By Susan Moore
Contemporary art is one of the world's great resources. It can be found almost anywhere and in potentially limitless supply. Hitherto unknown territory is being mapped and emerging talent tapped by eager prospectors.
Innovative art fairs, particularly Art Basel, began offering an international platform for galleries from far-flung corners of the globe in the mid-1990s. It is therefore not surprising that Lorenzo Rudolf (Art Basel's transforming director from 1991 to 2000, who was responsible for introducing new platforms such as Art Unlimited and Art Statements) is extending the reach still further in ShContemporary.
Launched last September as the region's first truly international contemporary art fair, ShContemporary is staged in Shanghai. The show presents leading galleries from Europe and the US with some of the best artists from the Asia Pacific region in equal proportion (this year there some 130 exhibitors representing 26 countries).
It is, of course, a commercial venture but Rudolf is determined the event will be more than a shop window for the artwork. "The fair has to have an educational role," he says. "It is essential to give people here an overview of art from all over the globe."
In a ground-breaking move Rudolf has commissioned a team of 10 independent curators with knowledge of their given regions to make an informed selection of work by promising younger artists largely unknown on the international stage. They have scoured not only China but Australasia, Central Asia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Taiwan and Thailand.
The works selected for this Best of Discovery section will go on display in an open-format, museum-like installation in the grounds of the imposing Soviet-built Shanghai Exhibition Centre, where the fair will be held from September 10 to 13.
Unlike the large-scale work in Basel's Art Unlimited space - which this year included Chinese artist Qui Anxiong's train installation "Staring into Amnesia" - these pieces are not on show because of gallery affiliation but on merit alone. In fact, half the artists selected had no gallery representation at all. For the purposes of the fair, exhibiting dealers have sponsored these artists, forging temporary relationships that may well continue after the event.
Most intriguing is the work being produced in those regions where creativity has been frozen, corrupted or isolated for decades, even centuries. Perhaps least known is the art of the new Central Asian republics which first made their debut on the international stage at the Venice Biennale in 2005. To represent Central Asia and the Caucasus, curator Sara Raza has alighted on the work of the outlandish Kazak performance artist Erbossyn Meldibekov and also on the emerging Georgian artist Sophia Tabatadze.
While Meldibekov takes a satirical look at the personality cults of leaders promoted by nationalistic government campaigns in the post-Soviet era, Tabatadze's architectural installations investigate the post-Soviet urban experience.
Sponsoring Meldibekov is London-based dealers Rossi & Rossi, specialists in Himalayan and South-East and Central Asian classical art. Fabio Rossi, who began to diversify the business founded by his mother by showing the contemporary Tibetan art, says his project with the Kazak artist is part of the gallery's policy to extend its programme. "These regions are exploding with creativity," he says. "These artists don't carry the burden of modern western art; what they come up with is very fresh and exciting."
But while the curators have been given a free hand in their selection, some of their exhibits have fallen foul of the Chinese censors, among them Erbossyn's Iznik-style plates incorporating motifs of American flags and missiles. (They rejected Indonesian curator Rifky Effendi's initial Crucifixion project too).
As to the tricky business of how to price work by artists with little or no international standing, Rossi takes into account how complex a work is, whether or not it is a one-off piece and at what stage in his or her career the artist is. "It is important to find a way of building up interest in an artist, and starting with a price range that most people feel comfortable with," he says. "The contemporary pieces in my gallery sell for £5,000-£10,000, although artists like Gonkar Gyatso now sell for £40,000." While at last year's fair buyers were predominantly from Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, Rossi is optimistic about interest from the Chinese mainland. "There is a real buzz about contemporary art in China now," he says.
One of the aims of ShContemporary is to help develop a framework for this fledgling and potentially lucrative international art market on the Chinese mainland. To date, few Chinese contemporary art collectors have bought anything other than Chinese art, although dealers such as Michael Schultz of Berlin and New York dealers James Cohan and Pace Wildenstein have all recently opened spaces in the country. The big question is what, if anything, local buyers will choose to favour.
ShContemporary shows at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre, September 10-13; the Shanghai Biennale is at the Shanghai Art Museum, September 9-November 16.