The last 20 years have witnessed a complete transformation of the art world in China.
Following Deng Xiaoping's ‘Open Door' reforms, which began in 1978, a new breed of Chinese artists, aware of the freedom becoming available to them began to emerge. They sought to engage aesthetically with their circumstances and with the changes - political, social and economic - that they saw occurring. The outside world was first introduced to this burgeoning art scene during the early-1990s through curated surveys initiated largely by foreign institutions. In recent years-and largely due to the sudden investor interest in the market-contemporary Chinese art has been the subject of an astonishing volume of foreign press. This and China's unprecedented economic growth have combined to claim the world's attention, leading the eyes of the global art world to turn with enthusiasm towards artistic centres like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. By 2008, more than half of the world's top-selling artists were listed as being Chinese, and despite a recent cooling of the market for contemporary Chinese art abroad - which some estimate has dropped by as much as fifty per cent - the art scene in China continues to thrive.
As a result of this rapid development, the artistic frameworks that have evolved are very different from those long established in the UK. In Beijing, a gallery system comparable to that of Western countries has yet to form. A tiered structure of state-funded and second-level museums, art foundations and private collections is not yet in place -even where on the surface to the outside world it might appear to be so. Although contemporary art has today achieved a degree of legitimacy on native soil, national institutions tend to show only a selective portion of the art that is being produced. This portion largely conforms to certain conservative notions of what ‘art' is, and there are no permanent displays of modern art in the capital. The work of more sophisticated and commercially successful artists in particular tends to remain hidden, largely due to the lack of professional spaces in China with which they want to be affiliated. Access to contemporary art is available, however, in the various ‘art districts' that have sprung up in response both to a lack of state-endorsed spaces and to commercial demand. In Beijing, 798 or ‘Dashanzi' - a former industrial factory compound in the north-east of the capital - is home to many galleries and a recently diminishing number of artists' studios: artists are now being driven out by ever rising ground rents. In the same vein, the communities like those at Caochangdi and East End Art are home to a variety of both commercial and not-for-profit galleries. This has recently been subject to some change, however, firstly because the economic crisis has affected sales and, secondly, because government redevelopment of the area threatens to demolish a great swathe of these communities. In the last ten years artists have been moving to a once-tiny village called Songzhuang in Tongzhou district in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, which has consequently become a leading base for contemporary art; about 1,500 artists from all over the country now live there. Li Feng, director of the oil painting department at Beijing Huachen Auctions, has remarked that "These communities reveal the true state of Chinese contemporary art - seemingly marginalized, but actually vigorous."
A growing number of privately-run galleries and foundations including Platform China at East End Art, Continua at 798, Boers-Li Gallery in Caochangdi and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre now provide reliable sites to see innovative work by China's foremost contemporary artists in a more academic environment. Arario Gallery and Today Art Museum also offer regular large-scale thematic shows (which vary in focus and quality). A growing body of literature on the subject includes books offering surveys, individual artist studies and, increasingly, thematic analyses of contemporary work. Timezone 8, located in 798, is an independent publisher based in Beijing and Hong Kong that produces more than a dozen new titles each year and sells a range of international art and design books in its cafe-shop. A number of journals produced both in China and abroad (some bilingual) are useful for keeping apace with ongoing events and emerging currents, and provide evidence of the plurality of perspectives on Chinese art that continue to appear. Yishu, for example, is a bi-monthly publication based in Vancouver containing scholarly essays, exhibition and book reviews and critical commentary. Art Asia Pacific and Third Text are also good sources in terms of the theoretical debates that are relevant to contemporary Chinese art in a global context, among them post-colonialism and ‘multiculturalism'.
In tandem with the boom in Chinese contemporary art and in the absence of a dependable system for it in the public realm, art spaces come and go with alarming speed and the volume and quality of work on display varies enormously. Against the sudden rise of contemporary art in China, and its passage from ‘underground' to the public eye, and in spite of much having been published in China and abroad, a critical framework has hardly had time to form. China still lacks the strong art-historical tradition against which new art styles can be placed within a broad narrative of artistic culture. In part, this is because the value systems in place relative to contemporary Chinese art are very different from those held in Europe. But in spite of the absence of an established aesthetic canon, in step with the speed of China's modernization, the processes of contemporary art-making and reception unfold at an accelerated pace. The result is that an artist's launch into the spotlight can be incredibly rapid. Similarly, exhibitions are staged, works sold and judgements passed quickly encouraging comment about the creation and reception of Chinese art as a mere commodity. Chinese curator and critic Gao Minglu believes that too much freedom for Chinese contemporary art is a problem and has emphasised the need for a strong and independent critical base to address the work. Many interpret the recent lull in the market as a positive moment of pause for the art scene in China. Shanghai-based artist Pu Jie, for example, believes that it is time for artists to ‘get back to basics': "...the economic crisis should make us think soberly about what sort of art we are making."
This is a crucial time for the art world in China. For foreign observers and those who wish to become involved in it, the Chinese contemporary art scene is at once robust, provocative and comparatively uncharted; its unprecedented recent development has great implications for the global art world, not least as a challenge to the Eurocentrism of art-historical discourse. As art critic Yang Wei has commented, "China's unique experience is the attraction of its contemporary art".
Article by Iona Whittaker
Long March Residency Program
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The Long March residency program is directed at constructing a platform for the crossing of borders of knowledge, discipline, and understanding, and providing deeper insight into how we view our own contemporary contexts. The residency program studio is located in Beijing, and run on a non-profit basis by the Long March Foundation (New York) and the 25000 Cultural Transmission Center (Beijing). The program primarily offers individuals interested in the study of visual culture in China a space to live and work in China, as well as assistance and support to help realize projects for a period of up to six months. Applications by visual artists are also accepted.