Chinese Contemporary Art & the Economy:
the Emergence of a New Individual Thought
Coming back to Shanghai after my first visit 10 years ago feels
like both a reality check and a confirmation of my own instincts on
how the city "should" be like. Shanghai, now a city of lights, is no
longer one with hordes of bikes and family-owned stores. In place of
these traces of the past, are towering buildings, all of which stand
guard at the base of the city's tallest structure, the World Financial
Center. And yet, this symbol of urbanization, prevalent throughout
several developed Chinese cities, does not surprise me at all. China
is currently the world's fastest growing economy, and as expected, its
social patterns and structure of the local environment should
transform with respect to the new opportunities created. However, what
are the effects of this globalization on art? Is there no opposition
towards China's new market-driven economy and receptiveness towards
Personally, I would've thought that artists, free thinkers who
use creativity to express thought, would stay true to their thoughts
and views. However, as a Hong Kong artist from the Guangzhou
Discussions pointed out, "Today, everything, including art forms, is
based on the image of society and that's a problem" (Yu Hsiao Hwei).
Certainly, no one can deny the fact that Chinese Contemporary art, in
recent years, has been "tailored to meet the needs of the investment
market" (Zhao Li). However, is this a bad thing? Does commercializing
art necessarily take away an artist's personal expression and
individualism? I believe that although China's rapid economic growth
has "restructured the relationships among artist, artwork, exhibition
space, and audience" (Erickson), the obsession with the conceptual
value of art and money has also inspired many new expressions of
emotions and values within Chinese Contemporary Art.
Like any other time frame throughout the history of Chinese
Contemporary Art, the artists of the 90s created pieces that were
responsive to the major events taking place in China at the time.
Unlike the avant-garde artists, who criticized the political regime
and questioned what it meant to be an individual artist, the artists
of this new modern art movement and their works were impacted by
strong economic reforms and the presence of Westerners (Yu Hsiao
Hwei). Although Deng Xiao Ping's reforms under the Four Modernizations
were launched early in the 80s, China's contemporary art market did
not expand much until foreigners coming into China started collecting.
As Britta Erickson, guest editor for Yishu, mentioned, galleries
representing Chinese contemporary artists but headed by foreigners,
started opening up both domestically and internationally in the 1990s
ShanghART Gallery, for example, was one of these galleries. On
my visits to Moganshan Rd., I noticed that ShanghART's Main Gallery
featured group exhibitions where the works of featured artists shared
a common theme, such as the concept of a bed in the "All About the
Bed" Exhibition. Many of the represented artists held their private
studios in some of the spaces outside ShanghART's Main Gallery. As I
walked by, one of these spaces caught my eye, Zhao Bandi's Bandi-Panda
store. At first, I was surprised to see how actively involved the
artist was in selling and marketing his creations, to the point that
his Bandi-Panda designs are now an entire fashion line! Squared flyers
also advertised his upcoming 'couture' fashion show in Beijing. If
this isn't a sign of commercial art, I don't know what is!
The idea of artists' works being displayed at privately-funded
galleries, such as ShanghART Gallery, and museums was the first
commercial indication of the modern art movement. In the past, art was
created mainly either for "self-cultivation and self-expression"(Yu)
or for the enjoyment of the emperor and elite. However, ever since the
1992 Guangzhou Biennial, the first exhibition of its sort in China to
be privately-funded by businessmen, the purpose of art has become
redefined to encompass art collecting and international appreciation.
The use of galleries and museums became not only an official way to
get prospective buyers to see valuable works, but also a way for
artists to promote their art.
But how is the proliferation of galleries related to the nature
and subject of artists' works? And how come penetration of the Chinese
contemporary art market came so late? The fact that the Chinese
contemporary art market was relatively small during the 80s did not
prevent leading avant-garde artists from "producing substantial and
enduring works under the idealistic banner of 'art for art's sake'"
(Smith). In other words, a good economy is not necessary for art to be
meaningful. The key takeaway from the 90s modern art movement is that
through a developed economy, Chinese Contemporary art was given more
opportunities to become meaningful in a different, more commercial
manner that is "global, but particularly local"(Smith). What artists
before the 90s lacked were commercial outlets by which to build
foreign interest and support. Through the efforts of foreign
collectors, who spread the works at the international level, Chinese
contemporary art has been able to achieve recognition beyond the
boundaries of its own country. Currently, Chinese collectors and even
the government, who once showed interest in only "classical paintings,
ceramics, and furniture" (Erickson), now recognize the value of
In the Guangzhou Discussions, Pi Dao Jian said, "Western art
critics used their vision to come to China and select works. These
works very quickly brought success to the artists, bringing a success
that they had never before imagined. This influenced many artists.
Economic power made a lot of weak-willed artists turn from trying to
produce true art to trying to please the market" (Yu Hsiao Hwei). But
what does Pi Dao Jian mean by "true" art? Is he implying that
individual artists themselves have become more materialistic, that the
actual quality of their work has become mediocre?
An actual connection between generating monetary value and
contemporary art is more apparent in the practice of art collecting.
Art collecting in China is not a completely foreign idea. During
imperial rule, the emperor and nobles commissioned artists, who
created works not only to hone the image and status of the royal
family, but also to entertain and satisfy educational pursuits (Yao).
As a result, "true" private art collecting has come to involve both
expertise and a sense of personal enjoyment, as each work served to
communicate with collectors, often provoking much thought within each
individual. However, unlike "true" art collectors, today's buyers tend
to treat contemporary art as liquefiable assets, ones that can be
bought and sold for a profit. Due to the extent of these transactions,
a secondary market, mainly dominated by auction houses, such as
Sotheby's, Christie's, and Poly-Auction House, has become prominent.
One of the more interesting aspects of the auction houses is their
role in furthering these exchanges. Because of these auction houses'
ability to put up collections for sale, the prices of several Chinese
contemporary art works have escalated, spurring the global demand for
This growing influx of Chinese Contemporary Art entering the
market is indicated by the reported "440% rise in prices of the field"
between the years, 2001 and 2007(Castets). As Zhang Xiao Ming
mentioned in one of our lectures, the prices of some big-name works,
such as Zhang Xiao Gang and Yue Minjun multiplied twice-fold,
triple-fold or even more within that period. She gave an example with
Zhang Xiao Gang's Blood Line: Three Comrades, which sold above
estimates for USD $2,112,000 at Sotheby's New York Contemporary Art
Asia (Castets). According to Simon Castets, writer of "Everyday
Miracles: National Pride and Chinese Collectors of Contemporary Art",
"in 2007, Yue Minjun's The Pope sold in London for USD $4.3 million",
which was well over the auction record for any contemporary Chinese
artist previously (Castets). With the art market's obsession over
facts and figures, there was a lot of concern over whether Chinese
artists, much like the average Chinese collectors, have surrendered to
the forces of commercialism.
Artist, Pi Dao Jian expressed disillusionment over the condition
of this new modern art movement. In the Guangzhou Discussions, he
said, ""In the past, each city had its own particular enchantment.
Such cultural enchantment is slowly being lost and this is a problem.
In addition, modernization has brought with it the desertification of
the soul, the drifting apart of human relations & separation of man
from nature" (Yu Hsiao Hwei). From these words, it seems that Pi Dao
Jian is referring to artists' abuse of this new phenomenon (the
emerging interest in Chinese Contemporary Art) to seek personal gain.
But is he entirely correct?
Certainly, the increased demand for Chinese contemporary art has
had a lasting and still-continuing impact on the nature of artistic
production. On the same visits to the ShanghART gallery, I walked into
one of the individual galleries, the Yard Gallery and immediately
identified one of the works we saw in class: Wang Guangyi's Great
Criticisms series, Pepsi edition. Although I didn't realize it at the
time, this piece was probably one of the many prints of the artist's
original series. By basic business rule, if buyers are willing to
offer money in exchange for all or as many of your products, then you
would be inclined to make more of them to meet demand. Such has been
the case for top artists, such as Wang Guangyi, who has produced many
editions of these series, each featuring a different name brand.
Individual galleries, such as the Yard Gallery, have become "eager to
stock quantities of less expensive works" (Erickson).
In order to feed this demand, many artists don't even do much of
their work themselves. Zhou Tie Hai, considered many to be a
mastermind of "emergence of Western modernism", is an excellent
example (Allen). I first came upon Zhou Tie Hai's works at his solo
exhibition, the Dessert Collection held at the Shanghai Contemporary
Art Museum. After doing some research on his notable digitalized
replicas, I realized that much of the process, such as creating and
altering the images, was actually done by his staff. Does this mean
that Zhou Tie Hai has not stayed true to his art? I would say that the
creativity in the concepts behind the art, all original ideas of his
own, must count for something. Even though the commercialization of
art has seen a lot of repetition in the works being displayed, I
believe that it serves as a constant reminder of the artist's ideals,
if not his work's popularity.
Perhaps one example that follows along the lines of Pi Dao
Jian's disillusionment is Feng Mengbo's Built to Order Series. In this
series, Feng accepts orders of customized oil paintings from buyers.
The interesting thing is that in addition to choosing between default
backgrounds of Chairman Mao and the artist's Quake-based Q4U, buyers
can add as many alterations as they would like (Erickson). By nature,
people are influenced by the cultural and external factors that they
were raised in or live with. Thus, it is hard to imagine the huge
economic developments occurring in the country not having an impact on
the works of artists. But to what extent have artists catered to the
expectations of this new movement? What kind of art is considered a
"hot commodity" and worth investing in? What makes Zhang Xiao Gang's
"A Big Family Series" worth as much as it was bought for?
This question of how art is being valued in the world of art
collecting has always been very irrational, especially in auction
houses. Today, it is quite common to see a similar work from the same
artist, maybe even produced around the same time period, being sold at
Sotheby's for a much larger sum than it is bought at an exhibition
gallery. While this can be attributed to the image and reputation
associated with being displayed at an international auction house, I
believe that much of this phenomenon also has to do with the trust or
belief that value does exist. In her lecture, Zhang Xiao Ming stated
that in determining value, what works in the USA may not work in China
because China's art world is influenced by a whole range of entities.
Thus, the value of a work can be very subjective because this group
consists of not only critics, curators, collectors, galleries,
archives, and auction houses but also the Ministry of Culture of the
P.R.C. or simply, the government.
According to Christie's Asian contemporary art specialist,
Ingrid Dudek, "It is a stereotype that only Westerners buy Chinese
contemporary art" (Castets). Because of this international
recognition, brought upon by commercial outlets that eventually led to
Western support, Chinese contemporary art has undergone 2 major
changes domestically. Firstly, it has gained the support of government
and Chinese collectors. Because Chinese Contemporary art was so
engrained in the Western perspective of China's identity, the
government saw it as an expression of national pride. Not only has the
government limited regulations on the business of art, but also
commissioned artists to produce works and sculptures. Examples include
Ai Wei Wei's involvement with the architectural planning of the Bird's
Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and more recently, artists such as
Wang Guang Yi and Zhang Huan, who created sculptures for the Expo.
Another group of artists from Shenzhen's Dafen Oil Painting Village,
known for their local Chinese copy painters, were asked to paint the
largest-ever re-creation of the Mona Lisa at the Expo (Spiegler).
This use of both well-known and local artists in shaping China's
image at an international event serves the purpose of showing China's
prowess and capabilities through global and yet, local art. In the
end, the government has come to embrace Chinese Contemporary art as a
"culture vital to the credibility China wishes to attain as a holistic
nation amongst the leading global powers" (Smith).
Thus, is it possible for commercialized art to emerge as a
source of inspiration and new ideas for artists, and not what Pi Dao
Jian makes of it, a cultural loss? Upon exploring the future of
contemporary art, Karen Smith claims that people have come to place
more value in the "vibrant local scene", which boosts local confidence
and promotes "profound aesthetic engagement" (Smith) . In today's
investment-driven art market, artists are motivated to follow market
trends and produce works that sell. Following the same logic, is
Chinese contemporary art then really "constrained" by economic
currents if curators, government and are looking more into what
individual artists can offer in terms of personal expression and
I believe that this emergence of a rising group of artists who are
"turning into a more individually defined approach to style and
urbanity" is the second major domestic change to contemporary art in
As a result of the nation's economic reforms and the opening of
the Chinese art market internationally, artists have gained
significant exposure to new ideas and conceptual ways of thinking.
This new modern art movement became the basis for explorations and
artistic responses to areas, such as mass consumerism, and "the value
of money and its relation to art". One of the more unique art
exhibitions was "Art for Sale", which was featured at a supermarket in
Shanghai. At "Art for Sale", customers were able to purchase
"minimally priced works of art", from T-shirts of famous pieces to Liu
Wei's Pigs' Trotters and Jewelry (Erickson). As we've seen in the
video in class, this direct way to reach out to viewers, as customers,
was an art itself in that it demonstrated the transaction between
buyer and seller in a world of consumerism.
The fact that "Art for Sale" was held at a supermarket also
indicates the trends taking place in the relationship between art and
public spaces. According to Beatrice Leanza, a participant of the
"Localism and Social Engagement in the City" panel discussion at
Double Infinity, "Shanghai art is being displayed more in places where
people go with commercial ideas". This is clearly seen in one other
art work that I found very interesting, Wang Jin's Ice, which took
place at a shopping mall. In order to demonstrate the "cooling of
consumerist heat", Wang Jin created an installation composed of blocks
of ice, each with a consumer good, such as music players, and jewelry,
inside (Erickson). However, within the opening hours, packs of
customers attempted to break the ice, hoping to acquire the product
Ever since China's rise to a major economic power and tendency
towards consumerism, artists began to question the value of money and
art. However, just because these artists were interested in exploring
money and its relation to art does not mean that they do art solely
for money. The economic current became a source for more expression of
thought. In order to ridicule and poke fun at the importance placed on
'monetary value' and 'expected return' of an art piece in the world of
art collecting, Zhou Tie Hai actually issued himself out as a grade B
share (Erickson). This was meant to provoke the audience's thoughts on
the value of an artist. Even our professor, Jian-Jun Zhang, in an
"email interview" with me, stated that the destruction of homes,
especially the traditional shikumen houses in Shanghai, became the
inspiration for him to address "the issue of the fading away of the
old/traditional" in his "Vestiges of a Process: Water" project.
According to Britta Erickson, who wrote "Contemporary Chinese
Art: To Get Rich is Glorious", "money brings the various factors
involved in the art world - including artists, dealers, private
collectors and museums - together into a web where activity in one
arena exerts a push or pull in another"(Erickson). During the 90s,
this idea of a global interaction exposed artists to the "workings of
the financial infrastructure" and prompted many to explore the
relationship between money and art (Erickson). As a result, their
responses to commercialized art, reflected upon the many diverse forms
of expressions today, from video, audios to installations, have led to
a new formation of individual thought.
Allen, Daniel. "Asia Times Online :: China News - China's Contemporary
Art Goes Global." Asia Times Online :: Asian News Hub Providing the
Latest News and Analysis from Asia. Web. 13 June 2010.
Castets, Simon. "Everyday Miracles: National Pride and Chinese
Collectors of Contemporary Art."Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese
Art 6.4 (2007): 51-57. Print.
Erickson, Britta. "Contemporary Chinese Art: To Get Rich Is Glorious."
Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 6.4 (2007): 8-16. Print.
Koppel-Yang, Martina. "The Surplus Value of Accumulation: Some
Thoughts." Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 6.4 (2007):
Li, Zhao. "Seeing Through the Macro Perspective: The Chinese Art
Market from 2006 to 2007."Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art
6.4 (2007): 19-22. Print.
London, Barbara. "Views on Contemporary Chinese Art." The Reader, Print.
Smith, Karen. "The Future: In Whose Hands?." The Reader, Print.
Spiegler, Mark. "Re: Chinese Copy-painters Come to Zurich." Web log
comment. Artworld Salon. 16 July 2007. Web. 14 June 2010.
Tinari, Philip. "Original Copies: Philip Tinari on the Dafen Oil
Painting Village. - Free Online Library."News, Magazines, Newspapers,
Journals, Reference Articles and Classic Books - Free Online Library.
Artforum International Magazine, Inc. Web. 14 June 2010.
<http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Original copies: Philip Tinari on the
Dafen Oil Painting Village.-a0169913085>.
Yu, Hsiao Hwei. "Guangzhou Discussions." The Reader, Print.
Yao, Pauline J. "Superfluous Things: The Search for "Real" Art
Collectors in China." Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 6.4
(2007): 58-61. Print.
Yu, Yu Christina. "Exhibition Culture and the Art Market." Yishu:
Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 6.4 (2007): 23-28. Print.
Zhang, Jian-Jun. E-mail interview. 15 June 2010.