The Gates of Modern Taste
by Jo Lusby
article courtesy of City Weekend magazine http://www.66cities.com/
Ten years ago, artists couldn't live by art
alone. Now contemporary Chinese painters are beginning to take their
place on the international arena, thanks in part to the Beijing
space that showed it - the Red Gate Gallery
"The way westerners look at our art is different to
how we Chinese look at it ourselves," explains artist Qi Zhilong.
"So Chinese artists have to be aware of western values of
aesthetics. What we put up for sale is largely what we know
As one of China's most successful -
read saleable - contemporary artists, Qi should know. As recently as
ten years ago, Chinese contemporary art was seldom seen and even
more rarely purchased. Beijing's artists had no formal gallery to
show or sell their paintings in, and nobody was interested in
buying. "The market for modern art really started in 1992," recalls
Qi. "And the Red Gate arrived at the right time."
The Red Gate Gallery has
come a long way since it first opened its doors in July 1991. Housed
on the ground and top floors of the cavernous Ming Dynasty
Watchtower on the southern stretch of Beijing's crumbling city
walls, the gallery was Beijing's first privately-run contemporary
art gallery, opened to provide a space where bright young artists
could show the most cutting edge modern art. "The ground floor was
taken up with an exhibition of the local rock collectors society,"
recalls Brian Wallace, Red Gate founder, glancing down at an area
now filled with contemporary art sculptures.
But aside from
lofty artistic aims, the gallery also had to make enough money in
order to survive, and that was never a certainty. At that time, the
only other contemporary art gallery was the now-defunct Concert Hall
Gallery, and Wallace initially opened the Red Gate on the prayer
that it would be able to pay its own way for a couple of years, at
most. "It was very early days for commercial activity," recalls
Wallace. "And it was early days for the contemporary art scene, in
terms of people's appreciation and interest, and in terms of the
There was essentially no commercial
interest among the local Chinese in the modern art being produced.
The overwhelming majority of buyers were from the ex-pat
diplomat/journalist community, and this had a necessary impact on
what was being produced. "The art scene then was more focused on the
embassies and their tastes," explains Robert Bernell from art portal
Chinese-art.com. "And that made it less dynamic, less plural."
Stylistically, the contemporary art of the early '90s was
Cynical Realist. Distorted images were suffused with a sense of
boredom, and the subject matter was very inward, exploring the
artistic medium rather than any transcendent spirituality. "At that
time, I only worked in black and white," says artist Wang Yuping.
"The general feel was one of depression." One of the foremost
contemporary painters at the time, Wang's style gradually changed
into his current (more optimistic) trademark theme of brightly
colored fish images.
Almost all artists were forced to find
regular day jobs in order to support themselves, and pursue their
own art in the evenings. "The only option for art graduates then was
to become art teachers," recalls Qi, who now lives off the sales of
his oil paintings alone. "Either that or editors. That way you could
still work towards the purpose of becoming an artist one day."
"Nowadays, probably about one
in ten artists don't need to get another job," says artist Lu Peng,
himself starting out and still punching the time clock at a Beijing
art college. As rapid economic development swept China into the 21st
century, though, foreign art markets and a growing international
community in major cities broadened horizons and increased the
salability of pictures. Buyers in Hong Kong and further a field
started zoning in on the art coming out of China, and a breath of
optimism swept through the art scene.
the changes that have been going on in the society for fifteen
years," says Wallace. "As they've grown up, and matured, they've
been a part of it, not just observers. Years ago, (the artists) just
tried everything that had been done in the west. Now, they're more
confident in the range of materials they use, and confident in what
they want to express."
"There are people in their forties
and fifties who are doing very good work that is coming across as
international," Wallace explains. "It's not 'Chinese International'
work, which was how it used to be described." International, but not
big bucks. Artists like Fang Lijun and Cai Guoqing are considered to
be the aristocrats of the market, with price tags of between
US$25,000 and US$100,000.
But this is peanuts when compared
with other market sales. "A couple of weeks ago, Georgia O'Keeffe's
painting of a flower was sold for US$16 million at auction in the
States," contextualises Bernell. "If you were to take that US$16
million and collect Chinese contemporary art, you could buy every
single major work, by every single major artist, from now until ten
years into the future, and still have enough money left to build a
museum. You can buy one painting, or a generation."
It's this generation that
the Red Gate aims to represent in its ten-year anniversary show,
Clues to the Future. Some of the biggest names in contemporary art -
including Sui Jianguo, Wan Huangxiang, Su Xinping, as well as Qi
Zhilong and Wang Yuping - will be represented, all artists with
international recognition who have formed the mainstay of art over
the last ten years. Alongside these sit exhibits from bright young
things, including painter Lu Peng and installation artist Shi
"I had a bit of a sense of humor when I was making
the works," says Sui Jianguo of his installation Made in China. The
show's centerpiece, the exhibit takes the form of a group of
three-meter-tall pink dinosaurs with 'Made in China' stamped on
their torsos. The pieces were carried up the historic steps to the
gallery under the cover of dark, at an hour when regulations allowed
the trucks inside Beijing's city limits, and minor repairs were
necessary on some of the prehistoric creatures' extremities after
their arduous journey.
"I discovered that almost all the toy
dinosaurs in the world are made in China," Sui explains. "Ten years
ago, they were all made in Taiwan and Thailand. Twenty years ago, it
was Japan and Korea. To my mind, the dinosaurs represent the ancient
and increasingly powerful nature of China - partly from the business
of manufacturing cheap toys."
Implicit in running a
commercial gallery, and a successful one to boot, comes a charge
that the works on show are produced for a consumer market rather
than for the sake of art. "The things that sell best will always be
the most popular, cheesy art," says Lu Peng.
That as may be,
but Wallace defends the artistry of the pieces he shows in the Red
Gate. "They are distinctive, and genuinely creative," he asserts.
"Whether they sell or not is a secondary consideration. Some of them
do not sell very well, or at all... (but) the good sellers help to
carry the slower ones. All of them contribute greatly to the
gallery, and a sales record is not used to measure that
contribution." But sell, on the whole, they probably will. "There is
an emerging, and growing, market for modern art in China," says
Robert Bernell of Chinese-art. "As I understand it, at the last
Shanghai Art Fair almost 50% of the sales went to local buyers."
The future also looks good for the Red Gate - the local
government plans to raze the apartment blocks from the Watchtower
across to the railway station, and create a public park around one
of the last remaining sections of city walls, raising the profile of
the site from its present position beside a flyover. The artist, for
now, have more mundane concerns for the future: "I'll know I've made
it when one of my pictures sells for US$100,000 in America," laughs
Clues to the Future, Red Gate Gallery at the
Watchtower, Dongbianmen, Beijing, until August 29. Check http://www.redgategallery.com/
for more details
"Linefield Series #381"
Installation: painted wood panels
New Eight Banners"
Oil on canvas
New Eight Banners"
Oil on canvas
"Homage to Giacomatti"
Sculpture: wire mesh