallery (no admission fees), I was struck by how dramatic, raw and uncensored the paintings were. If there are censors in China, they aren’t whitening out the brush strokes of artists in 798. A naked woman with discarded cigarette butts on her body. Burning wax dripping on a weeping girl. A women in a video installation seeking a sperm donor. Young children as Party officials speaking at the dais. Art of Red Guards and Mao Zedong that seem to celebrate and mock at the same time.

It was all a little unsettling, but also revealing. Revealing in that I felt a mood of dissidence in the artwork. A mood of dissidence that would be squashed if it materialized on the street or banned if it appeared in a book. Perhaps I was interpreting the works all wrong, seeing what I wanted to see through the prism of my own background. Of perhaps I’m right, since officials have threatened to bulldoze the area to allow more development.

I didn’t take many photos in the galleries, since I was respecting the “No Photo” signs which every one else seemed to ignore (the photo above was taken at a gallery that had no sign). Here are two I went to that have a few photos of their exhibitions on their sites: Red Star Gallery and Loft3 Art Gallery.

The sprawling 798 area, with galleries tucked in corners and alleyways, is worth another visit. Perhaps I’ll try to go with an art major, or at least some one who didn’t try to cheat in Art History 101.