A Marriage Plot: Love and Art in Beijing

Husband-and-wife photographers RongRong and Inri set the agenda for a tour of art districts in China's capital city

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Jasper James for TIME

RongRong and Inri in the courtyard of their Three Shadows gallery in Caochangdi

When RongRong and Inri first met, they didn’t speak the same language. “Photography solved the problem of not having words to share with each other,” says Japanese-born Inri, who met her Chinese husband-to-be in 1999 at an art exhibition in Tokyo. In their first black-and-white collaborations, they posed nude in famous settings from the Great Wall to Mount Fuji, contrasting the slightness of the human form with the majesty of the landscapes. They married in 2003 (Inri eventually learned Chinese) and opened a gallery in Caochangdi, one of Beijing’s two main art-and-design hubs — the other being the nearby 798 Art District.

Only a decade ago, Caochangdi was a drowsy village on the city’s eastern fringe where donkeys roamed dirt lanes and farmers planted rows of scallions and cabbage. But then art-world superstar Ai Weiwei set up a studio in Caochangdi, inspiring others, including RongRong and Inri, to follow suit. Today, the couple’s sprawling, Ai-designed Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (155 Caochangdi, Chaoyang; tel: 86-10 6432 2663; threeshadows.cn) is one of some 300 galleries and studios in Caochangdi. “Art photography is taking off in China, and we’re glad to be a part of it,” RongRong says.

Like Caochangdi, 798 (a.k.a. Dashanzi) is a story of transformation: a collection of repurposed East German–designed military factories. Smokestacks and Bauhaus architecture mingle with pop-Maoist sculptures and sleek cafés; main attractions include the cavernous 798 Space gallery (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang; tel: 86-10 6437 6248; 798space.com) and Pace Beijing, an outpost of the influential Pace Gallery (2 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang; tel: 86-10 5978 9781; pacebeijing.com). Below, RongRong and Inri recommend what else to see — and where to eat, shop and sleep — in Beijing’s art zones. “One of my favorite things to do is explore all the shops and spaces in the art districts,” Inri says. “You never know what you’ll find.”

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
Founded by a Belgian baron, the Ullens Center “is a very important force within Beijing’s art world,” Inri says. “It has an international outlook and a very open exhibition style.” A recent exhibit explored multimedia art from India, a nation seldom showcased in Chinese galleries. 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; tel: 86-10 5780 0200; ucca.org.cn

Chambers Fine Art
“Chambers started in Manhattan, where it was the rare gallery specializing in contemporary Chinese art,” RongRong says. Its Beijing outpost is built on a former garbage dump and was designed by Ai. Notable Chambers exhibits have included mash-ups pairing, say, Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop art with the scholar rocks found in Chinese gardens. Caochangdi, Red No. 1-Dtel: 86-10 5127 3298; chambersfineart.com

Jian Ping
Hundreds of tiny shops squeeze between the art spaces in 798, selling everything from North Korean propaganda posters to terracotta flutes. This boutique is one of Inri’s favorites because the styles marry natural fibers to Chinese motifs and embroidery. “The clothes feel like something you could find in Tokyo, but with a Chinese twist,” she says. 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Zhong’er Jie, tel: 86-10 5978 9870

Grace Hotel
As an alternative to the luxury hotels in central Beijing, RongRong and Inri suggest bunking at this 30-room gem located in a former crystal factory. The hotel’s bistro, Yi House, offers alfresco dining — rare in this city — while Bar 798 tempts night owls with its signature lemongrass and pear vodka martini. 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, 706 Hou Jie, No. 1, tel: 86-10 6436 1818; gracebeijing.com

Fodder Factory No. 2
“This is home-style Sichuan food, simple but well made, clean and fresh,” says Inri. “Even after I’m back home, the flavors still leave a deep impression in my mind.” Caochangdi, No. 8 JIA, tel: 86-10 6431 9939

At Café
Owned and designed by political-art pioneer Huang Rui, who was among the first to open a studio in 798, At Café features an exposed brick wall with a hole punched in it (demolition being a motif of both art and life in Beijing) as counterpoint to the comfy couches, bright colors and homey menu of Chinese teas. “This was the first café in 798,” Inri says, “and served as our salon — a place for artists to gather.” 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, tel: 86-10 6438 7264