Just before I left New York City, I visited the Brooklyn Museum and experienced the Ai Wei Wei exhibit. His art is grand and provocative, and I wanted more.
Beijing is home to a number of art districts, but Caochangdi is unusual in that rather than artists reclaiming existing spaces, many of the buildings were designed to house art. In fact, they were designed by Ai Wei Wei. I knew I had to visit, even if a part of me strongly resisted the effort it takes to get to outer districts of Beijing.
It took me two trains and a taxi to reach the place, and when the cab driver let me off I had no idea where to start. The village itself looks tiny and rundown and you can’t see a trace of the treasures hidden there. I quickly discovered that my planning efforts were insufficient, and this segment of my visit was almost a failure. I found one gallery, the Amy Li Gallery, which happened to be housed in one of the buildings designed by Ai Wei Wei.
The building itself is gray brick built with soft curves, giving an illusion of motion. There are few windows and doors, but the accents are clean and simple, with a color palette limited to teal, black, and white.
Inside, was a show by Luo Wei intended to address the question “What is an artist?” There were three or four parts to it, but the first section was the most striking. Strange ghost like images, disembodied dolls, x-ray effect lightboxes, and lots of white.
I wandered around a bit longer but couldn’t find anything else that was open that day so with the help of Google Maps I found my way to the only gallery that was a sure bet, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Three Shadows is a massive space with a separate smaller building for a featured artist, and it was also designed by Ai Wei Wei. He used the same gray brick for this building but experimented with texture in a completely different fashion. Sections of bricks jut out in relief, creating interesting patterns with more roughness. Other bricks are left out entirely, and I saw a bird slip in to one of these little cubbies.
I would guess there were at least twenty artists on display at Three Shadows, with great representation of different styles, techniques, and personality. One artist created hybrid creatures using multiple exposures, another recreated scenes from her childhood to address her inner demons
When I’d finished at Three Shadows, I popped in to one more studio before grabbing a bus to 798 Art Zone. 798 is the most popular art destination, and the zone is massive. I didn’t actually see that much that interested me, so I made it a mission to track down some interesting street art instead.
While I did find some pieces I liked, I was a little disappointed (but not surprised) to see that street art in Beijing hasn’t evolved to the stage it has in New York and especially London. It’s almost entirely straight up graffiti art, rather than the refined painting techniques and mixed media that have been popping up in other cities. A couple examples worth googling are Vhils and Shok-1.
I didn’t get to see as much of 798 as I would have liked, because I needed to save my feet for the Great Wall trip. I would definitely recommend hitting up both districts, just make sure to plan ahead for Caochangdi so you can actually find things when you are there.