Still an immature market in mainland China, without solid intellectual and institutional underpinning
Source: The Art Newspaper (www.theartnewspaper.com), by Anna Somers Cocks
TURIN - China is still Marco Polo-Land for most Westerners, a vast country of 1.3 billion inhabitants where the ordinary rules of the market just might be fabulously magnified. The people working for Saatchi’s website (see p38) calculate that there are 24,000 artists in China. Now, if only 10% fetched prices like the ones seen at the March 2007 auctions in New York, this would indeed be the main market of the future, with potentially almost endless supply and demand.
But this is to dream. Lorenz Helbling, an old China hand and owner of the influential ShanghArt gallery, says that there are in fact a few hundred artists working in China, and many of them not of the kind the West considers contemporary. There are huge gaps in cultural understanding: for example, the Chinese find the mere fact that an artist is painting realistically on canvas to be an act of contemporaneity as it is a Western technique.
In fact, although there were some buyers from the Chinese mainland at the hugely successful March auction of Chinese contemporary art in New York, they are recent participants, usually with some close connection to the West. Mr Helbling says that his clients are Swiss, French, American, Japanese, Australian, with only latterly a few Chinese. Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s deputy chairman of Europe and Asia, calculates that the kind of contemporary Chinese art valued in the West represents only about 20% of the market in today’s production. Already in 2004, though, when the Hong Kong sale of 50 lots totalled $2.9m, he saw that this was a quickly growing scene, confirmed by the April Hong Kong Sotheby’s sale total of $27.45m.
The sales have been extraordinary, he says, with 95% to 98% of lots sold, an exceptionally high success rate, but it seems that the expansion is nonetheless riding more on the general Western boom in contemporary art than a unique Chinese component. In fact, within China, 2006 was a bad year for the art market as the wave of speculation in art, which followed the property boom, peaked in 2005.
Doom merchants are already predicting a collapse or denouncing the corruption of the creative process, with artists churning out near replicas on demand. But Tsong Zung Chang of Hong Kong’s Hanart says that the hot market is good for Chinese art as a whole as it gives it status in a society where there are no other criteria for evaluating it. The art scene shares in the general politico-economic situation, where government is deliberately allowing the market to restructure society and its institutions without having to perform a face-losing ideological volte-face. This is one of the reasons why artists hardly have to worry about censorship any more. It is said that former President Jiang Zemin was embarrassed on his official State visit to France in 2002 by his inability to discuss paintings with President Chirac and on his return organised tutorials for himself with Fan Di’an, vice president of the Central Academy of Art in Beijing and commissioner of the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Despite the “Marco Polo” feel to this anecdote, the fact is that much has changed in the official attitude towards art in the last four or five years. In particular, the art colleges have been opened up and enormously expanded. Mr Chang, who teaches at the Huang Zhou Academy, says that it used to have about 300 students to 300 teachers, but in the last four to five years it has grown to 6,000 students, only 2,000 of whom are in the fine arts, and the rest in new subjects such as design.
The government has also announced a huge increase in the number of museums, although many of these will not be for the visual arts, and it looks as though the Guy Ullens Center (see p34) will have a key role for some time in providing institutional support in Beijing to contemporary art as understood in the West.
This art has gone through all the usual processes of affirmation: the definition of its heroic moment (from the 1980s, especially the 1989 exhibition closed by the authorities, to about 2000, when the private view of experts is that many artists began repeating themselves) to the evolution of the various languages of expression, the emergence of artists whose work has been bought by the key collectors (especially Uli Sigg), and shown at the path-breaking exhibitions, finally being sold at auction for good prices.
What Chinese art needs now, says Lorenz Helbling, is better exhibitions, focused on a single artist to get away from the undifferentiated “Chineseness” of group shows. It needs better curators within China (Hou Hanru, although excellent, is now more of a Western figure). In 2008 Tsong Zung Chang is starting a course in curatorship at the Huang Zhou Academy for seven or eight students.
Meanwhile, it is, as always, the artists who really know what is going on; despite China’s huge size they form close-knit communities, generally supportive of each other, and the best judge by far of what is serious endeavour and what is just pretend art.