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798, those three numbers now indicate the most celebrated site for contemporary art in Beijing. An extensive international gallery stands there, exhibiting highly sought-after Chinese artists and attracting the curiosity of crowds of Chinese and foreign visitors.
But 798 is also the name of a colossal arms factory built in the 1950s by East German architects of the Bauhaus school. A model factory with its sports facilities, theatre, childcare and apartments, for an elite workforce. After its decline in the late twentieth century, avant-garde artists – drawn by its aesthetic and the low rent – took it over, devising installations and often provocative performances, to the amazement of the last few workers and the suspicious concern of the authorities. Since then the site has become official, recognised as a showcase for the “Chinese brand”.
From the symbol of the Great Leap Forward to that of the big jump in financial markets, via the obsessive underground memories of the Mao years emerging through art, Marc Abélès explores with an acutely attentive eye the metamorphoses of these premises and their inhabitants. In so doing, he offers an original take on the relationships between art, politics and the financial markets in China in the age of globalisation.
Marc Abélès is an anthropologist, director of studies at the prestigious EHESS social sciences school and director of the French Interdisciplinary Institute of Anthropology of the Contemporary (CNRS-EHESS). He has written numerous works, most notably Un ethnologue à l’Assemblée (2000), Les Nouveaux riches (2002), L’Échec en politique (2005), Politique de la survie (2006), Le Spectacle du pouvoir (2007) and Anthropologie de la globalisation (2008).