China Mania


If my interest in the Asian art scene was more motivated by following money, second guessing the art market or seeking out scandal, I would have done well to pass straight over the Japanese art scene and write about China instead. I remember this was more or less what the major Tokyo gallerist Atsuko Koyanagi said to me the first time I was introduced to her: that China was where all the action was, why on Earth was I studying Japan?

One good reason is that no-one needs another book about China art, or another Western writer/curator wandering in and making China their new overnight specialism. Nevertheless I did take the message to heart, and have felt it necessary to at least keep an eye on the international presentation of Chinese art as a reference point for my thinking on Japan. So, although I’ve never been particularly gripped by the work, or the historical Mao to post-communist to crazy capitalist development narrative that has given the art its commercial and conceptual drive, I have been to what seems like dozens of identikit group shows of China art in the last couple of years, as they spring up with regularity across all of Europe and North America. There’s been China Gold, China Now, China Avant Garde, China Power Station, and now there is China Mania, a selection of painters at Copenhagen’s impressive Arken museum, which I went to check out this past weekend. Every museum has got to have a China show of their own, it seems, as part of a forced effort to “go global”.

There’s not much to say about the art at Arken. The show was full of the simple, colourful surrealist style work that has turned a handful of Chinese artists into an instantly reproducible canon, with the famous expensive names such as Yue Minjun (above), Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun, mixed with others no-one’s ever going to remember. As always the phenomenon going on here – the China bubble – is more interesting than the art itself. Apparently, I read in the catalogue, most of the works were made especially for the exhibition. Hmmm... Immediately I begin to wonder what exactly is going on here?

Denmark already played a dubious role in the global Chinese art trade circuit a couple of years ago when Louisiana, the country’s premier modern art museum, was used to provide window dressing for an investment fund scam built on new Chinese works. Out of the blue, curators at the museum were offered the chance to show a mysterious, hitherto unknown collection of 200 major Chinese works called the “Estella collection”. The museum accepted, preparing a lavish show and accompanying catalogues in 2007, that garnered a lot of attention and was planned for a major international tour. The prestigious “collection” was in fact the cover for an investment fund snapping up Chinese works, headed by a New York dealer Michael Goedhuis, and involving various corporate investors. He used the lure of a major European museum and international touring show to persuade ten of the top Chinese artists to sell him new works at knock down direct sale prices, with the assurance that many of the works would later be donated to a major museum and that they would be kept together. In fact, the collection only travelled to Israel, before being sold (for $25 million), then rapidly “flipped” onto the market, the first half of 108 works appearing for sale in a great fanfare at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2008 (netting $18 million), the rest later in the year in New York. The duped artists and curators involved were understandably upset, having been used to inflate the prices and make money for others. The office dealing with the original negotiations had used a fake address and numbers, and artists reluctant to participate had been pressurised or offered bribes, such as mansions in Venice during the Biennale.

This kind of thing is all in a day’s work for the Western gallerists and dealers out in China who, along with the superstar curators flying in and out, have been piloting the business behind the China bubble. For some reason, a lot of them seem to be Swiss, slick guys in suits and expensive watches who blend in perfectly to the colonial expat business scene in Shanghai and Beijing. When I visited Moganshan Lu art district in Shanghai – which is itself only a fraction of the size of the more famous Beijing art villages – I was stunned by the dozens of galleries mass producing Asian and Western style modern art, in every style you could think of from impressionism to superflat. There was nothing much here until figures like the Swiss gallerist Lorenz Helbling at ShangArt came along in the mid 90s and, together with the curators who started to select out and validate unknown (cheap) artists – the show by Harald Szeemann in 1999 at Venice Biennale being the key tipping point – eventually blowing up the art world bubble that made everyone rich. For sure, there have been some real discoveries. I’ve also seen Yang Fudong and Qiu Anxiong recently in Denmark; these are both remarkable video/installation artists, every bit worth the attention lavished on them. But my abiding memory of the huge new ShangArt gallery space, primed for sales to eager visitors, was when I took a peek behind a wall and saw dozens of copies of works by their artists stacked up like cornflakes packets. Then there was the gang of Chinese workers – rounded up off the streets for a pittance wage – stuffing thousands of envelopes with publicity that were going out to every known art gallery, curator, agent, museum, scholar or magazine in the West. How to make an art market out of nothing; this is how you do it. Some galleries have been known to invite up to 200 guests from the West on expenses paid visits to openings of major names being promoted; thousands fly to attend some events. At most a handful of gaijin will ever be seen in any comparable Tokyo opening.

So was Koyanagi right? It was quite a depressing remark given that she is one of the most influential art world figures in Tokyo. Should I just be writing about China? I still don’t think so. As I’ve argued elsewhere in my talk for The Echo show last year, the Japanese art world is interesting precisely because it has operated largely outside of the global art game, and has thus been insulated from some of the trends—even as the Asian art bubble has taken off. That bubble has now burst, and we should be looking for something else to talk about. Japanese artists are interesting, I think, because they have been living and working in a post-bubble, post-development condition longer than anywhere. It’s a very different trajectory to the change and development obsessed Chinese scenario, but something that everyone is going to have to deal with in the future. After the goldrush – the “cao-jin” as it is called in Chinese – there might be something to learn from the Japanese experience again.

But Koyanagi was, of course, right on where the smart money was going. I picked up a copy recently of the Sotheby’s New York Asian Contemporary Art sale from March 2008 – this is now of course a “historical” document – and the glossy pages say it all about where and how much Japanese art and artists figure in the global art scene. There were 290 or so lots listed in this thick, fat, expensive catalogue. Some for big money, all the big Chinese figures, but only four Japanese names: a couple of Kusamas, one of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki girls, a Sugito, a Shiraga Gutai piece—and that was it. There were two Korean artists listed, but the rest was pure China Mania all the way. Explaining this massive discrepancy in Asian art on the global stage is certainly an interesting question. As all the scams and bubble blowing suggest, it obviously has little to do with the intrinsic quality or interest of the art works themselves.

Further reading:



そして現在 sakeゴーグルを取り去るだけで、日本のアートについて思慮深く書く 。 ここに多くのよい要素があるけれども、ほとんどは、低価格を手に入れる無意味な綿毛です。 完了にある なぜなら、祝福するか、または私達すべてが、偽物のre-gothが最近のカップル年で見ると知っているのでスタイリッシュな何かを所有したい理由がほとんどないからです、そして、人々は、冷たいフィルムまたはプラスチックのボールにより表面上カバーされたランダムな無意味なオブジェクトによってフラストレーションを言語化し始めます。 従ってもの!
無意味なトーテムを持つ紋切型の景色が集中した オンにおいて来ます! 派生したアートの賞賛において? 私dontは磁器について非常に激しく不満を言い 数年前それが日本の冒頭と同様であること、およびたくさんの膨らまされた国家主義的なプライド けれども、あなた 日本がよりよく知っているはずであると思う でしませんか? 中国が遊びを自由に動かしているけれども、現実は追いつきます。 私は、日本のアートのいくらかの重大なライティングと分析を見たい アートプロモーションではなく、よいライティングと評価 。

2009/08/21 00:28

Mario A // 亜 真里男
2009/08/12 13:08





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