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Chinese Artists at a Crossroads

Stacey Duff
18. April 2007
As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics, city officials have launched a new campaign for civility. Residents often hear a morning radio broadcast that urges them to buckle up and obey the rules; signs posted on subways cars remind commuters to let others get off before new passengers get on; and pedestrians who ignore traffic lights are scolded by whistle-blowing traffic volunteers. But is it working?

The gallery system seems just as frenetic as the city’s traffic. New collectors arriving in the city complain about erratic price indexing. Work from the same artist appears in several galleries at once. And to complicate matters, some artists bypass the gallery system altogether, engaging in direct studio purchases as the artists prefer quick sales to long-term relationships.

“It’s quite a mess at the moment,” says Nataline Colonnello, artistic director at Galerie Urs Meile-Beijing. Collonello says it simply boils down to keeping the artists well informed on international gallery standards. “Sometimes, a curator or gallery doesn’t know the artist is already represented by another gallery.” Gallery owner Urs Meile began visiting China in 1996 but did not open an exhibition space in the city until a full decade later.

Until very recently, the process of selling art in Beijing was best done door to door. The city’s first foreign-owned gallery, Red Gate, opened in 1991 but for most of the decade, Beijing did not sport a gallery system. Dealers would scout for art in the villages outside Beijing and return to Hong Kong – where a few solid galleries, like Schoeni and Plum Blossoms, served western collectors. Hungry for recognition, many artists would frequent Beijing’s embassy district in search of international buyers.

As international interest in Chinese contemporary art warmed in the late 90s and early 2000s, this trend had already solidified among a band of artists who could have barely considered an exclusive partnership with a Beijing gallery. There were only three to choose from – The CourtYard, China Art Archives and Warehouse and Red Gate. State art institutions, like the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), were paying even less attention to contemporary artists than international collectors.

“I see the turning point in 2004 when the 798 Art District really started to bubble along,” says Red Gate director and founder, Brian Wallace. “Up until then there were only three strong commercial galleries in Beijing. Between us there were up to 60-80 artists who actually had permanent representation. With so few artists being represented by galleries, people had to go the studios. And the few dealers that were around were doing that as well. That kind of studio purchasing was a natural response to the lack of infrastructure.”

Natural response has turned into an unnatural headache. Many galleries report that maverick artists often balk on contractual agreements. In some scenarios, artists have actually walked out of their own opening, art works under their arms, to later redistribute the paintings at other galleries around the city. “It’s very difficult to reason with some of the artists here, in this current market,” says F2 Gallery director, Fabien Fryns. “Many of the artists are still motivated to go out themselves and sell their own work.” Fryns emphasizes that many artists still prefer a gallery with strong relationships abroad. Last year, F2 opened a new space in Los Angeles.

But bad habits for some are viewed as a device for empowerment by others. This is a view held not only by the artists but even some gallerists. “The artists in China are really empowered at the moment,” said one gallery manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And why shouldn’t they be? Many of the artists are out there making work and they don’t want to be reigned in. Some of them feel that their art loses a lot of punch when it is made for a certain gallery in mind. If they feel there are too many prerequisites involved, they suddenly feel suffocated.”

Newcomers to the Beijing art world will do well to remember the unofficial position that contemporary artists have held in China. Older artists in particular not only lived through the Cultural Revolution and poverty but can also recall the shutdown of the 1989 China Avantgarde Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China (formerly the National Gallery). After the tragedy at Tiananmen Square later that summer, artists also developed a sense of camaraderie in colonies on the edge of town. In the Yuanmingyuan artist colony – where the artists would eventually face eviction – exhibitions were held by hanging new work literally from the branches of the nearest tree.

Add to this rebel solidarity the occasional sentiment among some local critics that westerners don’t really understand China’s cultural past and a frustration among Chinese artists that they still aren’t properly recognized at home – and it doesn’t take long to realize the delicate relationship galleries must navigate with the artists. By most estimates, 70 percent of buyers are still western, even though some artists are pushing to make art more in line with their own aesthetic sensibilities – that is, for a Chinese market.

Such sourness doesn’t negate the cosmopolitan spirit of the artists, though. The artists don’t despise the west – after all, they are benefiting – but they don’t want the Chinese system to import the western model lock, stock and barrel. Younger artists, meanwhile, seem more in tune with western expectations of gallery-artist agreements. “When we take on a new artist at Red Gate,” says Wallace, “we look after them very strictly. They’re not allowed to sell out of their studios. They’re playing the game now.”

Other factors are at play. Direct export is giving way to international exchange. If the city’s art districts, like 798, were once a loading dock to ship Chinese works out, the new mantra is sustainable development. Many galleries in satellite districts around the art district are emphasizing experimental presentation over the white-cube – like Universal Studios-Beijing, co-directed by Dutch curator Waling Boers and Chinese curator Pi Li. The Euro-Chinese meeting of like minds has made for some of the freshest displays in the city.

The spirit of the new era is best captured in the personality of Fan Di’an, the director of the National Art Museum of China. Fan recently initiated an intense program to expose the general public to modern and contemporary art, providing in one case, 100,000 free tickets to local university students. Later this year, the Ullens Art Centre, founded by Belgian collectors Guy and Miriam Ullens, is slated to open in 798. The not-for-profit centre plans to highlight a strong program of exhibitions that focuses on modern and contemporary art from the west. Meanwhile, the nation’s once ostracized artists continue to find placements at the nation’s major art schools.

The message that these developments are sending to the city’s galleries is positive – contemporary art can develop in the country with native flavor. As the East-West gap is bridged by major state institutions like NAMOC and through the continued perseverance of local gallerists, most observers here believe that artists can move with ease in the international art world on their own terms – without sacrificing international standards and practices.

“We keep the artists we work with constantly informed,” says Colonnello. “You also sense an over-all improvement in the city and a growing sense of responsibility among its artists.” That sense of responsibility needs to further ripen, however, in a country where green always means go but red seldom means stop. “The art scene is still a bit Wild West,” adds Wallace. “But it is maturing. It’s a necessary process.”

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