Please, sir, can we have some more?
Are you mad for museums? At sixes and sevens over the 798 art district? If you know what you likes and likes what you knows. let us help you find more great things to see and do in this sprawling city we call home
if you like...
Originally established as a
makeshift artistic community by Beijing’s avant
garde set in the late ’90s, the 798 Art District is now a thriving creative
area made up of decommissioned military factories repurposed as spacious,
well-lit modern art galleries, design spaces and trendy cafes. Built by an East
German consortium in the 1950s, the factories are big, Bauhaus-influenced
structures that make for a variegated backdrop for a stroll away from Beijing’s bustling traffic
– the area is mostly free of traffic aside from the odd taxi.
Now state-sanctioned and,
some would say, overly commercialised, the area boasts China’s highest
concentration of commercial contemporary art galleries and the city’s
fledgling, unfunded artists have long since been pushed further out of the city
in search of cheaper rent (see Caochangdi, below).
Be sure to check out the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
(UCCA) – arguably China’s
most established and internationally credible modern art gallery – founded by
the prominent art collectors of the same name. Hurry to catch the last two
weeks of their Duchamp exhibition, including his ‘Box in a Valise’ piece, until
Sunday June 16.
But the real joy comes
from strolling around and popping into unknown, smaller galleries (most are
free and open 10am-6pm Tue-Sun); interacting with public art dotted around the
area and sitting outside one of the many hip cafes or restaurants, watching the
city’s artists parade past.
was once a hunting ground for the Imperial
Court before being transformed into a farming plot
during the Cultural Revolution. Lying languorously on the outskirts of the
city, this drowsy little village now boasts almost as many galleries as the
nearby 798, but retains a distinctly agrarian charm.
the spirit of the artsy region, let us paint you a picture: in the labyrinthine
dirt streets, unkempt labourers mingle with equally disheveled looking artists
and peddlers sell seasonal fruits and vegetables. Some of the buildings look as
if they’ve been made from mud-brick, and there is a barbershop storefront that
has been painted bright pink. Occasionally, you can even spot a mule
begrudgingly dragging along its load.
Ai Wei Wei’s studio is here, as is the new National Film
Museum. And with foreign
capital pouring into galleries like Pekin Fine Arts and the Galerie-Urs-Meile,
who knows how much longer this pastoral way of life will last. Check it out
while you still can.
Red Gate Gallery was Beijing’s first private
modern art gallery when it was founded in 1991, but that’s nothing compared to
the heritage of its structure. Situated in a watch tower – part of the original
Ming dynasty city wall – the gallery is a true work of art in itself.
Climb up creaking, rickety
wooden stairs; duck under the odd low-lying beam and take it all in. As well as
the contemporary art installations – one on the ground floor and one on the
third; the second floor is a permanent exhibition on the history of the wall –
the view from the narrow windows (made just wide enough for an archer’s bow) is
almost as engaging as the art.
Exhibitions change every month or
so but previous exhibitions have brought some of China’s brightest new stars to
the fore; representing people such as oil painters Su Xinping, Huang Yan,
performance artist Sheng Qi and photographer Zhou Jun.
If you like…
you need a soothing respite from the sun-scorched commotion of Tiananmen
Square, look no further than Beijing’s newly renovated National Museum, which
spreads out impressively along the square’s east side. While its scale might
seem daunting – at 198,000 square metres, it’s the world’s largest museum – it is surprisingly
manageable, with around 20 open galleries that are perfectly doable in a single
you’ll find plenty of the country’s most exquisite cultural artifacts, ranging
from ancient currency and pottery, to the works of contemporary painters, all
set in a tasteful modern interior. Highlights include the Ancient China
section; with a luminous collection of Chinese jade, and the second central
hall; where you’ll find ancient bronze art and stunning Buddhist sculptures
(most are accompanied by informative English text).
Bring some extra cash if
you want to visit some of the international galleries, one of which currently
features works from New York’s
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Best of all, the museum is free; but you’ll need your
passport as identification.
The modern and spacious Beijing Capital Museum
compresses three millennia of local history in five mesmerising floors. The
focus here is on Beijing
as a vivacious city rather than a stuffy bureaucratic capital, starting with a
chronological history. Poke through the first floor, a well-curated timeline
tale from ancient ceremonial vessels to revolutionary newspapers. Everything is
from around here, too: many of the older artefacts even list where they were
dug up (Chinese only).
Walk upstairs for
lavish collections of calligraphy, porcelain, jade and Buddhist statues as well
as an exhibition of Peking opera relics
arranged around a mock stage.
Probably the most fascinating
section is the reproduction of Beijing’s
traditional folk culture, which smartly recreates pre-communist everyday life
from baby’s birthdays to New Year celebrations using original everyday artefacts.
With old-style arched doorways demarcating the exhibits, walking around the
narrow corridors feels like navigating the old hutongs – many of which still
exist only a few subway stops away. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance
(www.capitalmuseum.org.cn; 6337 0491).
If you like…
Palace is a royal way to escape the Beijing heat – it is, after all, the largest garden in China.
Originally commissioned on a centuries-old reservoir by the Qianlong Emperor in
1749 and destroyed during the Second Opium War, the current arrangement was
restored to accommodate (and, some historians say, isolate) the testy Empress
Dowager Cixi by the Guangxu Emperor in 1886.
She lived in some fancy digs: the park is one of the finest examples of
imperial Chinese garden design, an aesthetic masterpiece seamlessly blending
the natural and the artificial.
Bring an extra memory card
for your camera: the park is a complex of temples, waterside pavilions,
colourful corridors and arched bridges that harmoniously meld with rolling
hills and the reflective Kunming
Lake, each of which has
its own story and picturesque background.
Centrally located is the Hall of
Benevolence and Longevity, a stunning tower overlooking the lake, which
connects to the Long Corridor and the 10,000 paintings on its walls and
ceilings. Further on is the notorious Stone Boat, a marble boat built by Cixi
using funds intended for the Chinese navy. A full stroll around the park might
take half a day, but this verdant escape is worth it.
Meeting members of the Taoist pantheon is not
something you'd expect to be able to do in such close proximity to a Walmart.
But directly opposite shoppers enjoying 'everyday low prices' you'll find
Dongyue Temple; a Taoist holy place which houses room upon room of ghoulish
statues representing different departments of the afterlife.
Live a less than
virtuous existence and you might have a run-in with the Department for Implementing
15 Kinds of Violent Death. Need a god, but just for your door? Call the Door
God Department. Never get lost in the afterlife again thanks to the Escorting
Department, helmed by amulet-wearing children.
Aside from the fascinating departments, the
temple itself has a great deal of history. Construction begun in the 13th
century by Grand Taoist master Zhang Daoling and was completed in the 14th
by Zhang’s disciple, Wu Quanjie. Dongyue
Temple is dedicated to
the God of Mount Tai, one of the sacred mountains of Taoism, and is the largest
Taoist temple of its kind in Northern China.
Located in the Muslim
district in the west of the city is Niujie Mosque; an ancient house of worship
built by the first Arabic scholars to find the city via the ancient Silk Road in 996AD, during the Liao dynasty.
The mosque – a series of
worship halls, classrooms and living quarters frequented by the city’s Hui
Muslims – is the city’s oldest and largest. Superficially, the place looks like
any of the myriad temples or imperial palaces in Beijing: laid out in a courtyard style with
clay-red eaves, black slate awnings, multicoloured arches; its minaret looks
more like a Buddhist pavilion.
But peek inside the Hall of
Worship (non-believers are forbidden from entering this particular room) to
find an interior that could be a mosque anywhere in the world: a carpeted room
with Arabic designs painted on its beams and prayer mats facing Mecca.
incongruous and a true Beijing
original, the mosque is a reminder of the city’s rich and varied history.
Dress appropriately when
you visit; no shorts, skirts or bare shoulders. Try to avoid visiting on a
Friday – Islam’s holy day – when it will be at its busiest.