Riding the wave of international demand, China’s artists, mostly from Beijing, have been churning out art that is seen by Westerners as typically Chinese. In recent times, Shanghai has emerged as an alternative hub for art that is not dictated by commercial interests.
‘The stunning economic development of Shanghai has led to a really diverse art scene, which you simply don’t find anywhere else.’
New possibilities: From left, A painting from Cao Yuan Ming’s “In a foreign land” Series, Photo courtesy, Cao Yuan Ming and Around Space Gallery;Cao Chun Hui with his portrait of Mao and Fang Min at the Fangcheng Studio. Photos: Ananth Krishnan
In early October, the auction house Sotheby’s held their much-awaited autumn sale in Hong Kong, with the work of some of China’s most in-demand contemporary artists going under the hammer. The artists included Zhang Xiaogang, arguably Chi na’s hottest artist, who rose to fame for his series of family portraits set during the Cultural Revolution — they sold at US$ six million a pop — and Zeng Fanzhi, whose diptych work of eight masked figures fetched US$ 9.7 million at a Christie’s auction last May. Curiously, in last month’s auction, both their works remained unsold. And not only that, around half of Sotheby’s lot had no takers.
October’s auction, for many, marked a significant moment in the story of Chinese contemporary art’s recent resurgence. For the last three years, the world’s art collectors have been in a mad scramble for Chinese art. The contemporary art market in China is now estimated to be the world’s fourth largest — behind the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
But after three years of unprecedented growth, signs are that the Chinese art market is now entering what some say is a long overdue period of re-correction. And interestingly, many gallery owners and artists in China are welcoming this cool-down, hoping it will lead to a move away from what they see as increasingly commercially-driven art.
“We’ve been buying art with our ears, not with our eyes,” says Mingming of Around Space art gallery in Shanghai. “There has been too much of an emphasis on the commercial, and expression has fallen behind. Now is the time for it to catch up.”
The way forward for Chinese contemporary art might now come from an unlikely source — the country’s most unashamedly business-driven and capitalist city, Shanghai. Shanghai, China’s commercial centre, has in recent years developed a thriving underground art scene supported by the city’s new-found prosperity, an art scene fast acquiring a reputation for innovation and independence.
Shanghai’s art has been long ignored in the shadow cast by the more established Beijing artists. While Beijing has traditionally been viewed as China’s cultural centre, with the soaring popularity of Chinese contemporary art in recent years — much of it from Beijing — there is a sense that a focus on the commercial has dulled its creativity. Artists are increasingly painting for Western audiences, sticking to staid themes that Western collectors look for as quintessentially “Chinese”. Portraits of Chairman Mao top the list, as do depictions from the Cultural Revolution.
Shanghai has been far from immune from this trend. A walk through “M50” — Shanghai’s bustling art district located in the city’s northern limits on Moganshan Road — can at first sight be deflating for an art-lover: gallery after gallery of numbingly similar Chinese contemporary, from garish, cartoon-inspired Pop Art to portrait after portrait of the Chairman. But hidden amongst the mediocre are innovative and diverse new artists whose work is giving gallery owners cause for optimism, and also drawing to Shanghai artists from far and wide across China’s hinterland — and even from Beijing.
One of them is Cao Chun Hui from Liaoning province in China’s far north. Cao, along with three other artists who hail from the far corners of China, paints at the Fangcheng art studio, tucked away in a quiet corner of M50. Cao has been attracting attention for his latest series, which is an ironic take on what he describes as the “commodification” of art and the image of Mao (his paintings superimpose a bar-code on portraits of a young Chairman Mao). Cao’s paintings have more than doubled in value in the last year, and now sell at between 50,000 and 75,000 Yuan (between Rs. 3.5 and Rs. 5.25 lakh).
“The good thing about Shanghai’s art scene is that the subject of art is very broad here,” says Cao. “Every artist has his own idea. The city absorbs different cultures more, and has an individuality that is unique. In Beijing, with one artist’s success, the others are usually quick to follow his example, so you get a lot of imitation.”
Artist Fang Min opened the Fangcheng studio in 2005, just when the world was beginning to sit up and take notice of Chinese contemporary art. Fang already had a studio in Beijing’s famous Factory 798 art district, but decided to open one in Shanghai after noticing “a different vibe in the city”.
“In Shanghai, business has always driven everything,” Fang says. “But what we have seen is, the stunning economic development of the city has led to a really diverse art scene, which you simply don’t find anywhere else.”
In his popular “Life” series (the paintings are now selling at 100,000 Yuan, or Rs. 7 lakh each), Fang depicts Buddhist monks with insects crawling on their faces, up their noses, on their eyes and into their mouths. “My paintings are about living together in harmony and a spirit of tolerance,” Fang says. “A message modern Chinese could use.”
The success of Fang’s studio and the variety of its work reflect the vibrancy of Shanghai’s art scene, which was on full display during the recently concluded art season. September and October are typically the hottest months for Shanghai’s art scene, with a number of shows and gallery openings held to coincide with the Shanghai Biennale. This year’s Biennale was themed “Translocalmotion”, looking at the city’s much-celebrated urban development through the eyes of some of the more disadvantaged sections of society. Many of the works on offer admittedly did not live up to the promise of what was an unusually provocative theme, but the Biennale gave gallery owners enough reason to hold on to their optimism.
New media art installations in particular drew rave reviews — a line of art the city is fast getting an excellent reputation for. (One of the more memorable exhibits at the Biennale featured a camera trained on the faces of people at work at some of the more mundane professions in the city. One installation followed the expressions of a street beggar through a day in his life, as he approached — and more often than not got rejected by — passersby on a busy Shanghai street.)
“New media is a relatively new trend,” says gallery owner Mingming. “But the technique here is very high. We are seeing a lot of creativity, though it is still not marketable enough for local collectors. But I definitely would like to introduce more new media installations, though it is still a commercial risk.”
Original use of media
Mingming’s Around Space Gallery last month featured the excellent work of artist Cao Yuan Ming. Cao’s exhibition, titled “In a Foreign Land”, showcased the lives of Christian communities in rural China, the persecution they face and their struggle for acceptance. Cao’s art is an example of the originality of Shanghai’s artists when it comes to the use of media: the exhibition included a collection of paintings and photographs, and also an artistically shot video that featured interviews that brought to life the subjects of his paintings.
Cao’s exhibition was also revealing in a more significant way. Even five years ago, artists and galleries featuring so sensitive a subject would have come under severe censure from the government. But gallery owners are finding that the local government in Shanghai is increasingly realising the economic value of this thriving industry, so are more willing to ease restrictions.
“With the recent success of Shanghai artists, the government is beginning to look at as art as a business,” says Karen Hung, of the Shanghai contemporary art gallery White Factory. “Now there is much more acceptance, and a lot less censorship, which bodes well for this city’s art scene.”
6 months ago