Spreading the word

At first glance it looks like a small photo of a fish with its guts spilling out to reveal its pink, hollow insides. Click on it and the enlarged image is clearly a painting - the detail and colour lovingly recreated.

It's the work of 35-year-old artist Yang Jinsong from Chongqing, a lecturer at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, who says fish are a familiar theme in traditional Chinese painting, but are nearly always rendered alive. 'So these flayed fish are closer in imagery to still life paintings that are meant to symbolise memento mori, or memories of death,' Yang says.

The website hosting Yang's work, and that of 30,000 other artists from around the world, has an average of 11 million hits a day. And if it wasn't for British art impresario Charles Saatchi - the man behind the Brit Art phenomenon of the early 1990s and who set up the website in question ( www.saatchi-gallery. - Yang might never have had the chance to showcase his work so widely.

Another mainland artist on the site is Wu Zhi, who now lives and works in Amsterdam. Her featured work includes vibrant and colourful pastel drawings of dinner parties, a billiards game and a picnic.

Neeraj Rattu, head of IT at the Saatchi Gallery, had the job of implementing the new site. He says it's one of the largest interactive art galleries in the world. Late last month, in response to requests from Putonghua-speaking artists, a new Chinese-language version went live.

'People from China were saying how much they loved art, but couldn't speak English, and they really wanted to be part of this artistic community,' Rattu says. 'So we created a Chinese-language site. We wanted to break down language and cultural barriers.'

Rattu is in the process of installing a translation tool so non-Chinese speakers can read details of the mainland artists exhibiting.

Saatchi himself, while browsing the site, noticed a number of Chinese artists were posting their work, but couldn't communicate in English. So the idea of a Chinese-language site was born. 'There are so many artists in China who want their work to be seen,' Saatchi said recently. 'And these students, like all the others, want to know what's going on around the world.'

Rattu's team says there are thousands of unrepresented young artists in China - artists without galleries in which to show their work - and that the website will go some way to redressing this.

The development comes as sales of contemporary Chinese art soar. Saatchi bought a piece by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang at Christie's in London for US$1.5 million, and a work by the same artist titled Tiananmen Square fetched a record US$2.3 million at Christie's in Hong Kong. According to one auction site, 16 works by Zhang have sold for US$500,000 during the past couple of years. Last year, Sotheby's and Christie's sold US$190 million worth of mostly contemporary Chinese art.

Saatchi has said his interest in promoting Chinese art on his website isn't commercial. He has set up the site purely to give them a platform to showcase their work, for collectors to get in touch with them and for the artists to communicate with each other via a chatroom.

One potential hurdle is censorship. When certain Chinese government-listed keywords are entered into the Google search engine, for example, certain proscribed pages simply won't appear. So will Saatchi's new project stumble at a hurdle now known as the Great Firewall of China?

So far no artworks have been listed and Rattu says he doesn't think it will be a problem.

Saatchi Gallery spokeswoman Annabel Fallon says she doesn't expect the site to become a platform for anti-government propaganda, and told one newspaper that it 'aimed to be respectful to the wishes of the host nation if our site starts being abused'.

But this could set a dangerous precedent. Great art is often created as a reaction to governments or as a form of protest. Picasso's Guernica, for example, was inspired by the Nazi bombing of the Spanish city. US painter Susan Crile's recent work reflected images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison after her country's invasion of Iraq.

Another element of the Saatchi Gallery website is known as Stuart, which stands for Student Art. This gives student artists a virtual space to showcase their work - and it too has registered several million hits. 'They can create their own student art community online,' says Rattu. 'No other site gives that exclusivity.'

So far, seven artists from Hong Kong have registered on Stuart. Cheng Wing-yan, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, describes herself as 'an arts student who loves new Chinese ink painting, installation, experimental theatre and contemporary literature'. She has posted an abstract painting made in 2004 titled The Sun of Man.

Ma Ka-fai says he's a self-taught Hong Kong artist who's 'obsessed' with watercolor paintings. For Ma, the artistic seed was sown at SWCS Chan Pak Sha School, where he won numerous awards in art competitions. 'As Hong Kong education only focuses on academic studies rather than fine arts, together with my parents' insistence on being practical when choosing a career, I eventually quit painting after leaving school,' Ma says.

He studied computer science and undertook voluntary work for a few years, before his passion for the arts took over. 'I should have done it 10 years earlier,' he says. 'I made this critical decision because of Paul Klee. His artworks rekindled my interest and desire to paint. Now I do intensive art-related research in one of the local universities which inspires my watercolours. My life pursuing art resembles a hiker getting lost in the hills but never giving up the drive to get back on the right track.'

Ma heard about the Saatchi Gallery website through an artist friend in Spain and signed up in January. He says it's too early to say what effect it has had on his artistic career, but 'some artists did drop me a line in my guestbook with good responses. I'm convinced that this site acts as a great bridge to draw traffic and attention.'

Hong Kong website allows local artists to upload their work, but although it has pictures it doesn't work as a 'talking shop' in the way the Saatchi site does.

Cheng Wing-yan studied Chinese language, literature and fine arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is doing an internship in theatre arts at Richmond University in London. 'I read an article in a newspaper about the website,' Cheng says. 'So I registered the same night. As I didn't have many pictures of my art work with me when I left Hong Kong to London, I just posted one.

'The website is a great reminder that I shouldn't abandon my interest in the arts because many other art lovers are in the same situation as me. We can support each other on the road to learning about the arts and I hope the site will make everybody discuss and share ideas, and ensure our work reacts to society and to the world.'