It is now the hottest art market in the world, with paintings changing hands for giddying sums. But could this sudden injection of cash stifle an art scene that is still in its infancy? Jonathan Watts meets the artists in the grip of a goldrush
Panoramic: Inside Zhang Xiaogang's studio
Thursday March 13, 2008
In the global top 10 ... Zhang Xiaogang. Photograph: Dan Chung
Bright red eyes cry paint-drip tears down the walls. A 15ft-high hoodie rips the skin off his anguished, aerosoled face. Graffiti covers the floor, windows, pipes and rafters: "This is not art", "AK47", "Fuck the police", "We'll miss you" and countless other jokes, curses and prayers in Mandarin, English, French and Japanese. Kids daub flowers on the brickwork. Artists sketch portraits on the door frames. Someone - perhaps a tourist gatecrasher, perhaps a famous painter - scrawls "poo" across the toilet seat. The crowds, colours and fumes thicken, and the Yanjing beer flows freely.
This "defacing party" at the Red T Space in the contemporary art district of Dashanzi comes two weeks after a demolition notice, and several days before the wrecking ball. By the time you read this, the gallery will be a pile of gorgeously painted rubble. And in six months - just in time for the Olympic crowds - the space will be occupied by a six-storey car park. Other small galleries in Dashanzi will also be bulldozed this week, along with a theatre established by one of the first artists to move into the old industrial park. As these small, individually run spaces go down, giant structures are being erected for international art foundations and museums.
It is the end of another era in Dashanzi, which - for better or worse - has come to represent the giddying rate of change in what has become the world's hottest contemporary art market. Six years ago, this dusty warren of smoke stacks, cavernous factories and brick workshops was barely known outside Beijing. The first artist, Huang Rui, moved in in 2002, rapidly followed by dozens of others attracted by the airy Bauhaus architecture and cheap rent. Like much of the avant-garde scene in those days, it was semi-legal, edgy, vibrant and constantly threatened by demolition.
But now Dashanzi - also known as Factory 798 after one of its biggest workshops - has government backing, and big money is moving in. Last November, the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art launched a multi-million dollar complex in Dashanzi by flying in dozens of international VIP guests for a caviar and champagne party. Next door, construction workers are putting the roof on a $15m (£7.5m) space financed by the Iberian Centre of Contemporary Art and other foreign institutions.
The art district has become a thriving institution, but its commercial success has come at a cost. Formerly quiet alleys now throng with tourists and traffic, and most of the old workshops are now terrace cafes, boutiques and trinket shops. Sharply rising rents and tighter government controls have driven out many founding artists. Small studios have been replaced by big galleries - a sign, say critics, that commerce has supplanted creativity. "Dashanzi has lost its soul," says Tamsin Roberts, the British owner of the Red T Space. Many Chinese artists and foreign curators would agree with Roberts; but, while they scorn the commercialisation of the area, those who have stayed welcome the crowds it draws to their work and galleries.
"Dashanzi used to be a place we wanted to be a part of," says Hu Ge, a member of the Woza collective of young, experimental media artists. "Now it is something we want to rebel against. During the past year, the meaning of art here has changed. Many artists are now commercial. We want to move away from that, to develop something new." Woza's current exhibition, at the Beijing Tokyo Art Projects in Dashanzi, certainly rips visitors from their comfort zone. Against a backdrop of screeching, clanking noise, a series of works invokes feelings of worry and stress. On one wall are 43 open windows on a giant computer screen. On another is a giant photograph of a soldier abseiling into a desert landscape. A pair of TV screens show soothing, rolling waves next to a fit-inducing strobe of red, purple and blue. Cages and pipes litter the floor. Scaffolding holds up a squid-like rocket with cable tentacles. You step out of this exhibition feeling relief - and sympathy for the poor security guard who has to experience the sensory disruption for hours on end. The studio next door used to be the home of Huang Rui, who was effectively driven out of the space last year by the Seven Star group, which manages Dashanzi. This could have been because of his politically provocative work; more likely it was a display of power. As the founder of the artists' community here, Huang was a rival source of authority in an increasingly lucrative community.
Considering his displacement, Huang is remarkably even-handed about what is happening to the district and to Beijing's art world. Chinese artists, he believes, are enjoying a golden age - though it could be short-lived if the trend for commercialisation continues. "The power of artists is stronger than before," he says. "Compared to the late Qing dynasty, or any time in the past 50 years, we have more freedom and social status. In the past, the only secure artists were those who worked for the government, painting propaganda pictures, but they were not independent. Now artists enjoy more freedom of expression. They can exhibit their work in public. They can participate in commerce, advertising and the media. This was unimaginable before."
Huang blazed a trail after the Cultural Revolution by forming China's first independent artists' group, the Stars, which embraced many ideas from beyond China. But he believes the current flood of foreign investment is a mixed blessing. "There are more galleries, and more Chinese works are being exhibited and sold in auctions. But because of the market, the power, wit, individuality and freedom of Chinese artists is being submerged in the commercial sea. The creation of art has become the production of goods."
Wandering through Dashanzi, it is easy to see what he means. Dozens of new galleries have opened up over the past couple of years, but it has become harder to find original work. Most of the exhibitions feebly echo the big-selling artists, or revisit familiar icons, such as the Cultural Revolution, Mao, migrants and grinning faces. But even if the poster peddlers have pushed out the picture painters, visitors are increasing. It is great for tourism. You could argue that even bad contemporary art is interesting because the usual subject matter - China's spectacular modern history - is so compelling.
Certainly, international buyers cannot seem to get enough of it. Last year, three Chinese artists - Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi - made the global top 10 bestsellers at auction houses. And although the spectacular rise in prices has slowed, strong domestic demand has kept the trend upwards. According to the Artron.net research company, $3.3bn worth of Chinese art was sold at public auction worldwide in 2007 - a 29.1% rise on the previous year.
Eric Chang Ting-Yuen, senior vice-president of Christie's in Hong Kong, says the market for Chinese contemporary art has soared in the past seven years. Last year, sales of Asian works at his auction house rose from HK$49m (£3.1m) to $74m (£4.7m). A few years ago, interest was almost exclusively the preserve of foreigners, but a recent report by Hurun - which compiles annual lists of China's wealthiest people - revealed that collecting contemporary art had become the leading hobby among the country's new rich.
Brian Wallace, an Australian who founded China's first contemporary art space, the Red Gate gallery in Beijing, estimates that 30% of buyers are now Chinese, compared to almost none three years ago. He expects the bubble to continue expanding for at least two years. "From our perspective, things are getting better and better," he says, despite what he describes as a loss of creativity. "Prices are still going up, led by the big auction houses at the top end. Many artists are sold again and again. Quality work is much harder to get. Some artists, even a few of the big names, are cranking work out with the help of assistants. They are flooding the market. When there is a correction, these will lose value the quickest."
For the moment, buyers interested primarily in investment are opting for established names and styles. As long as it is Chinese, contemporary and famous, the assumption is that it will rise in value.
If creativity is not what it was, there have been gains in other areas of the art world. The professionalism of exhibitors is improving rapidly as foreign money and expertise bring galleries, museums and catalogues closer to global standards. Rather than ruin the art scene, this might ultimately allow Dashanzi - and China - to become a serious international player, say supporters of the transformation. "The problem is not money, but how it is used," says Colin Chinnery, the British chief curator of Ullens. "If it is just to create a commercial zone with cafes, restaurants and galleries, then Dashanzi will lose the plot. But if there are also serious organisations that put art first, then it will keep its gravitas."
Commercialisation has brought opportunities, according to artist Zhang Xiaogang, who has more reason than most to be upbeat about the flood of money. In 2006, a piece from Zhang's Bloodline series of Cultural Revolution portraits was the first work of Chinese contemporary art to fetch more than $1m on the market. It was bought by Charles Saatchi, whose rapidly expanding collection of Chinese works has helped up the value of pieces by Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and others he collects. Saatchi will open his new gallery in Chelsea with an exhibition of Chinese art this spring. "Very few of us in the west know much about the new Chinese art," he says. "But I am convinced that the best of this generation are as exciting as the leading artists in the US and Europe.
Although there is an overwhelming amount of derivative and kitschy nonsense, I hope our opening show will be full of surprising and interesting art - rather different to the work we have all grown more familiar with."
Zhang believes Chinese art is entering "an era of the sort that comes only once every 100 years. I think the young generation are very fortunate. Some receive attention when they are only in their second year of university. Buyers offer bags of money. But I think they are under more pressure than me, because they are deeply influenced by the market. It is hard to balance this with the idealism they want to pursue."
Zeng Fanzhi, another bestselling Chinese artist, is uneasy about the impact of the market. "Many works now are empty and vague," he says. "They don't express the real thinking of society. Even some excellent artists have joined in with this kind of horrible work. All artists should feel worried when they receive attention not because of who they are, but because of how much money they can make."
Zeng has recently shifted his focus from garish expressionist portraits to what he describes as "wild brushstroke" landscapes. Chinese culture, he says, is in his marrow, but he is not convinced there is - or should be - a Chinese style. "All Chinese contemporary artists are trying to express their own understanding of society, their own feelings. But, unavoidably, some icons come up again and again, like Mao or Tiananmen. I guess they have been repeated so often that people feel that represents 'Chinese style', but this is weak. Repetition is boring."
The danger is exactly that: that as foreign investors and government administrators seek safe, commercial art, Dashanzi's artists begin to repeat themselves. But Dashanzi is not the whole of China, and even if the district does turn into Carnaby Street, other places might take the creative lead. There are thriving art communities in Shanghai, Chengdu, as well as elsewhere in Beijing. Among the most dynamic is Caochangdi, where Platform China runs exhibitions of new - and less mainstream - work by upcoming artists. This is also the home of Ai Weiwei, one of the most influential conceptual and performance artists of the past 30 years. He remains as defiantly anti-establishment as ever, last year announcing his refusal to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics even though he helped design its spectacular "Bird's Nest" stadium. The Beijing Olympics, he says, is propaganda: a "fake smile" masking the country's "disgusting" politics, troubled society and foul environment.
It is still too early to give up on Dashanzi, though. Despite the loss of some of the most innovative smaller galleries, there are still superb shows at good contemporary galleries. Like the demolition zones and building sites throughout Beijing, the area is a work in progress. "Dashanzi is incredibly young," says Colin Chinnery. "It is just five years old, so it is hard to say what its soul is. It is still in the process of finding itself." The same might be said of China and its contemporary art scene. It is wealthier, slicker and more professional than it was a decade ago, but still wandering uncertainly amid the rubble of the old China.
· Work by contemporary Chinese artists will feature throughout the year in China Now, a UK-wide festival of Chinese culture.