Inside Chinese Contemporary Art
by Trevor Guthrie
"are they feeding an ignorant giant as fast as possible the last scraps of their own late history/identity before being swallowed up by the homogenous McGlobalization that we enjoy in the west"?
Western galleries are still making spectacular sums flogging the Chairman Mao thing and Chinese artists are well known for doing copies of best sellers seemingly impervious to a backlash from collectors -just another cultural difference in business approaches? or are they feeding an ignorant giant as fast as possible the last scraps of their own late history/identity before being swallowed up by the homogenous McGlobalization that we enjoy in the west?
I am unqualified to speculate on where an art movement is coming from or where its going to end. I am more interested in getting the low down on the scene on an international level from people who are in the middle of this particular eye-storm. I sent eight questions to Thorsten Albertz, director of Arndt & Partner, Zürich and curator of « New Visions on China », Yang Jinsong, who`s consumerist-critical paintings threaten to blow the lid off of the idea of collecting ANYTHING, journalist Marc Spiegler, art market guru and a top collector who wishes to remain off the record, whom I will refer to simply as Mr. Bill (as in billionaire).
Trevor Guthrie: There is definitely a hip factor in collecting contemporary Chinese art and a list of major western collectors have for the past few years or so been making significant additions to their collections. Why are European & American collectors buying Chinese art?
Mr. Bill: We buy Chinese Art, as we moved to Hong Kong a couple of months ago and because we are interested in what is going on in China. I think contemporary art does not have boundaries and “welcomes” the globalization of the art market.
Marc Spiegler: Reasons vary: partly because it's the new cool thing, partly out of financial speculation, partly out of aesthetic attraction. For many collectors, it's two or three at the same time. But rarely is it connoisseurship, since few of these collectors have been following this closely enough.
Thorsten Albertz: For exactly the same reason they are collecting Latin American art, Art from Scandinavia, art from , etc. simply: because it is good and interesting art. The meltdown of the Chinese regime has only opened up this most interesting country with its vibrant art scene to the "Western world". Collecting contemporary art is about collecting a generation's cultural consciousness, the artistically manifested reaction of a generation to what is going on in the world - in this sense, there is not difference between artistic production if it is American, European, or Asian. Collectors know that they have to capture all peoples' consciousness -that is why they started realizing a collection is not complete if you willfully leave an interesting, drastically changing society out
Trevor Guthrie: Much of the aesthetic in chinese art is « geprägt » by communist propaganda of the recent past, Ie : the billboards and statues of Mao or Deng Zhiaopeng . Is this just cynical Che Gevera type of branding and marketing of cool but no longer threatening communist iconography to the west or is there serious painting that stands on its own in the international arena ?
Yang Jinsong: First of all, I don’t think my generation of of artists, who were born in 1970’s have the so-called communist influence, This formulation quite is superficial. Some people use this type of marketing of so-called "Cynical realism" as Chinese art-speak or to curry favor with the world. We both face globalization. Similarly, we both face war, famine and human cruelty.
Thorsten Albertz seemed to agree: "I wouldn't make the mistake to only look at the surface of what is most prominently coming out of , like Wang Guangyi, etc. There is much more depth to Chinese art then what is generally displayed. Generally people make the mistake of only viewing "Post Communist art" to , because it is easiest to distinguish from the art of the the rest of the world. However, there are a lot of Chinese artist, that have nothing to do anymore with Post Communist ideologies. AND, don't make the mistake to only relate Chinese art to Chinese painting. , especially Shanghai has a fantastic scene of film- and conceptual artists, which one should never forget. They will surely be dominating the international art scene in a few years".
Trevor Guthrie: The huge market potential (or threat) of China is daily fare in western business media. Some worry the chinese economy will have an affect on geopolitics once they get the living standard for only a quarter of their population up to speed. Should western artists, galleries like the textile industry for example be worried about a Tsunami of chinese art flooding our markets?
Marc Spiegler: Art is a luxury good, so I don't think the comparison to price dumping applies. If anything the prices are expensive. The western galleries are commonly adding Chinese artists to their roster, which in theory means fewer spaces for Western artists. Then again Western artists can no longer expect to dominate the market, and they still operate at a huge overall advantage.
“Some chinese collectors like to buy through auction houses (Sotheby's, Christie's etc.) in the west. It gives them “security”, i.e. chinese art was bought by the west, it must be good and then they buy it back and bring it back to Asia and they don’t care how much it costs.”
Mr. Bill: I think the art market is like any other market – supply and demand and as long as there are so many buyers in this “hip market” the prices will stay or even go further up.
Trevor Guthrie: We all know China`s record on human rights. Is there still censorship in China or can a Chinese artist address any issue in his own country without the fear of the gulag?
Thorsten Albertz: Obviously you would need to ask Chinese artists this question. Because obviously, all the artist that I work with have not been deported to the gulag. On another note: In history, drastic cultural changes were often initiated by the peoples' reaction to a work of art. The more art becomes an integral part of the contemporary Chinese society, at one point there will be the artwork by a Chinese artist, that will address issues, the Chinese government will have to explain to its people.
Yang Jinsong: One feels and sees many very unpleasant places in . But I think this is a weakness which all of humanity shares, My work continues to be more than just an mere expression of a narrow nationalism thing. -I believe he means he is not under any pressure to conform or censor.
Marc Spiegler: My understanding is that the government barely censors art any more; that's an easy way for them to score points internationally without risking anything much in terms of social upheaval, because the masses barely notice contemporary art. The major issue for their censors was always politics. Seen much political art coming out of China lately? (or anywhere else for that matter?)
Trevor Guthrie: In today's art market, the flavor of the day is often some 22 year old MA fresh out of art school being hyped around the planet before he even has a tested body of work. Does the Chinese art star have a different experience ?
Thorsten Albertz: China is not another planet and these things happen in the United States, as well as in Europe, so why should it be different in China? In Chinese artists circles, the older artist, no matter if he had less exhibitions in less known places, deserves the most attention and is most respected.
Marc Spiegler: Not really. Untested kids get high prices there, too.
"they started realizing a collection is not complete if you willfully leave an interesting, drastically changing society out".
Trevor Guthrie: The scene is very new to the west. Why will contemporary Chinese art be in western art history books?
Thorsten Albertz: Why? Because we will get to a point, when Chinese Art is no longer only Chinese! When it is just interesting and good art, reflecting the socio-cultural circumstances of the society. AND when western art historians stop thinking about a pseudo cultural superiority.
Marc Spiegler: Some artists will surely survive even when the spotlight shifts. I don't believe in geographic movements any more. It's all about individuals now and their ability to project their ideas/market/legacy. As in the West, ideas will trump aesthetics, because ideas go stale much more slowly.
Trevor Guthrie: Is contemporary Chinese art collected in China by the Chinese?
Mr. Bill: So far we don’t see too many Chinese Collectors, but this will change over the next few years as we are expecting some 300’000 more chinese millionaires, who will - after they bought their houses, yachts, cars etc. also go into the art market. What will they buy first? Brands like Warhol, – and brands like Zeng Fanzhi, Zhou Tiehai, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun etc. but chinese art has been around for many, many years and there is a famous auction house in Beijing the China Guardian (www.cguardian.com) and so far, they sell mostly to chinese collectors. There is no “western” auction house in yet (except Hongkong). Some chinese collectors like to buy through auction houses (Sotheby's, Christie's etc.) in the west. It gives them “security”, i.e. chinese art was bought by the west, it must be good and then they buy it back and bring it back to Asia and they don’t care how much it costs.