As the economic crisis grips the world in its steely grasp many formerly high flying industries are quickly returning earthbound like their parachutes were filled with lead. Sure, it’s not a crater like Madoff is making but the Chinese contemporary art market and accompanying expectations and record auction prices are going to hit hard enough to create a new reservoir for Beijing. The tears from collectors, artists, and gallerists should be enough to fill it.
I wasn’t around for the New York 80s art market, when cocaine flowed like wine and Basquiat ended up locked in Mary Boone’s basement. Nor did I participate in the 90s British revival back when Damien Hirst was still dissecting and embalming animals and hadn’t yet entered his diamond encrusted skulls and photorealist period. Although I did see Chris Ofili’s ball of dung Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum before pre-9-11-makoever Rudy Giuliani waged war against them and the 1st Amendment and lost both battles.
Damien Hirst, back when the lamb was the only one with white hair
But I’ve spent some time in China’s art world; tried to get paintings bigger than a barn door squeezed diagonally into moving trucks, watched quite a few artists pull bound stacks of US hundred dollar bills out of desk drawers or from under brocaded cushions, and tried in vain to convince these artists that no one in the world has walls big enough to accommodate a painting bigger than an African elephant.
“I know it’s not gallery scale, it’s museum scale,” they would assert.
“No museum in the world has walls that big, most museums in the world don’t even have freight elevators that big and so couldn’t get it onto their museum size walls without taking out an exterior wall. And generally speaking, the way into the museum isn’t through the side of the building but through a solid succession of gallery shows and works sold to collectors with normal collector size walls,” I would counter, futilely.
Fang Lijun’s 500 cm (16.5ft) long 30th Mary
China is a country bounding with optimism, and really who can blame them? Billions of dollars of infrastructure and extra-structure like the striking Birds Nest and CCTV Tower are going up all around. In three decades, peasants have become billionaires, trading their donkey carts for the newest Ferraris and Benzes, and artists like Yue Minjun have had plenty of reason to smile as gavels banged down at art auctions all over the globe and salivating collectors dropped as much as 4 million US on a single piece.
Spread across Beijing’s massive surface are clots of giant artist studios arranged in rows and lots like film studios and totaling around ten thousand large new art making spaces that would cost millions of dollars a piece in New York City and thousands upon thousands elsewhere. You can rent an airplane hangar-size studio for 200 thousand RMB a year and a place big enough for a Cessna for 60,000 – roughly 11 grand USD. Canvas is cheap, paints are cheap, and assistants are cheap too; Chinese artist can afford to churn out paintings that in the US would cost the artist around a thousand dollars – just for materials.
Laughing his head off (not an original comment) – Yue Minjun
Optimally, cheap and bountiful materials and spaces should culminate in an orgy of artistic experimentation, but really it hasn’t. While Chinese artists are, invariably, extremely talented technically – able to conjure almost anything with chunks of paint and turpentine filled washes that bound off the canvas and dissolve back into ghostly landscapes at the same time – the training they receive at the academies doesn’t teach them how to challenge and attack their ideas until the tears of frustration mix with the ashy remains of their experiments and they create innovative contemporary art
There is an assembly line ideology found too often in Chinese contemporary art that does nothing to develop the artist’s vision and can hurt their future economic prospects. I understand when you’re rolling in sales and you want to capitalize on your brand but there’s no point in making twenty version of a painting that hasn’t ever sold unless you are pushing the concept in a new direction. It’s naïve to mass-market a product that has no proven interest or, conversely, to think your paintings of wide eyed girls juxtaposed with obvious Chinese symbols will excite an already overserved market.
One Day in 2004 No. 6 by Cui Xiuwen
The popping of the China contemporary art bubble happened sooner and more dramatically than expected but it was inevitable. Nothing stays hot forever and there have been indications for some time that the contemporary art trend makers were going to follow some of the factories out of China and into India or Vietnam.
When the world’s economy is in crisis, or slowdown, or meltdown, nobody wants to plunk down several thousand or even million dollars on an investment you can’t eat or live in. Chinese galleries don’t work the way the rest of the world’s do and although this may have seemed like an advantage so some artists, it’s hurting them now – their work is spread far and wide and the artists often have no record of whose giant walls their work adorns. If they sold work directly out of their studio themselves they have more cash in hand but less name recognition and stature.
Shi Guorui, San Francisco, 2007
Art experts have been cautioning for some time that Chinese art is not a good investment for the previous reasons and because of pervasive counterfeiting. The cookie cutter methods of many Chinese artists who pounding almost identical paintings doesn’t help either: are Yue Minjun or Fang Lijun even able to tell if a grinning man or doughy man painting is theirs or not?
I hope Chinese artists take advantage of this downturn to downsize, make smaller better paintings and to above all, push their ideas. There are plenty of exquisitely painted boring paintings out there; the real challenge is to make artwork that expresses the thoughts of the artists and provokes those of the viewer. When the economy starts growing again those artists who used this time wisely will take air again but with a better flight plan in hand.
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