Special section on China, by Richard Vine, Barbara Pollack, Jonathan Napack, and Lisa Movius, in Art in America (June-July 2004), 575 Broadway. New York, N.Y. 10012.
Amid all the news stories about budding entrepreneurs springing up all over China, one phenomenon has largely escaped notice: Venues for contemporary art are suddenly all the rage. In Beijing, more than a dozen new galleries have opened, mostly operated by foreigners. Seven years ago there were none, and foreigners were forbidden either to own galleries or to trade in art. The Shanghai Gallery of Art opened in January, filling its mammoth 18,000 square feet with works by both homegrown and expatriate artists and catering to eager buyers, of whom 40 percent are mainland Chinese.
Chinese artists, particularly in the realms of photography and video art, are also beginning to gain international notice, with a major retrospective now touring the United States. According to Christopher Phillips, curator of New York's International Center of Photography and co-organizer of the exhibition, as recently as five years ago local exhibits were being closed down without warning by Chinese officials. But when Chinese artists began receiving favorable reviews abroad, "the cultural ministry made a conscious decision to try to find ways to use this art to bolster China's image." Phillips acknowledges that the situation can put an artist in a delicate position, in "danger of seeming to be a government-sponsored 'official artist.'"
Many of the new artists seem drawn to the scene, writes Napack, a Hong Kong-based writer, because of the potential to become "remarkably affluent, relative to their country's average income." Those who can sell internationally "profit from global market prices but pay low Chinese living costs," while others can "moonlight in the booming design and media industries." Those who transgress certain limits still face arrest, but the limits are expanding. Add to the mix an emerging moneyed elite, interested in collecting art, and the coming of age of a "sixth generation," born after the bleak Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, and the ingredients are in place for a new wave of artists, some of whom seem intent on pushing boundaries. …