Art market

The auction houses are distorting our understanding of Chinese art

Chinese auction house data deemed unreliable and misleading as not all artists have made it to the salesroom yet


The profusion of Chinese survey shows may be drawing to a close. European and American museum directors and curators will honour their chosen few with one-man shows as the decision making process passes to sufficient confidence.

The Chinese group shows will now be supplanted by Indian survey shows (India is following China in the market by about two to three years). The market may spiral upwards for Chinese artists for a while, but one thing is certain, the mould has been broken.

Chinese artists, especially those in the so-called “millionaire’s club of painters”, have re-invented the art world for themselves and may or may not reap the windfall. They have played dealers and auction houses off against each other. They have dropped their own works into auction with relish and have manipulated their markets with a degree of savvy and bravado that has left many dealers stunned. This art is here to stay and, in my opinion, while European and American markets may plateau or even fall, the Asian markets will continue to climb. Why should not the best Asian artists be priced at the same levels as their western counterparts? Cultural snobbery is being banished by a driving demand.

How to codify the Chinese art scene has mesmerised me for some years. Now that China itself has decided to use culture as one of the pillars of its global, economic and political aims, we must come to grips with this behemoth. This is not a new idea—since the Cultural Revolution (1965-68), Mao Zedong used culture, particularly drawing from the Yan’an Forum in 1942. Useful exhibitions brave enough to cover unexpected and uncharted waters such as the Ullens Center’s opening exhibition, “ ‘85 New Wave: the Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art”, will prove that radical conceptual art has been produced undercover all along. It has simply not been seen in the West.

Born of the Imperial Court tradition, the notion of the “literati” as an elevated class of intellect is prospering. Xu Bing’s return to China (a former sent-down youth) in a prestigious post at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts and Cai Guo-Qiang’s survey show at New York’s Guggenheim, opening next month (p34) and slated to go to Beijing, are reinforcing, in a totally contemporary way, the Chinese “ink painting tradition”. Ai Weiwei, just 18 months ago, had a maverick mystery associated with him due to his difficult family history and yet, turns out to be a brilliant Duchampion trickster—and the darling of the curatorial crowd. Huang Yong Ping and Chen Zhen, who both left for Paris 20 years ago, present a legacy of European conceptualism through Chinese subtlety.

The market, however, only has metrics through the available data of the auction houses, and there are many of them—not just the big three. This is unreliable and misleading. There is no depth to the data as many artists have not yet made it to the salerooms. The most frequently traded works from the cynical or social realist painters have boomed but as shows of true intellectual credibility have illustrated (such as “Huang Yong Ping: House of Oracles” at both the Ullens Center and the Walker Art Center, along with Tate Liverpool’s “The Real Thing”), the auction rooms do not tell the full story. “Passing fish eyes off as pearls” is how one prominent artist described the auction houses’ desperate scramble for material for their ever growing sales catalogues. If you really want to learn about the Chinese art scene, look to marvellous curators such as Hou Hanru, Fan Di’an, Fei Dawei, Xu Zhen, Karen Smith, Wu Hung, Feng Boyi, Alexandra Munroe and Lu Jie—not to the auction rooms.

The writer is director of the Albion Gallery in London