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Inside CAUGHT: 798 Art District

October 6, 2017

by Logan Starnes

Nestled on the outskirts of Beijing, the 798 Art District (also known as the Dàshānzi (大山子) District) is a collection of reclaimed munitions factories turned into art galleries. The area is heavily publicized as a tourist destination, many travel blogs and magazines have featured the district as a “must visit” spot without delving into the complex relationship of the artists, censorship, and the government. The unintentional symbolism of the location of this successful art district might be a little pointed but the presence of the Chinese government is not immediately clear to the millions of tourists that frequent the exhibits.

The 798 Art District has become extraordinarily successful as the third most popular tourist draw in the nation, closely following the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. With such a large pull the Chinese government is forced to struggle with a constant battle between supporting an extremely profitable tourist area and allowing a district laden with political statements and commentary on Chinese propaganda to exist. However, the neatness of this conflict between the government and the artists might just be an illusion for the international community. The space is a way to allow artists and would-be dissenters a “safe” and “appropriate” place to voice their criticisms of the government, while still heavily censored. This is in an attempt to avoid another incident like the Tiananmen Square Massacre which paints a bad picture for China on the international stage.

As a result, in the past decade the Chinese government began fostering the growth of contemporary Chinese arts. In 2005, the Chinese government contributed the equivalent of $62.5 million to the development of the 798 and other lesser known art districts in Beijing alone. With these contributions the government has set up a “cultural fund” and various committees to oversee the growth of the art district. This enables them influence on any future exhibitions or shows while also dictating which individuals and organizations are allowed into the area. This involvement of government and corporations confuses the identity of the district and validity of the art presented. Despite the government message of the advancement of Chinese society and the path to globalization, the government maintains strict control over the art community through a series of innovative censorship mechanisms that showcase the intricate relationship of art in China.

- Logan Starnes is an intern in Artists Rep's Dramaturgy Department.

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