Today, the contemporary art world in China, with its commercial galleries, art fairs, private museums, international biennales, foundations and journals, is starting to look like a serious hub on the international circuit. However, as has been much discussed, the whole system barely even existed ten years ago and only really started to take off since 2010. To a certain degree, the recent growth of China’s contemporary art infrastructure is the result of an acceptance of international methods by the new players on the Chinese art scene. While, on the one hand, these developments have undoubtedly resulted in a rise in professionalism, on the other hand, it is perhaps not surprising that the kind of art work being produced, shown and collected is becoming more homogenized with Western standards. The Chinese contemporary art world evolved according to China’s recent political history and, as a result, its commercial and non-profit sides, despite substantial overlap, have not developed in tandem and need to be looked at separately.
The origin myth is by now well known: after decades of cultural isolation under Mao Zedong, Chinese artists during the 1980s looked at the outside world in wonder, amazed and excited at how modern art had developed. They tried to make up for lost time, creating art groups and movements inspired by imported publications and books given by Western friends. A yearning to make avant-garde art was pushed forward on a wave of passionate idealism that swept the country resulting in an explosion of new artists and groups. These included the conceptual artist collective New Measurement Group, based in Beijing, abstract painters such as Chen Zhen, Ding Yi and Yu Youhan in Shanghai, the iconoclastic Xiamen Dada and artists like Xu Bing, who worked Chinese cultural ideas into conceptual constructs. However, their energy did not immediately translate into a domestic market for modern and contemporary art: it took the ideological changes ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for this to begin to develop. Moreover, Chinese artists were mostly unaware of the existence of an art market during the 1980s, and their socialist-hued idealism formed an ideological wedge between art and money.
China’s switch to a more economic-oriented ideology changed Chinese artists’ attitudes towards selling work. By the late 1990s, ‘contemporary art with Chinese characteristics’ had become highly sought after by a generation of speculative and visionary Western collectors and a domestic market had developed around a group of clearly styled and well-branded Chinese painters. (The commercial momentum of this early wave of investor-collectors brought with it a number of manipulative market practices that troubled the Chinese art market for many years to come.) Chinese galleries and collectors slowly developed in strength and depth over the course of the 2000s focusing largely on Chinese contemporary art, while European galleries – mostly concentrated in Beijing – began to open outposts.
While some Chinese collectors took an early interest in international contemporary art it is really since the early 2010s that a new generation of collectors has begun to emerge. Born into wealthy families and often educated abroad, its worldview and experience of life is international. Most regularly visit major museums, galleries and biennales around the world, and understand contemporary art’s role in Western culture. Unlike their parents’ generation, these collectors are less interested in art as an investment than they are in the nuanced, interesting – and glamorous – role that a collector can have in society. For them, the art world is not restricted to Beijing, but includes London and New York, Berlin and Tokyo.
Interestingly, this has had a knock-on effect on a generation of older collectors, some of whom have the financial clout to open large-scale private museums. (These include Shanghai’s Long Museum and YUZ Museum, which have recently hosted major shows by international artists such as Alberto Giacometti and James Turrell.) Such institutions have a formative impact on a nascent art scene. Beijing’s UCCA, founded by the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens, for example, as China’s first significant international contemporary art centre, has fuelled many of the changes under discussion; Uli Sigg’s massive donation to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum in 2012 made his influence present and palpable in China as well. Both the Ullenses and Sigg are European collectors who saw the potential of Chinese art back in the 1980s, creating powerful exemplars for Chinese collectors today.
Since the turn of the decade, the West’s more sophisticated rules of engagement vis-à-vis art as means of post-industrial regeneration (call it the ‘Bilbao effect’) have also been put into practice with great speed and effect. In Shanghai, for example, where the country’s first state-run contemporary art museum opened in a former power station in 2012, local government officials have capitalized on the gentrifying potential of the art sector to drive real-estate development in the West Bund Art District, which has become home to the newest and highest profile contemporary art destinations in China.
The international outlook of this new generation of collectors has, naturally, had an effect on the kind of art being produced by emerging Chinese artists. It seems that the age of ‘contemporary art with Chinese characteristics’ is over for ambitious young artists who have their sights set well beyond China’s borders, in terms of exhibition opportunities and gallery representation. Indeed, the work of many emerging artists shares a broadly ‘post-internet’ aesthetic sensibility with artists from San Francisco to Seoul, rather than engaging with social realities at home. This reflects the global reach of contemporary networked culture and – in spite of Chinese state limitations on internet access – its power to shape perceptions of reality and proximity. On one hand, the formal sophistication achieved by this emerging generation of artists reflects the degree to which cultural borders have shifted for contemporary art in China. On the other hand, it’s perhaps necessary to also ask whether the international art world has become a self-contained reality that closes off artists from broader forms of cultural engagement. While Chinese artists’ international outlooks have expanded, the variety of attitudes and ideas seems to have paradoxically contracted as the tastes of Chinese artists, collectors and institutions converge with those of the international art world.
This convergence is the result of a positive re-engagement with the Western cultural establishment that has stopped seeing China as an exotic novelty, but needs new vitality to inject into its own creative spheres. The current wave of conservative and nationalist political sentiment sweeping the Western world has also given impetus to counteract it using any way possible, and cross-cultural collaboration is one potent tool in this regard. China, via a set of totally different factors, is also facing the most conservative administration since the 1990s, with unknown and worrying consequences for contemporary life and culture. At such a moment, the need for the art world to transcend national borders is urgent. The flow of global capital plays a vital role here: the marketplace, at its best, as ideas exchange. The recent success of Shanghai’s two art fairs – West Bund Art and Design and Art021 – in attracting international blue-chip galleries testifies to China’s strength in this regard. However, curators, writers and the non-profit sector also have a crucial role to play in keeping the conversation vital at both global and local levels. This will be the focus of the second half of this report.