Beijing Culture: Contemporary Art Scene
From Underground to Overseas: Beijing's flourishing contemporary art scene
Last November 2007 a US collector paid over US$9 million for a set of 14 paintings by Cai Guoqiang, smashing the record sale for a contemporary Chinese artist.
To art experts this came as no surprise; China's breakneck economic transformation is now dramatically manifesting itself in the country's flourishing and increasingly lucrative contemporary art scene.
In some cases popular Chinese artists have seen a tenfold increase in the sale price of their work over the space of just a few years, as with Zhang Xiaogang or Cai Guoqiang.
The ten most successful auctions of contemporary Chinese art have been recorded over the past twelve months, and last year over 30 percent of the Chinese contemporary artworks sold at auction went for more than US$100,000.
With auction sales of US$23.6m in 2006, Zhang Xiaogang, the most famous and sought after contemporary Chinese artist, was second in ArtPrice's ranking of the 100 top-selling artists. He was far from alone on the chart, however; there were 24 Chinese names listed in 2006, up from almost none five years ago.
Thanks to a dynamic market, Hong Kong Sotheby's recorded Chinese contemporary art sales of US$21.9m in 2006. It is a similar story at auction houses in London and New York, many of which only recently started offering modern Chinese work. During the first auction of Chinese contemporary art in New York last April, so many bidders called in that Sotheby's had to bring in more telephones.
Chinese avant garde art has to be viewed in the light of the tremendous social and economic upheavals that have taken place in recent decades; a large number of works specifically reflect the tension between the socialist ideals which are still officially valid and the wave of consumerism that has swept the country as a result of capitalist reforms.
Only a decade ago there were no contemporary art spaces of note in China. Foreigners could not legally run galleries or, technically speaking, trade in art. Unauthorized exhibitions were organized secretively, with no publicity, and usually lasted a few hours until forcibly closed. Today, Chinese venues for contemporary art are multiplying rapidly, both in the real world and, increasingly, online.
The de facto legalization of foreign investment in China's art business has led to the blooming of an active commercial gallery scene, with an obvious focus on Beijing and Shanghai. There are now an estimated 200 contemporary art galleries in these two cities. This has given Chinese artists more options for displaying their work, and has also changed the dynamic for overseas galleries looking to get involved.
Beijing Art Focus
Co-owned by Belgian businessman Frank Uyterhagen and Ai Weiwei, China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW) was founded in 1993, and focuses on cutting edge artists, with a spectacular hangar-like space in Caochangdi in Beijing's suburbs. In 2003 the CAAW formed a partnership with the Lucerne-based Galerie Urs Meile, and is now dedicated to promoting high quality Chinese contemporary art under Ai Weiwei's expert artistic direction.
The Caochangdi area where CAAW is based is rapidly becoming a second 798, with many Beijing contemporary art galleries relocating here from the city centre. As 798 (see below) is located close by, both areas can be visited in one trip.
China Art Archives & Warehouse
A growing number of Chinese galleries are thriving without direct foreign involvement. The Artists' Village Gallery, one of the largest galleries in Beijing at more than 4,000 square meters, is located in Songzhuang in the capital's eastern suburbs. There are more than 500 contemporary Chinese artists living in villages around Songzhuang, each hoping to break onto the national and international stage. Sally Liu, who owns the gallery with her husband, says, "Of course we are trying to make money, but at the same time we want to give back to the community by helping Chinese artists promote their work, especially the ones living around us."
Artists' Village Gallery
Beijing's renowned 798 Art Zone, often compared with New York's Greenwich Village or the south bank of the Seine in Paris, is located in Dashanzi in the capital's Chaoyang District. The area's complex of distinctive, 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings is home to an ever-expanding contemporary art community. A growing number of coffee shops, restaurants and bars are also setting up in the area, and featuring regular art shows and exhibitions, 798 is now a must-see for art lovers visiting Beijing.
View more images of China by Daniel Allen