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Money Matters (Part 4): Tracing the Role of the International Art Market in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art


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“Only Chinese People Can Establish a Chinese Art Market”

Chinese artists, curators and critics were wary of the potential consequences of building a market for contemporary Chinese art offshores before successfully securing one domestically. Before contemporary Chinese art moved out of the main land, Chinese commentators had warned against foreign dominance over the Chinese art market. Artist Ye Yongqing voiced his concerns in a letter to Lü Peng entitled “Only Chinese People Can Establish a Chinese Art Smith, “From Mao to Now,” Groom, introduction to The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China , “5 Chinese Artists Every Collector Should Own,” that was published in Yishu Shichang. Despite Lü Peng and Yishu Shichang’s efforts in building a domestic market, the local market’s prematurity led many experimental artists to look for alternative support overseas. Even those who participated in the international group exhibitions in 1993 were not particularly thrilled about building their reputations based on foreign acceptance.

In the meantime, China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 to mark the country’s formal entry into the global community, a phenomenon that affected the appearance of contemporary art in China. Now an ally, global trading partner, and monumental manufacturing resource, China acquired an enormous amount of wealth evidenced by the discovery of a consumer society. For those who could afford it, contemporary art provided a range of products to “satisfy their appetite for modern trophies of status.” Mirroring what was happening in the west, there was an increase in Chinese buyers who were interested in the social and cultural capital attached to buying expensive art. This is certainly not to say that all buyers in China were interested in contemporary artworks as “luxury goods.” However, due to the lack of contemporary art in China, the artistic judgment of China’s art critics lost ground to the power wielded by an artwork’s price tag.

Trends in the international art market directly influence supply and demand in the Chinese art market. Although regional Chinese auction houses have begun to compete for global market share, the domestic market in China is still immature and relies heavily on trading signals released by international auctions. Before 2007, China Guardian and Poly Auction had focused on contemporary oil paintings and sculptures by locally recognized artists due to the highly competitive nature of the international contemporary art market. Neither auction house had the network to win special consignments and obtain artworks by prominent foreign artists. However, the dramatic success of contemporary Chinese art at international auctions encouraged China Guardian and Poly Auction, now the largest Chinese auctions in terms of annual turnover, to reconsider the market for internationally recognized contemporary art.

Zhang Xiaoming, who was the helmsperson for the first auction for contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby’s, had emphasized the educational role Sotheby’s intended to play in the contemporary Chinese art market. She explains that because the gallery system for contemporary art in China is still developing, Sotheby’s wants to fill the role of introducing different trends, genres and movements to Chinese collectors. Thus, the international art market has been a major actor in the development and understanding of contemporary Chinese art even for consumers in China. However, as a result of the indomitable profitability of Political Pop art in the international market, it has been challenging for younger emerging contemporary Chinese artists to gain recognition in the market, especially for those producing artworks that defy conventional western investor tastes.

Although western scholarship and public exhibitions have made efforts to address biases in the western art world, these efforts continue to reveal a singular focus on artworks that depict mainstream Chinese subject matter and legible Chinese forms and motifs. In 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted its first major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. Featuring 70 works in various media from the past three decades, this was the first major exhibition showcasing a non-western culture within an encyclopedic art museum in the United States. Because of the novelty of an exhibition dedicated to this body of art and the respectability of the Met, Ink Art drew in large crowds of viewers who were eager to understand contemporary Chinese art from a museum perspective. Ink Art aimed to highlight the ways in which contemporary Chinese artists have re-interpreted traditional Chinese ink art. The exhibition featured Yang Yongliang, an artist born in 1980.

Yang’s artworks provide a fresh departure from the Political Pop art that has constituted the core of western scholarship and public exhibitions up to this point. In View of Tide (fig 7), a 32-foot long inkjet print, Yang utilizes computer-imaging technology to create a composite photograph whose composition is faithful to the hand scroll, Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River, by Song dynasty landscape painter, Zhao Fu (1131-62). From afar, the painting resembles a harmonious image of nature’s grandeur. Upon closer examination, Yang’s majestic mountains are revealed to be composed of high-rise apartments speckled with power-line towers and construction cranes, the ubiquitous icons of urbanization in China. Expressing an apocalyptic vision of urbanization, this print is distinct from the artworks of the previous generation that were heavily imbued with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

Although the cumulative sales number for Yang’s artworks jumped after the Ink Art exhibition, the Met’s emphasis on Yang’s re-purposing of traditional Chinese forms perpetuates the concept that all contemporary Chinese art worthy of critical attention must be recognizably “Chinese” to a western audience. Maxwell H. Kearn acknowledged the limitations of western critics in understanding Chinese culture and the specific focus of this exhibition on one part of contemporary Chinese art. Nevertheless, this exhibition fails to contest preconceived notions of contemporary Chinese art as a homogenous body. In discussing western perceptions of non-western photographers, Andrés Mario Zervigón writes, “the image maker’s non-western identity would seem to provide the primary point of reference for her or his distinctive authorship and critical reception.”Even though Ink Art strived to highlight the unique ways in which Chinese traditional art forms provide inspiration for contemporary artists, the overwhelming emphasis on national identity and sameness portrays an over-simplified image of contemporary Chinese art.

Regardless of whether an artist has amassed an impressive record of international exhibitions and biennials, it is not guaranteed that their artwork will be saleable. Cao Fei is a photography and video artist born in 1978 who has participated in major international biennales and has shown her artwork in many leading galleries in and outside of China. Yet her artworks are still incompatible with international investor tastes and thus have achieved little commercial success. Perhaps Cao struggles in the market because unlike Yang Yongliang, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and many others, Cao never created a series of “collectible” artworks, nor has she attached her name to an obvious signature style.

Cao Fei’s artworks that focus on sub-culture themes also challenge the commodification of mainstream Chinese subject matter. In her photographs (fig 8, 9) documenting her


video, Cosplayers, Cao presents the lives of a marginal social group of teenagers in the Pearl River Delta area. They dress up as video game characters while traversing the city and engaging in combat within their imaginary world. In Tussle (fig 8), Cao captures two Chinese teenagers wearing cheaply made costumes consisting of what seems like surplus fabrics awkwardly fashioned onto their bodies. The figure on the right wears a dress with ragged edges and roughly torn strips of white cloth wrapped around her body. Their outfits are far less recognizable or standardized compared to the Mao-era communist caps and rustic cotton jackets worn by Wang and Zhang’s figures. Furthermore, the location of the figures is unclear and not specific to urban China. The two cosplayers are re-enacting a battle in a shallow body of water under a cement bridge that could exist in any industrial area in the world. Yang’s majestic landscape photographs evoke unmistakably Chinese topographies and locations. On the other hand, Cao’s images express the likeness of desolate urban spaces around the globe. Thus, her photographs are less attractive in the international market because she is a Chinese artist yet her photographs could have been staged in any abandoned industrial park even in the U.S.


Cao also juxtaposes these scenes with scenes of the “real world” in which the teenagers are dressed in their costumes at home. A Ming at Home (fig 9) portrays the same female cosplayer still dressed in her costume while casually sitting at home engrossed in her phone. To the right is whom the viewer assumes to be the girl’s father shirtless and reading a Chinese newspaper. Although he is engaged in Chinese current events, there is no detectable sense of the state’s overpowering authority or the people’s political dissatisfaction. Instead, the figures appear relaxed sitting at home and content minding their own businesses. It would be difficult for this photograph to attain high prices at international auctions because consumers of contemporary Chinese art seek artworks that express visible signs of political or intellectual fervor. In A Ming at Home, Cao replaces the highly commoditized sense of Chinese rebellion and revolution with a parent and child quietly and idly passing time at home.


Because sub-culture themes have less to do with the development of mainstream society than Yang’s urban landscapes, Wang’s Communist poster paintings, or Zhang’s Cultural Revolution family portraits, Cao’s artwork is less readily accessible to western viewers.  Although Cao is just as popular as Yang in both international and domestic exhibitions, Cao’s artworks are still considered a riskier investment from a commercial perspective. With a nod to Wang’s Great Criticism-Gucci, Cao has even worked directly with the Italian luxury brand and the fashion world. In 2015 at Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum, Cao participated in an exhibition No Longer/Not Yet curated by Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s Creative Director, and Katie Grand, Editor in Chief of LOVE magazine. On the exhibition poster (fig 10), the label “GUCCI” is stamped above and in about the same size as the exhibition title below it. Like Wang’s print, Cao Fei’s artwork becomes associated with luxury and class. Nevertheless, Cao’s artworks have recently almost disappeared from international auctions altogether. In comparing Yang and Cao, both younger artists who have gained significant visibility in the international art world, it becomes clear that international buyers still prefer to invest in artists who have developed easily identifiable styles expressing mainstream subject matter.


Biases in western media and western market demand have formed the basis of the international art world’s understanding of contemporary Chinese art’s meaning and value. In the eyes of the international art world, contemporary Chinese art appears to be a homogenous body of work expressing highly politicized subject matter and nothing else. This is because those outside of China understood little about experimental Chinese art produced in the 1980s and 1990s before it entered the international market. Especially when Deng Xiaoping ended China’s post-June 4 isolation period, western viewers were too eager to assign their own values to these artworks, mistaking dissonance for dissidence.

Before anyone had a chance to correct this misconception, contemporary Chinese artists took over eye-catching headlines regarding the rapid ascent of prices at auction for their artworks. Some artists such as Wang Guangyi were intent on exploiting the myth of the dissident Chinese artist to make a profit. By creating a saleable product at the expense of artistic experimentation, however, Wang and other artists were accused of catering to foreign taste. Debevoise has pointed out, however, that the art market provided artists with a relatively stable system of support that allowed them certain artistic freedoms.

Nevertheless, media attention has focused solely on the market dominance of Political Pop art, projecting the notion that this is the only kind of contemporary Chinese art. As a result of the international art market’s obsession with Political Pop, contemporary Chinese art seems redundant and all about Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Although efforts have been made to reconsider the international art world’s treatment of this body of art, mainstream exhibitions continue to project western visions of homogeneity and an all-encompassing national Chinese identity onto contemporary Chinese art.

Due to the immaturity of the domestic market, Chinese collectors are unlikely to purchase artworks by artists who are less popular at auction because of their ambiguous expected returns. Thus, it becomes only more challenging for emerging Chinese artists, especially those who create artworks that confront western taste to garner as much attention in the market as the pioneering generation of artists before them. In this context, the international art market has played a major role in defining the body of contemporary Chinese art for both the international and local Chinese art worlds.

Although this paper touched on the growing domestic art market in China, an increased understanding of domestic patrons of contemporary art would require more research on the developing gallery system and museum scene in China. In addition, the role of state support for the arts continues to evolve. New forms of state-sponsorship such as the government’s support of the 798 art district in Beijing commands further research for a more thorough exploration of art production in China today. Similar themes discussed in this paper pertain to other non-western art forms as well. Thus, a comparative study between western perceptions of Chinese art and that of another non-western body of art would provide further insight into the problems of these perceptions. Because contemporary Chinese art is at a critical moment in its development right now, the subject of all of its key players, their motives and functions, is especially pertinent to art historical research today.

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