Beijing‘s 798 Art Zone Fascinates

The Forrest Four-Cast: August 26, 2016

While I have visited Beijing several times over the last decade, I know that I have barely scratched the surface of all the many discoveries and surprises that this city has to offer. But, by far, the most intriguing place for me remains the area known as the 798 Art Zone.

This space was launched as a factory in 1952 as an extension of the “Socialist Unification Plan” of military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the newly formed People’s Republic of China. These Eastern European roots dictate that the architecture has a much different feel than most of what is found elsewhere in Beijing. And the overall architectural design proved much more stable than the plans that initially brought the plant into being. So with changes in the Chinese political landscape, factory operations began to slow down in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, these now-abandoned buildings began attracting members of Beijing’s contemporary art scene who (much like their Western counterparts) were eager for inexpensive space to hone their craft.

Fifteen years later, the current version of the 798 Art Zone seems a little less geared towards creatives — and a lot more friendly to tourists. But this continued evolution is exactly what fascinates me most about this space. From military factory to edgy underground arts hangout to semi-mainstream sight-seeing stop, the space seems like one large-scale / long-term performance piece.

There’s a fourth act to this evolution — one that seems equally appropriate. The 798 Art Zone now often hosts technology / startup related events such as the GeekPark Innovation Festival. If entrepreneurism is one of the most dominant cultural forces for the 21st century, then the 798 Art Zone still has its finger on the pulse.

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