Chinese contemporary art boom amid market shift

Chinese contemporary art boom amid market shift

(Image: Flickr – IslesPunkFan)

On December 11th 2013, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art set a milestone in the history of Chinese contemporary art by unveiling its very first exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, an exhibition titled Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, featuring 70 artworks from 35 Chinese artists. Several of these artists, including Fang Lijun, Xu Bing, and Zhang Huan, are big names who have been repeatedly reviewed by international art critics, reported on by international media, and studied by hundreds if not thousands of students and their professors, both in and outside of China.

Such a significant survey of Chinese contemporary art is not a coincidence. Although Chinese contemporary art experienced a decline during the 2007-08 economic recession, the industry is now experiencing a boost in the global art market. However, experts and audience are often still baffled when asked to explain what Chinese contemporary art really is. The ever-lasting argument over the definition and implications of Chinese contemporary art among art critics and art historians has not stopped the world’s top auction houses from marching forward to ace their price tags. Chinese contemporary artworks are high-end commodities, which brought a third of the world’s art auction market turnover between July 2012 and June 2013, according to the Contemporary Art Market Annual Report published by Artprice, a leading contemporary art information service.

After years of exploring the Western art market and being an active member of it, Chinese contemporary art now is seeing a growing interest at home. In a Forbes article titled ‘Watch Out: Chinese Contemporary Art is Going Global’, Alexandre Errera, an expert in Chinese contemporary art showed confidence in China’s domestic art market development. He said: “China is back as the no.1 market in the world for contemporary art sales, and Sotheby’s and Christies have started to operate in Mainland China.”  This is certainly great news for those established and well-known artists.

But how is the booming market affecting the majority of Chinese contemporary artists, who are still struggling (both mentally and politically), shadowed and finding it difficult to make a living in China? Since the title of ‘artist’ is used loosely, it is very hard to say how many contemporary artists there are in China and overseas. But the number of Chinese contemporary artists is clearly growing. However, by looking at the international art auction market and major exhibitions in the US and Europe, and seeing only familiar names repeatedly showing up, one can tell that those who have successfully sustained their art careers – and live off their art – only take up a small fraction. A documentary called 5+5 directed by Xu Xing, a representative figure of China’s 1980s Avant-Garde literature, vividly depicted the different conditions experienced by renowned and unknown artists through the eyes of an unlicensed cab driver. One thing is certain: today renowned artists want to maintain their glory and fame, while those struggling are fighting in an attempt to share some of that success.   

News related to Chinese contemporary art mainly focus on its monetary value, and it is certainly inevitable for the public, and probably the artists themselves, to associate an individual artist’s success with the price tagged on his or her work. High monetary income also fits the current Chinese mentality for success. In another Forbes article on Chinese contemporary art, Alexandre Errera quoted that about “40% of the buyers” are coming from the West against “60% from the local market”. The shift in buyers’ place of origin is obvious.

Some Chinese critics argue that Chinese contemporary art is merely ‘a side dish for the Western market, and that Chinese contemporary artists are strongly influenced or even manipulated by the Western world’s likes and dislikes. But maybe this shift of buyers in the auction market will bring a change in Chinese contemporary art.

However, the true face of Chinese contemporary art is still difficult to pin down, thus, it is also hard to predict the fate of those artists who have devoted themselves to their belief in art or their belief in their own success.

In an interview with the Harper’s Bazaar Art Magazine, Ai Weiei once said: “I think that the
majority of the Chinese people, to be more specific, the majority of the Chinese artists are rather apathetic. They only care about how much money their paintings were sold for, rather than paying attention to our entire survival conditions”.

The survival conditions Ai Weiwei mentioned are larger than the arena of Chinese contemporary art. And it might be the case that with more national investment pouring into the domestic art market, Chinese contemporary artists will finally turn their attention from their current international target audience to those who are in China. 

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