Standing among the glamorously attired revelers celebrating the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing this month, Tokyo art dealer Sueo Mizuma had to yell to make himself heard.
“When I came to Beijing in May, I was stunned by how international the art scene was,” he said. “It made Tokyo look really provincial.”
Coming from the owner of the Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo’s Naka-Meguro, who has made young Japanese artists Makoto Aida and Akira Yamaguchi famous among art crowds the world over, it was a big statement. But, looking around us at the thousands of assembled artists, museum directors and gallery owners — all with faces of different hues, and all, in some way or other, now invested in China — it was difficult to disagree with him.
Mizuma was in town to make a final check on the location where next April he too will open a gallery, in Beijing’s newest art district, Caochangdi.
With properties scarce and rents on the rise in Beijing’s first art area, Dashanzi, or “798” — where Ullens and about 100 other art establishments are now located — Caochangdi is the Beijing art world’s Next Big Thing. A short drive from 798 in Beijing’s northeast corner, the location has welcomed more than 10 new galleries in the last 12 months, many with backing from Europeans, Americans and non-Chinese Asians.
Mizuma said it is access to foreign buyers that is prompting the rush.
“Beijing has already become a contemporary-art center for Asia. You have collectors coming here from Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Europe and the United States,” he said. “The mainland Chinese are not buying so much, but that doesn’t matter when you have all these others here.”
Also present in Beijing — and at the Ullens opening — was Yukihito Tabata, codirector of Tokyo Gallery in Ginza and director of its five-year-old Beijing satellite, Beijing Tokyo Art Projects (BTAP). In many ways Tabata was in the vanguard of the Beijing commercial art scene, being the first gallery to lease space in 798, back in 2002.
“When we first came to 798 it was still all disused factories — except for (the American art publisher) Robert Bernell’s offices,” Tabata said. “I took one look at a 400-sq.-meter site, which was still full of factory junk, and decided to rent it.”
At about the same time, artists such as Huang Rui were colonizing the area for studios. Other galleries followed BTAP — 798 Space later in 2002, Long March Space and the Singapore-backed Art Seasons Beijing in 2003 — and the race for China’s fledgling art market was on.
But it was more of a steeplechase than a sprint. In 2002, Chinese artists had not yet started attracting the multimillion- dollar hammers they now get at auction, and there was only a trickle of nonmainland collectors in Beijing.
“For the first three years we were in the red,” said Tabata, citing as another impediment the reluctance of the business-minded Chinese artists to commit to a single gallery.
The other problem was that no one knew how the 798 landlords or the government would react to the art enclave growing under their noses.
For a while, former factory operator and current landlord SevenStar Group seemed likely to throw a spanner in the works. Having realized the value of its once insolvent land, it mulled the idea of clearing out the art crowd to make way for residential properties.
Its move was stymied, though, when the government intervened for the artists in July 2006, announcing its approval of the art district and guaranteeing its preservation indefinitely. The government has also been vocal on public morals, which it invokes regularly to stop galleries exhibiting works that are sexually explicit or critical of the government.
“Our artists can’t show all their works. If the government finds something politically incorrect, then they demand that we put it away,” said one gallerist.
According to BTAP’s Tabata, the government’s approval of 798 “really opened the floodgates.” With the last shred of uncertainty gone and with paintings by artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang creeping up to the $1 million mark, dozens of galleries, both foreign and domestic, wasted no time in snapping up 798’s remaining properties.
An unfortunate side effect was that, from the perspective of purists, the district became over-commercialized. And that perception has in turn fueled the popularity of Caochangdi.
Two recent Caochangdi converts are the successful Chinese photographer RongRong and his Japanese wife, photographer Inri, who in June of this year opened their Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.
“798 has become something like a supermarket, where people can just walk around like tourists and take whatever they want,” RongRong said.
Three Shadows is one of the most ambitious projects in Caochangdi, with a sprawling 2,600-sq. meter building designed by flavor-of-the-month designer-architect (and Caochangdi resident) Ai Weiwei. The nonprofit center aims to encourage academic appreciation of photographic art by providing curated exhibitions, lectures, a library and darkrooms.
“We wanted to create a venue where people could look at and think about (rather than just buy) art,” said Inri.
Such lavish facilities obviously beg the question of where the money came from. RongRong smiled when he was asked. “It’s personal money from RongRong and Inri,” explained Stephanie Tung, his translator-cum-international affairs officer. “He wanted to put some of the money he made from his photography back in to photography.”
That said, the Caochangdi infrastructure still has a way to go before it catches up with the opulence of its new inhabitants. Much of the area is without sidewalks, construction of which was creeping past the brand new Boers-Li Gallery, near the district’s entrance, earlier this month. Co-directors Waling Boers and Pi Li (who take great pleasure in pronouncing their gallery’s name “Bruce Lee”) joked that “when we first came here there were rabbits jumping around.”
In a telling indication of shifting priorities, Boers was until recently operating a nonprofit space in Berlin. Isn’t Berlin the most interesting place in the art world these days, I asked.
“It was,” he said, grinning.
Other foreign gallery owners are still lining up to move into Beijing — in either 798 or Caochangdi. Korea’s Gallery Hyundai opened its DoArt China space in Caochangdi in September and Galleri Faurschou, from Denmark, will open a space in 798 at the end of this month. American heavyweight PaceWildenstein also confirmed rumors it is looking to “establish a presence in Beijing and Shanghai.” One important difference with these new entrants is that they are bringing their own artists, while only dabbling in the local product. DoArt is currently showing Korean master Nam June Paik, while three early shows from Faurschou will present the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.
Like Mizuma, their goal seems to be to provide a location where wealthy collectors who come to Beijing from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan can buy works that would normally be selling in the galleries’ home markets.
“I can’t wait to bring over some of my Japanese artists,” said Mizuma.
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