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The Rise of China’s Contemporary Art Scene

Art Basel Hong Kong signals a turn toward contemporary art in China

03·17·2015

During a Hong Kong lunch, a father and daughter argue over how to spend a portion of the family fortune on art. The father pushes for a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy—worth around 180 million RMB—which he has audaciously already installed in the daughter’s bedroom. The daughter prefers Japanese artist Yoshimoto Nara, whose paintings depict seemingly ordinary pastel-hued subjects holding weapons like knives and saws. The daughter demands of dad, “Would you sell [the calligraphy] please, it is too dark for me, let’s get a Nara!”

The debate, recalled by Rebecca Wei, the Asia president at elite auction house Christie’s, remains inconclusive. Unfortunately for those curious about the inside world of art collecting, Wei did not reveal the argument’s outcome.

Yet, whether or not the father caved and bought a Nara, or if some Hong Kong heiress now stares dejectedly up at the grey ink adorning her wall, one fact remains very clear: China has entered into the art game, and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The artistically inclined father-daughter pair makes up just a small percent of the prosperous elite, an ever expanding group of men and women looking to spread their wealth into a more aesthetically appealing sector.

Just last year, art sales in the Greater China region totaled almost 75 billion RMB, or a little under a quarter of the global total spent on art, according to the Business Standard. And according to some analysts, the Middle Kingdom has just beat out the United States as holding the largest market for Old Masters in the world.

But China’s entrance into the realm of art collecting may be best signaled by the Art Basel—a swanky art show first held in the Swiss cultural capitol Basel, then in Miami Beach, and most recently, in Hong Kong. This year’s Art Basel Hong Kong attracted an estimated 70,000 visitors, chief among them collectors and museum directors looking to deal with the 223 galleries represented.

Of the 223 galleries showing, fifty percent hail from Asian countries, an unusually high figure in a landscape traditionally dominated by European artists. And while Art Basel Hong Kong was anchored by big name classics—Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol all went to the auctioning block—many of the exhibits contained pieces from the studios of new, contemporary, Chinese artists.

Compared with their global counterparts, these artists favor realistic portrayals of people, animals, and landscape, drawing on themes of social change and urbanization all the while employing the precise technical skill drilled into them after years at Chinese art academies.

Rising artist Cao Fei’s “Same Old, Brand New,” for example, features a large-scale video installation shown across the façade of the 118-story International Commerce building. Commissioned by Art Basel, the installation explored global Chinese identity through symbols and logos drawn from popular youth culture.

Zhu Jinshi exhibited “Boat,” a 12-meter long installation made of bamboo, cotton, and sheets of rice paper that provided a meditation on the chasm between Western and Eastern societies.

“Our new generation of contemporary Chinese artists are looking around them and processing the global influences that we are all subjected to everyday,” Adrian Cheng, Founder of the K11 Art Foundation, said in an Art Basel press release. “Their voices are imperative for us to understand the new generation and identity of China.”

And these artistic voices don’t come cheap either. Emerging artist Zeng Fanzhi’s “The Last Supper” recently broke the record for most expensive contemporary Asian art piece with a price tag of 145 million RMB. The oil painting, which placed a satirical spin on Da Vinci’s masterpiece, provided a social commentary on China’s move towards capitalism.

Another newcomer, 36-year-old Jia Aili’s most famous work, “Serbonian Bog,” depicts a nude figure clutching a television wandering alone through a marshland. Jia recently sold a painting for 9 million RMB, nearly three times as much as the original estimate.

Adeline Ooi, the new Asia director for Art Basel Hong Kong, explains, “Economically speaking, before 2008 [the generally agreed upon ‘start’ of China’s art boom] we were all living large in many, many ways. What do you buy after your car and your Birkins and your LVs? The next thing was going to be either wine or art—or wine and art.”

Indeed, for art collector Lin Han, who spent almost 25 million RMB on art this past year, an expensive purchase “was my statement that I have come to the market,” giving him the attention he sought from galleries and artists. Mr. Lin’s Instagram account is filled pictures of him posing with celebrities such as former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jeff Koons, and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Yet, while China’s contemporary art trade has flourished, it isn’t a coincidence that the movement has found its center in Hong Kong. With lower customs duties and a higher tolerance for political or otherwise taboo subjects, Hong Kong provides an Asian marketplace removed from censorship.

“Hong Kong is a city that’s not afraid of foreigners or foreign ideas,” Ooi told the New York Times. “It’s not afraid of anything.”

Except, apparently, scheduling conflicts. Art Basel moved up from its original May slot to this March in order to avoid clashing with other international art events, including Berlin’s Gallery Weekend, the Frieze Art Fair in New York and the Venice Biennale.

Photo provided courtesy of Surtr

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