First, some general comments with regard to Don’s and my hotels and sightseeing during our brief stay in Beijing. Whereas we stayed in the nondescript Westin Hotel Bund Center in Shanghai, in Beijing we spent several nights luxuriating at the Opposite House, located in a lovely neighborhood replete with high-end stores and foreign embassies. The hotel is new, hip and styling (part of the Swire Hotel chain, which also manages the Upper House in Hong Kong, another of our favorites) and we were upgraded to an enormous, incredibly well-appointed room, which we loved. As it was raining the night of our arrival, we ate in one of the hotel’s restaurants, Sureno. Don and I sent back a shrimp appetizer that we found sub-par, only to have the chef, Roberto Cimmino, who was new to the restaurant that very week, appear at our table to inquire what was wrong. Roberto took us under his wing and was our private chef that night and the following two nights, making us dishes not yet on the menu and knocking our socks off with each and every one. We cannot recommend the Opposite House and Roberto more highly. Likewise, the tour company Discover Beijing Tours that I found highly rated on Trip Advisor, run by the dynamic Qing (pronounced Ching). Qing took us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (followed, of course, by dumplings) and her husband, Wang, who serves as a driver, and one of her guides brought us to the Great Wall (and a terrific lunch spot) on the following day. Wang drove us to the airport on the day of our departure. Having received recommendations from friends, we stayed at the Aman Hotel on our final night in Beijing, which was old-world opulent, expensive and not our cup of tea. However, the Aman adjoins the Summer Palace and has a “secret door” that gives you early morning access to the Summer Palace’s extensive, not-yet-filled-with-tourist grounds, which was pretty terrific.
Two art districts
After some research, I found two art areas that I wanted to explore. (It was, of course, subsequent to my trip that I located this article on Beijing’s contemporary galleries.) The Caochangdi International Art Village was difficult to navigate even with addresses written out in Chinese), but we finally found our way. Telescope Gallery was padlocked, but a cluster of red brick buildings further into this mixed-use complex proved fascinating. On view at Chambers Fine Art Beijing (another branch of this gallery specializing in Chinese art is in Chelsea) was an Ai Weiwei exhibition. Remarkably, this and a concurrent show of the artist’s work discussed below were Ai’s first solo exhibitions in China. In Chambers’ courtyard was a fabulous, massive tree made up of large pieces of dead wood found in mountain forests bolted together, in keeping with Ai’s predilection for honoring the old and discarded and using it to construct the new. Similar in spirit was Tiger, Tiger, Tiger (2015) consisting of 3,025 porcelain shards laid out in a grid on the floor, each bearing the image of a tiger. Don and I introduced ourselves to the gallery manager, who suggested I reach out to Ai, whose studio was nearby. I did so, only to receive an email notification an hour later from artnet or artsy saying that after his imprisonment and years of denial by the Chinese government, the artist had just received his passport and permission to travel. A few moments later, a message arrived from Ai’s studio assistant explaining, quite understandably, that a visit on that historic afternoon was not in the cards!
Yet another exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei was among the highlights of our visit to the 798 Arts Zone nearby. It was a show held in two literally conjoined neighboring galleries–Tang Contemporary Gallery and Galleria Continua–as Ai cut through the walls and ceilings of both spaces in order to install in their interiors the two-storey, carved wood, 400-year-old (Ming Dynasty) Wang Family Ancestral Hall. Transported from a remote province to the 798 Arts Zone, Ai added yet another chapter to the building’s long and varied history.
The 798 Art Zone is an extensive, arts-designated district, originally the site of a military-industrial complex of factories. It is replete with galleries, private museums and artist studios. Here one finds Pace Beijing, the Faurschou Foundation, the Long March Space, Beijing Commune and White Box Art Centre, as well as terrific coffee at Cafe Flatwhite. Near the art zone’s center is the massive, non-profit Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, founded in 2007 by Belgian collectors Guy and Myrian Ullens de Schooten, which had several exhibitions by an international array of artists on view. Among them were shows of recent work by William Kentridge (his latest video projection, Notes Toward a Model Opera), by the Singaporean artist Ming Wong and by Chinese artist He Xiangyu, whose Coca Cola Project stole the show in the exhibition 28 Chinese at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami a few years ago.