When searching for contemporary art in Beijing, a tourist is generally told to look no further than the 798 art district. Composed of popular galleries and flashy displays of outdoor statuary, 798 is indeed worth a visit. However Beijing has numerous other art offerings, including the Caochangdi art district.
Caochangdi is just a short cab ride from 798 (or a walk for the more adventurous), but the expansive area merits at least an afternoon dedicated to it. It’s a little hard to find, and there are too few westerners in the area to follow to the art, but any local is completely willing to point you in the right direction of a gallery. These are scattered through a district otherwise home to a variety of apartments, local stores, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Touristy it is not, but this given the district a distinct advantage. Renowned artist Ai Weiwei was one of the first to move his gallery outside of the area, moving into a new massive compound with a few friends. Soon other artists began to follow his lead, favoring the relative quiet of the area over the notoriety of the 798.
Anyone visiting the area should be able to find a surprisingly wide and high-quality variety of galleries. The outsides are decorated minimally, with generally only a small sign indicating the gallery. The architecture in itself is worth a visit: Spartan buildings can invoke a modern take on the soviet style, combining itself with the communal feel of a hutong (a traditional neighborhood composed of narrow alleys). The insides reflect the same feel: often no place is safe from art, which hangs from ceilings, emerges from the floor, and the like. In one exhibit, “The Way of Chopsticks,” a giant pair of chopsticks was laid across two roofs.
Artists in Caochangdi feel in their element, often working in a back room to create art that will later appear in the adjacent gallery. A feeling of authenticity is augmented by advertisements in most galleries for new exhibitions coming soon. Conceptual art abounds, and the artists are engaged in everything from social work (we noticed a gallery supporting a women’s collective in Xinjiang, and employing them to help create work) to employing very experimental mediums (one exhibit, entitled “Dust to Dust” only used dirt.)
Caochangdi is, all in all, a destination for serious art aficianados. If the 798 District is isn’t enough, or feels too kitschy, find an expert, and go on a tour of this art district.