Modern Chinese art to get exposure at a major New York art fair

Contemporary art fair in New York offers American collectors rare chance to get measure of what artists in China are producing today

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:40am

Chinese contemporary art will come under the spotlight of the American art market for the first time in a long while at a major art fair in New York.

Organisers of The Armory Show said the US had a limited understanding of the Chinese contemporary art scene, and that political events and negative media coverage of China had made it even worse.

Seventeen galleries from the mainland and Hong Kong will show works by more than 20 artists and collectives at the New York modern and contemporary art fair's Armory Focus: China. Most of those featured are not the "blue chip" artists whose work appears regularly at auctions.

Noah Horowitz, executive director of The Armory Show, said the art fair began featuring a regional focus section five years ago and had covered Berlin, Latin America, Scandinavia and America. He said there was a growing interest in China and its art market, particularly after leading Swiss fair Art Basel launched its Hong Kong edition last year. But the focus had been mostly on headline-grabbing auction results, he said, and stories such as The New York Times' reports in 2012 on the finances of former premier Wen Jiabao's family had created a negative view of China.

"There isn't tremendous awareness, in a sophisticated way, of the art world [in China]," Horowitz told the Post. "We are trying to show a younger generation of Chinese art and what's happening in China."

"There won't be Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang or Ai Weiwei . It's not just about a few Chinese artists and auction records. There's a whole art world in China. It's still developing, and there's a system in place," said Philip Tinari, the section's curator and the director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

A two-day symposium at the fair will present a big picture of China, covering politics, economics as well as art history and the state of contemporary art in China.

Many artists featured in the Armory show, including Zhao Zhao, He Xiangyu and the Hong Kong-born Nadim Abbas were born after 1980 and use a more conceptual aesthetic language that has grown out of the Cultural Revolution political symbols widely used by established modern Chinese artists, according to Aenon Loo of Hong Kong's Gallery Exit, which is showing Abbas at the fair.

Loo believes works by the new generation of Chinese contemporary artists will appeal to the tastes of American collectors, who appreciate conceptual and visually strong works.

American museums gave little recognition to Chinese art until recently, according to Meg Maggio, director of Pékin Fine Arts, which will present three artists at The Armory Show.

She said that because of the cold war and the Cultural Revolution, America refused to engage with communist China, resulting in a huge gap in cultural understanding.

Twentieth century masters from Wu Guanzhong to Zou Wou-ki are unheard of in America, said Maggio. She said museums in the US only began presenting these Chinese artists in recent years, with, for example, a 2012 exhibition of ink master Fu Baoshi's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Chinese contemporary art was introduced to the US in 1998 at a show called "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" presented by the Asia Society Galleries and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But it took another decade for the Guggenheim Museum to stage Cai Guoqiang's solo exhibition "I Want To Believe" in 2008, sponsored by the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N.Ho Foundation.

Four years later, the gunpowder art master was presented in a solo show called "Sky Ladder" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

The current Metropolitan Museum show is called "Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China", and runs until April 6.

In April, the Brooklyn Museum will stage "Ai Weiwei: According to What?", the artist-activist's first solo show in New York exploring the issues of freedom of expression and human rights. Featured works include S.A.C.R.E.D., the monumental installation detailing Ai's 81-day detention in 2011, which debuted at the Venice Biennale last year.

The market, however, responded more swiftly. Sotheby's held its first New York sale of contemporary Asian art in 2006. Last March, Christie's and Sotheby's sold contemporary and Chinese art, rare bronzes, furniture and antiquities worth US$130 million at their semi-annual Asia week sales, according to Reuters.

The Armory Show, which will take place from March 6-9, will feature more than 200 galleries from 29 countries.