Contemporary art in China
The wild, wild world of the Chinese contemporary-art market
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.
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.