Chinese art is immensely popular. In only a few years, a market has arisen in Beijing and Shanghai that doubles in size every few years. One artist after the other is making a fortune, buying a luxury car and moving into an upscale neighbourhood. While scores of exhibitions of Chinese art are opening in the West in anticipation of the Olympic Games, METROPOLIS M sent the following provocation to four critics, curators and artists: Is the art market killing all creativity in Chinese art?
Huang Du – curator Beijing Today Art Museum
I have heard from friends me that they are not very enthusiastic about the exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art that are being shown in the Netherlands and Europe. Based on my own experience, recently, I also feel that contemporary art exhibitions held outside China seldom touch on cultural, social and art issues. The fact remains that very few people engage in serious criticism about contemporary Chinese art. The core of the problem is that many of the Chinese curators who are responsible for these exhibitions are still limited in artistic judgment and selection. They lack professional curatorial experience and the corresponding knowledge of philosophy, cultural history and art history. A curator is not only judged by his or her independent views on the general state of society, its politics, economy and culture, but also by an ability to grasp the changes in art at both a macro and micro level. Seldom do we find curators in China who are capable of this.
What I want to point out specifically is that there are no independent curatorial departments in Chinese museums. Museums such as the National Art Museum and the Shanghai Art Museum are both bureaucratic and conservative. They often rent out the exhibition space and can only organise a handful of international exchange exhibitions that are designated by the government, thereby ignoring almost entirely the current situation of contemporary Chinese art. In the meantime, the authoritative influence of the museum has been weakened by the birth of a strong commercial art circuit (gallery, collection, auction, art fair, art foundation) that does know how to connect up with contemporary art. Undoubtedly, the Chinese and international galleries now thronging in Beijing and Shanghai have begun to take the place of art museums. They play an active role in promoting art, organising contemporary Chinese art exhibitions from various angles. Slowly but surely, Chinese culture and art is entering an age of diversity.
With the development of urban centres and the increase of property and other investments, more and more official and private art galleries will be established in China. They say that there will be 2000 new art galleries in the coming years. However, the problem does not lie in the number of art galleries to be built, but whether the Chinese art gallery system is ready to groom professional staff. Without that, an art gallery remains just a nice-looking building without any good exhibitions. The question posed by METROPOLIS M of whether the art market destroys all of the creativity in Chinese art is both a pertinent and debatable issue. There is reason for concern, as the many discourses here in China and abroad attest.
The sudden popularity of contemporary Chinese art since 2005 is fully attributable to the stable development of the Chinese and global economy, which logically feeds the confidence of investors. I agree with the article entitled ‘Tigers jump into the frame’ in London’s Financial Times (December 23, 2006) when it says: ‘Chinese and Indian artists and collectors are revolutionizing the contemporary art market’, suggesting that the art market can be seen as a kind of barometer for developments in the economy as a whole. Although economic growth is under pressure as a result of the international credit crisis, the growth of the art market continues.
The discussion about the relationship between commerce and art is not only valid for China. It also applies to Europe and America. The pivotal difference lies in the fact that in Europe and America there are also art foundations, independent art critics and free media – structural instruments China is in need of. When support from these elements is lacking, art can easily lose a quality of independence and freedom and subsequently the monitoring of its ‘value’. In my opinion, Western contemporary art circles hold on to serious academic principles and maintain an independent critical stance; that is to say, the tradition of value negotiation has been carried on inside the world of Western art. In great contrast, the commercial prosperity in China drives people into the worship of material culture – everybody is full of inexhaustible desires – which has a direct impact on the attitude of art critics and artists. And this phenomenon is reflected by the fact that most Chinese art critics have lost their authority in serious academic criticism and turn into conduits for complimentary comments for the galleries and artists, devoid of independent personality. Therefore, in this sense, currently there is no real art criticism in China.
What's more, nearly all curators have changed their identity. Attracted by the hot art market, they devote themselves to it by opening galleries or art spaces or working for other people’s galleries to earn money. This attitude will definitely affect their ability to judge artworks and lower or even destroy their artistic ideals, as well as their sympathy for experiment and revolution, resulting in utilitarian exhibitions catering to commercial tastes. In another words, they only care about the profit in the short run. Such high regard for and worship of money is most obvious among those artists very concerned about auctions, as though prices attained there were the ultimate platform on which to base their ranking. To these artists, the function of the auction house is much more important than that of critics and academic exhibitions.
In my opinion, the significance of the art market for the creativity of artists is like a coin with two sides. On the one hand, the art market can have a positive impact on artists, which means it improves their economic situation, allowing them to make additional investments and to continue with new artistic experiments and creation. On the other hand, the art market can also have a negative impact. Artists who regard the sales of their artworks as the standard with which to judge their success in art are thus encouraged to succumb to the taste of the market and to duplicate their style and patterns repeatedly for more and more profit in order to enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle. In such a situation, an artist will never progress and therefore will totally lose the experimental spirit of art.
Of course, when talking about the relationship between the market and art, I do not imply that all Chinese artists are slaves to the art market – there are still some artists and a very few curators and critics who insist on maintaining their own opinions and their practice of independent thinking. What I want to make clear is that though I have been critical of contemporary Chinese art, I am being so with the hope of correcting or improving existing problems so that art can be free to develop in its own proper direction.
Wang Jianwei – artist, Beijing
China has continuously refused to conduct a thorough rethinking of the Culture Revolution, both culturally and spiritually, more often just using introspection as ‘misery’ for sale. Our admiration for collective movements has put us deeply in the syndrome of ‘collective unconsciousness’. Since May 4, 1919 [the beginning of Mao’s revolution, ed.], Chinese history has been characterized by different ideological movements. I would like to understand the current Chinese social situation, in which ‘market logic + entertainment’ sets the tone, as the result of the new ideology. It is a combination of the logic of traditional ideology on the one hand and the desire for consumption and entertainment on the other. This all comes together in a dangerous mix, in a situation where we are losing the ability to question and criticize things. Meanwhile, the entire educational and media system refuses to accommodate the indeterminate. We are creating a ‘scenery society’ that completely denies the productive notion of a ‘possibility’– a terra incognita – between culture, knowledge and the public. In a society with no ‘possibilities’, creativity can only degenerate into a form of impudence and imitative techniques.
Hu Fang – curator of Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou; co-curator of the Yokohama Biennial
Recently Hans Ulrich Obrist sent me an SMS message after he had interviewed Chinese artists in Beijing Pavilion, a programme produced by Vitamin Creative Space that focuses on generating discourses within the Chinese context. ‘Fgt said revolution is waste of energy, infiltration better?’ he wrote. I think ‘the end of revolution’ does not mean that there can be no more revolutionary developments per se, but rather that we urgently need new perspectives to respond to the challenge of social transformation. There is a lot of concern about how to create a difference within the system in a more intelligent way, in order to sustain and stimulate artistic practices. In China, conceptual experiments from artistic communities seem to be disappearing, but in the meantime, there is an increasing growth of individual projects by artists who are strongly aware of urgent global issues. And the amazing thing today is that any mode of spatial production will bring about a new mode of economics, which means that art, as parasite, never escapes from this environment.
Nevertheless, if you accept this fact or even take it as your starting point, the power of artistic creation can lie in an artist’s capability of shifting domains and continually churning out ‘suspended spaces’ within the system. Examples of artists who do this well are Cao Fei's RMB City, Zheng Guogu's Empire and Yang Fudong's Library Project.
Empire is Zheng Guogu's long-term land project, started in 2004, for which he bought nearly 20,000 square meters of land in the suburbs of Yangjiang, his hometown and working base, where he began construction of The Age of Empire, which transforms a computer game into his own small utopia in reality. Library is Yang Fudong's lengthy project targeted for completion in ten to fifteen years, which will include 22 films. ‘All the films will more or less talk about a latent topic: that is, whether there is spiritual life in this world; and this may require ten years or more to grasp.’ Cao Fei's RMB City creates a virtual social structure for an ideal society within Second Life. She is inviting people from various intellectual disciplines to enrich the programmes and events that take place in this city. Through this strategy, the artist creates a new model for social communications and stimulates unique human experiences within that framework. We all agree it's a challenging moment, but it's not the first time the market embraces art and it's also not the end of history. As Jérôme Bel says, ‘The show must go on’, just as life goes on and creativity, in the sense of individual energy, goes on too.
Gu Zhenqing – freelance curator, Shanghai. Founder of the magazine for contemporary art Visual Production
The high prices of Chinese contemporary artworks in the auctions in New York, Hong Kong and London are sometimes compared to the old cry of ‘Wolf!’ This refers to an old Chinese allegory about a shepherd who, bored with life, started crying ‘Help! Help! The wolf is coming!’ in order to stir things up in the nearby village. Every time he cried out, the people rushed up the mountain with their tools, whereupon he doubled up with laughter. This made the people angry. Then one day the wolf really came, the people no longer ran to help him, and the wolf killed all his sheep. The comparison people make is this: even though the market bubble feels like a comfortable ‘bubble bath’, for us in China it feels like things are getting out of control under the high pressure of the market. The changes it is bringing about are huge: increasingly it is the power of curators and current exhibition concepts that influences or even decides the production of art. Some artists resist this; only a few know how to use it to their own advantage in a creative manner.
Because professional art biennials and art fairs have been successfully organized in Shanghai, it is the ideal place for an artist to promote his work as a ‘brand’. The city breeds confidence. The simple fact that so many top European and American curators, brokers and collectors come to Shanghai in search of opportunities somehow makes people believe that the date when the city becomes the Asian contemporary art centre is not far off. But no matter how original the exhibition concepts, it is still a big question whether this foreign transplant will have any real impact on the Chinese art world.
Art is also big business in Beijing right now, a bull market that is attracting a huge amount of foreign investment and leading to rapid commercial exploitation of the periphery of the city along the road to the airport. Galleries, art centres and studios have rushed there to grab a space, with the idea that the art market will expand and inflate like a big cake in the coming years. And galleries from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also joining in to earn ‘quick money’, even though they know from experience that a period of prosperity is always followed by a period of adversity sooner or later. In fact, with its emphasis on the importance of the market economy, the government is not opposed to this. Yet with the cake growing bigger and more players coming in, there is no sign that art production and circulation is actually improving. All in all, the brilliance of the market is not exactly the best way of compensating for the death of the artistic spirit.
This year some Japanese and Korean curators commented that contemporary Chinese art can be the leader in Asia. But is it qualified? What can it rely on? Market power? Or academic strength? To create professional art works and exhibitions of museum standard is not easy. To guarantee that level, art should surpass the material world. More attention should be placed on quality in the production and exhibition systems, which must not be completely dependent on the established order. Contemporary Chinese art’s position in the art market seems to have been outlined in the foam, whereas its academic status is yet to be established. If these two elements develop separately, they would both face endangerment. Luckily, there are artists who pay little attention to the fame and fortune arena, are independent thinkers and have a voice in the discourse. It is these artists, like Gu Dexin, Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyu, Wang Xingwei and Xie Nanxing, who embody the cultural memory and expectations of a whole era.
Go China! Assen-Groningen
Drents Museum, Assen
Groninger Museum, Groningen
2 February - 11 November 2008
Between the Light and the Dark (Reflections on Chineseness)
Tiong Ang, Ni Haifeng, Wang Jianwei
Canvas International Art
26 January - 8 March 2008