www.artron.net, April 19 2016, Headline Special
[Ten Years of Contemporary Art] Globalization, Marketization, and De-politicization, the Ten Years of Chinese Contemporary Art
Author: Pei Gang
Introduction: In 2005, Sotheby's spring auction brought Chinese contemporary art to the international auction world. From then on a new standard other than the art evaluation criteria appeared. Dr. He Guiyan, the director of Institute of Contemporary Art of the Sichuan Fine Institute, told Artron.net in an interview that Chinese contemporary art has entered into a "phase of high-speed marketization, capitalization and de-politicization" during 2005 to 2015. In the meantime, the organization and system of biennales, museums, galleries and auction houses and so on are continuously improving. The legalization of the contemporary art has been initiated. Both the government and the mainstream ideology are keeping a relatively open mind. Meanwhile, in the premise of "de-politicization", both the official and unofficial, inside-system and outside-system, political appeal and market orientation, have reached a tacit understanding.
According to this, Chinese contemporary art has experienced ups and downs for ten years from 2005 to 2015. Chronologically 2005 is the first year of the high-speed marketization and capitalization. At that time Contemporary artworks that depicted symbolic images such as the political pop has become the representative of the art ecology. From 2006 to 2009, the market of Chinese contemporary art showed a rapid development trend. After 2008, when the consequences of the American subprime crisis gradually emerged, "confidence was defeated". Having experienced the fluctuations of market under the background of globalization, Chinese contemporary art has shown an increasing trend to return to the noumenon of art. Individualization is integrated with diversification, and the oriental language is blended in the international context, gradually. Globalization, marketization and de-politicization seem to be the keywords of the ten years.
In this decade, we can see the dramatic change of Chinese contemporary art in the global market, as well as the acceptance and promotion of contemporary art by the system. We can see Chinese contemporary art has become more and more international, and the rising private art museums have become an important influence of contemporary art. "How can the contemporary be recorded as history", perhaps we cannot make final judgment for contemporary art at this point, but this decade will be a sample of history in the future.
The Change of Contemporary Art Environment in the Decade
Dr. He Guiyan, the director of Institute of Contemporary Art of the Sichuan Fine Institute, said in the interview with Artron.net, that Chinese contemporary art has entered into a "phase of high-speed marketization, capitalization and de-politicization" from 2005 to 2015. In the meantime the system of biennales, museums, galleries and auction houses and so on are continuously comprehensive. The legalization of the contemporary art has been initiated, to which both the government and the mainstream ideology are keeping a relatively open mind. Meanwhile, in the premise of "de-politicization", both the official and unofficial, inside-system and outside-system, political appeal and market orientation, have reached a tacit understanding.
Dr. He roughly divided the development of contemporary art into three decades, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. In the 1980s, the basic logic of contemporary art's development was a game between the grassroots, folk, non-systemic, modernistic discourse and the mainstream, official ideology, in order to accomplish the modernization of language and style. In the 1990s, the emphases of contemporary art turned to "China experiences" and cynicism, the goal of which was seeking to enter the western exhibition system and collection system. There is an inner logic, which is to let the art of local, Chinese, regional, and socialist ideological have a real impact in the context of western, international ,"post-colonial" discourse.
"From 2003 to 2006, the Chinese contemporary art market went through a period of fermentation and transformation. When 'SARS' ended, the 'four trillion to stimulate the economy' policy, as well as the 'hot money' from the west, and a better environment after the 2008 Olympics, were all joint forces for facilitating the integration of the Chinese contemporary art into the globalization and commercialization. Directly or indirectly, it has created favorable conditions for the contemporary art market." To Dr. He, these complex political and economic environments inside or outside the contemporary art world added up to the marketization of contemporary art.
Be International or Be Within the System, A New Decade of Chinese Contemporary Art
In 2008, Cai Guoqiang became the art effect director of the opening and closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympic, whose 29 big footsteps in the sky was called "the footprint of history". A year later, Cai served as the fireworks director of the 60th anniversary of the National Day. When the contemporary art appears in the national events so frequently, it symbolizes that the contemporary art has been accepted by the national system gradually.
The following events reflect something more of the relations between contemporary art and the system: on November 13, 2009, the Chinese National Academy of Arts held a grand ceremony for the Contemporary Art Academy of China, announcing the foundation of the first academic institution specialized in contemporary art since the founding of New China. On August 14, 2013, China National Academy of Painting (CNAP) held a small ceremony, celebrating the appointment of Fang Lijun as the director of its Contemporary Art Center. Fang was awarded appointment letter from the executive vice-president of CNAP Mr. Lu Shunyu. With the changing context, contemporary art and the system are heading for harmony from the opposite direction step by step.
In the decade of being accepted by the system, Chinese contemporary art also gradually found its diversified directions in a globalization era. In the same year of Beijing Olympic, Cai Guoqiang's retrospective exhibition "I Want To Believe" was held in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Also in that year, the returning artist Xu Bing started to create his "Phoenix". The "Phoenix" became the cultural phenomenon of 2010, and then it travelled abroad to the MASS MOCA and the New York St John's Cathedral in USA. By 2015, the new version of the "Phoenix", a more "fierce" one, was invited to the Venice Biennale and became a unique landscape in Venice.
On the other hand, recognition from art museums overseas also mirrors the discourse power and development of Chinese contemporary art itself. In the decade, Chinese contemporary artists took wings in major overseas art museums and held their solo exhibitions there, especially in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, Wang Jianwei's solo show "Time Temple" was held in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In the same year, Zeng Fanzhi brought his "From 1830 Till Now" to the Louvre. Wang Gongxin's solo exhibition "Wang Gongxin: Video Artist" opened at National Gallery of Victoria in Australia... In 2015, Song Dong’s solo exhibition was on view at Netherlands’ Groninger Museum, and the next station was Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in Germany. Yokohama Museum of Art presented Cai Guoqiang's solo exhibition "There and Back Again". MAC Museum of Contemporary Art in Coruna, Spain, presented Wang Guangyi's "Relics Believers". Xue Song and Wei Guangqing's exhibition "Chinese Pop" appeared in Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco. Yang Fudong's "Filmscape" appeared in Auckland Art Gallery...
Chinese contemporary artists have received awards from overseas, which also reflects the trend of internationalization: On October 23, 2012, a formal ceremony of the 24th Praemium Imperiale Awards was held in Tokyo, Cai Guoqiang was the first Chinese artist who won the prize of the so called "Nobel Prize in the art world". In 2013, during the Hans Christian Andersen festival in Denmark, the award of "The Nightingale" was given to Yue Minjun. Li Xiangqun was awarded the Taylor Prize at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. In 2015, Xu Bing received the U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts. And most recently, the German Wolfgang Hahn Prize was given to Huang Yong Ping... The appearance of Chinese contemporary art on the international stage has exceeded its one dimensional limit, and moved towards a plural art language.
Art Museum Fever: the Dual Track System of Public Art Museum and Private Art Museum
In 2006, the new Suzhou Museum designed by I. M. Pei has been built, in which there is an exhibiting area specially prepared for contemporary art. Xu Bing's artwork "In Story Behind" appeared in the opening exhibition of the Suzhou Museum. In 2007, Hubei Museum of Art opened, which led to the second "Documentary Exhibition of Fine Arts", which has become a brand of the museum from then on. "We should face the contemporary. Through exhibition and research of the contemporary art, we'll expand our museum's collection." said Fu Zhongwang, the director of Hubei Museum of Art. It means this youngest "key national art museum" will focus on contemporary art. They have set up the triennial system of "Documentary Exhibition of Fine Arts", and have introduced many important exhibitions including Wei Guangqing's "Plus or Minus Zero". The public art museums' promotion on contemporary art has become a feature of this decade.
Back in 2008, Cai Guoqiang's solo show was held in the National Art Museum of China. The acceptance by National Art Museum speeded up the chemical reaction between public museums and the contemporary art as well. The double triennial in Shanghai and Guangzhou pushed forward the improvement of the public art museum in the field of contemporary art in this decade. In 2012, the establishment of Museum of Contemporary Art of Shanghai made it the first public contemporary art museum in mainland China. In 2015, based on Guangzhou Triennial, Guangdong Museum of Art set up the first Asia Biennale. While Wang Huangsheng was appointed by China Central Academy of Fine Arts, and Li Xiaoshan was appointed by Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Art, the academic power of contemporary art have been strengthened in academies and museums.
If the public art museums' promotion represents the recognition and research from the official system, then the rise of private art museums indicates the maturity of the private capital and the important role that civil forces play. In this decade, in core cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, private museums such as Today Art Museum, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Himalayas Art Museum, Long Museum, Yuz Museum Shanghai, Minsheng Art Museum, OCAT and so on have been an significant driving force for contemporary art. The statistic shows that private museums have accounted for 1/3 of the total number. According to the "private art museum report" released by Artron Art Market Monitoring Center and Larry's List, China has the world's fourth largest number of private museums with a total of 26, and in the list of the top ten nationalities of artists whose works are collected by art museums, Chinese nationality ranks 6th globally with a percentage of 18 and the 1st in Asia. All these data underlines that Chinese contemporary art has caught the fancy of private art museum's collection worldwide.
According to the report, this phenomenon can relate to the government's support to the culture and art industry in the process of the economic structure transformation. For example, the art museums founded in the west bund of Shanghai, including Long Museum West Bund and Yuz Museum, are very relevant to the policy support by Shanghai government. Deputy director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) Yu Yang agreed with it, "China is going through a rapid transformation phase of social and economic structure. In this era, the government, the real estate developers, and the audiences, all have an unprecedented demand to build art institutions."
There is another important trend. The private art museums has exceeded the range of core cities - Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and entered into other first and second-tier cities rapidly. Such as Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, How Art Museum (Wenzhou), Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art, OCAT Xi'an Museum. The contemporary art oriented museums have sprung up everywhere.
Dr. He Guiyan believes that a key subject of art institutions is to build up the art museum system, to maintain sustainable development, and more importantly, to obtain government's support through legislation. "Both official and private art museums need strong support." In artist Zhu Wei's words, "The more private art museums, the better. As we know, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA New York, Guggenheim Museum, are all private museums. Their collections are superior to national or state art museums, which means the people in that country love life, love art, love artists, more than love money."
Behind the Commercial Movement
As an artist, when observing the overall change of Chinese contemporary art in this decade, Zhu Wei thinks it can be considered as only one stage, a stage of rapid marketization and commercialization. He said, "Three-generation artists are involved or stressed to be involved in the commercial tide, as if it were a movement. In the 1989 China Avant-Garde exhibition, the curator stood on the stairs in front of the National Art Museum of China, declaring to the world that Chinese artists had finished the journey of contemporary art that the western artists spent a hundred years on, in only ten years. Now we used another ten years to get to the end of marketization. The 2005 Sotheby's auction put everyone off their stride, which also was, frankly speaking, a new evaluation standard to the artists' creation. The current dynamic commercial movement is nothing less than the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel in 1957. Every Chinese has learned investment and finance, buying real estates and stocks, studying Candlestick Charts...falling over each other, being afraid of lagging behind. In fact, it's a normal economic behavior that even foreign pupils know how to do, but artists' rushing to the frontline is abnormal. As a footnote, the earliest Chinese contemporary art auction should be the Christie's London auction in 1998. Maybe it was not the right time, the result of that auction was not ideal. After that there had not been Chinese contemporary artworks in international auction houses, until 2005."
For artist Shang Yang, facing the "the gradually increasing erosion on culture performed by commercial and financial capital from implicit to explicit" in this decade, after he finished his "Dong Qi Chang Project", an experiment of culture rebuilding, he has refocused attention on people and reality. In Shang's "Remnant Mountain" and "Remnant Waters", the "Remnant" refers to the landscapes kidnapped by "power and capital" that Shang painted with intense sorrow. The "remnant mountain and waters" are no longer the same mountain and waters in Chinese spiritual hometown. Concerning about the deteriorating ecological problems, Shang Yang has created the "Remnant Mountain" series to take this theme deeper and further. From this series on, he began to introduce more ready-made products and mixed media into his works. For example, in "Remnant Mountain II", those tore, collage, detached, and dangling horsehide, metal and cloth make the painting look sculptural and arbitrary. The expansion of medium is not unexpected. Shang Yang said, "Although I used to have the idea, it was not until in the Suzhou Museum exhibition in 2003, when I converted one work into 'Remnant Mountain I', it was realized. In 2013, as a continuation, 'Remnant Mountain II, III & VI' were completed. The 'Remnant Mountain' series was taking the steps along the path of 'Remnant Mountain I', connecting with space more. Those violent tearing and dangling and for example, the directly collage horse skin in 'Remnant Mountain VI', are different from my 'Dong Qi Chang Project'."
At the same time, Shang Yang found a new expression of visual language - from two-dimensional to two-and-half-dimensional. To Shang, "it is a small step forward for me."
From perspectives of art creation, every artist's creation language has changed a lot since nineteen eighties and nineties. Fang Lijun, the famous contemporary artist who had many documental exhibitions and new work exhibitions over the past few years, and whose works cover extensively the areas of Chinese ink painting, oil painting, print and sculpture, told Artron.net's journalist in an interview, "after twenty or thirty years of work, which was tremendous and hard, and a particular stand must be insist, now I'm inclined to add more factors that can make myself happy and joyful while doing the things I has been engaged in. Another reason is that after such a long time, I'm skillful in this field like a duck to water, and people are accustomed to my works, thus I want to add something not so blue, not so serious into it. It will be good for my life and my health. That's the main clue. Thirdly, it was been too long for me to emphasize an important reason to work. Actually, now I don't have to telling people these, but to say something lighter, something makes people think you are sentimental or very humorous, very funny. The situation is like this, so I probably won't be one track-minded in creation or in other things any longer. Of course what I'm saying is my wish, whether it can be presented in the end may still need hard work."
After Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Western Collectors Backed Out
Back to 2009, in an interview with Artron.net, artist Zhang Xiaogang talked about how he faced the changed circumstances. He said, "When the economy is getting better, the creation of artist should be easier and freer. However, I found the cost is much higher than before. The studio is a little bit larger, and the costs of my works in this exhibition are quite high. For example, the cost of an oil painting could be hundreds, or thousands. The material is different. Such as steel plate, which was unimaginable ten years ago, is no problem now. The effect always come the first. I changed these sculptures again and again, wasting a lot of materials. I think the market economy should be a good thing. In a market economy, the artists should pursuit a freer way, instead of taking it as a burden. Maybe I'm a person who has always been taking creation as a habit, and my habit might change with environment."
The influence of U.S. subprime mortgage crisis from 2007 has gradually spread to China in 2008. In 2011, the famous collector Ullens began to withdraw from China. It affected the ecology of Chinese contemporary art as well. Art critic Dr. He Guiyan said, "In 2008 the global economy experienced a downturn. However, because of the success of Beijing Olympic and all the positive signals sent by the Chinese government, combined with the fact that China's economy depended mainly on the expansion of domestic demand at that time by investing in infrastructure projects that belong to industries less internationalized - in other words, because China's economy is a self contained system - the consequence of subprime mortgage crisis in China is not immediate right way. But by around 2010, the weak economy, the overcapacity problem, the withdrawal of the western 'hot money', the booming real estate market, and the rising inflation, all directly or indirectly had impact on the ecological environment of the Chinese art market. 2006-2009 was a blowout stage for Chinese contemporary art market. If we use the same logic as 'subprime mortgage crisis', it can be said that the blowout has overdrawn at least ten years' future development. The leaving Ullens is inevitable and occasional at the same time. The impact of auction 'The Ullens Collection–The Nascence of Avant Garde China' on Chinese contemporary art is mainly a loss of confidence. At that time a popular belief is that the western contemporary art collector were selling off Chinese contemporary art."
Voice of "Back to Art Noumenon"
Recently Zhu Wei found that art critic Lu Hong and Pi Daojian both expressed an opinion that artists should buckle down to concentrate on creation. "I think most people still keep a clear head. They are appealing for the future and sustainable development of Chinese contemporary art. It can be said a collective and conscious introspection. Even the most blamed country in the world won't evaluate an artist by how much money he earns, or evaluate an entrepreneur by how well he can paint, because their standards are not the same."
From 2012, the voice of "back to art noumenon" is louder and louder. The reasons of such phenomena are manifold. He Guiyan considered that superficially it's an issue of art noumenon, but if we explored it deeper, it was to provide a legitimate basis for "de-politicization". Furthermore, it indicates that the creation method or strategy of the cynic "Political Pop" rising since the 1990s began to wear off. In terms of commerce, the so-called "back to noumenon" artworks are happen to be the most popular artworks in the market, which is certainly not a coincidence.
From 2012, exhibitions of the Small Fresh, Contemporary Ink, New Ink and so on came on stage successively. Through lateral comparison in the history, we can find that in recent years many kinds of phenomena and trends appeared frequently, just like flashes of some young artists' performance in the market. Artist Zhu Wei said, "There are two art phenomena, the 85 Art Movement and the Post '89. The Stars Group prior to them, strictly speaking, is an ideological enlightenment of civil Democratic consciousness. What they mainly aimed at was not art, or not entirely art. And the concept of New Ink and so on after that are merely market practices."
Dr. He Guiyan pointed out directly that "since it is called 'New', there should be some historical context in the art history. That is to say, 'New' should be in contrast to 'Old'. However, in what manner is the 'New' reflected? Is the language or rhetorical device new? Is the creation methodology or medium concept new? Is the way of viewing or aesthetic taste new? Or is the reality orientation or cultural connotation new? If the above questions are not answered, this 'New' will not be established. Of course in the field of contemporary ink painting and meticulous painting, there are still some representative artists in recent years, but they haven't formed a trend." To He Guiyan, the "Small Fresh" is only a tendency of "de-politicization".
Comparing these trends and phenomena, Dr. He Guiyan believed that in addition to commercial considerations, the return of abstract art mainly benefited from its own development and accumulation. Since the mid 1980s, abstract has been an important part of contemporary art, but from the beginning it was marginalized. There were many reasons.
In the past decade, phenomenon of artists using the same language or concept to create didn't emerge again. Dr. He Guiyan reasoned that the linear and dualistic-antithesis development way of Chinese contemporary art since the 1980s and 1990s has ended. Today the narrative of fine art history is moving away from grand narrative consciously, and shifts toward microscopic, fragmented, and diversified development. The diversified development of young artists is not only influenced by the context of the art history, but also related to their knowledge structure, survival experience, and today's multicultural value orientations.
Artist Zhu Wei thinks that the diversification of art creation indicates the society has become relatively stable, and themes are not so centralized. Artists in most of the countries in the world are like this. Now we integrate with the world. Everyone stands on the same starting line. Before that Chinese contemporary art basically took the introspection of the Cultural Revolution as the coordinates, took the distance away from the Cultural Revolution as standard of chronology, and took how many symbols of the Cultural Revolution were used as artistic feature. The 85 Art Movement and Post 89' appeared like so. For a period of time, artists had a lot of similar themes to reflect, which from another point of view indicates that the country was not normal. The young artists nowadays catch up a golden era. They are not limited in the same theme to do the assigned job, not like army of thousands of men cross a single-log bridge, but showing their own special prowess. The chances of success are much more than before.
Although the ecological environment has undergone tremendous changes in the past three decades, especially in the latest decade, like what have been written in this article, there is something unavoidable. Let's review the preface of Art Criticism in the 20th Century by Shen Yubing, the professor and supervisor of Ph.D. students in Zhejiang University, "Today the Chinese art is taken to two hopeless extremes. At one extreme, art becomes a mere playing with brushstrokes to amuse oneself, a literati's recreation or a craftsman's stuff that is irrelevant to the present sensibility. At another extreme, what has spread rapidly and feverishly like pandemic virus since 1990s is the postmodernism. Being different from the risk of cultural conservatism, the risk of Chinese postmodernism is not becoming a plaything or decoration irrelevant to the present, but becoming a pure idea irrelevant to any laws of art forms and visual quality."