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Art market

A brief guide to Chinese contemporary art

China is in the news more and more as its economy booms and Hong Kong gets handed back this summer; Chinese art is beginning to penetrate Western consciousness

An avant-garde school of Western-style contemporary art has been cultivated in China by a few able gallery owners since 1989. The work has already made an impact in South East Asia and is beginning to be known internationally. A key figure in this process has been Chang Tsong-Zung (a.k.a. Johnson Chang) of Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ, who with Beijing art critic Li Xianting has encouraged artists trained in Western techniques to look at Western-style contemporary art. The most easily recognisable result, although not the only one, has been “pop political” art. Chang Tsong-Zung and Li Xianting have also worked with museum curators abroad to organise non-commercial exhibitions and there is growing interest among the international museum community.

Brian Wallace opened the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing in 1991, the first gallery in China to deal in specifically avant garde artists. “The Ministry of Culture still exerts a considerable measure of control over what is exhibited. There is a very broad definition of pornography and anything which is overtly political is not permitted,” he explained. ‘We know exactly where we stand and what we can and can not do. The more experimental artists are not interfered with, but it is difficult for them to show their work inside China or to get official recognition.”

Wei Dong, paints traditional Chinese landscapes peopled with satirical, naked, courtly figures. Highly collected outside China, he cannot exhibit on the mainland. Ma Liuming, depicts disturbing, naked, doll-like images, which are a strange mixture of male, female, adult and child. A show of these entitled “His/Her” was scheduled for the National Art Gallery in Beijing but was cancelled at the last minute on a technicality.

Red Gate represent fifteen young emerging artists which, explained Brian Wallace, is “just the tip of the iceberg.” The gallery system is so underdeveloped that only a tiny proportion of artists is shown’. The gallery acts as a funnel for collectors, researchers and curators looking for material to exhibit; putting Westerners in touch with Chinese artists.

Other major artistic centres are Shanghai and Chongqing in Szichuan “We sell very little to the Chinese themselves. It is still considered too avant garde by the majority of Chinese and the newly rich are more interested in cars and consumer goods. Our market is mainly the foreign community either living in, or passing through, Beijing”, says Brian Wallace. The Swiss ambassador in Beijing is well known as an avid collector. Works in the gallery sell in the $400-$6,000 range.

In Hong Kong the story is very different. Here two or three galleries such as Hanart TZ and Plum Blossoms have developed a very sophisticated business. Besides selling locally to the booming expatriate and young Chinese market, they have worked hard to develop the international market, exhibiting at international shows and producing glossy catalogues. Collectors like David Tang, who hangs the work in his Hong Kong and Beijing China Clubs (see p. 6), have given it fashionable exposure. The top price for the most successful of these avant-garde artists is around $50,000. These include Fang Lijun, regarded as the founding figure of Chinese avant-garde art, Zhang Xiaogang, Li Shan Zeng Fanzhi and Wei Dong.

There has been plenty of room for exploitation by unscrupulous dealers from both Europe and the East. The Chinese prefer to sell their work outright rather than consign it; the Western concept of a contract being irrelevant in Chinese culture. There has been dismay at the huge mark-ups for which the work is sold outside China, often ten to fifteen times that paid to the artist. According to Chang Tsong-Zung, although there are very few galleries in Hong Kong dedicated to promoting really new and challenging work, many are happy to take on one or two young artists in the hope of finding a ready market. The only auction of contemporary art yet to be held in China (see below) demonstrated all the worst aspects of the emerging Chinese market.

Chang Tsong-Zung believes the international market is just beginning to take off. Last summer, he curated an exhibition at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh, “Reckoning with the past, contemporary Chinese painting”; it was the most successful exhibition the gallery ever mounted, visited by over 23,000 people in eight weeks and is touring until 1998.

Angela Ho has now opened a contemporary Chinese gallery in New York, the Ho Gallery on the Upper East Side in New York, while last year, Chinese Contemporary, which deals exclusively in Chinese avant-garde art, opened in London’s West End. Directors Ludovic Bois and Julia Colman explained that the artists they would be showing were, “either relatively unknown or just beginning to make an international career”, although one or two, like Yang Yanwen and Ma Liuming, are already widely collected. The former, who uses ink on paper but in a modern style is represented in the British Museum. Prices will range from £300 for a lithograph to £5,000 for a major canvas.

“We didn’t feel the London market was ready yet for the major international names”, they say. They intend to mount at least ten exhibitions a year, showing a whole range of work, both abstract and figurative. Images range from the delicate, abstract pen and ink drawings of Pan Ying to deeply disturbing images by Wang Qing Song of figures wrapped in polythene, their faces distorted in Francis Bacon-like grimaces. “We know we are taking a huge risk,” says Julia Coleman, “but we are enormously encouraged by the response so far. The Guggenheim in New York is planning a major retrospective of 5,000 years of Chinese art which will include very contemporary work. If the market is handled sensitively, it could become one of the most exciting international collecting fields of the next decade.”

Anna Somers Cocks and Elspeth Moncrieff

Wenren (literati) painting: in a great tradition

Last year, the famous Shanghai master painter, Zhu Qizhan, died aged 104. His works are in US and Hong Kong collections and now command around £7,000-10,000. This ink on paper study by Zhu Qizhan is from an album of landscapes, flowers, bamboo and tarrow root recently donated by the artist to the British Museum’s Department of Oriental Antiquities. Curator Anne Farrer has been collecting twentieth-century Chinese art since the late 1980s and acquires tens of paintings (not oils) and prints every year. The works acquired include abstracts and collages, as well as traditional painting, but many areas are not yet represented in the collections, including oil paintings and political pop. “The British Museum is a museum of world cultures, and our collecting policy therefore seeks to represent a very broad view. In our Chinese painting collections we hope to include works by senior painters, but we also want to represent provincial dev-elopments in painting by younger artists from the major academies. We collect work by Chinese artists in many countries outside East Asia”. This takes Ms Farrer to East Asia nearly every year

Warhol meets the Chinese propaganda poster

Typical examples of political pop are (left) Zhang Xiaogang, “Bloodline: family portrait II”, 1994, in “Faces and bodies of the Middle Kingdom: Chinese art of the 90s” at the Czech Philharmonic Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, in collaboration with Hanart TZ Gallery and Red Gate Gallery, until 1 June, and (right) Wang Qiang “Mao enterprise”, 1994, at Chinese Contemporary Gallery, London. The artists have been shown at the 1995 and 1993 Venice Biennales respectively.

The Marlborough man: Chen Yifei

An oil painting by Chen Yifei of a woman playing the flute was bought last year in Shanghai by a Chinese security firm for $344,000. Chen, who was born in Shanghai in 1946 and has lived in the US since 1980 (where one of his first patrons was the late Armand Hammer) cannot possibly be grouped with the avant-garde artists, but like many of them he has had a rigorous academic training in Western painting, which enables him to produce photo-realist works as well as some rather better watercolours. Sensing the appeal Chen’s work might have for the ever richer Chinese diaspora, in 1995 Gilbert Lloyd contracted Chen to worldwide exclusive representation at Marlborough Fine Art, London. Since then, his painting has become rougher and less kitsch in its brushwork, while the subject matter has become more picturesquely Chinese. “Tibetan siblings” of 1996 was a picture for sale at $250,000 on Marlborough’s stand last month at the Maastricht fair.

Classical but contemporary

Yuan Yungsheng, detail of “Ox and boy”, china ink and colour on rice-paper mounted on silk, 48x55cm. Yuan, who is sixty, is one of the artists who is working in traditional techniques but adding colour and developing them into a contemporary idiom under Western influence. He now lives in New York and is represented by the London dealer, Caroline Blunden, who is probably the only Westerner in the field actually to have studied traditional landscape painting at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Art. She has dealt in Chinese art since 1987 and returns frequently to watch this fusion of traditions develop. To mark the hand-over of Hong Kong, she will be holding an exhibition in London throughout June. Michael Goedhuis, the London antiquities dealer, has recently expanded into the same area and shows Chinese artists such as Wang Jianan (b.1955), who also trained at the Beijing Academy but has lived in the UK since 1988. Right, “Autumn mountain” 1966, Chinese watercolour with natural pigments on rice paper, 122x96.5cm. His works go for £5,000-7,000. Michael Goedhuis will be showing lotus studies in coloured inks by Yang Yanping 18 June-1 August.

Chinese avant-garde shows outside China

1991 “I don’t want to play cards with Cézanne: Chinese avant-garde paintings from the 1980s”, Asia and Pacific Art Museum, California

1993 “China’s new art post-1989” Hong Kong Arts Festival and Taipei, Taiwan

1993 “China avant-garde” Haus der Kulturen, Berlin; KunstHAL, Rotterdam; Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik, Odense

1993 “Mao goes Pop”, Melbourne

1993 “New Chinese painting” ,Venice Biennale

1995 “Der Abschied von der Ideologie—neue Kunst aus China”, Hamburg

1995 Zhang Xiaogang, Venice Biennale,

1995 “Chinese avant-garde art”, Centre d’Art Santa Monica, Barcelona

1996 China!, Bonn Museum of Art

1996 “Reckoning with the past, contemporary Chinese painting”, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

1997 “China!”, Kunstlerhaus, Vienna, until 20 April

For reference

Art and artists of twentieth-century China by Michael Sullivan, is an invaluable survey of the subject by a scholar who had known many of the leading artists about whom he writes. This hefty book treats the subject in the context of the events and ideas of the time and the detail of the notes takes the reader into the bibliography of the subject. The only drawback is that the timespan closes around 1990. There are biographical notes on a large number of artists, 270 b/w illustrations and 94 colour plates (University of California Press, 1996) $65, £50

Dealers in the field

o Red Gate Gallery Level 3, China World Hotel, 1Jianguonen Wai, Beijing 100600, China, tel. +86 10 653 22286 fax+86 10 6532 4804

o Courtyard Gallery 95 Donghuamen Dajie, Beijing 100006, China, tel.+86 10 653 68882 fax+86 10 652 68880

o Hanart TZ SF The Old Bank of China Building, Bank St, Hong Kong, tel.+852 252 69019 fax+852 252 12001

o Plum Blossoms 17/F Coda Plaza, 51 Garden Rd, Hong Kong, tel. +852 521 2189 fax+852 286 84398

o Alisan Fine Arts Room 315, Princes Building, 10 Chater Rd, Central, Hong Kong, tel.+852 252 61091 fax+852 284 53975

o Schoeni Art Gallery On Hing Building, 1 On Hing Terrace, Hong Kong, tel.+852 869 8802 fax+852 530 1791

o Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd, 6 Albemarle St, London W1X 4BY, tel. +44 (0)171 629 5161 fax +44 (0)171 629 6338

o Chinese Contemporary 11 New Burlington Place, London W1X 1FA, tel. +44 (0)171 734 9808 fax+44 (0)171 734 9818

o Blunden Oriental 98 Prince of Wales Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive, London SW11 4BL, fax/tel. +44 (0)171 622 9049

o Michael Goedhuis 116 Mount St, London W1Y 5HD, tel. +44 (0)171 629 2228 fax +44 (0)171 409 3338

o Angela Ho 1050 Second Avenue, New York 10022, tel. +1 212 888 3246 fax +1 212 355 0403