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Impressions of the Contemporary Chinese Art SceneGao Brothers, "Passage of Time #1" (2005)

Impressions of the Contemporary Chinese Art Scene

James F. Paradise travels to Shanghai and Beijing and finds signs of a Chinese artistic renaissance.

By James F. Paradise
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

"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."

Lu Hao, "Flowers" (1999)


On the second full-day of my trip, I went to ShContemporary, a new art exhibition in Shanghai that, on its very first year, billed itself as "the new international top art fair in Asia." Featuring 130 galleries from 23 countries, the fair was attended by more than 25,000 people during its opening on September 5 and on its expo days from September 6-9.  Among the panel discussions was one entitled, "Who's afraid of contemporary Chinese art?"

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.  

Song Dong, "Eating, Drinking, Shitting, Pissing, Sleeping" (1995)


A few days later I went to Moganshan Lu, a street in Shanghai that is home to many art galleries, artist studios, trendy cafes and so on. In one gallery, I found myself talking to an art gallery owner from New York who commented, about the art scene in China in general, that along with the high-quality works, there were also many of not-so-high quality (a comment that perhaps could be made about anywhere and anything). Our conversation took place as we were standing next to -- how should I put this? -- two giant breasts created by an artist who had made a roomful of  such creations. A great deal of nakedness could be seen on the Chinese art scene, what seemed a good example of the kind of "social liberalization" that press release writers might have had in mind. Later, a German woman working in the gallery joined us and said, perhaps apropos of her own gallery, that there was a great deal of kitsch that could be seen on the China art scene, a statement I did not doubt as I toured around China.      

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.

Yang Mao-Lin, "Canonization of the Gods-The Wonderland in Saha World of Maha" (2005-6)


After viewing large numbers of paintings and works in other mediums such as sculpture -- some abstract and some whose meaning was more unmistakable (for example, painted scenes of Abu Ghraib) -- I boarded a free bus at the National Agricultural Exhibition Center, where the exhibition was held, to visit some of the art districts in Beijing. First stop was Jiuchang Art District, the location of an old liquor factory that was developed in 2005 as a location for artist studios and galleries. After that, it was on to Caochangdi, a similar type of place, and finally over to Dashanzi Art District, a SoHo-type place that is probably the mother of all contemporary art districts in Beijing and is also known as 798 Art District. Some reading I did suggested the area is now undergoing gentrification and that tensions are building between Seven Stars Group property management company and some of the tenants. Whatever the outcome -- and it would be a shame if this area's development is dictated solely by commercial considerations -- there are plenty of other art districts that have sprouted in Beijing that can be seen on the map. These include the Huantie Art District, art 1 base and Songzhuang Art Village.  

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. 

Tsuyoshi Ozawa, "Vegetable Weapon: Beef hot pot/Taipei" (2005)


With all the exhibitions of contemporary or modern Asian art going on now, and with the world seemingly having fallen in love with art from Asia (or at least seeing it as a good investment), prices of some Asian art works have been driven sky high.  In its September edition, London-based newspaper Asian Art reported on its front page that sales of two categories of art -- The 20th Century Chinese Art and Asian Contemporary Chinese Art -- amounted to more than HK$609 million (US$79.17 million) at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in May: "the highest combined total of these categories ever achieved anywhere." It noted that the auction prices for the works of a number of Chinese artists (for example, Zao Wou-Ki and Yue Minjun) had reached record levels. 

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.


Asia Pacific Arts