Thursday, March 26, 2009

State of the Art

State of the Art
Lisa.Movius, 2009-09

Viewed as another commodity during the era of hot money and easy credit, Contemporary Art – particularly from the ‘it’ country of China – was greedily acquired by hedge funds and market players to be quickly flipped, with little interest in the actual art or its background.

Since opening ShanghART, one of China’s earliest Contemporary Art galleries, in 1997, Lorenz Helbling has witnessed Chinese art grow from an infancy of obscurity to a much hyped global frenzy in recent boom years.“There was one guy who stood right in front of a work by Ding Yi,” who paints distinctive repetitions of crosses, “and declared ‘I want to buy a Ding Yi painting. Do you have any?’” Helbling recalls.

Chinese contemporary art experienced, independently, a tremendous expansion of talent and institutions over the past decade. That growth coincided, though, with international factors that created two mutually reinforcing bubbles: the global exploitation of contemporary art as a speculative investment scheme, and the international enthusiasm for all things China making Chinese art very ‘hot’ in the art world. Auction prices sizzled into the multi-millions of dollars for some Chinese works. In particular, the cynical realism and political pop Cultural Revolution tropes in paintings and sculpture by a cabal of art superstars like Yue Mingjun, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Xiaogang racked up sales and spawned a generation of imitators.

"Artists need to have time to experiment, to play around, rather than chase whatever is popular."
Stylistic redundancy and topical predictability ensued. Small and new collectors were priced out. Many installation and video artists switched to the more saleable format of painting. Some artists reaped a financial windfall, but paid creatively. “Even painting students were in auctions,” recalls critic and curator Samantha Culp. “Careers were sped up. They were ruined by success. Artists need to have time to experiment, to play around, rather than chase whatever is popular.”

“An artist, right out of the studio, needs to develop,” echoes Helbling. “We set the price at say US$10,000 for a reason – because at the moment it does not merit US$20,000-30,000. It is easy to get the high price, but then how does the artist go on working?” He says that, for artists to play to the hot market, they had to produce some hundred works per year, all of them recognisably, marketably similar. Now, “the speculators are gone, so life is much easier, we don’t have to be so careful” not to sell to them, because, “a bubble is a bubble, and we didn’t want to feed the bubble. We want to work with artists, and help them develop over many years. And I want to sell to someone who likes the work, who will hang it and defend it, not just on the grounds that they bought it for US$10,000 and now it’s US$20,000, but who will still defend it if the price goes down.”

“The special characteristics of the China boom,” Helbling specifies, “were: Speculation. Money. Big productions. And stupidity.” He stresses that these are elements generally not attributable to the artists, and that many artists – particularly outside of Beijing – opted out of the madness.

Almost all of the high-priced commercial stars of the past five years were Beijing-based; the exceptions being a few émigrés such as Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing, who had risen to international prominence a decade earlier. Painting, and the political themes and clichéd Chinoiserie popular with foreign art shoppers in China, predominate more in Beijing. The capital has long attracted artists from around China – and increasingly around Asia and the world – creating a much larger scene, but also greater competition.


"Beijing is a city a lot of artists move to, and they have pressure: they left their village, or left their home town, and have only a little time in which to succeed. There are thousands of artists, it is very competitive. Who is good is measured by who has the biggest car. Shanghai artists discuss a lot, but are not that into money or who has the biggest house,” Helbling explains. “In Shanghai, the artists and galleries here were not so easily absorbed. The boom was a lot of people accumulating works and pushing up prices, and most Shanghai artists refused to participate. One reason is that Shanghai is a commercial city – if people want to be artists, they’ll be artists. If they want to make money, they’ll make money.”

“Shanghai was not so impacted,” concurs Alexia Dehaene, who directs the Shanghai non-profit BizArt Center, established in 1999. She and Helbling both point out that Shanghai has experienced a strange quiet during the Chinese art boom, its growth steady but low key, and with new institutions in recent years limited to the ShContemporary art fair, launched in 2007, and the August opening of the Minsheng Museum. “Beijing is more active, much bigger, more complex … People say Shanghai is more commercial, but during the boom Beijing was way more commercial than Shanghai.”

Beijing’s comparative commercialisation is only one of the urban stereotypes the double bubble inverted. Starting with the opening of Arario Beijing in 2005, the capital has seen an explosion of branches of big international galleries, and increasingly attracts artists from outside of China. It has assumed Shanghai’s traditional mantle of Sino-Foreign arbiter, while Shanghai art remains comparatively introspectively Chinese.

“Shanghai is painfully local,” critiques Meg Maggio, who co-founded Beijing’s Courtyard Gallery in 1997 and launched Pekin Fine Arts in 2005. “Beijing has become the centre for contemporary art not just for China but for all of Asia,” she enthuses “The city has become a wonderful platform for Asian artists, curators and galleries, as well as artists from around China … I don’t know what the ‘Chinese Art Scene’ means; it is this constant conversation with the world. Chinese art has become less inward looking.”

The inaugural private 798 Beijing Biennale, running until 12 September, is premised upon Beijing’s post-boom repositioning as an international art hub for Asia. Materials for the event stay rigorously on-message, declaring Beijing, “ideal for this unique biennale because it is a megalopolis located between the future and the past – a confluence of the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern that, in turn, reconfigures globalisation in a manner more complicated and multidimensional than in other areas of the world” and making much of the inclusion of Beijing-based foreign artists. The open question is whether that trend will continue even as China’s trendiness subsides, and as international galleries’ expansion budgets contract with the global art market.

If Shanghai, and nearby sister city Hangzhou, were shielded in their own bubble of distance from the Beijing-based boom, the sky was higher and the emperor even further away in Southern China. The Guangzhou Triennial debuted in 2002, and in its three installments to date has consistently been heralded as the best official art event in China. The same year, independent gallery Vitamin Creative Space opened in Guangzhou, and it has become the centre of a flourishing, largely experimental scene. More galleries have opened in nearby Shenzhen.


Samantha Culp, who has worked for Vitamin Creative Space and for acclaimed Guangzhou artist Cao Fei, surmises that the region enjoys a lot of creative freedom due to being comparatively off the national radar. “The Pearl River Delta is a factory, an experiment. Censorship has never been so harsh, and it early on had access to Western, Taiwanese and Japanese pop culture from across the border. Guangdong has more free reign than Beijing … they know they have the leeway to muck around.”

She says that Vitamin Creative Space founders Zhang Wei and Hu Fang chose Guangzhou because, “The risks are less, so you can experiment more and take risks, even do things that are silly or stupid. Beijing art is more serious: serious about money, serious about politics, serious about symbolism. You almost never see those classical Chinese symbols, or Cultural Revolution imagery, in Guangdong art – unless to make fun of their usage” up north, because Southern Chinese prefer more modern, pop cultural references. The art is also distinct, Culp adds, with apologies for the generalisation, because, “The stereotype is that the Cantonese are a very practical people – focused on things like food, money, humour, and everyday life, in contrast to Beijing's reputation for lofty ideals and intellectualism. Cantonese culture seems less concerned with ideology, or approaches it from a different, perhaps more ironic angle.”

Pockets of independent artistic activity have also emerged in smaller Chinese cities, around art schools in Wuhan and Chongqing, and around bohemian communities in Yunnan, doing their own thing regardless of boom or bust.

Apart from a few auction houses, dealers and investors protesting otherwise, most in China’s art industry believe the boom is now over, or at least fizzling out – and that is a good thing, at least for the art. Internationally, prices have fallen, and the art world debates whether the “new China” will be India, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. However, facing into the autumn – one of Chinese art’s busiest seasons – and beyond, none can say how Chinese contemporary art will fill into the stretch marks of its phenomenal adolescence in the mid-2000s.

The time frame of China’s double bubble depended on the audience. A few art insiders ‘discovered’ Chinese contemporary art in the late 1990s, and its official debut was when Harold Szeemann brought a group of Chinese artists to the Venice Biennale in 1999, recalls Maggio. Helbling identifies a succession of bubbles: one “in 1995-1996 in Hong Kong, when the dollar was up; Europe had a small [Chinese art] boom in 2000-2003. All small waves, but the last one was more uneven.” However, the biggest hype, and attendant price inflation, had its heyday roughly 2003 or 2004 to 2007, and had begun popping by autumn 2008 due to the coinciding global financial panic and post-Olympic China ennui.

However, the deflation remains sporadic and uncertain, and to some boosters and casual observers, the Chinese contemporary art boom is still going strong. Even now, every week brings several new articles rather belatedly celebrating Chinese contemporary as the “hot new thing”. “A lot of people not in the art world don’t know that things have changed,” muses Culp, recounting hearing ideas for yet more general documentaries on Chinese contemporary art and a flow of books on things like ‘Young Chinese Artists’. “Within the art world, China is no longer this big, hyped thing; it will just be one part of the art world.”


While the glamour is fading and the boom subsiding, both appear to have helped speed up that global normalisation of Chinese contemporary art. “Now we have seen serious galleries doing Chinese artists. Before they were just exotic, and the serious galleries kept their distance,” says Helbling. “Now there are more names [known]: if you asked someone 10 years ago, the only Chinese artist they knew of was Chen Yifei – just the one. Now there are 10, or even 20, names everyone knows, and they are not just ‘Chinese artists’ in general. There will be more and more, eventually 50 to 100 names. Now the pressure is to do interesting works, because with world attention [on Chinese art] you can’t just copy your neighbour, or repeat what you were doing three years ago.”

“China is more important now; China is a part of the world,” he continues. “If an artist says something about the world today, they will matter. Our world is much bigger now, and what artist figures out what matters today will become bigger than Warhol, since the world is bigger. Some just look at what is fashionable, but China is not a fashion that the West can make for two years. Whether the West talks about China or not, it doesn’t matter. Supposedly if the West is talking about China then it’s ‘big’, if next year it’s talking about India or Africa, China gets ‘smaller’. But China, with its one billion people, does not go away if there is not so much noise.”

ShContemporary – 10-13 September

After a stunning opening in 2007 but a sophomore installment that many found disappointing, the ShContemporary art fair aims to regain its legs this year with a new director and a new direction. Beijing-based artist and curator Colin Chinnery brings local experience that previous fair directors lacked. Showcasing the best of galleries from China, Asia and the world at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, the fair is divided into the general Best of Galleries section, Discoveries by a few top galleries presenting their best artists and curated by Wang Jianwei and Mami Kataoka, and Platform for individual emerging artists. A lecture series organised by Anton Vidokle runs throughout; check the website for the schedule of talks and additional details.

eArts Festival

Also in its third year, and scheduled to coincide with ShContemporary, which is coorganising one event, this installment of eArts marks yet another reconceptualisation in presenting the electronic arts. While 2007 was diverse and disparate, and 2008 segregated into each district having distinct events, this year eArts comes together into three big events coordinated with local and international arts institutions. The opening extravaganza eArts Beyond, subtitled 'Base Target=New' after an HTML tag, runs 11-20 September at the Oriental Pearl Tower. Fanstasic Illusions, showcasing Chinese and Belgian new media artists, will be at MoCA Shanghai from 13 September to 11 October, before traveling to Belgium. The research-driven New Media Archeology at ddm Warehouse includes a presentation on 10 September, a symposium on the 11th, and an exhibition that runs from 12 September through 11 October.

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