China’s Remarkable Contemporary Art Scene

December 2007
Chinese New Gear

Art’s New Superpower

A few years ago, names such as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong, and Zhang Huan might have drawn blank stares from Western collectors. Now, with an explosion of museums, galleries, and prices, China has become the hottest stop on the international art circuit. In the emerging cultural capitals of Beijing and Shanghai, the author examines the forces in a stampede of new money, unleashed talent, and national pride.

With his closely cropped hair, ever burning cigarette, and trademark round eyeglasses, Zhang Xiaogang has become the face of Chinese art, an unlikely rock-star figure at the head of a mania sweeping auction houses from Beijing to New York. In the mid-1990s, his work was banned in his home country. Now it hangs in state-approved galleries, with his individual paintings fetching between $500,000 and $3 million.

Artist Zhang Xiaogang and two of his paintingsArtist Zhang Xiaogang and two of his paintings in his studio, in Beijing’s Liquor Factory district. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Zhang, 49, didn’t come by his status easily. When he was a boy, in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, his parents were sent to a “study camp” in the countryside, forced to give up their government posts and leave their children behind. Raised for several years by an aunt, Zhang immersed himself in drawing, only to be sent to re-education camp as a teenager. Following the collapse of the Cultural Revolution upon Mao’s death, in 1976, he made it into the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, where he didn’t really distinguish himself. After hitting upon his mature style in the early 1990s, Zhang ran into another obstacle when authorities deemed his paintings unfit for public display.

As the country gradually opened itself economically and culturally, he found himself back in favor. In 1997, Beijing galleries started showing his work—which mainly comprises large, haunting portraits of hollow-eyed Chinese citizens—and now he is one of China’s highest-earning artists.

Zhang’s big international moment came in 2006, when London gallery owner Charles Saatchi purchased A Big Family for $1.5 million at a Christie’s London auction. Since that sale, Zhang’s prices have continued to explode: his Tiananmen Square fetched $2.3 million at a 2006 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, and another canvas, Chapter of a New Century: Birth of the People’s Republic of China, went for more than $3 million at a September 2007 Sotheby’s sale in New York. Unlike so many Chinese artists of his and previous generations, Zhang has not had to expatriate to make his fortune. He runs a studio in Beijing, where he smokes and paints like a fiend to keep up with demand.

Once an empire of enforced egalitarianism, this nation of 1.3 billion is waking up from a stupor of isolation as Shanghai and Beijing prepare to become capitals of a China-dominated world culture. And once wary state officials have managed to befriend a few of the country’s most rebellious artists just in time for Beijing’s giant 2008 photo op, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. “The place is just an environmental disaster, but there’s a kind of energy,” says noted New York architect Basil Walter, who has collected Chinese art during visits to his Shanghai office. “In the art districts, ladies in Bentleys pull up, dressed to the nines, and slog through the mud to get to a gallery where they’re seeing a new artist’s work, while some deranged person is quivering off to the side. There’s a visual bombardment that makes the place really exciting.”

A boom of this magnitude requires distinctive artists and eager collectors with cash to burn. China has both. Consider the case of Newly Displaced Population, a 2004 canvas by realist painter Liu Xiaodong, which presents a critical view of the Chinese government’s displacement of more than one million people as a result of building the Three Gorges Dam. Not only was this painting left uncensored but it sold at the Beijing Poly International Auction in November 2006 for $2.75 million, at the time a world record for a painting by a contemporary Chinese artist. It was snapped up by a mainland collector: Zhang Lan, a female restaurateur who is becoming the Wolfgang Puck of China. Her upscale chain, South Beauty, earned a reported $25 million in 2006, and she aims to open 100 new locations by 2008. Expressionist architect Philippe Starck has designed a showpiece South Beauty restaurant for Times Square, which is to come complete with a gallery to show off her purchases.

Another major Chinese collector is Hong Kong real-estate heiress Pearl Lam. At her penthouse soirées, I have run into American collector Stephan Edlis, Tate Liverpool curator Simon Groom, and Art Basel emeritus Samuel Keller, as well as local stars Lorenz Helbling, founding director of ShanghART Gallery, and Victoria Lu, formerly creative director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Shanghai. “I thought to myself, For Chinese contemporary art to be strong, I had to be a bridge,” says Lam.

Until recently, Chinese contemporary art was purely an export market. Baron Guy Ullens, a Belgian philanthropist, was an early collector, beginning with purchases he made in the mid-1980s on business trips to China. Uli Sigg, Swiss ambassador to China from 1995 to 1998, was another who put together an encyclopedic selection of Chinese contemporary art at a time when most works sold for a few hundred dollars. Another important “foreigner” from this period was David Tang, the entrepreneur who turned Mao jackets into the Shanghai Tang brand. Born in Hong Kong, but the product of a British education, Tang assembled his collection by combing through the squalid studios where Chinese artists worked in the late 1980s.

View Jonathan Becker’s photos of China’s vast new canvas. Ai Weiwei with his sculpture Marble Arm.

Tang did everything to promote Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, even inviting Princess Diana to the 1995 Venice Biennale, which featured several Chinese artists. “I said, ‘Would you please come?’ and she agreed,” Tang says. Just one problem, as Tang recalls: when Princess Di’s private secretary conducted a walk-through of the show, he was stunned by Liu Wei’s graphic paintings. “He wasn’t going to allow the Princess to stand before [works like these] and have her picture taken,” Tang says. With the photographers banned, they took her through the gallery with her back turned to the most scandalous pieces. At a celebratory dinner held afterward, Tang stood on his chair and announced, “This is a new dawn for Chinese art!” The crowd applauded. He remembers thinking, “I’ve got the most famous person in the world to come and give us a lift. If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.”

More than a decade later, the rest of the world caught on. In March 2006, Sotheby’s held its first New York sale of Chinese contemporary art, attracting both Asian and Western collectors, bringing in $12.7 million, and establishing auction records for Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Liu Xiaodong, and Fang Lijun, among 20 other artists. In their springtime 2007 auctions, Christie’s saw $36 million and Sotheby’s $27 million in sales of Asian contemporary art at their Hong Kong branches, with Chinese artists delivering the majority of the lots on offer.

Mainland auction houses have also entered the fray in the last two years. Poly Auctions, the most lucrative auction house in China, is one of a number of cultural enterprises affiliated with Beijing Poly Group, a former unit of the People’s Liberation Army now owned by the state. Its chief competitor, Guardian, opened in 1993. It was founded by Wang Yannan, daughter of Zhao Ziyang, the late Communist Party leader who was deposed and put under house arrest when he opposed the use of armed troops in Tiananmen Square, in 1989.

The Chinese houses seem to encourage speculation. It’s not uncommon to see the same piece sold over and over again in a single year, rising in price at each sale. Nor is it rare for an artist or dealer to place new works directly into auction, then bring along friends and sympathetic collectors to bid up the price. But with the market this hot, buyers from New York and London have been showing little compunction in flipping contemporary Chinese artworks. Today’s $500,000 painting could fetch $1 million tomorrow.

“When people talk about the high prices, I would say that Chinese artists believe that their top artists deserve to be right alongside the best artists from anywhere else,” says Charles Saatchi, who plans to mount a show called “The Revolution Continues: New Art from China” at his new London gallery this spring. “I like to think that any of the works I will be showing could be included in a Whitney Biennial, and you wouldn’t have to stand in front of it and say, ‘That’s pretty good for a Chinese artist.’ ”

A possible Chinese counterpart to Saatchi—someone who can single-handedly send prices skyrocketing—is Joseph Lau, a Hong Kong real-estate mogul, who bought Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash for $71.7 million at Christie’s New York in 2007. But collectors from the mainland are seemingly more circumspect. Yang Bin, an automotive dealer in China, and Zhang Haoming, owner of Beijing’s upscale Le Quai restaurant, have helped the boom along with big purchases, but they have yet to pay Saatchi prices. And then there is Guan Yi, who has an enviable private collection on display in his Beijing warehouse. Guan refuses to put a cash value to his collection, saying, “I think about art—I care about art.”

Even as late as 2002, none of this seemed possible. Beijing had just begun developing its contemporary-art district, Factory 798, a former munitions plant whose Bauhaus-style architecture attracted dozens of artists and dealers. The most notable gallery in the 798 complex is the Beijing Commune, founded by Leng Lin, a curator who has known artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun throughout their careers. Today, Factory 798 has been designated a “historic district” by the city of Beijing, and visitors already complain that it has become overgrown and too commercial. And in the few years since Factory 798 established itself, additional galleries have sprung out of the crowded streets. “If you go to the other art centers of the world—London, New York, or Los Angeles—you may hear about a new gallery opening up here or there,” says Basil Walter. “In Beijing, you hear about an entire neighborhood opening up overnight. The construction happens so quickly, and the number of galleries and the amount of art that’s proliferating is just astounding.”

Shanghai’s smaller gallery district, named 50 Moganshan Lu, for the address at which it is located, has begun to spread out to the adjoining neighborhood and is in the midst of an explosion of new museums. MoCA Shanghai (founded by Hong Kong jewelry designer Samuel Kung), the Pompidou Center’s Shanghai satellite branch (scheduled to open by 2009), and the Zendai Museum (backed by Shanghai real-estate developer Dai Zhikang and scheduled to open in 2010) join the state-run Shanghai Art Museum and municipal Duolun Museum of Modern Art.

“It is an extraordinary scene,” says Arne Glimcher, an éminence grise who just returned from a tour of China during which he signed Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan to Pace Wildenstein, his prestigious New York gallery. “It is a little bit like Germany after the Second World War. With the culture being annihilated, it was fresh to start again. Or like America in the 50s, when we didn’t really have an indigenous style, so we were fresh to start from scratch.”

Painter Yue Minjun built a splendid compound for himself on the outskirts of Beijing in the Songzhuang district, a kind of Chinese East Hampton, given the number of artists living there. His neighbor Fang Lijun went further, opening a chain of art-filled restaurants in Beijing. On a recent trip, Agnes Gund, the president emerita of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, feasted on a buffet on Yue Minjun’s lawn. She also stopped by the studio of Lin Tianmiao, the sole female artist in this group of alpha males, whose home and studio are contained within a restored farmhouse.

Back in Shanghai, bad-boy artist Zhang Huan has taken over a vast industrial complex in the southern part of the city, which exceeds in size and scale even the most lavish studios in Beijing. In 1994, this artist covered himself in honey and fish oil at a public toilet, remaining motionless for an hour as insects covered his flesh. Now he has a production line that rivals that of Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, employing more than 100 craftsmen who live in an adjoining dormitory. Wood-carvers chip away at blocks for prints that will be larger than billboards, and welders work on sculptures more than 25 feet tall. In a room filled with hundreds of canvases, assistants sprinkle ash, like Buddhist monks making sand mandalas, to create photo-realistic images. The powdery substance is created in his studio, as well as collected from temples where people burn incense; the artist has his own truck to drive around to collect it.

Topping the list as the most independent of all of the self-made artists in China, Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, grew up in Xinjiang, and saw his father, once Mao’s favorite poet, discredited during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean latrines. He left for New York in 1981, completely pessimistic about the future of art in China, only to return 12 years later, when his father fell ill. During the 1990s, he was the chief agitator in the Beijing art scene, his antics culminating in a show he curated called “Fuck Off,” which coincided with the Shanghai Bienniale 2000. With little hope of a further art career, either inside or outside of China, Ai Weiwei built a home for himself, modeled on the traditional gray brick courtyard houses found in central Beijing, and launched himself as a self-taught architect.

Now heralded as an international artist of the first rank, Ai Weiwei sent 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, this past summer as his contribution to the Documenta arts festival. In 2008 he will see his crowning achievement unveiled at the Summer Olympics: Beijing’s new Olympic stadium, often called “the bird’s nest,” on which he collaborated with the architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron. But he still works with a wary sense of freedom. “It’s like the movie Home Alone,” he told me when I visited his studio. “The parents have gone away … but they can always come back.”

His sense of caution may be justified. Just two summers ago, government agencies in Shanghai and Beijing removed numerous artworks from galleries after a long period when censorship of the arts had seemed to cease. Earlier this year, the staff of the Duolun Museum of Modern Art, in Shanghai, walked out over disagreements with authorities about what art could or could not be shown. Wang Qingsong, an artist who stages large photographic tableaux akin to movie sets that sell for up to $320,000 at auction, was questioned for two days and had his negatives seized after a model complained about the nudity in his latest production.

Yet the feeling of suppression has definitely subsided. Many believe that the Chinese government simply has bigger concerns: the Internet and movies—mass culture that more people see and are influenced by than contemporary art. On a more cynical note, it could be that promoting contemporary art counterbalances China’s human-rights record, in addition to generating lots of cash.

If anything demonstrates a change in mood, it is the inclusion of the iconoclasts Cai Guo-Qiang and Ai Weiwei in the Olympic program. Cai is possibly the most famous Chinese art expatriate, having left his homeland in 1986 and launched a spectacular international career. Despite his status as a “foreigner,” Cai was permitted to be the curator of China’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale, in 2005. Now he will bring one of his famous fireworks displays—seen in the skies throughout the world—to the Olympics. In acknowledgment of his new role within China, Cai is building a studio within the ruins of a double-courtyard house two blocks from the Forbidden City, the 18th-century imperial residence that was handed over to the mayor of Beijing when the Communists took over, in 1949.

A key player in bringing the often politically inconvenient artists into the state’s embrace is Fan Di’an, head of the National Art Museum of China, in Beijing. He has been selected to orchestrate the cultural activities at the Olympic Village and other key sites in Beijing. In addition to commissioning fireworks maestro Cai Guo-Qiang, Fan has persuaded Chinese film director Zhang Yimou to help with the ceremonies. (Steven Spielberg, a consultant on the project, has threatened to resign over China’s role in the Darfur genocide, but has yet to do so.)

Most established Chinese artists built their careers without the benefit of gallery representation (in contrast to Western artists, who can’t seem to tie their sneakers without a major dealer). Zhang Huan, who moved to New York in 1998 and now has returned to China to set up his studio in Shanghai, jumped from Max Protetch to Jeffrey Deitch to Luhring Augustine, burning bridges along the way. China’s other powerful artists—Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, as well as Zhang Xiaogang—reached the international market without a gallery. Foreign dealers, while welcomed for sales, were not trusted enough for long-term relationships.

China’s rising art stars are more likely to go the gallery route. Yang Fudong, born in 1971, an artist whose atmospheric films have been featured at virtually every biennial and major art museum in the past five years, has worked with Helbling at ShanghART and more recently with the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and Paris. Wang Qingsong began his career through his association with Meg Maggio, who brought the artist to the attention of the Albion Gallery, in London, and art dealer Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn, in New York.

Twentysomething dealer Fang Fang, director of the Star Gallery, in Beijing, has made a specialty of scooping up artists fresh out of school, a generation he calls “the naughty kids.” As opposed to their elders, who often came from poverty, these artists have had travel visas from an early age. Chen Ke, one of Star’s stars, graduated from the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts in 2005 and has already had a gallery show. Her fairy-tale-like pieces, peopled with forlorn heroines and sad-faced clowns, might have come from anywhere. In interviews, she talks about personal expression, apparently seeing no need to define herself or her art as particularly Chinese.

Young Chinese artists are free to think as selfishly as anyone who wields a paintbrush in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side. It seems the Chinese government has managed to defuse the explosive potential of contemporary art simply by allowing it to flourish.

Barbara Pollack has been covering the contemporary-art scene since 1994 for The New York Times, Art & Auction, and Art News.

The Rise of the Modern Chinese Art Scene

Home » Articles » The Rise of the Modern Chinese Art Scene

In 1982, after the Cultural Revolution ended, there were about 100 graduating art majors from universities in China. Today there are over 260,000. The modern art scene began in the 1980s, and became a key period in Chinese contemporary art. New Wave artists included Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and Huang Yongping, a unifying feature amongst them being their works’ likeness to the Western styles of Picasso, Munch and the Dada artists. 

International contemporary art styles began to influence the work of Chinese artists. Avant-Garde, in the larger context, is the forward thinking movement in the art world of experimental and innovative styles. The China Avant-Garde show in 1989 at the National Gallery of Art in Beijing became a significant moment in the Chinese art scene. The show was the first contemporary art exhibition permitted in an official forum as well as the first Chinese authority-sponsored exhibition of innovative and new age art. 

The entire exhibit lasted for a few hours. Due to the nature of the artistic message, the show ended after a performance artist entered the show with a gun and shot two bullets through her work—a pair of mannequins in phone boxes. Although gaining popularity for the event, the artist Xiao Lu said the motivation for her action was not political or aesthetic, as the media had portrayed. Rather it was an emotional action. In shooting the mannequins she was in fact shooting a reflection of herself. 

Despite the motivation, she still inspired many with her actions. In the early 1990s the art scene in Beijing became centered on artists in Dong Un behind the city’s Third Ring Road. Artists sometimes moved four or five times a year. Shows were held in basements in out-of-the-way areas; at longest their exhibits stayed open for a few days. When not in public areas, art was displayed to small audiences in private homes, leading to the term ‘Apartment art.’ The artist Wang Gongxin told the China Daily, “Young artists of the time were looking for a private space to transform into a contemporary space.”

In the early 1990s, a new movement began in the Chinese art world. Known as Cynical Realism, it focused on the already rising trend in the pursuit of individual expression by artists. They broke away from traditional artistic trends, considered to be part of a collective mindset existing since the Cultural Revolution. Through their art they focused on themes of social and political issues, as well as events since the early 1900s. They offered their publics a realist perspective and interpretation of the rapidly changing culture as China. 

Artists working in the late 1990s and early 2000s explored the social isolation connected with China’s economic reforms, as well as gave a criticism of Chinese icons. In the 1990s, the art scene was still largely underground until an international event moved it into the spotlight. It began with the visit from Princess Diana at the 1995 Venice Biennial. The exhibit was notable for featuring several Chinese artists and brought Chinese art came to the forefront in the art world. 

On the Chinese modern art scene, Australian writer John Hopkins called it, “One of the most vibrant scenes is contemporary art. New movements multiply with bewildering speed, as cities, artists and international dealers promote their favorites.” Contemporary art grew more accepted by major schools. The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China’s top art school, has had numerous artist celebrities graduate from its ranks. Less than 10 percent of those who apply are accepted. Among the famous contemporary artists that have studied there are Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. In addition to an impressive list of alumni, the school’s teachers are also highly recognized. Faculty members include the artists Liu Xiaodong, whose works have sold for as much as $8.2 million.
Students attending this school have been known to be less interested in politics and more focused on the artist’s personal struggle. Though continuing with the spirit of experimenting with the arts, students are traditionally taught to paint by painting the same figurative many times as a form of honing their skills. 

Beijing is still the main hub for contemporary art, though the modern art movement has spread all over China. In Qingdao, art clubs have sprouted around the city, particularly with the help of social media. The universities offer art degrees and the local Qingdao Art Museum now features modern art exhibits considered improper not long ago.


Contemporary art in China

Chinese checkers

The wild, wild world of the Chinese contemporary-art market

 Made in China

BUYING Chinese contemporary art is not for the faint-hearted. There are no museums in China to offer the validation that contemporary-art collectors in the West desire, and few independent critics or curators to judge whether a living artist’s work is good enough to stand the test of time. Yet that is not putting off buyers. Last year Asia accounted for nearly a quarter of global auction revenue, nearly twice what it was two years ago. Some of this can be explained by sales of wine and watches, which have a growing following among the Chinese, but the lion’s share is made up of art. Among the ten most expensive artists working today, two are Chinese—Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi. Yet the Chinese contemporary-art market is extremely volatile, bidding at auctions in mainland China is often rigged and galleries follow the auction houses’ lead on prices far more than they do in the West. So how does the neophyte collector find his or her way through this jungle?

Before 2007, Chinese contemporary art was largely the province of European and American collectors who bought on the cheap and watched as prices went up. Now it is more likely to stay in Asia. Taiwan, which has some of the most mature collectors in the region, has recently acquired an appetite for contemporary art. Taiwanese taste, says Pi Li, co-owner of Boers-Li, a Beijing gallery, is “elegant” and leans towards expatriate artists like Yan Pei Ming (who lives in France) and Zhang Huan and Mr Cai (who live in New York), whereas mainland buyers like “wilder things”. Hong Kong, by contrast, is a hybrid culture, where collectors love international art, particularly Pop.

Most Chinese artists live in Beijing, whereas most collectors come from Shanghai, the historic financial centre. The newly rich from Shanxi province (which derives its wealth from mining) and Fujian (which has grown prosperous through trade) have recently entered the market, but their tastes veer towards the traditional, or what Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based art critic, dismisses as “realist pictures of pretty girls playing blackjack”.

One thing Chinese collectors agree on is the superiority of painting. The highest price ever paid for a sculpture by a living mainland Chinese artist is just over $800,000 (for a stainless-steel work by Zhan Wang), less than a tenth of the highest price paid for a Chinese contemporary picture ($10.1m for an early painting by Mr Zhang). “The Chinese tradition doesn’t see sculpture as real art but as anonymous craft for ritual use,” explains Lu Jie, the owner of the Long March Space, another Beijing gallery.

Beijing is the intellectual capital of China and has a burgeoning gallery scene in its art district, which is known as 798. Contemporary dealers set up shop here to stay close to the many artists that have made Beijing their home. The best local galleries—the Long March Space, Beijing Commune and Boers-Li—are artist-driven businesses. A handful of prestigious international players—Continua, Urs Meile, Jens Faurschou and Pace Gallery—have also opened there, but these are mainly exporters. Pace has shown many Chinese artists in its New York galleries but, until recently, no Western art in China. As Arne Glimcher, Pace’s owner, says: “A Chinese audience is not going to be spoon-fed the leftovers of Western culture.”


The artists’ community in Beijing is vibrant and competitive. Some painters and sculptors live in artists’ villages scattered around central Beijing, but many live on the outskirts in Songzhuang, a tolerant municipality where artists without Beijing residence licences or hukouben are not harassed by the police.

Contributing to this vitality is the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). One of two elite institutions (the other is the China Academy of Art located in Hangzhou), the academy admits only one in 30 applicants and has a magnetic pull on ambitious Chinese artists. CAFA used to be the pre-eminent party-controlled school; it now boasts a department of “experimental art” and most staff members lean cautiously toward liberality. Jin Hua, manager of the international office of CAFA, is a rare public supporter of Ai Weiwei. Mr Jin regards the outspoken artist’s recent 81-day imprisonment as extremely unfair and says that excessive government restriction is unsustainable. “If China wants to be the homeland of high-value goods, it has to be a country with freedom,” he says. “How can you develop a brand when you can’t even own your home?”

Many Chinese artists have become known to Westerners through their recognisable signature styles, such as Yue Minjun’s monotonous paintings of pink-faced smiling men. But the popularity of this kind of work seems to be on the wane. By contrast, Mr Zeng, one of China’s most successful living artists, hasn’t become stuck in a single, rigid type of painting. While Mr Zeng’s most coveted works are from his “mask” series, which were made between 1994 and 2004, his self-portraits (pictured above) also fetch high prices at auction and his abstract landscapes sell well on the primary market.

Expert craftsmanship, preferably with an overt display of time-consuming labour on the part of the artist himself, remains a driving force in Chinese contemporary art. Mr Zeng, for example, is adamant that none of his assistants is allowed to pick up a brush.

The way Mr Zeng sells his work is illustrative of a general trend. In the 1990s, Mr Zeng sold most of his paintings directly from his studio. Later he worked with a range of dealers, settling with Shanghart. Now he has signed an exclusive global deal with Larry Gagosian for all sales beyond the mainland.

As Chinese artists come to appreciate the confidence in their work that can be conferred by a strong gallery, they will start seeking integration into the global art world. The endorsement of international collectors with powerful reputations is also essential. For instance, François Pinault, a French collector with two museums in Venice, owns 15 Zeng paintings and says he sees the artist as “the Jackson Pollock of the 21st century”: the great abstract expressionist was the first American painter to gain international recognition. Mr Pinault’s foundation underwrote a solo show of recent Zeng work at Christie’s in Hong Kong and at the new Rockbund Art Museum, part of a commercial property development in Shanghai.

Museums of contemporary art with permanent collections and solid scholarship are the most important ingredient still missing from the Chinese art world. The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing helped transform the 798 district from a desolate industrial site into a cultural destination, but it lacks the steadfastness expected of a public non-profit-making space. The centre opened in late 2007, but its Belgian benefactor, Guy Ullens, has already sold some of the best works in his collection, and he is now looking to sell off the space itself.

The one museum that could set a new standard is M+, which is due to open in Hong Kong in 2016. Headed by Lars Nittve, a well-respected curator, the project is supported by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Currently, the most professional curatorial institution in Asia is the 21st-century museum of contemporary art in Kanazawa, Japan. M+ could leapfrog Kanazawa and become the Tate Modern of the East. Much like Tate Modern, M+ is looking for collections that need a long-term home.

The most important collector of Chinese contemporary art is Uli Sigg, a businessman and former Swiss ambassador to China. Mr Sigg, who owns 3,000 works and has created the best record of Chinese art history from 1979 to the present, wants to return the art to the region. Securing the Sigg collection would do much to confirm the importance of any new institution.

The Chinese art world is developing quickly. The number of reliable dealers is growing, but the market needs bona fide collectors with the energy to do intelligent research and the commitment to stick to their choices. Buying quality art is rarely a good way to make a quick buck. The true relevance of art reveals itself over time. Good information is the key to success in the art market. In China, a cultural landscape with so few signposts, this knowledge is harder to obtain—but even more essential.


Gallery scene reflects China’s rise

Your Friends’ Activity

NEW! Discover news with your friends. Give it a try.
To get going, simply connect with your favourite social network:

120112 arts china

Food, by He Zubin, 80cm by 80cm, oil on canvas Source: Supplied

CONTEMPORARY Chinese art exploded on to the international scene less than a decade ago.

Celebrity profiles, wild prices, serious collectors and a resulting, equally serious secondary market seemed to come, like all fashions, out of nowhere.

The political, social and artistic conditions had been building, however, and Taree-born Brian Wallace was there from the beginning. He first travelled in China in 1984 and returned to Beijing the next year to pursue language studies. The friends he made were young artists and over the next few years he helped them scrounge spaces for informal exhibitions.

There were no commercial galleries: they would rent a space for a weekend or a week. The Old Summer Palace, a famous bohemian hangout, was a popular venue before the authorities cracked down and threw everyone out. It was a dynamic time.

“These were young people, just out of the academy, living on the fringe around Beijing,” Wallace says. “And everything was raw, everything was new.”

Last year, Wallace celebrated 20 years of his pioneering Beijing gallery, Red Gate. On Monday, an exhibition, titled Two Generations, will open at Sydney Town Hall to mark the anniversary, timed for Chinese new year.

Twenty-eight artists are represented. Wallace asked some of the established names at his gallery to nominate up-and-coming artists they thought should be watched and the result is a survey show, covering the gamut of media, mixing veterans with academy fledglings and some of Red Gate’s own younger artists.

“When we put the idea to the older artists, they were enthusiastic and really took their time thinking about who they were going to nominate,” Wallace says. “They took it really seriously and the quality of the result pleased everyone.”

Wallace arrived in China less than a decade after reformists, led by Deng Xiaoping, had started the process of economic liberalisation at the end of 1978. Dubbed “Reform and Opening” in party style, its aim was to mend the disasters of the Cultural Revolution.

Things were opening up, but in a stop-start fashion. Local authorities still harassed artists and police would regularly raid exhibitions, pulling pictures off the walls.

Political criticism was intermittently allowed in waves of loosening, followed by crackdown. Through it all, Chinese contemporary art was coming of age. An exhibition, now seen as seminal, called China/Avant-Garde, was held at the National Academy of Arts in Beijing in 1989, although the authorities quickly intervened when an artist, Xiao Lu, fired a gun during a performance piece.

But then, also in 1989, came Tiananmen Square. Intellectuals and artists pulled their heads in. Several artists who would go on to big careers left China — some of them, including Guan Wei and Ah Xian, for Australia.

In 1990, Wallace enrolled in an art history course at the Beijing Fine Art Academy to formalise his interests. At the end of it, five years after he had arrived in China, he was wondering what he might do next. Get a job? Go home to Australia? His Australian scholarships had run out. He could find only part-time work.

He decided, perhaps as a stalling measure, to open a Western-style commercial gallery for his artist friends.

In a stroke of luck, he quickly found the perfect venue: the Dongbianmen watchtower, in the heart of downtown Beijing. It was a 600-year-old Ming edifice that had just been restored, all deeply polished log floors and imposing pillars.

Red Gate Gallery, Beijing’s first commercial space, was born. Wallace showed seven artists in his first exhibition in July 1991. One of them, Wang Lifeng, is still with the gallery and will participate in Sydney. That first show was a success — the paintings sold. All the buyers were foreigners. Perhaps it was luck, or the curiosity factor, because there was no market at that stage.

“We persevered,” Wallace says, without a hint of irony. It was five years before another gallery opened, he says, then one opened in Shanghai, and another in Beijing, all run by foreigners. There was no domestic market at all. The Chinese were too poor at first, and even as their economic situation improved, there were other priorities: housing, education for their children. “All of those things came well before putting anything more than a printed poster on the wall,” Wallace says.

The Chinese market has taken off only in the past five years or so, as prosperity skyrocketed and outsiders began to take an interest. Even for traditional art forms such as brush and ink painting, Wallace says, there has only recently been a purchasing, as opposed to a viewing, market.

The domestic market remains deeply conservative: figurative painting generates the most interest. The really big international names — including performance and multimedia artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Cai Guo-Qiang — remain more honoured in the breach. Ai’s treatment at the hands of tax officials last year is notorious.

And yet, Xu Bing, for example — whose large and very beautiful take on power, Book from the Sky, was exhibited at the last Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, and who moved to the US in 1990 in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square — has become Chancellor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Thousands of artists now work in the city, including foreigners who come for the atmosphere and the local production skills.

Sculpture and other three-dimensional works can be made “very well, very quickly, at a much lower cost than back home”, Wallace says.

The famous 798 art zone, housed in a decommissioned military complex in Dashanzi, in the Chaoyong district of Beijing, is exemplary. It has morphed as rapidly as the Chinese art scene has.

“The artists moved in, the artists moved out, the galleries moved in, now the galleries are moving out,” Wallace says.

“The management really doesn’t care who pays the rent.”

In the early 2000s, peripatetic artists, always looking for cheap spaces, began to congregate there. It became seriously cool.

“These days it’s the third most popular tourist destination in Beijing,” Wallace says.

“For young people in Beijing, it’s a wonderful bohemian environment, full of coffee shops and bars and restaurants, and you can buy stuff off the pavement, you can buy knick-knacks, all of that.

“But one of my friends who owns a gallery there said a couple of months ago, ‘Well, I had a thousand (visitors) and not one of them looked at the art’.”

Many top-end galleries have now moved out to Caochangdi, where Ai Wei Wei first established his compound in 1999.

Wallace opened a satellite gallery in the 798 zone in 2006. Red Gate Gallery was situated well away from other galleries and he wanted the company.

“It was a happening place and we wanted to be there as well,” he says now.

Then came 2008 and financial disaster. Business slowed, even as rents were spiralling.

“We just walked and consolidated everything back into the main place,” Wallace says.

“It was an important decision and quite a few other galleries did the same thing.”

The financial crisis caused only a pause in the Beijing art market. “You can see it taking off again, but in a more controlled or measured way,” Wallace says.

Meanwhile the art infrastructure continues to flourish.

There is now a busy calendar of art fairs, auctions, biennales, triennials, festivals and competitions.

Curators from around the world cruise through regularly and foreign artists can get breaks they may not have got in the backwaters they came from.

Private museums of contemporary art have sprung up, such as the interesting Today museum, which opened in 2001, and the Ullens Centre for Contemporary art, set up by Belgian collector Guy Ullens in 2007.

The gallery scene, too, is maturing, Wallace says, running more sophisticated programs, including residencies and lecture series.

“And then you still have all these artists on the fringe of Beijing, doing wonderful work and organising outside the system, so it still is a very exciting place,” he says.

Two Generations will be at the Sydney Town Hall from January 17-28.

One thought on “China’s Remarkable Contemporary Art Scene

  1. Pingback: Homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: