Chinese art on the move

Sasha Grishin comments on a changing art scene in Beijing.

Last year over Christmas, as part of my carefully organised mid-life crisis, I accepted a five-week teaching position as a visiting professor at a Beijing university to teach an intensive course on modern and contemporary art. While I had previously visited China on several occasions over the past couples of decades, this January was my first opportunity to actually live in Beijing for more than a month in a Chinese hotel, on a Chinese university campus, surrounded almost exclusively by Chinese speakers. 

Without attaching too much significance to the fact, I arrived in Beijing on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur and found the subsequent period of my life particularly character building. Outside of teaching, I immersed myself in the Beijing art world visiting numerous artists’ studios, attending exhibition openings and meeting with a number of gallery directors, curators and art critics. 

Over the years I have had the privilege to meet with some of China’s most significant contemporary artists and visited their studios and attended many of their exhibitions in China, but even more of their exhibitions abroad. On this occasion I could develop more of an ‘insider’s perspective’ on the Chinese art scene and could compare what was happening today with that which I had observed earlier.

Today, one striking observation it is that Chinese art has increasingly become less outward looking and is becoming more inward looking. Whereas ten or fifteen years ago an emerging Chinese artist felt compelled to seek an audience in the West, and to exhibit their work either in Western Europe, especially in Germany or Paris, or in America, preferably in New York, now their art market and their audience is primarily based in China. A feature of contemporary Chinese art is that it is being heavily collected in China itself and Chinese artists on more than one occasion have said to me that they simply cannot afford to show abroad commercially as the sales are better at home than overseas.

I found it interesting that, unlike the Russian art collecting oligarchs, who are happy to pay millions of dollars for a Lucian Freud, a French Impressionist painting or a Russian 19th century realist canvas, but are generally hesitant to spend big money on contemporary Russian art – even though some of it is of exceptional quality – wealthy Chinese art collectors are not shy of the local product and are happy to collect contemporary Chinese art. Chinese art collecting has become huge business and the words ‘money’ and ‘huge’ are commonly encountered in any discussion of the contemporary Chinese art scene. The Chinese art market is the fastest growing contemporary art market in the world with centres in Hong Kong, which houses the regional headquarters of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and in Beijing, which is the centre for China’s Poly Auction and China Guardian. Last year the Chinese art auction market grew by a further staggering 28 percent with income now counted in the billions of dollars.

The other general observation which I would venture to make is that the contemporary Chinese art scene has become progressively reorientated from Shanghai to Beijing. The Shanghai Biennale, which commenced in 1996, has remained a major showcase for contemporary art and the tenth Shanghai Biennale will be held later this year. Nevertheless, the commercial heart of the art scene is gradually relocating to the political capital of China, Beijing. There are several huge art precincts in Beijing, including the 798 Art Zone (Dashanzi Art District), which has scores of commercial art galleries and an even greater number of artists’ studios. Once the site of a huge sprawling East German industrial complex, 798 has moved from an edgy alternative space for contemporary art to something resembling a tourist theme park, but it still includes some of China’s leading contemporary art galleries. 

The Cao Chang Di art district in Beijing is less well known, slightly further out, but has a huge cluster of recently built studios and over a dozen major commercial art galleries. This is also where the studio of China’s best known dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, is located and which can easily be detected, by even a casual visitor, by the plethora of surrounding surveillance cameras. Cao Chang Di is the place to come to see some of the more experimental art and as the rents are considerably lower than in other places, this is also the place where some of the more interesting younger artists exhibit in such adventurous spaces as the Ying Gallery.

In Beijing, the separation between an art and commerce is not infrequently blurred. Take for example the Parkview Green Fang Cao Di complex on the prestigious Dong Da Qiao Road thoroughfare. Not only is it a spectacular piece of modern architecture, but this shopping complex, hotel and business block also serves as a huge functional art gallery which boasts of the largest Salvador Dalí private collection outside of Barcelona, and also a glittering multimillion dollar collection of contemporary Chinese art. Conceptual art, Chinese pop art and monumental painting all jostle for the visitor’s attention as you encounter a herd of flying cows, ten metre tall polished steel ironic sculptures of ideal soldiers, kinetic and interactive sculptures as well as huge installations and paintings which occupy whole courtyards and foyers. Chen Wenling is particularly well represented, not only with his hallmark huge bronze figures painted a vibrant crimson red, but also with some of his more bizarre visionary surrealist pieces, including the huge painted fibre glass sculptural installation What you see is not necessarily true, 2009.

The Capital Museum in Beijing, which recently re-opened in its new premises in the Xicheng District, seems to proclaim a new confidence in the Chinese arts with its futurist building which came in at a little under $2 US billion. Yet this is one of the lesser museums compared with the newly refurbished National Museum of China and the National Art Museum of China. There appears to be a confidence in the Chinese art scene which is common to both the government and private sectors. Although there still exists a lively tradition of Chinese Socialist Realist art, as well as traditional calligraphic art, some of a very high order, the new darlings of the Chinese art scene are yesterday’s non-conformists.

The 36-year-old Xu Zhen already participated in the Venice Biennale where he represented China at the age of 24. In 2014, under his corporate moniker MadeIn Company, he seamlessly moves from conceptual art to video installations, paintings and sculptural pieces. The recurring theme in his huge sprawling exhibition at the Ullens Centre For Contemporary Art, which opened this January and continues until the end of April, is ‘The bourgeoisie is not interested in the mad, but is interested in power over the mad’. Provocative, tongue-in-cheek, funny, yet deeply disturbing, the artist from his base in China is making waves in New York, Basel and at the Tate in London.

China is certainly one of the most vibrant and affluent art scenes in the world today. It is a bubble of optimism which seems to have no intention of bursting.


Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is Adjunct Professor of Art History, School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, Australian National University. His most recent book, Australian Art: A History, is published by The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing.

Images courtesy of Sasha Grishin.


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