Contemporary Chinese Art Finds a Place in Art History: Rapid Political and Socioeconomic Changes Have Engendered a Burgeoning Worldwide Market for Work from Chinese Artists

By Mehta, Julie | Art Business News, November 2003 | Go to article overview
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Contemporary Chinese Art Finds a Place in Art History: Rapid Political and Socioeconomic Changes Have Engendered a Burgeoning Worldwide Market for Work from Chinese Artists


Mehta, Julie, Art Business News


Ming vases, delicate ancient scrolls, ink-brush nature paintings--all are commonly associated with Chinese art. But what about propaganda-poster-style soldiers juxtaposed with a Western perfume company logo, the black-and-white figure of a half-naked woman set against a technicolor cityscape or giant hanging scrolls crammed with distorted Chinese characters?

These are the images that have been turning heads in the international art market--avant-garde art from an ancient culture where recent political, economic and social changes have inspired a creative re-awakening.

"Chinese artists are discovering things we in the West take for granted," said Julia Colman, an art historian and co owner of Chinese Contemporary Gallery in London. "They've really been coming into their own in the past decade, working with ideas that are universal but expressing them from the perspective of being from a very closed society. Artists in China live in a constant state of stress--which may not make for great living, but does make for great art."

From museum exhibits and international art shows to galleries and fine art publishers, the rapidly evolving contemporary Chinese art scene has been steadily gaining recognition, in large part because of increased contact with the West.

"People go to Shanghai and see it is an absolute boomtown with buildings going up every day, and they become curious about the history of Chinese culture and fascinated with images of contemporary life," said Melissa Chiu, curator of contemporary art for the Asia Society and Museum in New York.

"The market for this art is on a slow boil," agreed Howard Farber, president of China Avant-Garde in New York, an advisory service for contemporary Chinese art collectors. "I think the 20th century belonged to U.S. art and the 21st will belong to Chinese art."

Birth of a Movement

Contemporary Chinese art was born with the death of dictator Mao Zedong in 1976, whose Cultural Revolution had barred Western influences and stifled creative expression for years. "Suddenly China started to get Western books and magazines and learn about all the Western art movements since 1949," said Colman. "So in the early '80s, [Chinese artists] had their own versions of these movements."

These newly liberated artists pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and sought to organize a national exhibition of their works. "China/Avant-Garde" opened at the National Gallery in Beijing in February 1989, but was shut down by authorities within weeks. Just months later, many artists became involved in the Tiananmen Square political uprising, and some fled the country in the wake of the government crackdown. "This marks an important turning point for avant-garde artists because the attitude turned from one of optimism to one of cynicism," said Colman.

That feeling fed two major painting movements that took root in the early '90s: cynical realism and political pop. While discouraged in China, these movements drew international acclaim, especially in Europe.

"Beginning in 1995, contemporary Chinese artists exhibited in the Venice Biennale, enabling their pieces to be exposed to large, mainly European audiences. The response was encouraging and exciting," said Catherine Kwai, director of Kwai Po Collection of Hong Kong, which produces limited-edition prints of contemporary Chinese paintings.

A record number of Chinese artists displayed their work at the 1999 Venice Biennale, while the breakthrough "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" exhibition made its way around the United States. Co-organized by the Asia Society in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibit was the first large-scale exhibit of avant-garde Chinese art in the United States and featured more than 60 artists working with everything from ink on paper to video. Highlights included installations by two New York-based installation artists: Gu Wenda, whose piece used human hair, and Xu Bing, whose "Book From the Sky" filled a room with handcrafted volumes and scrolls of nonsensical Chinese characters.

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