Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Glossy Book by Tinari out

with a review in FT.

The coffee-table revolution

By Susan Moore

Published: January 26 2008 02:00 | Last updated: January 26 2008 02:00

No contemporary art collector likes to think of themselves as a mere tourist. They prefer to negotiate the travelling circus that is the international art market by way of the concierge service, the museum group and the VIP programme. Theirs is a world of museum private views and private house visits, of well-connected professionals opening all the doors. They are used to being on the inside.

In China, however, the westerner is very much on the outside. Buying art offers a glimpse in. It is probably true to say that the west's new-found passion for contemporary Chinese art - which, for the most favoured, has driven prices up from next to nothing to millions in the past few years - has been fanned by a kind of modish cultural tourism. It is partly to do with how art is bought in China. If anyone wanted to acquire - or even see - the work of avant-garde artists who demonstrated for political democracy and freedom of expression in 1979, they had to visit them at home, where they worked.

Even now, with growing numbers of dealers operating in the country, the Chinese dislike of the middleman has ensured that much of the business of selling has remained in the control of the artist and in the home or, latterly, the studio. Deals tend to be concluded traditionally by an invitation to share a meal. For many of the early western collectors, and for plenty of those buying now, part of the pleasure was forging a relationship with the artists (and coming away with a wealth of anecdotes to impress their friends). The generation of idealistic young artists who challenged the system seemed infinitely romantic. They might not be starving in garrets (the long-handled rice bowl of the state ensured that) but life was tough with food and materials in short supply. So, as prices for Chinese contemporary art have soared, so has interest in those who make it. A perfect record of the phenomenon is the recently published, large-format book Artists in China: Inside the Contemporary Studio (Thames & Hudson) , which features 500 photographs of 50 or so artists in their homes and studios. There is a glossary of informed thumbnail biographies by Philip Tinari. Chinese artists have hit the coffee table.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this book is that it should exist at all. A decade ago most of these artists were obliged to work at home and the industrial-scale studios and chic interiors photographed here would have been unimaginable. None is more exquisite than the airy, well-proportioned working and living space of Ai Weiwei, one of the most significant conceptual and performance artists to have emerged in China. Designed by him in 1998 and built in what was then a rural village on the periphery of Beijing, it has became the basis for a booming architectural practice, Fake Design. Here and elsewhere, the combination of old and new China seems entirely natural.

There is no doubting the new wealth of market darlings such as Yue Minjun - he of the ubiquitous "shark's smile" self-portraits - whose "Execution" was sold at Sotheby's London last October for £2.9m, a record for any work of Chinese contemporary art sold at auction. His eerily empty new house is huge and sprawling in its walled-off suburban Beijing compound.

The great strength of Tinari's book, however, is that it reflects the huge diversity of creative output in China, not least among conceptual, performance, film and video artists - encouragement for us all to look beyond the formulaic productions favoured by the market.

There is no sign of China-mania abating, especially since the Chinese government has come to recognise the potential of its cultural heritage. Events such as this year's British "China Now" festival will play their part. And, these days, visits to Beijing's famous 798 art district have become as much a part of the tourist trail as the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall.

No doubt some collectors will continue to rush blindly to China to buy specifically Chinese contemporary (one French artist working in Beijing only started selling his work when he began signing his name in Chinese characters).

Perhaps only when China begins to lose its exoticism in the eyes of the west will its art be appreciated precisely for what it is.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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