An Artist’s Guide to Creative Beijing
In a city where past and present vie for attention, Li Yong Fei—a rising star whose work puts a modern twist on traditional Chinese forms—shares his artist’s perspective.
There are many ways to measure the richness and ambition of modern-day China, but the country’s creative art scene would be a good place to start. Over the last few years, China has exerted a global cultural influence, thanks largely to a generation of successful artists making bright, bold, startling new works. Their paintings, design, installations, and other works—not to mention the output of their confrères in the world of fashion, architecture, and music—have made their mark both within China and around the world.
Art galleries and museums have mushroomed, too, many flaunting an international edge that would fit in New York City or London.
For Li Yong Fei, one of the young artists behind China’s artistic renaissance, Beijing is where most of the movement has taken hold. “The city’s art scene is fantastic,” he says enthusiastically of the capital. “Not to mention incredibly mature and wide-ranging.”
If anyone has witnessed—and been an integral part of—Beijing’s artistic coming of age, it’s Li. He has been calling the sprawling metropolis home since moving here from Hebei province to attend the city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), from which he graduated in 2007. Over the years, he’s shown at a number of Beijing’s galleries as well as around China and in South Korea, Paris, and Strasbourg, France. From 2012 to 2018, Li’s work was one of the highlights of Secret Love, an internationally acclaimed group show that toured Europe, exploring the subjects of sexuality, identity and norms in contemporary China.
Basing himself in Beijing has arguably been pivotal to Li’s success. “The change has been nothing short of dramatic,” he says, recalling the evolution of the art industry. “Quite unlike any other city in the world.”
Want to create a bespoke artwork with Li Yong Fei?
With Rosewood Limited Edition, you can.
Rosewood Beijing and the House of Martell come together to introduce a rare opportunity to curate a collection of your own exclusive cognacs at the family’s 16th-century château—and work with leading Chinese artist Li Yong Fei to personalize a special commemorative trunk to contain them.
It has also only happened in just over a decade. The 798 Art District, a decommissioned, Bauhaus–inspired military compound, was turned into a gallery and museum hub in the mid-1990s. But since 2008, it has come into its own as the country’s chief artistic enclave, with museums like UCCA and galleries like 798 Space; artist studios occupying the area’s former factories; and cultural events, from Beijing Design Week to art fairs, taking place every other month.
Caochangdi, a quaint urban village on the outskirts of Beijing, has also risen to become a prolific art zone, with some 60 creative spaces inside its unassuming brick buildings. Amy Li Gallery, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, and Lan Space are among the galleries showcasing inventive, avant-garde work. All were established in the past 12 years.
More districts and individual venues have further bolstered the capital’s artistic potential. “The 318 International Art Village, as well as the farther-flung Songzhuang—an artist colony home to some 5,000 artists—are two other great places to explore the local contemporary creative scene,” Li says. “So are the many museums and galleries across Beijing: Red Brick Gallery, which has been around since the early 1990s; the newly-opened M Woods museum, in the hutong complex of Longfusi; and the Today Art Museum, in the ultra-modern neighborhood of Shuangjing.”
Li also recommends visiting Beijing’s more traditional institutions: the National Art Museum of China, the Capital Museum, and the Palace Museum (part of the Forbidden City), all of which sustain the artistic heritage of the China’s past. “Each space has its own treasures and characteristics,” he says.“Each one is worth visiting.”
For much of his career, Li has been drawn to both legacy and modernity in his practice. His work often combines traditional ink brush painting with contemporary aesthetics and fashion, to portray bodies and faces that play with notions of gender, lust, and sexuality, but also Japanese manga and fantasy universes. “I like to weave past and present together,” he says. “Sometimes, the oldest traditions can be reinvented to feel new and current. I am keen to explore that dynamic.”
Beijing, where soaring skyscrapers sit alongside centuries-old temples and majestic palaces, offers the perfect platform for that exploration. The constant juxtaposition “has no doubt made me look at my work in a more profound, balanced manner,” Li says.
Among his favorite places to marvel at the metropolis’ many facets is Jingshan Park, a former imperial park just north of the Forbidden City. “Its manmade hill is the highest point on the historical axis of central Beijing,” Li says. “It grants a bird’s-eye view of the palace below, as well as the whole cityscape in the distance. Sitting up there is like sitting in front of a portrait.”
The park also offers a glimpse of colorful Beijing life. Come early in the morning, and you’ll be surrounded by locals, old and young, here for their morning exercise, whether that means jogging, calisthenics, tai chi, or dancing to old ballads.
Outside of the city, Li often heads to western Beijing for inspiration and tranquil respite. There, he’ll visit Tanzhe Temple, an expansive Buddhist shrine located in the mountainous Western Hills area, and Fahai Temple, a 15th-century Buddhist complex tucked at the foot of the Cuiwei Mountains, home to a stunning collection of Ming Dynasty murals. Both make for perfect half-day escapes from central Beijing.
Back in the city, the hutongs are where you’ll find the artist (when he’s not in his studio, of course). He goes to simply observe the daily happenings and take creative stock of these historic alleyways, or to browse the local shops—another great way of tapping into the city’s artistic scene, he says.
“Some of the most interesting stores in Beijing are hidden down tiny alleyways. Yangmeizhu Xiejie, an old hutong not far from Tiananmen Square, is chock-full of indie shops, for instance.” Among them is Triple-Major, a multi-brand concept store housed in a former Chinese apothecary and a must for anyone interested in niche, alternative fashion and Chinese design.
Wudaoying and Guozijian Jie, two hutongs in downtown Beijing just minutes away from the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple (two other notable city landmarks) are also on Li’s list of go-to shopping destinations. Both streets are home to vintage shops and quirky furniture stores like Lost & Found, which sells limited-edition and custom furniture, dinnerware, and decorative pieces that blend retro-Chinese styles with mid-century Danish influences. You’ll also find designer boutiques like Ruxi. The sustainable fashion brand by designers Lian and Fu Youtian uses 100% natural fabrics and revives old, local dyeing processes to create clothes and accessories that play on traditional Chinese aesthetics.
“The city is so layered and diverse,” Li says. “It never fails to surprise.”
GALLERIES & MUSEUMS
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 5780 0200
798 Space, 798 Art District, Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 6438 3551
Amy Li Gallery, No.54 Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 6434 0616
Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, No. 155A Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 6432 2663
Lan Space, Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 8467 0656
Red Brick Art Museum, between Maquanying West Road and Shunbai Road, Hegezhuang Village, Cuigezhuang Township, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 8457 6669
M Woods, 798 Art Zone D-06, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang, Beijing
Today Art Museum, Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing;+86 10 5876 0600
National Art Museum of China, 1 Wusi Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing
Capital Museum, 16 Fuxingmenwai Street, Xicheng District, Beijing; +86 10 6339 3339
Palace Museum, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Beijing; +86 10 8500 7421
Jingshan Park, 44 Jingshan W Street, Xicheng, Beijing
Tanzhe Temple, Tanzhe Si Zhen, Mentougou; +86 10 6086 2500
Fahai Temple, Fahaisi Forest Park
Triple-Major, 81 Baochao Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing 1; +86 10 8402 0763
Lost & Found, 42 Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing; +86 10 6401 1855
Ruxi, 55 Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing; +86 10 6408 7695