Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Word of Optimism

Let's go back to take a look at what I was talking about in my last posting. I still feel that a bit of caution is necessary in dealing with the Chinese art market, but things are still going well. The Sotheby's auction actually went quite well, and prices stayed quite high. One example, Zhang Xiaogang, saw a single painting from his much sought after Bloodlines series sell for HKD 42 million.

I still see a bubble looming on the horizon, but whatever happens, Chinese art is here to stay. One of the biggest reasons for optimism is that the Chinese themselves are starting to acquire a taste for art. We're starting to see more local collectors, and they're more than just a bunch of successful artists buying each others' works. That's a good sign, as the political situation in the past allowed Chinese contemporary art to explode without causing even a blip on the local cultural radar. Foreign collectors were snapping everything up, and most of the locals were none the wiser. We're even seeing homegrown corporate and institutional investment in art, thought that's still in its infancy. One of the most promising new developments is the arrival of homegrown non-profit art organizations and events, which is absolutely necessary if we're to see a renewal of dialog between artists and the society around them.

The scene in general is slowly growing beyond a simple market organization. Beijing's 798 Art District is now home to two large art centers, the Ullens Center (founded by a big-time European collector) and the Iberia Center (founded by the International Art and Culture Foundation of Spain). Though foreign, these two institutions are more focused on exhibitions, education and outreach than pure sales. In fact, they're not selling, at least not the stuff they exhibit. Overall that's a good thing, but the fact that 798 and a lot of the other art districts are located on the edges of this sprawling city guarantees that the Chinese art scene will remain an insider game for a long time.

opening day at the Iberia Center

I was quite impressed the other day when I attended the Iberia Center's opening exhibition. They've rounded up a lot of talent, leaning towards younger, more adventurous curators and organizers. Another good sign is their film center, which will house a media archive, studio and screening room for independent documentary film. To make this happen, they've tapped Zhang Yaxuan, who is definitely one of the most knowledgeable and active figures on the scene. I met her a long time ago at Yunfest, and I'm really glad to see that someone's willing to give her the money and resources she needs to take things to the next level.

There are still a lot of problems with the art scene, and I could make a long, boring list of them (and don't worry, I will keep ranting in the future), but I think they all boil down to a single problem, which is that they've never seen a bubble. Bubbles happen all the time in New York, London and Paris, and eventually people pick up the pieces and wise up a bit. It's a necessary process that weeds out the bad seeds every once in a while. But the more I look into it, the more I'm convinced that this run still has some legs. There are a lot of collectors who are just getting into the market, and a lot who haven't made it out yet. Just as with everything else in China, everyone wants a piece. Hopefully things won't get too out of hand.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Word of Caution

The Chinese art phenomenon continues, and shows no signs of abating despite all of the economic problems. Once relegated to the underground, Chinese contemporary art has hit the mainstream in a big way ever since it began raking in untold billions. At the various gatherings of artists, critics, dealers and hangers-on recently I’ve seen nothing but optimism and enthusiasm, with everyone waiting expectantly for the next big thing to explode on the scene. Sotheby’s and Christies (not to mention Poly, Guardian and a host of new mainland upstarts) are gearing up for ambitious spring offerings, and no one seems phased by the financial meltdown at all.

I don’t see any big surprises happening this season, but I am seeing good reason to be cautious over the coming months. Having just walked away from a speculation bubble in the tea market, I may be a little biased, but more than a few art insiders have been expressing a lot of curiosity about that bubble recently, so maybe we’re on to something.

The first issue is that the market has gotten too big, too fast. Though I think that a good Zhang Xiaogang painting is worth every penny of $1-2 mil, I’m seeing way too many artists in the upper mid-range, selling at tens to hundreds of thousands. I think that Chinese artists are producing some of the best art in the world right now, but I have a little trouble swallowing the idea that hundreds of Chinese artists are going to make it into the world art history books and make their mark on the emerging global aesthetic. The prices now would reflect the expectation that each and every one of those guys will be the next Basquiat.

Much of the buying and selling I’m seeing seems to be focused on potential future value, with artworks treated as financial tools rather than objects of desire. It’s easy to fall in this trap when a work that was sold by a starving artist for a few hundred dollars in the eighties is now hitting the auction block for hundreds of thousands. Puer tea traders fell in the same trap when they saw the ’88 Qing vintage start at thirty cents and top off at 1500. The bottom fell out of that market when everyone realized that there was too much production and speculators outnumbered drinkers by several orders of magnitude.

I could go on and on about this, but to make a long story short, approach Chinese art with caution. If you’re entering into the market strictly to cash in, you’re likely to get burned, sometime soon. Having said that, if you’re in it for the art, a careful approach should reward you with some great stuff for your collection.

A slightly clumsy English version of Zhu Qi’s article is available here

The original article is available on Zhu Qi's Blog

Free as a Bird

It’s a beautiful, kind of sunny spring day as the train rolls its way past the towering apartments of Kowloon on its way to Mainland China. I’ve been in Hong Kong for the past few days sipping free champagne, chomping on finger snacks and looking sideways at little blocks of color, thinking of profound-sounding things to say to impress pretty young women in cocktail dresses.

That’s right, it’s art season. Actually, it’s the feeding frenzy that leads up to the massive Sotheby’s spring auction, which this year is making one of its largest offerings of Chinese contemporary art ever. A long run of record-shattering auction prices for Chinese contemporary has attracted the players from every corner of the industry for a week-long session of art shows, banquets, name card exchanges and mass bar runs. I can’t claim innocence here; I came down specifically to join the cheering section for one of my favorite artists and clients, Ye Yongqing.

Commander Ye, as we call him, is an interesting case. He was extremely important in the conceptual and artistic movements of the eighties, collectively called the ’85 New Wave, and became even more so during the nineties as he travelled the nation and the globe not to promote himself but to promote the development and recognition of Chinese art, and to build links with other budding scenes especially in the Third World.

He was one of the first artists to enlist me in the field of art translation, and he has always been one of my staunchest supporters, nearly singlehandedly responsible for my reputation and client base (I can take at least a little credit in that department).

The funny thing is, I didn’t really become familiar with his art until about a year ago, and though his work is highly respected by fellow artists, he never really took off on the market or in the media until recently. There’s a very simple explanation for that – he’s just too damned busy. It’s surprising he’s had any time at all to develop his creative style what with his job as a professor at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, his founding of one of China’s first bona-fide art communities (Upriver Loft, Kunming) and his dozens of trips around the world to foster intercultural exchange. Yet his artistic style has followed an amazing trajectory, from his early days as a bit of an impressionist and dabbler in cubism, through his graffiti and archaeology inspired conceptual experiments of the nineties to his somewhat abstracted, highly meticulous and meditative works today, his artistic path has stretched farther than many artists half as busy as he.

His work now consists mostly of large birds or giant squiggles scrawled onto roughly treated canvases. From a distance they appear to be composed of broad, carefree strokes, but a closer look reveals that these are works of excruciating labor, made of thousands of tiny “chicken-scratch” strokes with a tiny brush.

The birds and squiggles resemble smaller ones that often featured in his earlier works. He often used birds and cages to play with ideas about freedom and confinement, and his own life is best described as migratory, which also helps explain the fascination. The squiggles are a bit less clear, but he’s always been playing with graffiti and scribble effects.

The term that pops to mind when trying to describe his recent works is “meditations”. To him, painting seems to have become a meditative exercise, and the resulting images the embodiment of the mental state he reaches. In this way, he shares as much in common with the traditional Chinese painters of old as he does with his peers in contemporary art.

But I’m not a critic, I’m a party crasher, and my skills in that department were put to great use this week. The main event was the most comprehensive Ye Yongqing retrospective ever held. It was organized by Anna Ning a young, up and coming dealer in Hong Kong, but it drew from many collectors and galleries to bring out pieces from almost every important stage in his development. Call me a cynic, but I have a feeling that this cooperative spirit was aided more than a little bit by the fact that a few of Ye’s works are going on the auction block this week.

Anyway, Anna did it up right, taking over a great space at the Hong Kong Art Center and putting a bunch of us up at the lavish Grand Hyatt right on the edge of the harbor, and coincidentally, a stone’s throw away from the Sotheby’s preview show.

So many people made the trip out that there were jokes about an evil cult assembly, mafia election or alien invasion. Whatever it was, once you get a few dozen darkly dressed Chinese guys in shaved heads together, you’re bound to attract some stares.

The opening was followed by a lavish five course meal for nearly 100 guests at the lovely Verandah Restaurant in Repulse Bay. We must have drained half their wine cellar that night. I had a chance to catch up with some of my favorite artists and meet some great people from the gallery, auction and critique fields. I decided to stay another couple of days to check out the Sotheby’s preview and crash the opening for Chen Jiagang’s exhibition.

Chen Jiagang is the current flavor of the month with a series of captivating photographs staged in the ruins of the Third Front, an area of China’s hinterland that Mao built up with military factories to shield them from an American nuclear strike. The massive buildup is now slowly returning to the soil, and the people who once ran it are now the forgotten heroes of China’s maniacal political history. His photos are lovely, but he’s become an overnight star and one must wonder if he’ll be able to live up to the hype in the future.

That was the inaugural show for Contemporary by Angela Li. Angela has been working in the field as a consultant for many years and is now going into full time business. She’s smart, personable and attractive, and I have every reason to believe she’s going to have a long and fruitful career. She definitely knows Chinese art like the back of her hand.

The after-party was held at the China club, on top of the old Bank of China building. Step through the doors and you’re in 1930’s Shanghai. They’ve done a beautiful job making the atmosphere there, and David Tang’s impressive art collection makes it just that much more special. But it was the view from the top floor balcony that stole the show. I tend to favor natural scenery, but I have to admit, Hong Kong is one of the most striking modern cities I’ve ever been to.

All in all, Hong Kong was a blast. In the past it was just a place for me to refill my China visa and load up on English books, magazines and cheap tailored suits. Now I’ve finally had a chance to see more of the city, and though I don’t think I’d want to live there, I’ll jump at the chance to go back.


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