Culturalists, Where You Need to Go in Beijing
Vanessa Hong takes us on a visual journey through her cultural highlights of China’s capital.
What is a world-class city without its artsy side? Well, no city at all, if you ask me. And while Hong Kong might give it a run for its money, Beijing has long been considered China’s artistic capital. You can feel the creative fires burning at every turn here, the inspirational electricity abuzz in the air. And art events—gallery gatherings for big spenders, informal exhibitions that lure the hipster crowd and everything in between—crop up all over town and on any given day, staged everywhere from a cool Hutong hideaway to one of the city’s glitziest restaurants or boutiques. When my days in Beijing are numbered, however, and I want a guaranteed art infusion, there are two places I go to get it – the modern art districts of 798 and Caochangdi.
Let’s start with the 798 Art District, also known as the Dashanzi Art District, one of the best places for first time visitors to get their feet wet in Beijing’s art world. Picture a former industrial park built by east German architects in the 1950s with a Bauhaus aesthetic that has been transformed into a pedestrian-friendly temple to contemporary Chinese art and design. It’s a place after my own heart, in other words, full of style inside and out. And while 798 offers more of a mainstream and commercialized art experience than the Caochangdi district (where experimental artists take the lead), there’s so much to see and explore here.
During my recent visit to 798, I ebbed right into the flow of art students, visitors from abroad and contemporary artists checking out the exhibits, popping between the complex’s various buildings and galleries to feast my eyes on the avant-garde world of modern Chinese art. One of my favorite galleries in all of Beijing is here at 798, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), which also happens to be the hub of the entire district. And if you hit just one exhibition space, I recommend making it this one. The 15 annual exhibitions staged at UCCA focus primarily on contemporary Chinese art and play out across the center’s four galleries. And Beijing’s art community regularly convenes here, too, for screenings and talks. I never miss the chance to check out the center’s cool design store, too, UCCASTORE with its covet-worthy collection of art and design books, clothing, jewelry and every-day objects rendered with edgy designs.
When you’re ready for an art experience that skews more alternative, make your way to the Caochangdi art district, just a few minutes northeast of 798. The setting here is meant to evoke a feeling of entering a village within the city, and I do feel a bit like I’m making a break for the countryside every time I visit Caochangdi. The district was born around 2000 when the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei opened a gallery and compound of sorts for fellow art-minded friends in an area once considered the suburbs.
These days, the district—typified by minimalist gray brick buildings, many of which resemble Beijing’s classic courtyard Hutong houses—is a gathering ground for the country’s most experimental up-and-coming artists, many of whom have actually decamped from the 798 district, arriving here in search of a less commercialized setting. You could spend hours exploring the warrens of galleries, and you should if you have the time.
The one spot I personally never miss is Red Brick Art Museum, and that’s because the grounds and unique structure of the building feel as much works of art as the pieces you see adorning the exhibition spaces inside. The contrast between the spaces outside of Red Brick—where everything is lush and green—with the cavernous and sculptural interior is pure visual intoxication, and the quality of the world-class art on display will take your breath away, too. It feels like you’ve entered a separate little wonderland within art land, if you ask me.
Beijing’s art districts aren’t the only places you can expect to be wowed by architecture. And while it’s the mother of all cliches to say that this is a city of contrasts, it’s what I can’t resist telling people. You’ll be amazed that a place so steeped in tradition is also racing so audaciously and awesomely toward modernity.
Beijing is a city where those classic one-story Hutong houses huddle alongside sparkling sky scrapers designed by the world’s most admired starchitects, and it’s impossible not to feel positively giddy just taking it all in.
Consider, for example, the awe-inspiring National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest), a Herzog & de Meuron masterpiece built for the 2008 Olympics that simply has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
And the old-meets-new aesthetic that defines the Beijing of today is also there for the taking in many of the city’s finest residences and hotels, too, including the inimitable Rosewood Beijing, where traditional touches meld with modern luxury in a minimalistic design that exudes warmth, comfort, and classic Chinese hospitality at every turn. I love browsing the hotel’s collection of curated artwork and booking in at one of the six sophisticated restaurants on site, too, for a meal to remember.
For all of all Beijing’s cultural and art world wonders, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the veritable feast for the senses that plays out around the clock here can wear you out. And sometimes what you need is to get away from the city’s 24-hour buzz for a bit and re-center. Happily, the Chinese are renowned for their long-standing wellness traditions and indulgent practices of self-care, and Beijing is one of the places that does it best.
A classic treatment from the annals of Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of my all-time favorites: the Tui Na (it means “pinch and pull”) massage. During the treatment, your body is kneaded and sculpted by expert hands, with every movement dictated by the intention to clear the body’s meridians and facilitate the flow of qi (or chi). After one of these massages, I can practically feel the equilibrium once again finding its place in my body and mind.
That said, more than a few of Beijing’s many spas skew a bit too authentic for visitors. That’s why I recommend indulging at Sense, A Rosewood Spa, where the east-meets-west aesthetics render a full menu of Chinese wellness treatments in modern surrounds. Adjoining the spa is an oasis area where you will want to spend some time reflecting on everything you’ve experienced in Beijing while enjoying the peaceful surrounds of a pool, foliage-covered walls and shimmering light streaming in through a glass roof. With a cooling tea made of goji, Chinese dates and rock sugar in one hand and serenity of silence all around you, you may find it hard to believe that such an electric city is awaiting more exploration just beyond the walls.