The final frontier Our columnist is a pioneer, an artist who left New York in 1994 to travel to China and establish himself as an artist, curator and commentator on the burgeoning contemporary art scene. From his unique standpoint, he outlines for LUX his views on Chinese contemporary art and its future directions MATHIEU BOYRSEVICZ
I went to China in 1994 as an artist, to get out of NYC and find some inspiration. I was oblivious to what I might find there. I was enamoured by the spirit of the scene and the intensity of the terrain. Then, there was no support system for the artists, and outright intolerance from the authorities.
There was no market or history of contemporary art, but there was a socio-cultural precedent and an impassioned will. This renegade, almost idealistic approach to art dazzled me and was something I felt artists in NYC seemed to have lost a long time ago.
There were no real venues for contemporary art; you had to seek it out, mainly in the artists’ homes. The direct contact with the work, people and stories gave me tremendous insight. The changes that have happened since then are parallel to those of the country itself. China’s art market is the second largest in the world. In the summer of 1998 there was only the recent, awkward, birth of one gallery in Beijing and one in Shanghai. Now there are tens of thousands of galleries.
The economic aspect is only one side. The change in attitude from the officialdom is astonishing. Now all the major academies train ‘contemporary artists’ and the government has sanctioned places like 798 in Beijing as ‘cultural zones’ and official tourist destinations. There are initiatives across the country, by both public and private sectors, to establish ‘world-class’ art museums. The Ministry of Culture has even established an Experimental Art Committee, served by some of China’s most important avantgarde artists.
Then there is the case of the Chinese artists on the international circuit. In the late 90s and early 2000s most of the [Western] art world politely rolled their eyes and dismissed Chinese art as another perestroika-like phenomenon. Now the most prominent galleries in the world – Gagosian, Pace, and White Cube just to mention a few – all have Chinese artists in their stable. Major Western museums are not only exhibiting contemporary art from China, but are systematically collecting it as well.
Up until the late 1990s, the market for Chinese art was mainly an export one; made in China, consumed in the West. China offered something sexy to Western dealers and curators – the rebel, the revolutionary, working against the system, moreover a communist system.
Chinese contemporary art also evolved with multicultural and post-colonial theory in the West. It made a perfect ‘other’, an Orientalist’s feast. In many people’s minds this export dynamic also impacted the nature of the work.
Westerners established the market. In the early 2000s it finally became apparent to the Chinese government and private sector that contemporary art had serious market value. The Chinese themselves got involved and the ante was raised – prices shot up, galleries and private museums opened and the system blossomed.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching some artists evolve and others sadly retrogress. I recently launched Xu Bing’s new Book from the Ground project in China and watching this artist’s evolution has been nothing short of astounding. Xu’s ability to retain his commitment to and concentration on many multi-faceted, long-term projects simultaneously, along with serving as vice dean to the Central Academy of Fine Arts is truly astonishing.
Liu Wei (the younger) is somebody who I thought in the 1990s was just following trends and would eventually fade away, but over the last few years he has become a firestorm of truly awesome production. Zhang Huan is also someone who has gone through multiple periods of metamorphosis, each one begetting the next.
Yang Fudong never ceases to amaze. Just when you think he’s repeating himself he delves a little deeper, pushes the bar further and dazzles. Ding Yi is interesting for the complete opposite reasonbecause he does nothing but repeat himself like a wise monk murmuring his mantra.
No matter what one thinks of Ai Weiwei’s tactics and the spectacle surrounding him his ability to stand up for his beliefs is truly anomalous in China. He is one of the few citizens, and certainly one of the only artists, to make his revulsion to injustice a brilliant art and effective protest. Xu Bing is another big inspiration. He approaches his artworks as a scientist might approach research. His explorations are almost like a lifelong unthreading of our global cultural spindles.
In terms of new young artists, Gao Weigang came out of nowhere a few years ago with a very mature body of work and has been coming on with full force ever since. Gao is a conceptual artist that oscillates between many different mediums with such ease, confidence and understanding of his materials, while at the same time retaining a consistent language, subdued sense of poetry, humour and temper.
Xu Zhen is the Chinese art world’s jester. Both his early work and reincarnation as ‘Made In Company’ (a collective of which Xu is the director) are not only hyper-imaginative (think the Cookie Monster surfing the internet on acid) and rich with humour but also poignant in their take on global politics.
Ouyang Chun, Lee Kit, Zhao Yao, Liao Guohe, Lu Yang, Zhang Lehua, Lin Zhipeng are all other exciting young artists to look out for. Unlike Western artists who get into art as a way to express themselves – meaning the existential angst of being alive – much contemporary Chinese art has, up to this point, been more focussed on the bigger socio-political picture. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but many artists are now looking at themselves, the personal, psychosomatic terrain of their daily lives.
Chinese contemporary art is a by-product of globalization. The history of contemporary art in China started in the late 1970s when China opened up its economy to the outside world; financial investment, literature, film, art, and culture also poured in.
On the other hand we now see a very homogenized approach to the arts, especially with artists born after 1980. They have had a different socio-economic experience than previous generations; many have studied abroad, are socialmedia crazed, drink Starbucks. Much of their work looks like it could’ve been made anywhere in the world. This, perhaps inevitable, situation evens the playing field but at the same time makes things less diverse. The current debate for artists and the creative industries in China is how to be contemporary while still being Chinese.
The Chinese economy is facing one of the toughest times in recent years but this leaves the 1%, the biggest consumers of art, largely unaffected. Those with money in China don’t have many investment options; the real estate market and stock market are bust. There was a bubble growing; maybe it hasn’t burst completely but it’s deflated. Yesterday I ran into an artist who was recently evicted from his 798 studio and returned to working at home. He said “I feel like we’re going back to early 2000 days… but it’s a good thing!” The cycles help to clean things up a bit, weed out the weaklings, and hopefully reinvigorate the art.
Mathieu Boyrsevicz is a curator and art advisor based in Shanghai and New York. Latterly Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art, he opens his own gallery space in China this autumn.