A beginner's guide to Caochangdi Art Village

We explore the recent changes to the urban art district

Tucked away on the outskirts of Chaoyang district is Caochangdi (草场地), a thriving 21st-century urban village of structures built by a combination of entrepreneurial farmers, contemporary art dealers and artists. Its rugged outlook sets it apart from the vastly urbanised spatial developments occurring in China’s contemporary spaces. The Caochangdi area, a translation of 'wild grasslands', was once unoccupied grazing land used as hunting grounds by the imperial court.

1999 signified the start of Caochangdi’s art zone. In response to an increasingly commercialised and gentrified 798 Arts District, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei not only designed and established his own studio in Caochangdi, but several other complexes as well. The result was his own factory-style space 258 Fake Design studio, as well as a number of architecturally significant buildings, the most notable of which is arguably Three Shadows Photography Art Centre with its unique facade of undulating grey brickwork. Several artists and contemporary art galleries then followed suit, and Caochangdi soon flourished into an art village. By the fall of 2008, 40 out of the 65 companies registered in the village were cultural industries.

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Caochangdi alleyways.

Cut to nearly a decade later and Caochangdi’s outlook is less sunny. In recent years, rumours of Chinese authorities evicting artists and demolishing the village have been rife, culminating in the forced eviction of X Gallery and De Sarthe Gallery last year. Despite this, Caochangdi still survives as an oasis to the arts, and is home to numerous galleries and creative spaces. In light of the changes, we recently revisited the village to explore Beijing's current state of the arts.

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拆 (chai; demolish) signs graffitied on X Gallery (still undemolished ten months on).

Food

Its location on the outskirts of the Chaoyang district means that Caochangdi's stores are still lead by and geared towards locals. Expect to find dozens of small local Chinese restaurants offering Chinese classic staples like malatang (麻辣烫), daoxiaomian (刀削面) and traditional breakfast fare such as jianbing, steamed buns and tea eggs. What sets Caochangdi apart from 798 is that Caochangdi is primarily an urban village home to a strong group of rural migrants from all over China. Tell-tale signs of these are the local amenities, including barbers, independent grocers and general stores scattered all through the village – our best advice is to simply walk around and explore the 'hood.

Fatty Tunny (肥吞拿)

What this cosy, unassuming Japanese izakaya lacks in square footage (it fits a whopping two tables), it makes up with its bold, tasty eats. With an interior charmingly decorated with vintage memorabilia and bottles of sake, this homely izakaya is an undiscovered gem set right in the heart of Caochangdi.

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124-8 (Caochangdi, --select--)

Fodder Factory (草料廠)

Quite notably one of the most popular dining options in Caochangdi, the name Fodder Factory pays homage to the area’s history as a grazing ground. The kitchen offers home-cooked Chinese fare such as three-cup chicken (46RMB) and stir-fried eggplant with meat (40RMB), all in vintage confines reminiscent of '80s China.

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123 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Galleries

258 Fake Studio

The reason for Caochangdi's very existence, Ai Wei Wei's iconic studio-home still stands despite the razing of his other Beijing studio Zuoyou by local authorities just last year. A working studio, 258 isn't accessible to the public – but it's somewhat reassuring to still see it around, whatever the case.

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258 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Amy Li Gallery (艾米李画廊)

Founded in 2008, Amy Li Gallery moved from Pinggod Art Plaza to Caochangdi back in 2013. The gallery is dedicated to promoting emerging art forms while simultaneously engaging in collaborations with established artists, both local and international. With a highly experimental spirit, the gallery schedules eight to ten exhibitions a year, providing a unique platform for the exchange of ideas between Chinese and foreign artists.

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54 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Beijing Art Now Gallery (北京现在画廊)

Critics' pick

Beijing Art Now Gallery is a professional international art institute for Chinese contemporary art. Founded in 2004, the 800sqm exhibition space aims to support Chinese contemporary art in China as well as aid in the archiving of Chinese contemporary art in world history. Beijing Art Now Gallery actively pursues collaborations with internationally renowned art institutions, such as Germany's Arndt & Partner Gallery, in order to establish a broader international network of communication and elevate Chinese contemporary art to the global stage.

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1 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Chambers Fine Art Beijing (前波画廊)

Chambers Fine Art is a gallery specialising in contemporary Chinese art. Established in New York in 2000, Chambers Fine Art has served to become an authoritative source of information on the rapidly growing contemporary art market in China. Representing the works of both emerging and established artists such as Ai Weiwei, Chambers Fine Art showcase of Chinese contemporary art has become one of the essential destinations for all interested in the Chinese art market.

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Red 1-D Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Ink Studio (墨斋画廊)

As its name suggests, Ink Studio is an art gallery that primarily focuses on Chinese ink art. Presenting closely curated exhibitions supported by analysis, scholarly exchanges, bilingual publishing and media production, Ink Studio is able to showcase a variety of experimental ink art in the form of paintings, calligraphy, photography and video.

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Red No 1-B1 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Lan Space (兰空间)

Founded in 2015, this Caochangdi gallery promotes contemporary Chinese art while facilitating cultural exchanges both home and abroad.

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Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

One Way Art Gallery (单行道画廊)

One Way Art Gallery moved to Caochangdi in the spring of 2017, and with over 500sqm of public activity space, One Way Art serves as a multi-functioning space open to all forms of artistic expression.

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261 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

ShangART Gallery (香格纳画廊)

Founded in 1996, ShanghART Gallery is one of the first contemporary art galleries established in China, now maintaining spaces in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore. The gallery focuses on the promotion and development of contemporary art in China, regularly participating in major international art fairs and collaborating with several China-based art institutes.

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261 Airport Side Road (Caochangdi, --select--)

Taikang Space(泰康空间)

Taikang Space is a non-profit arts organisation devoted to the exhibition, research and promotion of Chinese contemporary art. Founded by Taikang Life Insurance in 2003, Taikang Space operates under the guiding principles of retrospection and encouragement, investigating historical materials from a contemporary perspective while simultaneously creating space for futuristic art practices.

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Red No 1-B2 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (三影堂摄影艺术中心)

Founded in 2007 by photographers Rong Rong and Inri as a space for the research, production and display of contemporary photography, this part-library, part-dark room and exhibition hall has since become China’s premiere institution for contemporary photography. The centre has two main goals: to legitimise photography as an art in China through education, and to reclaim a history of China through photographic images.

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155A Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

White Space (空白空间)

Critics' pick

Founded 11 years ago in 798, White Space moved to Caochangdi in 2009. The gallery focuses on conceptually ballsy younger artists, nurturing long-term relationships to allow new talents to develop through the course of multiple exhibitions and explorations.

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255 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)Free

XC HuA Gallerie (户尔空间)

Founded in 2017, XC HuA is a Berlin-based international art gallery with locations in both Europe and China. An experimental project space dedicated to exploring the nature of dialogues in the context of art and space, XC HuA focuses on up-and-coming experimental artists interested in the interaction of different mediums and pushing the envelope on artistic norms.

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323-A6 Caochangdi (Caochangdi, --select--)

Getting there

Take the bus

Take the bus

Situated near the Fifth Ring Road with no direct subway station in sight, your best bet to getting to Caochangdi is taking a bus from Dongzhimen station – take either bus 935 from Dongzhimen bus station (东直门站), or buses 915 or 359 from Dongzhimenwai bus station (东直门外站). Five stops and about ten minutes of walking later (get off at Wuyuanqiao Xi station, 五元桥西站), you’ve arrived at Caochangdi.

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