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Beijing: Art and Design

EXPLORING BEIJING’S CONTEMPORARY ART + DESIGN SCENE

 

Beijing, China

Woman smiling near a star shaped sculpture in a frame.This story is from my friend Trine Targett in Beijing, China. Thanks Trine!

Denmark born Trine has lived all over the world. We’ve shared many great days together, from walks atop the old city wall in Suzhou to picnics amongst the wildflowers in Glacier National Park. My favorite memory might be rolling up on our bicycles to a just opened Danish bakery on the island of Funen; After a warm, summer all-nighter, we devoured fresh pastries and slept most of the day. 

 

After more than a decade living in Shanghai, My husband and I recently moved to Beijing. Two great cities and yet so different; People generally love one and hate the other. We loved Shanghai, but we wanted to fall in love with Beijing too. We arranged for our girls to stay with family so we could enjoy a 3 day “staycation”, immersing ourselves in our two shared passions: art and design.

DASHANZI 798 ART DISTRICT and CAO CHANG DI:

We got started on the outskirts of Beijing in 798 Art District. This is an area in the Northeastern part of the city where derelict, communist-era factories and warehouses have been converted into art galleries, artist studios, design boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It’s an individual experience; some dig deep and love it while others find it over commercialized. I like the atmosphere with so many young students, families and artsy types in the mix. We stayed at Grace Beijing, a gorgeous boutique hotel, and enjoyed great food and service at the Yi House Restaurant.

We loved Ullens Center for Contemporary Arts galleries and accompanying Design Store. UCCA is known for curating fantastic exhibitions featuring prominent local artists as well as high quality works from abroad. Centrally located within the 798 District, this is perfect starting point. Towering red dinosaurs perched out front make it hard to miss. From here, we branched out, walking and exploring. We found D-Space (behind the train and tracks) especially interesting, with old factory spaces and parts reconceived into things artistic and useful. Other notable galleries: 798 Space, Long March Space, Gallerie Continua and PACE Beijing. Ready for a break, we took a seat at Flat White and had great coffee and a bit of cafe food. (There are two locations here, one near D-space and one close to UCCA.)

Within 20-30 minutes stroll from 798 Art District is a lesser known area called Cao Chang Di. If you’re interested in contemporary Chinese art, plan to spend a full day here. Cao Yang Di was spear-headed by Ai Weiwei, the renegade Chinese artist. This area spans a large distance, gets crowded on weekends and maybe best experienced on a weekday.

GULOU and NANLOUGUXIANG in DONGCHENG DISTRICT:

Next we headed downtown to Gulou, the area around the ancient Drum and Bell Towers. This is by far my favorite part of Beijing. We spent the day wandering around one of the city’s few remaining hutong neighborhoods. Hutong are narrow lanes usually made up of traditional, single story courtyard houses and they once formed an intricate maze through the heart of the city. Here, one can participate in the fascinating web of Beijing’s residential life. Something interesting captured our attention at every corner and we bumped into a seemingly endless array of cafes and restaurants that have recently popped up here. Don’t miss Dali Courtyard!

At the end of the narrowest, grittiest alley you can imagine we found our gem of a hotel: The Orchid. Set in a serene garden and chicly renovated, The Orchid is the perfect respite after the hustle and bustle of hutong exploration. There is so much to explore here in this neighborhood known as Nanlouguxiang hutong. We enjoyed the large number of design stores offering modern, eclectic, kitsch and more. I lost myself in “Lost and Found.” Opposite the street from The Orchid is the well known yet modest Mr. Shi’s Dumplings; a must try after hours of walking and shopping. Yum!

In the evening, we decided to wing it! We had no specific plans beyond cocktails. Without children to wake us up, we we could stay up as late as we wanted; anything was possible! We wandered to the Great Leap Brewery and had the best beer I have had in a long time (and I’m Danish!) The brewery then tipped us off to Mercante, a cozy restaurant around the corner owned by an Italian and Chinese couple. The food and ambiance were heavenly. Afterwards, we wandered to Huohai Lake, ending up at the smoky, loud and fun East Shore Jazz bar. Amazing local jazz musicians kept us going all night. For a midnight snack we did as Beijingers do: we glanced around for a cart or pop-up stall and grabbed a few chuan, well spiced mutton kebabs originating from China’s far northwestern Uyghur culture.

Other discoveries included Mao Mao Chong, a Beijing favorite with a fantastic vibe, great people, creative cocktails and good simple eats like salads and pizzas and Modernista, a tiny art deco style bar with good live music. Although we didn’t eat at Black Sesame Kitchen on this trip, we booked a future table and if possible, so should you. This is a unique experience, but requires that you gather a group (4 or more) and book in advance. This is not a walk-in restaurant. Black Sesame Kitchen offers cooking classes followed by a meal as well as  straight up dinner reservations. This Chinese kitchen’s food is incredibly delicious and includes 10 courses, set warmly within an authentic Chinese courtyard.

In the end, we did fall in love with Beijing and are still happily exploring. For inspiration and planning, sign up for monthly mailings from Bespoke Beijing, run by a team of enthusiastic locals expert at crafting unique itineraries in and around Beijing.

 

Man walks through an art installation.

 

Wall sculpture at a gallery in Bejing.

 

Rockabilly smoking a cigarette.

 

Valves and tubes in a factory

(Photos Top to Bottom: 1. Outdoor Bar at Grace Beijing  2. Author’s husband explores 798 District  3. “Wallwave Vibration (Asynchronous Emotion)” by Loris Cecchini at Galeria Continua  4. Portrait of a Jazz musician  5. Derelict factory remnants at 798.  All photos by Trine Targett)

Posted on October 10, 2013