Art Walk: Caochangdi

Explore this dusty village packed with some of China's top artists

Galerie Urs Meile

Long recognised as the ‘alternative’ to 798’s commercial hyper-drive, Caochangdi is peaceful to the point that walking around the area almost feels like a countryside stroll. A ten-minute cycle ride to the northeast of 798, the vibe relaxes noticeably as you cross the Fifth Ring Road.

Caochangdi typifies the Chinese art community’s ‘village in a city’ phenomenon, with other examples being Heiqiao, Songzhuang and Jizhan.

Even 15 years after prominent artist and architect Ai Weiwei moved out to the area, spurring an arty migration further out beyond the Ring Roads to Beijing’s outskirts, Caochangdi remains a sleepy hamlet – albeit one dotted with expertly designed galleries plugged into an international circuit and on the leading edge of China’s contemporary art scene.

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.
Start your day at Galerie Urs Meile. Situated right at the northern entrance of the village, the chic, grey-brick complex was designed by Ai Weiwei. With a sister gallery in Switzerland, Galerie Urs Meile has been an integral part of both the European and Chinese contemporary art scenes since the early 1990s, representing art world heavyweights such as Not Vital and Wang Xingwei, as well fostering the careers of critically acclaimed up-and-coming artists like Cheng Ran and Shao Fan. 

Head further into Caochangdi and around the corner to the CCD300 Courtyard, where you’ll find Video Bureau, a non-profit space founded by three artists – Fang Lu, Chen Tong and Zhu Jia – in 2012. The project carefully archives complete oeuvres of, largely, Chinese video artists – including the undisputed granddaddy of video art in China, Zhang Peili – with supplementary written materials in both Chinese and English.

A one-of-a-kind resource, the archive is open to the public for research and viewing, with screenings and talks held bi-monthly.

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de Sarthe Beijing

Around another bend is the most recent addition to Caochangdi, de Sarthe Beijing, which opened in April this year.

The first de Sarthe gallery was opened in Paris in 1977, and its vaults include works by artists whose fame is evident from the fact that they’re known only by their last names – Monet, Picasso, Warhol, Rothko. The Beijing gallery is currently focused on Chinese emerging artists, and although it’s still in its infancy, it looks likely this gallery will make a mark on the area.

Founded 11 years ago in 798, White Space moved to Caochangdi in 2009. Around 200 metres east of de Sarthe Beijing, its huge grassy square is immediately recognisable by the tongue-in-cheek sculpture of serif-font white letters that read ‘Profound’. The gallery focuses on conceptually ballsy younger artists, nurturing long-term relationships to allow new talents to develop through the course of multiple exhibitions and explorations.

Across the street lies a small courtyard housing ARTMIA Foundation and ShanghART Gallery. Founded in 2006 by South Korean Dr Mia Jin, ARTMIA Foundation promotes intra-Asia exchange and frequently brings together artists in the region. Most recently, in Zhuang (until Sun 7), 12 emerging artists from around Asia collaborated to tease out the sundry meanings of the Chinese character zhuang (装), which can be variously translated as ‘dressing up’, ‘adornment’, ‘feigning’, ‘packaging’ and ‘installing’.

There's a café on the second level of ARTMIA, which is a good spot for a midday pause before plowing on for more culture across the courtyard. Established first in Shanghai in 1996, ShanghART is incredibly well-positioned within the contemporary Chinese art scene, working with a choice cut of the country’s (now) established artists. Currently representing over 40 artists, it was one of the original galleries to join international art fairs like Art Basel. The Beijing branch opened in 1998, making it one of the earlier galleries in the game.

Once you've finished up in ShanghART head north, past the first intersection, until you hit a fork in the road. Take a left turn. You’ll pass a ramen shop on your right, then a Yunnan restaurant on your left, before arriving at Telescope


Telescope's window art

Unlike many galleries in Caochangdi, Telescope occupies a traditional storefront space (a converted massage parlour, in fact) rather than sitting behind the high walls of a brick compound. Integrated into the community, it’s accessible in a unique way for galleries in Caochangdi.

This small non-profit space, founded by curator and artist James Elaine in 2012, recognises the lack of philanthropy and non-profit-seeking support for artists. Elaine often focuses on newly graduated artists, giving ‘emerging’ a new meaning, and offers many their first solo shows. Next year, he’ll be launching a programme for emerging curators.

Backtrack south. If you haven’t been waylaid by hunger at the Yunnan or ramen restaurants, stick it out until you’ve made a right turn south again. Part way down the street on the east side is Fodder Factory. Ask any gallery worker and they’ll tell you this is their go-to lunch spot. The name recalls the area’s history as a grazing ground for the emperor’s horses. The kitchen serves up excellent home-style dishes – like fried rice with egg and Laoganma chilli sauce (18RMB) or black pepper chicken with cashews and water chestnuts (38RMB) – in an interior styled with vintage enamelware, furniture and other throwbacks.

Housed in a maze of red brick buildings, fittingly called ‘Red Yard’, along with a collection of other gallery spaces, Beijing Art Now Gallery (BANG) is a two-floor space with a dedicated room for projecting video. Founded in 2004 and now with a second location in Shanghai, it represents a dozen artists and has collaborated with double that number. After more than a decade of promoting the Chinese avant-garde within its historical context, BANG continues to be at the forefront of the country’s contemporary art scene.

Gallery II of Taikang Space 2

Inside Gallery II at Taikang Space

A few doors away in the same complex lies Taikang Space, the first domestically funded non-profit art space in Beijing. Established in 2003 and bankrolled by one of the most profitable insurance companies in China, Taikang Life, the gallery’s motto is to ‘march forward by retracing our steps’. In practice, this means that its curators focus, on the one hand, on historical exhibitions that attempt to write a history of Chinese art that is separate from Western narratives, and on the other, to cultivate directions for new Chinese art.

Hitting nine galleries in a day is pretty exhausting, so stop at the light, airy and well-designed A+ Café for a quick cup of coffee and a break before heading over the main road to Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

Three Shadows was founded in 2007 by RongRong and inri, a married couple who also happen to be among the most celebrated photographers in the world. The sprawling 4,600sqm complex features a large non-profit gallery space dedicated to showcasing contemporary Chinese photography and video art – as well as the more recent addition of Three Shadows +3, a commercial gallery.

Beyond exhibitions, Three Shadows maintains a library with volumes that number in the thousands and its own permanent collection of original works. It also frequently hosts fine art photography courses, utilising its black-and-white darkrooms and inkjet and video production studios. Through its annual awards, Three Shadows recognises up-and-coming artists in the field and, in collaboration with other institutes, also hosts an artist residency programme.

  • 4 out of 5 stars