Chinese art moves beyond Western fancy

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-15 0:33:01

On the night of October 30, the National Arts Club in downtown Manhattan was full of well-dressed people, Chinese and Westerners, diplomats, business moguls, visiting artists. But more importantly, it was full of art.

The prestigious club was hosting an exhibition called "Ink, Chinese Dream" that featured more than 30 ink paintings by 15 contemporary Chinese artists.

The exhibition of modern versions of a traditional Chinese art form was apparently part of the efforts of the Chinese government to develop China's soft power. It was organized by Chinese entities, accompanied by a display of short films featuring the artists on a screen at Times Square, and unveiled by Chinese Consul General Sun Guoxiang in New York.

But political motivations aside, this exhibition fit well with the rising wave of contemporary Chinese ink art on the international stage.

Modern ink artists like Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian have long been fixtures of exhibitions and auctions in China and abroad. But until recent years, few people interested in contemporary Chinese art paid attention to ink paintings by living artists.

Things have changed quickly. In 2010, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston held "Fresh Ink," an exhibition of works by 10 contemporary Chinese artists.

Last year, the British Museum showed 40 Chinese ink works of modern and contemporary artists.

Next month, the Metropolitan Museum in New York will unveil its "Ink Art: The Past as Present in Contemporary China," to showcase works from 35 artists.

Meanwhile, many US museums are putting contemporary Chinese ink works in their collections. Contemporary ink art is still foreign to many Westerners. But the pickup in interest may represent a major shift in the art field.

The transformation of contemporary Chinese art from a wall flower on the international market to a focus of attention has taken less than 10 years.

In March 2006, New York Sotheby's launched its first contemporary Chinese art auction. The sales totaled $13 million, twice the highest estimate. And a work by Zhang Xiaogang was sold for $980,000, the first time any Chinese artists alive got near the million dollar benchmark.

In the following two years, the price index of contemporary Chinese art jumped fivefold. Yet this was very much a Western phenomenon. The buyers and sellers of such works were almost all Westerners.

Many of the Chinese artists responded to the market incentives by choosing to stick to the styles their Western audience sought. This produced a vast volume of oil paintings, many of which mock Maoist iconography. And many of the paintings were little more than copycats.

As a result, "the so-called 'China Shows' that introduced the first generation of Chinese artists to New York have come and gone, leaving even a decade later an aftertaste of gaudy, symbolic, often derivative work," as Philip Tinari, director of The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, pointed out recently.

If the 2008 financial crisis had any silver lining, it was the bursting of some bubbles in the art market. Institutional investors and individual speculators in the West all started to grip their pocket books harder. The art market quickly cooled down.

At the same time, Chinese are increasingly active in the art market.

Take Sotheby's and Christie's. A few years ago, 80 percent of their buyers of contemporary Chinese art were Westerners. By the beginning of 2009, almost 70 percent of buyers in this category were Asian.

A decade ago, the sales of the Hong Kong branches of Christie's and Sotheby's only contributed 2 percent and 0.1 percent in the global sales of the two auction giants respectively. This year the portions increased to 13 percent and 16 percent.

This is accompanied by the rise in interest in contemporary ink paintings, where collectors are mainly Chinese now with some Western investors starting to jump in.

In the spring auction this year, Hong Kong Christie's held its first private sale of contemporary Chinese ink works. In September, Christie's first auction in Chinese mainland included this segment again.

Last month, the first contemporary Chinese ink sale at Hong Kong Sotheby's brought in HK$25.4 million ($3.28 million), four times the initial estimate.

In today's world, art is inseparable from the economic power that drives it. But as the Chinese collectors start to shape the market of their own art, that's a sign of the arrival of a new era.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus