On September 27, 1979, a group of some 20 young artists in Beijing, many students from the city’s prestigious Central Academy Fine Art, challenged the official stranglehold of art in China. Denied official exhibition space in the China Art Gallery, they instead hung their paintings and sculptures on the railings outside. Unsurprisingly, the works were quickly removed by police and the following day the exhibition was officially declared illegal. Within five years, most members of the group – collectively known as The Stars – had left China for Europe or the United States, in many cases for good.
How the times have changed. At the official China pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale, the art world’s biggest bi-annual jamboree, all attention was focused on the conceptual sculptor, Ai Weiwei, one of the founding members of The Stars. While in August, at SHContemporary – Shanghai’s first contemporary art fair – the price tag on works by another Stars founder, the sculptor Wang Keping, reached upwards of US$10,000.
For the dissident artists of 20 years ago such a thing could scarcely have been imagined. Soaring auction prices and a blizzard of international press stories have turned former Stars into stars of a new kind, while the well-coiffed mix of collectors in Shanghai could be mistaken for any smart arty crowd in New York, London or Paris. Today, art in China is big business and one that is getting bigger by the day.
For Beijing, too, hungry for positive spin ahead of the 2008 Olympics, contemporary art is not the beast it once was. The city held its own art fair in September, ArtBeijing, including more than 100 foreign and local galleries, while interest from the Guggenheim and Pompidou museums to set up regional spaces has ensured that art remains high on the priority list.
Nowhere is this transformation better seen than at Dashanzi art district, or 798, as it is better known – an eclectic mix of galleries, studios and cafés in the northeast of the city.
First constructed in the 50s, the site was originally a highly-secret, military production complex, but closure in 80s and the loss of more than 10,000 jobs heralded the end of an era. In 2000, Robert Bernell, founder of Hong Kong-registered Timezone8 Art Books, was one of the first to take advantage of its abandoned spaces.
News quickly spread in Beijing’s then tiny art community and it wasn’t long before artists, followed by commercial galleries, began to move in, attracted not only by the pictures but also by the site’s modernist styling – a legacy of Dashanzi’s East German architects. “It all happened very organically and so fast that I don’t think anyone realised until the landlord woke up one day and found that 30 per cent of the property had been populated by artists and galleries,” says Bernell.
In 2003, the Dashanzi International Art Festival was launched and early in 2006, 798’s future was assured when the city announced a four-point action plan to improve roads, utilities and management – a move inspired by its status as one of Beijing’s top five tourist attractions.
Yet, just as 798 has fixed its place in the guide books, so many new galleries have started to look for fresher fields away from the tourist buses and climbing rents. “I don’t think many collectors go there anymore,” says Belgian Fabien Fryns, director of F2 Gallery in the neighbouring district of Caochangdi. “It’s more like a tourist attraction now.” Instead, Fryns says some of the more interesting developments are taking place in the 798’s growing satellite districts, which now are host to a broad mix of international galleries.
Besides Caochangdi, further private developments have taken place at the nearby neighbourhoods of Jiuchang, Feijiacun and Saojiacun, where another 10 new museums are planned for the coming years.
This rapid influx is fuelled by an astonishing surge in interest among foreign collectors and a growing group of home-grown enthusiasts from the country’s emerging middle class. Particularly popular are the so-called ‘political pop’ artists such as Wang Guanyi, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yue Mingjun, whose paintings of identical, manically grinning figures are now as well known in China as an Andy Warhol soup can.
But it is not only such big hitters that are making all the headway. The drive to find the next big thing has ensured that demand is now beginning to outstrip supply. “I’ve already heard of several mega western collectors coming to Beijing to pick up an instant art collection, but I think there’s not much here for them to buy. Almost none of the artists have anything for sale and most have a waiting list. Some don’t even add people to their list anymore because they’re looking three to five years down the road,” says Fryns. Such enthusiasm reached a crescendo earlier last month, in September, at Sotheby’s in New York when Zhang Xiaogang’s Chapter of a New Century – Birth of the People’s Republic of China fetched US$3,065,000, a record for the artist. The price puts Zhang in the company of only a handful of other living artists, including Damien Hurst and Jeff Koons, whose works have sold at auction for US$2 million or more. It was a clear response to all those predicting that China’s bubbly art world was about to lose its fizz.
“I think everybody has confidence in the future of China, the economy is stable and that’s one of the most important reasons for this strong growth,” says Evelyn Lin, a specialist in contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby’s. “We’re seeing a lot more collectors from mainland China. They’re young, 35-45-year-olds, have an overseas education, and returned to China in the early 90s. The language, the images and the prices make this suitable work for them to collect.” According to Lin, this group is becoming increasingly active as local works start to be seen as a sound investment, a fact born out by packed salesrooms in New York and Hong Kong and the presence of buyers from the Middle East and India, as well as Europe, North America, China and elsewhere in Asia.
But, such exuberance is not shared by everyone. Frank Uytterhaegen is the business director of the China Art Archives & Warehouse, a non-profit research and exhibition resource based in Caochangdi and one of Beijing’s contemporary art pioneers.
“It is all about the hype,” says Uytterhaegen, who has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years and began collecting in the early 90s. “This has nothing to do with creation or social critique. If you make some money doing it, that’s fine, so long as it’s in a reasonable way. But, I don’t think it’s the serious collectors who are paying these huge amounts of money – it’s more likely to be investors. A good collector will buy works to keep, not to buy today and then sell tomorrow.”
Within China’s art community, too, a subtle change can be detected as young artists turn away from the political themes that have come to define the look of new Chinese art.
For many of these, born in the 80s, hard-sell advertising and designer labels are a part of the wallpaper rather than a rude intrusion. Greater access to foreign media channels via the internet and TV also mean they are far more in tune with international trends than the preceding generation who were schooled in the techniques and ideas of socialist realism. Rather than pandering to western stereotypes, these new media-savvy creatives have instead shifted the focus towards emerging urban culture in the big cities.
Video maker and photographer, Cao Fei, 29, is widely seen as a leader of this movement. Her witty images blend Asian and western pop references and have already been included in exhibitions at the Guggenheim and the Tate Gallery, in the UK. Others, such as the photographer Lin Zhipeng, 29, and video maker Song Tao, 28, use punk aesthetics to frankly explore ideas of urban alienation and sexual identity. By comparison, paintings by some of China’s new masters seem pedestrian and even rather quaint.
Moreover, by using the sorts of digital technology that was unavailable only 10 years before, it is no longer necessary to hang works on park railings when a blog or a website offers a potential audience in the millions.
For China watchers, the post-Olympic years will be an important test for the longevity of the contemporary Chinese art. There can be little doubt that the current hysteria will not go on forever. Yet, whichever way the market plays out, the ground is already prepared for a new generation of uncompromising young artists whose idea of creative freedom is radically different from anything that has gone before. Perhaps in this way they can truly be said to be China’s new Stars.