Sotheby's Bets on a Windfall for Today's Chinese Art
29.03.2006 By CAROL VOGEL, www.nytimes.com
Sotheby's "Consumer Image" by Qi Zhilong, from 1992, is expected to bring $50,000 to $70,000 at auction on Friday.
Sotheby's "Great Criticism — Pop Art" (2005) by Wang Guangyi.
A $4 million blue and white Yuan dynasty jar is one of the stars of Sotheby's Asian auctions this week. So is a $1 million lacquer dish made for a 15th-century Chinese emperor. But neither object takes center stage in Sotheby's sun-filled 10th-floor galleries.
This year, pride of place goes to a vast two-panel painting of smiling Chinese revolutionaries called "Great Criticism — Pop Art." Painted last year by an artist named Wang Guangyi, it is expected to fetch $180,000 to $250,000 on Friday in Sotheby's first New York auction of contemporary Asian art.
Though still in its infancy, the appetite for contemporary Chinese art is booming in Europe and Asia. Betting that the trend is fast moving West, Sotheby's has put together a sale that includes some of China's hottest names. The auction house has timed it to coincide with Asia Week, the annual round of sales and exhibitions that draw dealers and collectors from across the globe to New York each spring.
Henry Howard-Sneyd, managing director of Sotheby's in Asia and Australia, said he began mulling a New York sale after noting strong American bidding for contemporary Chinese work at a 2004 auction in Hong Kong. "People, especially a lot of Westerners, are more and more fascinated with China," he said. "It's very much a part of their psyche."
So last June, Sotheby's formed a contemporary Asian art department in New York and hired Xiaoming Zhang, a Chinese-born expert, to run it.
"We were very persistent," said Ms. Zhang, who also helped organize the show "China: 5000 Years" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1998. "It's still a very new field." For the last eight months, she has scoured galleries and private collections in Europe and Asia in search of property to sell. The auction includes 147 works, and is expeced to bring $6 million to $8 million. Many of the artists were trained in classical painting and calligraphy but are thoroughly familiar with Western art. In recent years they have experimented in every medium from photography and video to painting and sculpture.
In their subject matter, they have fomented a quiet but forceful cultural revolution all their own, making passionate and politically charged art with references to Mao Zedong, Tiananmen Square and, increasingly, globalization and consumer culture. In general, such artists operate without government interference, given that their swipes at officialdom are mildly ironic or oblique.
Xu Bing, whose work is reproduced on the catalog's cover — a waterfall of Chinese characters carved from acrylic and painted in pastels called "The Living Word" — said he had somewhat mixed feelings about the sale. His work carries an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.
On the one hand, he said he felt the sale would add cachet to contemporary art from China, putting it more on a par with American and European work. "I wanted to help Xiaoming make a good auction," he said. "This sale will have a big impact on the entire Chinese art market."
But he worries that prices for Chinese art may rise so fast that some artists might forfeit some of their creativity in the pursuit of financial profit.
In Sotheby's view, it is time to whet the interest of its contemporary art buyers, many of whom are the super-wealthy hedge fund managers who have sharply driven up prices for European and American contemporary art in recent years. As part of its cross-marketing strategy, the auction house will have Tobias Meyer, the well-known director of its contemporary art department worldwide, serve as auctioneer at Friday's morning session.
Sandy Heller, an art adviser who counsels several hedge fund millionaires, said he had flagged some interesting works in the catalog but would "be proceeding with caution."
"This sale will be a good test to see if this market is for real," he said.
Kent Logan, a San Francisco collector, said he had little doubt that the demand was there. One of the earliest supporters of such artists, he has collected their work since 1995.
"That was long before it was fashionable," he said in a telephone interview on Monday. "I have always been interested in artists making statements about changes in society, and these artists certainly fall into that category."
China's Political Pop Art, which emerged after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and pays homage to American figures like Warhol, is usually tinged with a message. There is a portrait of Mao made up like a woman, with hot-pink cheeks and deep red lipstick, by the artist Li Shan, which is estimated to fetch $40,000 to $60,000. "Consumer Image," a painting by Qi Zhilong, evokes Shanghai calendars from the 1930's, with a sexy Chinese woman posed in a bathing suit surrounded by blooming peonies bearing tiny silhouettes of Mao. It is estimated to bring $50,000 to $70,000.
The sale also has many examples of the figurative painting style known as Cynical Realism, which blossomed in Asia in the late 1980's and obliquely addresses a sense of spiritual or social malaise. A prominent artist in this style is Zhang Xiaogang, who was born in 1958. His "Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120" (1998) is a soft-edged portrait of a man, derived from a family photograph taken in the 1920's. It is expected to sell for $250,000 to $350,000.
Conceptual art is also represented. There are examples from an artist's community outside Beijing known as the East Village, where the artists Rong Rong, Zhang Huan and Qiu Zhijie worked. A 1997 photograph by Mr. Zhang, "To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond," is part of a performance piece, in which local workers were asked to walk into water and then photographed to show how little effect they had on the water.
A particularly arresting image is "Tatoo 1," a 1994 self-portrait by Mr. Qiu showing him standing naked from the waist up, with silver pins piercing the canvas. It is estimated to bring $15,000 to $20,000.
Ai Weiwei, a catalyzing figure behind the East Village community, has a sculpture made of recycled wood from a destroyed ancient temple. Called "Map of China," its estimate is $120,000 to $150,000.
Michael Goedhuis, a dealer with galleries in London and New York who was an early pioneer in the field, was studying the offerings at Sotheby's the first day the art went on view. He called the sale "inevitable."
"The market is fragmented, erratic, immature and deeply international," he said. "Suddenly everyone is pouncing on Chinese art realizing that China is the dominant reality for the rest of history." Mr. Goedhuis pointed out that the average price for work by the top 20 to 30 Asian contemporary artists is one-tenth of what their American and European counterparts command.
Many of the images at Sotheby's are not totally new to New Yorkers, as they have been exhibited in places like the Asia Society, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and Chelsea galleries. Some have even been seen on the streets of New York. "Peace," a cast bronze bell with a gold lead body hanging perpendicular to it, by the conceptual artist Zhang Huan, adorned the plaza of the Ritz-Carlton in Lower Manhattan in 2003. It is now on Sotheby's sculpture terrace and is estimated to fetch $150,000 to $200,000.
"Collectors are not necessarily insightful but aware of trends," Mr. Goedhuis said, adding that sadly, few museums are. One exception is the Guggenheim Museum, which hired Alexandra Monroe, the former director of the Japan Society's gallery, to be its first senior curator of Asian art. She is among the first Asian art curators at a New York museum whose focus is contemporary art. The Guggenheim has scheduled a midcareer survey of Cai Guo-Qiang — whose work will be seen this spring on the Metropolitan Museum's roof — for 2008 and an exhibition about Asian influence on American art in 2009.
But Lisa Dennison, director of the Guggenheim, said it would not be bidding at Sotheby's on Friday.
Mr. Logan, the San Francisco collector, however, has his eye on a few works and plans to bid by telephone. "I think this auction will be a watershed event," he said. "It will open the eyes of anyone in the West who is not yet aware of Chinese contemporary art. It will certainly put it in the spotlight."