Impressions of the Contemporary Chinese Art Scene
James F. Paradise travels to Shanghai and Beijing and finds signs of a Chinese artistic renaissance.
Published: Friday, October 19, 2007
"One of the hottest commodities in the market," is a description of Asian art I heard on a recent trip to China.
After attending two major art exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing (and hearing about many others in China and around the world), visiting numerous galleries in the many art districts that have sprouted in China's big cities and reading about the enormous prices that star-quality Asian artists are fetching for their works these days, I came to understand just how vibrant the Asian art scene is -- and the important role that China is having in fueling the Asian art renaissance.
It used to be that Chinese artists were heavily concerned with producing instrumental art for domestic consumption -- the purpose being to advance or solidify the revolution during the Mao years. Now, international collectors are flocking to China to scoop up works by brand-name artists (and maybe some that are not so well-known). And Chinese artists are going abroad to dazzle – or to try to – their overseas audiences. The focus of many Chinese artists may still be on Chinese concerns, but there is now more of an interest in dealing with broader issues such as global warming. An example of this is a recent exhibition staged at Art Scene Warehouse in Shanghai entitled "Warning Visions: Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Artists on Global Warming."
As a press release from the fair put it, "The social liberalization underway in large sections of Asia today has given rise to very active and exciting art scenes throughout its continent…. These new art scenes, in combination with the explosive growth among the wealthy local upper and middle classes, produce new collectors and new demands. Furthermore, countries like China or India are establishing their own scenes where global taste is being forged."
I have to say I found the fair exhilarating. First, I was amazed that there were so many contemporary art lovers in Shanghai (perhaps more a statement about my own insularity than globalizing Shanghai). Secondly, there was a lot of interesting art to see, such as that on display at the many galleries from China, France, Germany, the United States, Japan, Korea, India and many other countries. I was, for example, interested to see work from Zhang Huan, a major experimental artist who moved back to China from New York.
One brand of art I saw was that which took its material from the Cultural Revolution or the Mao years. This art, though possibly still embodying nationalist pride (after all, Mao is still seventy percent right), seemed more playful than political, a new artistic chic that appealed to certain buyers. In some cases, though, I could not help but think that the paintings or sculptures I saw were poking gentle fun of the great Chairman. Thus, there were fat Maos, overly-gleeful Maos and giant figures who resembled Mao.
In Beijing, I went to another major art fair, this one Art Beijing 2007, which ran from September 20-23 after a VIP day on the 19th. The show was variously described as "the biggest art fair in the capital," "the largest contemporary art exhibit in China" and "the largest-ever art event in China." (One senses some competition with ShContemporary.)
Organized around the theme of "Art Un-Forbidden," the fair had both academic and commercial emphases. Along with discussions on topics such as "Evolution and Development of Contemporary Chinese Art" and "Ideology and Viewpoint of Contemporary Art," one could attend discussions on topics such as "Strategies for Public, Institution and Corporate Collections" and "The Approach to Being a Professional Collector" when one was not viewing the art works on display from over 100 galleries. The exhibition focused on contemporary art in both China and the broader Asia region. On the first day, there was a performance by Japanese audio-visual artist Ryoji Ikeda.
Shortly before I left Beijing, another art contemporary art festival started, the Beijing Dandgai International Art Festival, formerly known as the Dashanzi International Art Festival. Interesting about this art festival, which ran from September 22 to October 14, is that it had no epicenter. Or rather, it had many epicenters which were found at different locations around Beijing. For a city that is still pretty button-down in some ways, the transformation of Beijing into one of the world's art capitals -- and it is becoming this if it is not already -- is truly remarkable.
Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, other art events were happening. In Changsha, the Hunan Provincial Museum had the "first large-scale exhibition of contemporary Chinese art" to be held in the city from September 15 to October 15, according to Beijing This Month. Around the world, there have also been stagings of contemporary Chinese or Asian art, or ones that are planned. Three examples are: a retrospective of Zhang Huan's work at the Asia Society Museum in New York, from September 6 of this year to January 20 of next year; a show by 12 Chinese video artists -- entitled "Chinese Video: Chord Changes in the Megalopolis" -- at the Morono Kiang Gallery in Los Angeles from September 13 to November 17; and Asian Contemporary Art Fair, New York, scheduled for November 8-12 of this year at Pier 92.
One genre of Chinese art that I especially like is Chinese realist painting. Asian Art City, another magazine that charts the Asian art scene, said in its Summer & Autumn 2006 issue that these paintings, many of them gorgeous, were starting to attract attention outside China. Painters of this genre, who often do portraits, include Wang Yi Dong, Li Gui Jun and Zhang Yibo.
A great deal of interest in Asian art is coming from Western collectors. But people also told me that Asian buyers are also scooping up Asian art works.
The globalization of the Asian art scene, especially the Chinese art scene, may be one of the most exciting developments on the world cultural scene for some time. One wonders if cultural power is gradually shifting from the West to the East. Judging from some of the art work on display in China today, or outside of China, one can at least say that some of the art is of very high quality, and that China, after years of isolation, is making a greater contribution to world culture and helping transform the world as it transforms itself.