Art of the Orient

China looks to expand its influence on the international art market with a crop of new museums, galleries, and artists.

Katja Novitskova, Pattern of Activation (planetary bonds), 2015. Katja Novitskova, Pattern of Activation (planetary bonds), 2015.

As China, the world’s second largest economy, increasingly looks to project itself in world affairs, it’s showing soft power on the international art market. China makes up a large part of this booming business, and is quickly taking up more space in the contemporary art world’s imagination. From mega-museums, to sky-high auction prices, to top artistic talent, China has asserted itself as an art-world superpower in a relatively short span, but its cultural roots dig deep.

“In Shanghai’s prime, no city in the Orient, or the world for that matter, could compare with it,” writes Stella Dong in her 21st-century appraisal of Shanghai’s history, with particular focus on the city’s roaring pre-war 1920s and 30s. She continues, “At the peak of its spectacular career the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid, and decadent city in the world. Nowhere else did the population pursue amusement, from feasting to whoring, dancing to powder-taking, with such abandoned zeal.”

M Woods Museum

M Woods Contemporary Art Museum in Beijing.


China’s cultural scene, particularly when it comes to contemporary art, is going through a similar boom time—and, to a certain extent, anything goes. Take, for example, Shanghai’s West Bund: just five years ago, the area was an unknown, undeveloped swath of the city by the Huangpu River, miles away from the actual famed Bund. In less than a decade it has transformed into one of China’s prestigious art destinations, the West Bund Cultural Corridor, packed with museums, galleries, and studios, and development surging ahead. It’s a fitting metaphor for the explosion in the Chinese contemporary art market. In recent years, from mega-museums to sought-after blue-chip artists, the momentum has kicked into high gear. And that goes for the art world at large. From the recent blockbuster China-centric survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute to sky-high auction sales at the hands of Chinese bidders, China’s dominance cannot be ignored.

No place is that sea change more evident than at Art Basel Hong Kong, the region’s premier art fair, where gallerists, artists, and collectors mingle from across Asia. Artists such as Xu Zhen and Zhang Xiaogang’s works could be seen at the most recent edition, as million-dollar-sales went off routinely. The weekend before the fair, both Shanghai and Beijing welcomed art world denizens to exhibition openings of the best China has to offer. Today, the Chinese art market is only second to that of the UK and the US. Together, the three countries share 81 percent of the art market, with China taking about 20 percent, according to an official Art Basel/UBS Art Market report first released at Art Basel Hong Kong—this of a nearly 60-billion-dollar industry. Though the majority of sales are for antiquities, contemporary art still plays a large role—and as the skylines of Chinese cities change with amazing speed, so, too, do museums, galleries, and arts districts that play a large role in those changes.

Shanghai TV Station Oil Canvas

Cui Jie, Shanghai Education TV Station, 2016, Oil on canvas.

Traditionally, Beijing hosted artists and galleries while glitzier Shanghai had collectors and cash. But now collectors and art lovers in the southern city have launched scores of art projects that rival Beijing’s dominance, and artists are also moving there in droves. Beijing is, in many ways, still the center of the action. The country’s best museums are there, as well as its contemporary art history. But now China has more than just one center of gravity when it comes to the art world, making the trip for art lovers all the richer.

The story of contemporary art in China begins much later than in the West. Under Mao, Chinese would-be artists had little to no access to the changes in contemporary art wielded in the US and Europe by seminal figures in Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art—these completely passed the country by. Artists were restricted to cheery, realistic portrayals of communist-party imagery. But in China, things happen fast, and once artists were exposed to all they had missed, it would not be long before the Chinese art market became one of the most formidable in the world.

In the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy to the world—as well as to contemporary art. Beijing, the capital and epicenter of political and intellectual activity, became China’s art hub. A rush of artistic activity characterizes the 1980s, particularly when it comes to political world. Ai Weiwei was originally part of the Stars Group that emerged during this time—today he’s known worldwide for politically engaged works of art that encompass performance, installation, and sculpture. Similarly, Cai Guo-Qiang—who invokes history and politics with his works involving gunpowder, and, by extension, fireworks—came of age in the 1990s. In 1989 the “China Avant-Garde” exhibition was shut down by the government and political commentary took a thriving role in the local art scene. In the 1990s, galleries had emerged as viable outlets for artists to show, and even a few foreign galleries had set up.

K11 Art Museum

K11 Art Museum in Shanghai.

Arts districts in China do not spring up naturally—the government decides where they may be operated. For this reason, most of the art in Beijing can be found in two nearby districts, 798 Art Zone and Caochangdi. A decommissioned military factory, 798 has dozens of galleries as well as a handful of museums. There’s also plenty of communist kitsch, cafés, and clothing for the intrepid shopper to explore. Among the top destinations is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art—a non-profit, non-collecting, non-governmental museum, making it a rarity in China. The institution, founded in 2007, has staged important exhibitions of Chinese art in its short history, such as “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” and “Breaking Forecast: 8 Key Figures of China’s New Generation Artists” as well as showing important Chinese artists like Liu Wei and Xu Zhen. Nearby M Woods, which opened in 2014, focuses on a range of international art, from Andy Warhol to Cristof Yvoré. And at galleries such as Boers-Li, Galleria Continua, Long March Space, Magician Space, and Galerie Urs Meile one can catch the latest work in the local art scene.

The winding alleyways of Caochangdi, the city’s other best-known arts district, play host to a bevy of galleries as well, such as INK Studio, de Sarthe Gallery, and White Space Beijing. One can wander the narrow streets, sample street food, and find some of the biggest names in art just around the corner.

Further afield, there’s the Si Shang Art Museum, a private museum dedicated to Chinese and international art—while only recently opened, and a ways away from the action, the museum is making big moves to put itself on the map.

Meanwhile, Shanghai is quickly gaining ground as the art capital of the east. Recently the city has exploded with art opportunities in the form of studio space, galleries, and museums, as well as numerous art fairs and festivals. For art lovers, fall proves a good time to visit Shanghai, when the art fair season brings thousands to the city. New fairs such as Art 0321 and the West Bund Art and Design fair bring in gallerists, collectors, and artists, as local galleries mount some of their best shows of the season—one arena in which Shanghai bests Beijing. While Beijing boasts history, Shanghai sells big.

The New Normal China Installation

Installation view of “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017” at the UCCA in Beijing.


Shanghai’s history has long been one of a pleasure ground. As the writer Christopher Isherwood wrote of Art Deco-era Shanghai, “If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea.” For much of the 1980s and 90s, Shanghai sat out the huge art-centric changes—with the major exception of ShanghART Gallery, a pioneering force in the city nurturing some of the country’s top talents. Shanghai’s art world focuses less on the political and more on issues related to materialism, globalism, and the economy, fitting given Shanghai’s role as a finance hub. In 2007, local artist Xu Zhen opened his “Supermarket” for which he created a convenience store, albeit one stocked with empty products, a cutting commentary on the state of affairs. Now operating as an art collective, Xu Zhen also developed MadeIn Company, which produces merchandise and runs a gallery. In Shanghai, art and the commercial are inextricably linked—look no further than the trend of high-end art exhibitions inside of luxury shopping malls. One avid collector, Adrian Cheng, based in Hong Kong, even sets about programming top-grade exhibitions in his chain of retail centers, K11. In the Shanghai location, K11 has attracted talent from ICA London, the New Museum, MoMA PS1 to curate shows. Recently, Hans Ulrich Obrist collaborated with the center to stage an exhibition of Western and Chinese artists, “Hack Space.” Younger artists, such as Cui Jie, included in that exhibition look at the change wrought by a booming country. The young painter imagines futuristic, overlapping impossible city skylines, representing “the transformation of China’s Urbanscape through time and politics,” according to her gallerist Leo Xu Projects, a major player in the local gallery scene as well.

After Us Installation

“After Us” installation view at K11 in Shanghai.


Beyond the changes on the ground, the official government policy has been to prop up the art scene from the top down. Particularly after the World Expo landed in the city in 2010, city officials took note, and have worked quickly to make Shanghai a cultural as well as financial center. The former fairground now boasts a one-million-square-foot China Art Museum dedicated to the thousands of years of art history in the country– all located inside the former Chinese Pavilion, and transformed in a matter of months.

But on the other side of the river, most galleries are concentrated in the historic French concession, like Leo Xu Projects, BANK, and James Cohan, where cafés and restaurants, as well as nightclubs and bars, crowd the streets and expat culture is lively. The biggest geographic change the city’s art world has seen though is certainly the West Bund, where new museums pop up like mushrooms with mega collections to match their might. The Long Museum, one of two locations owned by the billionaire collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, is housed inside a former power plant– their collection boasts ancient scrolls as well as top-tier contemporary painters like Ding Yi. Down the road is the Yuz Museum, another massive private undertaking, started by Indonesian-Chinese businessman Budi Tek, whose penchant for huge works can be immediately grasped when entering the converted airplane hangar space. Works by Maurizio Cattelan, Xu Bing, and young stars like Ian Cheng and Samara Golden punctuate the collection. And still there’s more to come.

And, of course, there are even more art hubs in China for the more-than-casual art lover, as cities like Nanjing ramp up their contemporary art offerings with institutions like the Sifang Art Museum and cities like Guangzhou and Guangdong in the south offer storied art scenes and thriving gallery scene. In the most populous and one of the powerful countries on earth, though contemporary art was late to flourish, it certainly has not slowed China down.

© Photo 1 courtesy of artist; Photo 2 courtesy of M Woods; Photo 3 courtesy of Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai; Photo 5 courtesy of UCCA, Beijing; Photo 6 courtesy of K11

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