BUYING Chinese contemporary art is not for the faint-hearted. There are no museums in China to offer the validation that contemporary-art collectors in the West desire, and few independent critics or curators to judge whether a living artist’s work is good enough to stand the test of time. Yet that is not putting off buyers. Last year Asia accounted for nearly a quarter of global auction revenue, nearly twice what it was two years ago. Some of this can be explained by sales of wine and watches, which have a growing following among the Chinese, but the lion’s share is made up of art. Among the ten most expensive artists working today, two are Chinese—Zeng Fanzhi and Cai Guo-Qiang. Yet the Chinese contemporary-art market is extremely volatile, bidding at auctions in mainland China is often rigged and galleries follow the auction houses’ lead on prices far more than they do in the West. So how does the neophyte collector find his or her way through this jungle?
Before 2007, Chinese contemporary art was largely the province of European and American collectors who bought on the cheap and watched as prices went up. Now it is more likely to stay in Asia. Taiwan, which has some of the most mature collectors in the region, has recently acquired an appetite for contemporary art. Taiwanese taste, says Pi Li, co-owner of Boers-Li, a Beijing gallery, is “elegant” and leans towards expatriate artists like Yan Pei Ming (who lives in France) and Zhang Huan and Mr Cai (who live in New York), whereas mainland buyers like “wilder things”. Hong Kong, by contrast, is a hybrid culture, where collectors love international art, particularly Pop.
Most Chinese artists live in Beijing, whereas most collectors come from Shanghai, the historic financial centre. The newly rich from Shanxi province (which derives its wealth from mining) and Fujian (which has grown prosperous through trade) have recently entered the market, but their tastes veer towards the traditional, or what Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based art critic, dismisses as “realist pictures of pretty girls playing blackjack”.
One thing Chinese collectors agree on is the superiority of painting. The highest price ever paid for a sculpture by a living mainland Chinese artist is just over $800,000 (for a stainless-steel work by Zhan Wang), less than a tenth of the highest price paid for a Chinese contemporary picture ($9.7m for a “mask” painting by Mr Zeng). “The Chinese tradition doesn’t see sculpture as real art but as anonymous craft for ritual use,” explains Lu Jie, the owner of the Long March Space, another Beijing gallery.
Beijing is the intellectual capital of China and has a burgeoning gallery scene in its art district, which is known as 798. Contemporary dealers set up shop here to stay close to the many artists that have made Beijing their home. The best local galleries—the Long March Space, Beijing Commune and Boers-Li—are artist-driven businesses. A handful of prestigious international players—Continua, Urs Meile, Jens Faurschou and Pace Gallery—have also opened there, but these are mainly exporters. Pace has shown many Chinese artists in its New York galleries but, until recently, no Western art in China. As Arne Glimcher, Pace’s owner, says: “A Chinese audience is not going to be spoon-fed the leftovers of Western culture.”
The artists’ community in Beijing is vibrant and competitive. Some painters and sculptors live in artists’ villages scattered around central Beijing, but many live on the outskirts in Songzhuang, a tolerant municipality where artists without Beijing residence licences or hukouben are not harassed by the police.
Contributing to this vitality is the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). One of two elite institutions (the other is the China Academy of Art located in Hangzhou), the academy admits only one in 30 applicants and has a magnetic pull on ambitious Chinese artists. CAFA used to be the pre-eminent party-controlled school; it now boasts a department of “experimental art” and most staff members lean cautiously toward liberality. Jin Hua, manager of the international office of CAFA, is a rare public supporter of Ai Weiwei. Mr Jin regards the outspoken artist’s recent 81-day imprisonment as extremely unfair and says that excessive government restriction is unsustainable. “If China wants to be the homeland of high-value goods, it has to be a country with freedom,” he says. “How can you develop a brand when you can’t even own your home?”
Many Chinese artists have become known to Westerners through their recognisable signature styles, such as Yue Minjun’s monotonous paintings of pink-faced smiling men. But the popularity of this kind of work seems to be on the wane. By contrast, Mr Zeng, China’s most successful living artist, hasn’t become stuck in a single, rigid type of painting. While Mr Zeng’s most coveted works are from his “mask” series, which were made between 1994 and 2004, his self-portraits (pictured above) also fetch high prices at auction and his abstract landscapes sell well on the primary market.
Expert craftsmanship, preferably with an overt display of time-consuming labour on the part of the artist himself, remains a driving force in Chinese contemporary art. Mr Zeng, for example, is adamant that none of his assistants is allowed to pick up a brush.
The way Mr Zeng sells his work is illustrative of a general trend. In the 1990s, Mr Zeng sold most of his paintings directly from his studio. Later he worked with a range of dealers, settling with Shanghart. Now he has signed an exclusive global deal with Larry Gagosian for all sales beyond the mainland.
As Chinese artists come to appreciate the confidence in their work that can be conferred by a strong gallery, they will start seeking integration into the global art world. The endorsement of international collectors with powerful reputations is also essential. For instance, François Pinault, a French collector with two museums in Venice, owns 15 Zeng paintings and says he sees the artist as “the Jackson Pollock of the 21st century”: the great abstract expressionist was the first American painter to gain international recognition. Mr Pinault’s foundation underwrote a solo show of recent Zeng work at Christie’s in Hong Kong and at the new Rockbund Art Museum, part of a commercial property development in Shanghai.
Museums of contemporary art with permanent collections and solid scholarship are the most important ingredient still missing from the Chinese art world. The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing helped transform the 798 district from a desolate industrial site into a cultural destination, but it lacks the steadfastness expected of a public non-profit-making space. The centre opened in late 2007, but its Belgian benefactor, Guy Ullens, has already sold some of the best works in his collection, and he is now looking to sell off the space itself.
The one museum that could set a new standard is M+, which is due to open in Hong Kong in 2016. Headed by Lars Nittve, a well-respected curator, the project is supported by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Currently, the most professional curatorial institution in Asia is the 21st-century museum of contemporary art in Kanazawa, Japan. M+ could leapfrog Kanazawa and become the Tate Modern of the East. Much like Tate Modern, M+ is looking for collections that need a long-term home.
The most important collector of Chinese contemporary art is Uli Sigg, a businessman and former Swiss ambassador to China. Mr Sigg, who owns 3,000 works and has created the best record of Chinese art history from 1979 to the present, wants to return the art to the region. Securing the Sigg collection would do much to confirm the importance of any new institution.
The Chinese art world is developing quickly. The number of reliable dealers is growing, but the market needs bona fide collectors with the energy to do intelligent research and the commitment to stick to their choices. Buying quality art is rarely a good way to make a quick buck. The true relevance of art reveals itself over time. Good information is the key to success in the art market. In China, a cultural landscape with so few signposts, this knowledge is harder to obtain—but even more essential.