Twenty years ago China was invited to submit works of art by its most promising artists to the Sao Paulo Biennale (currently on until 10 December). The People’s Republic sent four paper cuts, which were duly returned, and since then no Chinese artists have been asked to participate.
That was until Johnson Chang, an American-educated Hong Kong dealer/critic, with a kaleidoscopic knowledge of contemporary Western and Chinese art and founder of Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ in 1977, brought to the art world’s attention the work of a group of ostracised academy trained Mainland artists. Hanart’s seminal 1993 exhibition, “New Art from China”, placed the angry young artists of the new Chinese avant-garde into categories. Li Shan and Yu Youchan, who paint kitsch versions of Mao, and Wang Guangyi, who deconstructs the old slogans and symbols by juxtaposing Cultural Revolutionary images with Western brand names, are deemed “Political Pop” artists and will form one of two Chinese exhibitions at the Biennale entitled “The Remaking of Mass Culture”. The second trio of Fang Lujun, Liu Wei (Rogue Cynicism) and Zhang Xiagang (Wounded Romantic Spirit) have, according to the Biennale committee, “set a new direction for figurative painting” and will form a second exhibition entitled “Wakefulness and Weightless Present”. Fang’s naked and hairless figures and Zhang’s portraits embody nihilism; Chang believes: “this is technically brilliant, focussed and intense work and I have a strong feeling that it will take off faster than Taiwanese art for example”. There is a branch of Hanart in Taipei, regularly showing the work of the best Taiwan artists, so his words are not prompted simply by self interest and the dealer is not alone in believing that “New Art from China” is the beginning of a new spirit in painting.
Chang did most of his buying in the years between the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the relaxing of the authority’s restrictions on artists in 1992, by which time he had acquired a vast collection of oil paintings. As early as 1983 he decided to deal exclusively in the work of Chinese contemporary artists. His ability to convince the radical organising committee of the Sao Paulo Biennale, is no mean achievement. Chang’s artists are, he says, “among the luckiest young artists around”. With exhibitions last year at the Hong Kong Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Marlborough Fine Art, London, you have to agree.
The Marlborough link is particularly interesting. Johnson Chang is a good friend of Gilbert Lloyd, a Marlborough director, and many of the paintings that were exhibited in the London gallery in December 1993 did sell. Those that did not are still with Marlborough and Mr Chang is at the moment trying to interest Gilbert Lloyd in the work of Taiwan sculptor, Ju Ming, adding more Chinese artists to the gallery’s largely western art portfolio.
Clearly, Hanart and its backers, privately owned Shenzhen Dong Hui Industrial Share Co (a property developer in the special enterprise zone of Shenzhen, who paid US$200,000; £130,500 for twenty-seven prize winning works in the Guangzhou Biennale last October), the China Club, and Shanghai Tong Department Store are the driving forces behind this new cultural injection. Prices for those artists’ paintings have risen ten-fold to US $20,000 (£13,500) since their exposure last year at the Venice Biennale and companies like Shenzhen Dong Hui with, according to Chang, “cash flowing out of their ears” are intent on keeping their collateral in China. Chang and partner David Tang (who owns the China Club) are, with the departure of Japanese collectors from the market, courting Hong Kong and Taiwan buyers who have been paying as much as NT$1.4 million (£33,816; US$53,639) for mid-career Taiwan artists.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Out of China'