Strokes of genius
The Chinese contemporary market's rise in a short period 'is unbelievable' and an 'incredible story', writes Victoria Burrows
There is a new look to Chinese contemporary art, and it's not the grotesquely smiling faces of Yue Minjun's iconic paintings of the 1990s, nor is it Zhang Xiaogang's eerily silent family portraits from the same period. These paintings took the world by storm in the mid-2000s, making headlines with their record-smashing sales.
Now, Chinese contemporary art is too diverse and multifaceted to be represented by the images of just a few painters, and collectors who were able to make smart investments on a short list of big names are advised to do their homework in a market that is as complex, varied and volatile as any other.
"Before 2005, the market for Chinese contemporary art barely existed; there were few dealers and fewer sales," says Baron Guy Ullens de Schooten, the renowned Switzerland-based philanthropist whose Chinese art collection now has nearly 1,500 works, making it one of the world's largest. "It's an incredible story. The Chinese market is now at the same level as anywhere else. To get to this in eight years is unbelievable."
The story goes that Europeans had increasingly in the 1970s and '80s shown interest in Chinese artists expressing the ordeal of having grown up through a period of political and social turmoil - that great suffering produces great art is one the most enduring Western notions of artistic creation. In the 1990s, the continued opening of China to the rest of the world ignited a craze for Chinese works of art, especially in the United States.
By the mid-2000s, contemporary works by Chinese artists were breaking auction sales records, and Yue Minjun, along with other cynical realists such as Fang Lijun and Liu Wei, plus pop-political artists Wang Guangyi, Yo Youhan and Li Shan, came to signify a new global dominance by Chinese art.
Then the recession hit and the paying of wild prices for contemporary Chinese art by European and American collectors came to an abrupt stop. Now the market is picking up again, with especially the last couple of months seeing some major movement. The difference, however, is that the big sums are now being paid largely by a new breed of Chinese buyers interested in their own artistic heritage.
Zeng Fanzhi's The Last Supper (2001), a piece formerly in Ullens' collection, just set a new record for contemporary Asian art - plus the world auction record for a work by a living Chinese artist - by fetching HK$180.44 million during auction house Sotheby's autumn 2013 Hong Kong sale. The five-day autumn sale totalled HK$4.196 billion, surpassing presale estimates of HK$2.88 billion.
For foreign buyers, there is a shift away from works that are inherently about China's social and political setting, according to Theresa Liang, exhibition director at Long March Space gallery in Beijing. How Chinese contemporary works are now displayed overseas is telling. In the mid- to late-2000s, star curators such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of exhibitions and programmes at Serpentine Gallery in London, co-curated group shows on China. There was, for example, the series of "China Power Station" shows in London, Oslo and Luxembourg, which gave an overview of what was happening in the mainland's contemporary art scene. However, in the last couple of years the focus has changed.
"Curators are no longer doing group China shows. Now, curators - especially in centres such as London and New York - are including Chinese contemporary artists in themed exhibitions, like they would for artists of the West and other countries. Moreover, there are also decisively more solo presentations dedicated to Chinese artists in renowned institutions in the Western art world," Liang says.
"There was a group show on China at London's Hayward Gallery last year, but it was more like a selection of solo shows under the same umbrella, rather than a survey show of the mid-2000s. The focus now is more on the individual artist and what their work is about rather than what China is about. I think this is a healthy development."
Matthew Slotover, director of Frieze Art Fair in London, which took place in October, says he has been surprised by how cutting-edge the market for Chinese contemporary art in Europe is. After fielding requests over the past few years to include more Chinese contemporary art in the Frieze, Slotover says he visited China to find artists and galleries that have a strong curatorial background, as well as market experience.
"We try to support artists who push things forward, rather than repeat works done 10 years before," he says. "Surprisingly, we found a market at the Frieze for the most experimental works. One gallery, Vitamin Creative Space from Guangzhou, showed a performance art piece by Chu Yun of a woman sleeping at the stand every day. We never expected it to sell, but it did."
While some European collectors were scared off Chinese contemporary art by the artworks of Yue Minjun and their prices, there is a growing awareness by collectors who are taking the time to do their research and understand that China has a lively contemporary scene. Liang says she sees three different types of collectors at overseas fairs such as Frieze in London: collectors who don't know anything about Chinese contemporary art or Long March Space but are attracted to one piece of work; collectors who know the gallery but not the artists; and collectors who have been collecting and watching the market, are very knowledgeable and know exactly what they want. Each fair, she says, has a unique personality and attracts different collectors.
Avant-garde Chinese art is especially popular with French collectors, according to Laure Raibaut, senior specialist of the new Modern and Contemporary art department at auction house Bonhams.
"The UK, with its strong trade links with China since colonial times, is more focused on Chinese antiques, especially porcelain and ceramics, but France is very strong on China's contemporary art. Italy, Portugal and Spain are interested in modern and contemporary artists from China."
Ullens - who created the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the first private non-profit cultural institution in China, in 2007 - says the huge number of museums now opening in China, the fact that sales are increasing in all styles of art from monochrome painting to avant-garde performance art, and that the mainland has excellent art schools, are sure signs that the art scene is going to become even more dynamic.