Art Walk: 798 art district

Where to go and what to see in the city's biggest art district

Think ‘art in Beijing’ and the 798 Art District immediately springs to mind. Arguably the first significant creative cluster in Beijing, this area in the city’s northeast was once a buzzing factory complex. Designed by East Germans in the 1950s, for decades the Bauhaus-influenced industrial park churned out military and civilian hardware, including acoustic equipment for the Workers’ Stadium and the loudspeakers in Tiananmen Square.

During Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s, the factories in the Dashanzi area lost state support and became obsolete. Eventually, around the turn of the millennium, the vacant buildings began to attract the capital’s disparate artist communities until it finally became a teeming hotbed of Beijing’s avant-garde.

The present-day numerical name actually comes from a single sub-factory, ‘798’, a portion of which was the first location to host a major exhibition. After this, the whole complex became known by these three iconic numbers.
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Like everything in Beijing, progress came at a bewildering pace. Artist-led gentrification and pressure from the property management groups happened almost simultaneously. There was a vast influx of studio spaces and galleries, and it wasn’t long before 798’s radical beginnings became obscured by the hordes of selfie-snapping tourists.

Still, ignore the weekend crowds because, among all the commercial muck and tourist trinkets, you can still find some of China’s best contemporary art.

Click through below to follow our tour of this area's artistic gems. As well as the best galleries, we've thrown in great places to eat and drink along the way. Art can be tiring, after all.

Don't forget that you can get this tour delivered straight to your WeChat. Just scan the QR code above or add TimeoutbeijingEN to follow us then send us a message with the area name (798, Caochangdi or hutongs) or gallery name and we'll send the details.

This tour starts at the North gate to the 798 art district, located on Jiuxianqiao Bei Lu (酒仙桥北路) in the North East corner of the complex, close to D-Park.  

Boers-Li Gallery

Boers-Li Gallery shares a courtyard with boutique hotel Grace Beijing, where you can grab a decent seafood-heavy brunch (Sat-Sun only) at their restaurant Yi House, if you’re not too picky about service. 

Boers-Li consistently puts on challenging shows. Most notable of late was group retrospective The Un-officials: Art Before 1985 in 2014, which presented work from many of the members of the vaunted Stars Group, considered to be the first collective of contemporary artists in China, and whose work, representing a radical departure from the social realism of the time, eventually got them in hot water with authorities.

Linda Gallery
Linda Gallery

Heading further into 798, stop at Linda Gallery, which hops between large solo exhibitions showcasing internationally-reputed Chinese practitioners and conceptually intriguing group exhibitions providing a stage of lesser known names, as when they divided their space into one-square-metre plots, giving each to an artist to do with what they would.

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White Box Art Centre

Around the corner, 100 metres west on the small main road, is White Box Art Centre

Besides boasting some of the most experimentally daring Chinese and international artists today, including Cui Xiuwen, Chen Jiagang and Bohumil Eliáš Jr, the lovingly curated design shop is also worth a look. Items for sale are somewhat higher than the normal tourist tat, with gorgeous hand-painted silk scarves that will put you 2,000RMB lighter of pocket.

Forge westward to 798 Originality Square, which houses the power trio of Pace Beijing, Faurschou Foundation and Gallery Yang.

Pace Beijing

With six spaces across the globe, Pace Beijing is notable for bringing huge-name international exhibitions to Beijing, such as Diane Von Furstenburg (2011) and David Hockney (2015).

Faurschou Foundation

Not to be outdone, Faurschou Foundation has in recent years hosted a number of household names of its own, from Lucian Freud, who set tongues a-wagging for his controversial portrait of the British queen, to Bill Viola, considered by many to be one of the fathers of video art.

Gallery Yang

Directly opposite these two spaces is Gallery Yang, which makes up for what it lacks in international names with the audacity of its young Chinese artists: for Li Wei’s Thank God last February, the entire gallery space was converted into a doppelganger of a Catholic church.
For lunch, pop around the corner to Manchurian restaurant Najia Xiaoguan’s gorgeous courtyard, where you can restore your tolerance for metaphorical meaning with plates of crispy shrimp (38RMB) or braised venison (48RMB). 

There’s also Factory by SALT further west, which serves up two- (80RMB) and three-course (100RMB) lunches from 11.30am-2.30pm Tuesday-Friday. What’s on the menu depends on what’s fresh in the market that day, but typical dishes include options like grilled pork loin with a carrot-ginger puree.

Kader Attia
Kader Attia's exhibition at Galleria Continua

Galleria Continua is an excellent spot to resume pace. Established first in an old cinema in a rural Tuscan town in 1990, its Beijing manifestation has maintained the façade and chimney of its former factory identity. Almost all of the gallery’s exhibitions are site-specific, meaning the artists conceive of work specifically for the space. 

As a result, Continua delivers some of the most intensely affecting shows to be found anywhere in the capital. Last year’s highlights included French-Algerian Kader Attia’s heart-stopping musings on revolution and the Arab Spring, and Ai Weiwei’s exhibition looks to continue the trend of ambitious, philosophically fearless work.

Magician Space

One street east is the petite gallery Magician Space

It’s an apt name, for what artistic director Billy Tang does with the tiny space is truly alchemical. Striking a balance between Chinese and international artists who are at formative stages in their career, there’s an avant-garde streak to the curation that fits perfectly with the demands placed on its artists to find a way to overcome the limitations of the diminutive space. 

Like a good magic show, its exhibitions are sure to leave you with something to think about on the way home.
Now, if a coffee – and maybe a slice of cake – is in order, head to Café Flatwhite. There are two branches here, but we particularly like the location a few blocks east in 751 D-Park due to its chilled-out patio seating. 

The café is owned by the same Kiwis that founded small-batch coffee company Rickshaw Roasters, so you know the beans are going to be top-notch.

Outside Beijing Commune

Fortified with caffeine, you should be set to tackle the last two cultural behemoths of the day. 

Founded in 2004, Beijing Commune has a knack for picking rising stars: Song Dong, who exhibited here earlier in his career, was later given a solo show at New York’s MoMA in 2009. Liu Jianhua, who showed at the gallery in 2009, participated in the 17th Biennale of Sydney a year later.

1 UCCA入口
The front of UCCA

The final don’t-miss stop on your tour has to be the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). 

Founded in 2007, the UCCA quickly became the beating heart of modern-day 798. The massive non-profit centre exhibits far-reaching, exhaustive shows like its inaugural exhibition 85 New Wave: The Birth of Contemporary Art and also programmes a strong set of supplementary lectures, workshops, and more. 

There’s also the excellent UCCA Store, where you can cap off a day of intellectual stimulation with some tasteful, highbrow retail therapy.

  • 4 out of 5 stars