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Year 2007 has gone by, and I didn’t miss it a bit


Southern Weekend, February 14 2008

“2007 Salutatory: The Cultural Authorship List”


        In 2007, Beijing surprisingly did not snow. We have waited for so long, a few snowflakes dropped, then they disappeared without one taken a clear look. At the front and back of the house, there was no trace of snow on the tiles. If you tell anyone that it has just snowed, they will surely give you a fussy look, like you have just told a lie. I heard this vividly from the radio announcer: “There shall be snow”, then later claimed, “Sorry, it never fell”.

        This year was not a totally uneventful year. To begin with, my 12-year global exclusive deal with Plum Blossoms Gallery has expired. Since then, I have started communications with a few galleries that we long have mutual admiration but never had a chance to work together. I painted four paintings last year, totaling eight with the ones I did this year. This autumn, all of these ink paintings will be exhibiting in the most hyped Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art, in Beijing’s 798 Area. Among all the old and young artists that paint to make a living, only Chen Yifei and me have signed such kind of exclusive contract with a gallery. Chen signed a 9-year oil painting contract with London’s Marlborough Gallery, which was not fulfilled following his sudden death. Such an opportunity is rare to come by for any painter. The oil painters that have fled the country in early years, those who claimed that opportunities were not adequate in China, are still without representative overseas, after 20 years having gone by. Chen Yifei returned to China in late 1990s for business venture, whereas I did not leave rural Beijing area for over a day.  

      There is a sentimental difference for an artist between signing exclusively with a gallery and working with multiple representatives. Exclusive deal allows the artist time to work at ease, pretty much like a state painter, working in calculated and relaxed pace. All they have to do is follow the orders of the cadre. In contrary, an artist that works for multiple sources would have a lot of offers. They have to take more initiatives, and are given less time to sit down and paint. Exclusive artist is pretty much like the wife of a wealthy family from the old days; she holds the keys to every door, the budget and manages the household. She could unruffled the power she has. Working for different galleries make an artist feel like one of the five or six concubines, they think like there is constantly a wolf chasing them from behind, making it difficult to be practical, although occasionally there may be some unexpected bonuses. Over all, there are advantages and disadvantages for both, merely a different way of making a living. 

       Since there are differences in their livelihood, the artworks produced differ. Artworks are directly associated with the living condition of an artist, much like a man running on the street naked in the winter; even though nobody may care, one is destined to feel the cold, because weather and your body corresponds to one another. Even if you force yourself to be passionate about the activity, it simply does not last very long. Artworks shall reflect your life; never try to make it up. Marvelous works allow people to instantly identify the nationality of the artist, when the work was produced, and was it an original creation. Those works that could not reflect whether it was produced by a Chinese painting a foreigner, or by a foreigner painting Chinese, may look timeless, but is in fact vague, intending to mislead the viewers to believe that they are of something splendid. No matter how garnish those works are, they may be able to deceive for a short while, but after all, they are destined to be disposed of.  

       Another occurrence is meeting with icons in the industry and fellow painters. Eating, drinking with them and if you do not talk about auctions and prices with them after a few exchange, the meal guaranteed would not last long. Before, an artist could sense it after producing a good painting. They know that they have painted a nice work. Then, it was up to art critics and curators to decide, even though these people never painted in their entire life. In the last couple of years, the speculators made the call, and every year there were dramatic changes in price. The prices of artworks have a direct connection with the speculators’ cash flows, and have nothing to do with art. Since the end of 2007, all Western speculators have shifted and only the Chinese speculators are running around London, New York and Hong Kong to make the biddings. What surprises the Western auction houses is the courageous nature of the Chinese bidders, dashing out money without much hesitation. Prices for Chinese artists’ works are rising drastically. Like Guo De Gang[1] once said, if the house is seven feet tall and the fire in the stove is higher than nine feet, one must drill a hole at the roof to let the flame exit. There are over a hundred artists copying Gerhard Richter’s Capitalist Realism style, yet, at the end of last year, prices for his works did not even reach half of what is sold for by a Chinese artist, and was not even as popular. If one says this is fabricated, there is not even a logical ground to support it. Giuseppe Castiglione [2] paints Chinese ink paintings on silk with an added Italian flavour, and he did not even get nearly half as rewarded. Tough luck. 

       Another issue arise is, traditional painting of locality, ink paintings, did not get much attention in the 798 area. After efforts of several generations, the area showcases works that are wholesomely westernized Chinese contemporary art. Since the 40s in the last century, after war, the country did not do much except for learning from the outside world. Artists like Lin Fengmien, Xu Beihong were returning from Europe and started the upsurge of learning from the West. Soon after, the country fell into the hands of Socialists. The state initiated the movement of looking at the Soviet Union as role model, legitimately taken different streams of Europe, mainly Soviet’s, theories and schools of thoughts into China. The state also sent vast amount of students over to the Soviet Union. Up until today, talents returning from Russia have yet to secure any offer from the state. When I read articles from that era, written by Chinese theorists who studied there, I am convinced that they are leveled with the current crop. Whoever they were writing about, they could always refer to an appropriate ideology, much slicker than many modern Western minds. After the Open Door policy in 1978, the state has again returned to fiercely learning from the contemporary Western art. This was reflected in the last few decades, by art movements like the “85’ New Wave” and the “post-89’ generation”. The condition of contemporary Chinese art—drawing inspiration and imitating Europe, Russia and America, is considered as complete. Since artists did not steamroll this train of contemporary art movement, critics, the art market two-way merchants and artists-alike do not have any clue about the situation. All they could do is acting like the railway guerilla bands that fought the Japanese troops in the war period; everyone holding a harrow in their hands. Whenever a train comes along, snatch whatever they can get their hands on, get as much and as fast as they can, without any room of hesitation.

       Sign with a gallery is nothing new; it has always been a practice. Every wealthy family would at least have a couple of authentic ink paintings. At the beginning of liberation, artworks by Qí Báishí are found along Liulichang Cultural Street. One can take a 4-feet ink painting away with merely RMD15. Auction houses were like pawnshops- one can always associate the act of pawning as parting away with beloved children: if one can maintain a respectable living standard, would anyone like to send their possession to auction houses? Auction houses have 321 years of history in the Western world; our pawnshops also have few hundred years of history. Can you say that they are anything new? Chinese contemporary art is like a mirror to its Western counterpart. If you found a certain thing there, you are guaranteed to be able to find them here. If they were not found there, then surely it would not be found here. Nowadays, people recognize, none of the contemporary Chinese artworks that they see are anything original. Up until now, we have been learning and emulating for half a century, yet we are still repeatedly emulating, year after year, so, would you say that the years are memorable? It has been 30 years since China reform and open to the outside world, yet, where are our own cultural beliefs?  

Zhu Wei

27 January,2008

[1] (1973- ) Famous Beijing comic dialogue artist

[2] (1688-1766) Western missionary-painter in Ch’ing Court, known for his Chinese name Lang Shih-ning













这一年也不是一点事没有:一是结束了和Plum Blossoms万玉堂画廊长达12年的全球独家代理,开始和几个多年想合作又没机会的彼此都看着顺眼的画廊有了沟通。去年一年画了4张画,加上今年的一共8张,秋天会在798最火爆的程昕东国际艺术空间弄一个展览,全是水墨。在靠画吃饭以画画为生的这一堆老老少少的画家里只有我、陈逸飞和画廊签过这种约,他是以油画和伦敦的马勃罗画廊签了九年,到他去世约还没满。这样的机会对一个画画的人来说真的不多。当年早早出去的那几个在国内油画画的号称呆不住的,在国外混了小20年愣没画廊找他。陈逸飞是90年代末开始回国做生意,我是一天没离开过北京郊区。