Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let 10,000 Young Artists Bloom, Saatchi

Among the young artists whose work can be seen on Charles Saatchi's new
Chinese Web site are two who posted self-portraits: Huiyuan Sun, who
posted a series of photographs called "A Little Matter and My Face,"

Stephanie Hueon Tung describes herself as a "fan of adrenaline and
adventure" on the Saatchi site, on which she has posted her "Light
Writing No. 1" and five other images.

PERUSING the student art on his Web site recently, as he does somewhat
obsessively throughout the day, the British collector Charles Saatchi
happened upon an entry from a painter named Liu Yang. This artist had
posted images of seven of his works, including a painting of a factory
set against a haunting gray background and a work on paper depicting a
woman's elongated torso.

But unlike European, American or Australian users of the site, who use
their Web pages there to tell the world everything about themselves —
their favorite artists, what movies and books inspired them, their
convictions about art or politics — Mr. Liu, a student at the Sichuan
Fine Arts Institute, simply wrote: "I can't speak a lot English. Sorry.
But love. ..." His message trailed off in a few lines of Chinese that
read in part: "I admit that my knowledge of art is limited at present.
However, I am sure I can learn quite a bit from your Web site."

Soon Mr. Saatchi began to notice that Mr. Liu was not alone. Every day
more art students from China were posting their work at Stuart (short
for Student Art), a popular nook of Mr. Saatchi's recently reinvented
Web site,

Known a decade ago for spotting talent and turning his discoveries into
superstars, as he did with so-called Young British Artists like Damien
Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, Mr. Saatchi is fixated these days on
Chinese artists, the hottest sector of the global market. And when he
saw these shyly tentative Web postings, something clicked.

"There are so many artists in China who want their work to be seen," he
said in a recent interview at his London home, pausing every now and
then to scan the large computer screen on his desk. "These students,
like all the others, want to know what's going on around the world."

So in January he decided to create a Chinese version of his Web site to
cater to that audience. Working in a warren of makeshift offices in the
basement of his Eaton Square home, 16 experts now oversee both the
popular Saatchi Gallery site, which is getting more than six million
hits a day, and a site in Mandarin, accessible from the home page, that
went online two weeks ago.

"Our goal is to break down language and cultural barriers," said Neeraj
Rattu, who is leading the site's technology team. Having compiled a
considerable amount of data, the team estimates that 20 to 30 art
schools operate in China; that about 10,000 students will graduate from
such schools this year; and that some 14,000 artists in China are
represented by galleries.

"That leaves roughly 10,000 unrepresented artists," said Kieran McCann,
who is in charge of the site's content and creative development.

About 300 art galleries operate in Beijing and about 300 in Shanghai: a
relatively small number, Mr. Saatchi said, considering the surge in
interest in Chinese work. China also has 100 to 200 auction houses,
many of which sell contemporary works.

Like Stuart, the Chinese site is designed to be as navigable as
possible, so that posting work will be as easy as opening an e-mail
account. So far 23 Chinese students have posted work on the site.

Each has a distinct personality. Kang Can, a serious-looking young man
photographed in sunglasses, writes, in perfect English, that he was
born in 1982 in Chongqing and graduated from the Sichuan Fine Art
Institute, and that he has already shown his work at Art Basel Miami.
Among the 15 images he has posted are a series of paintings in which a
sleeping infant is variously depicted in a chewing-gum wrapper, on top
of a gun, on the rim of a KFC plastic cup and in other poses.

"Babies as a symbol of human purity came to this world simple and
unadulterated," Mr. Kang writes.

Some of the pages are more cosmopolitan than others. Stephanie Hueon
Tung, a student at Peking University, writes that she recently
graduated from Harvard. "Now living and working in the wonderful city
of Beijing," her posting says. "Fan of adrenaline and adventure. Olé!"

Ms. Tung shows six images from her "light writing" series, in which she
scrawled in light on photographs ranging from a still life of a park
bench to an image of a closed-up shop that she embellished with a
heart-shaped graffito. Another student, Huiyuan Sun, has posted a work
called "A Little Matter and My Face," a series of 10 photographic
self-portraits in which he depicts himself in many guises.

In a few weeks the Saatchi team hopes the new site will be as
interactive as the English-language one, with a chat room in Mandarin
and a forum encouraging artists to debate current issues. The team's
eventual goal is to make its chat rooms seamlessly international, so
that students from all over the world can talk to one another in many

As it did for Stuart, the Saatchi team is reaching out to art schools
in China to let them know that their students can post pages at the
site. "It's all been word of mouth," Mr. Rattu said.

One looming concern is potential censorship by the Chinese government.
In recent months China has aggressively brokered controversial accords
with Google and Yahoo to filter the search-engine services they offer
in China and blocked access to some material offered by the Chinese
version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Mr. Saatchi's team knows it may encounter problems if work posted on
the site is overtly political or directly critical of the Chinese
leadership. Its pioneering effort is likely to be closely monitored by
Western dealers and auction houses in the months ahead.

Pressed on that possibility Annabel Fallon, a spokeswoman for the
Saatchi Gallery, played down the potential for conflict. "After
discussions with the Chinese Embassy here we don't believe censorship
will be too much of a problem," she said in a written statement.
"According to the dealers and artists in China we are in contact with,
government interference in the arts seems to be at a very low level in
the last 10 years."

She added, "We don't foresee our site becoming a platform for
anti-government propaganda, but we do of course aim to be respectful to
the wishes of our host nation if our site starts being abused."

In remaking his Web site nine months ago to appeal to artists and
students and to be more interactive, Mr. Saatchi says, he resolved to
buy nothing posted there for the site's first year. Nonetheless he has
already bought works elsewhere by popular Chinese artists like Wang
Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang. And when his new gallery, a
50,000-square-foot space on Kings Road in the Chelsea section of
London, opens in the fall, its first show will be devoted to
contemporary Chinese artists.

In the meantime he and his Internet team spend their days pondering
ways of attracting more artists to the site. In addition to Stuart, for
art students, and Your Gallery, a separate area where artists of all
ages can post their work and sell it directly without relying on a
dealer or other middleman, the site offers links to museums around the
world and a magazine with art world news and feature articles.

It is also sponsoring a six-month competition called Showdown, the art
Web equivalent of "Pop Idol" in Britain or "American Idol" in the
United States. Artists registered at the site can enter works on which
the Internet public will vote; the winner will get £1,000 (about
$1,930) and a chance to show his or her work at the Saatchi Gallery
when it opens. The runner-up will get £750, or about $1,450.

After posting its first call for submissions last week, the site
reported nine million hits over a 24-hour period. The team will soon
post the contest instructions in Mandarin so that Chinese artists can

But Mr. Saatchi says he won't stop with China. Over the next six months
his team hopes to draw in artists from India, Russia, Spain and South

"My aim," Mr. Saatchi said, " is to do everything I can to maximize the
site's exposure."

1 comment:

susan said...

I'm really glad you posted this article. I was just thinking about Saatchi the other day when you mentioned how one of our later classes would be about the role the market plays in determining the direction of contemporary art. I wish I had even a vague idea of the history of art in China; as it is, I know absolutely nothing. However, I get the sense that a lot of the art being produced right now is more a response to the aggressive economic growth/Westernization/modernization going on in Shanghai than it is a logical extension or evolution of traditional practices, an environment that seems perfect for a Saatchi figure.

I was in London a few semesters ago and naturally Saatchi's influence was a frequent topic of discussion. Whether he was good or bad for the London art scene in the long run, I'm still not sure, but he's certainly a fascinating character and a seriously impressive force.

In remaking his Web site nine months ago to appeal to artists and
students and to be more interactive, Mr. Saatchi says, he resolved to
buy nothing posted there for the site's first year.

Yeah, let's see what happens when that time is up.