“It’s much more complicated to be a Chinese artist today”
A voracious market is a mixed blessing, says Melissa Chiu, the director of the Asia Society Museum
By Ye Ying. From Art Basel Hong Kong daily edition
Published online: 25 May 2013
Melissa Chiu is the Asia Society’s senior vice president for global arts and cultural programes and director of the Asia Society Museum. Based in New York, she oversees its exhibitions in New York, Houston and Hong Kong. Formerly, the founding director of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre in Sydney (1996-2001), she is an authority on Asian contemporary art who has organised nearly 30 exhibitions of artists from across Asia including a retrospective by Zhang Huan, a survey of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara and a show of art from China’s Cultural Revolution. The author of books including Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China (2007), and Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know (2008), she recalls the rapid development of Chinese contemporary art and considers its most interesting new directions.
The Art Newspaper: How did the Asia Society first develop its contemporary art collection?
From quite early on, the Asia Society exhibited Chinese contemporary art—we did the first major Chinese contemporary art exhibition in 1998, with “Inside Out: New Chinese Art”. About six years ago we decided to start a contemporary art collection. Our strategic focus was in video works and photography. We have some very good examples by Chinese artists, such as Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals [in a Bamboo Forest, 2003-07), as well as works by Song Dong, Wang Gongxin, Lin Yilin and Zhang Peili.
What is the thinking behind the society’s exhibitions?
Even when we include works from our collection, there is an exhibition idea driving the selection. We’ve had an exhibition of Wu Guanzhong’s works in collaboration with the Shanghai Art Museum, which was the first exhibition of his work in New York City, demonstrating that Chinese contemporary art could include work in a traditional vein such as ink painting, in addition to the more avant-garde art that we’ve shown.
Our latest exhibition, “The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China” (until 2 June 2013), shows an extraordinary moment of transition in China with the fall of the Ming [Dynasty] and ascent of the Qing Dynasty. Although it was a time of great upheaval, the artists decided not to paint what was happening but instead to retreat. One might say that there are certain parallels with China today where in recent years there’s been renewed interest in the idea of reclusion, with more and more people turning to Buddhism and travelling to remote places.
What are the most important changes happening in the Chinese art scene?
The contemporary art scene could not be more different today to when I visited in the early 1990s. The big change is in terms of infrastructure and opportunities for artists: in the 1990s there were few art galleries showing contemporary art and artists could not show in the state museums. So artists began to pursue opportunities outside China, just as collectors in Europe and the US were starting to buy Chinese contemporary art. Once China joined the WTO [World Trade Organisation, in 2001] things started to change, including the government’s attitude toward artists. Now there are nearly 200 auction houses in Beijing alone, as well as gallery districts and private museums—the ecology of the art scene has developed.
Is this at all problematic?
For Chinese contemporary art the market is voracious and developed so quickly from zero to where we are today, so there has been a tendency to validate artists by their market’s worth. In other environments, like New York, the market is just one piece of that validation. There is also a museum system that exhibits artists who may not have a lot of market value, and there are critics and publications that consider some artists influential, even though the artists may not be known in the wider community.
In China there needs to be a discussion about whether critical and theoretical debates about art can happen in addition to [discussion about] the marketplace.
What motivated you to write Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China?
I was living in Australia at that time, and I met a group of artists who came to Australia just before [the crackdown on] Tiananmen [Square protests] in 1989. They ended up staying and formed their own community—people like Tang Song and Xiao Lu, Guan Wei, and Shen Shaomin. So I really got to know them and hear their stories, these artists who all left in the 1980s and 1990s. And I also began to think about my father, who’s Chinese and lived in Hong Kong before he headed to Australia for a university education. All these people had a connection to China but were living in diasporic communities—in Australia, New York, or Paris—and I wanted to see what kind of effect this had on their thinking and their work.
Which new directions in Chinese contemporary art do you find interesting?
There are many new directions of contemporary Chinese art. It’s much harder today to categorise or even identify one specific trend and it’s much more complicated to be a Chinese artist today than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s just like being an artist in New York, where there are many individual artists rather than a specific group or movement. In the past, Chinese artists tended to be shown in big group shows. We no longer think about Chinese artists as a group but rather about individual artists and that’s a very good thing. In that sense it can be seen as the maturing of Chinese contemporary art.
Compared to other parts of the world, does China today offer unique visual forms?
There is a lot of interest in two new areas, one of which is this new realism, whether it’s Ai Xuan, Liu Xiaodong or Chen Danqing. There’s also real interest in contemporary ink. But I also think that both appeal only in China. All countries have art that has an appeal that doesn’t go beyond national borders—that’s fine. Maybe you could say that these are signals of maturity, in terms of being able to have different practices that are supported by Chinese people.
On the other side, there’s a desire on the part of more and more collectors to have their own museums, that’s a new phenomenon. So with that comes interesting museums infrastructure and collecting as an activity.
Is it still possible to “export” works that mainly appeal to collectors in China?
All countries have their national heroes [but] they’re not necessarily part of international conversations. In order to be part of an international circuit, the systems of validation are markets, museums or biennials. And the medium that faces the greatest challenge to entry into that international circuit is painting. That’s not to say that the work is any less important, it’s just about understanding the different kinds of visual vocabularies that are at play, some of which allow entry into the international circuit and some that do not.
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