Sotheby's recent auctions of Chinese art in New York and Hong Kong were widely regarded as a watershed for the Chinese art market. Most pieces went for double or triple their estimate, with one lot, a painting by Zhang Xiaogang, selling for almost one million US dollars to a Chinese buyer living in Singapore who was, apparently, previously unknown to everyone. The results were heralded as the avatar of China's rise as a new 'cultural superpower'.
The reality, however, is that the market for Chinese art has a long way to go, and these auctions have in many ways actually set things back. The real triumph belongs to Sotheby's, which manipulated public perception about the sale very effectively. Reporters like The New York Times's Carol Vogel were forced to rely on the auction house for information on the identity of buyers and other information on the sale.
While many spoke excitedly about the emergence of big Mainland Chinese collectors, facts are that 70 per cent of buyers at the New York sale were Americans or Europeans. And probably the majority of the remaining 30 per cent came from Taiwan. While there were many Mainlanders seated in the audience, few of them bid or actually bought anything (of course there may have been many bidding on the phones). Many of them, like China Art Now's Huang Liaoyuan, seemed more in a hurry to get to Atlantic City.
Most of the Western buyers at the New York auction were dealers who have dabbled in the Chinese field before. Many of them have started 'flipping' work as prices rise vertiginously. The result is more and more work being sold and resold within a relatively small circle of 'players' looking to cash out while the going's still good.
Hong Kong of course saw more Asian buyers, but the media exaggerated the extent of the Mainland role. The vast majority of the top lots were Chinese twentieth-century oil paintings that went to Taiwanese and, in one case, Indonesian-Chinese collectors. The auctions grossed roughly US$13 million and US$16 million respectively - respectable, but small change compared to Sotheby's and Christie's major annual sales.
A serious issue was the the sale itself. Sotheby's has always had flexible ethical standards, but these auctions were more flexible than most. Works appeared in the catalogue with barely a provenance if any - actually, most of the works were consigned directly from the artists, something Sotheby's never publicly admitted. And the condition of several works has been questioned by professional conservators. The sales were stacked with minor works by "big name" artists like Yue Minjun. The result looked a bit like those reject clothing sales. The calculation seemed to be the kind of speculative buyers Sotheby's were after wouldn't notice, or care.
While the extent of Chinese buying at the auctions, as well as the Chinese role within the broader international art market, may have been oversold, there is no question that there is for the first time an active market for contemporary art in China, and that expansion is changing the nature of the global market for Chinese art. This new Chinese art market is like a microcosm of China as a whole: growing rapidly, but growing badly. Standards of conduct are non-existent, and almost none of these new buyers qualify as a 'collector', in the sense of commitment and knowledge.
Many people point to the fact that things are improving in China; that as China gets richer, serious collectors and museums, etc., will somehow inevitably emerge. I won't even bother with the fact that these 'improvements' exist mostly for foreigners like myself and for the thin layer of well-connected Chinese who are now raking it in. Or that those who most often spout this line are totally self-interested. What is important is that nothing in this world is inevitable.
The mere fact that rich people exist in China doesn't mean that they will spend millions of dollars and countless hours of their time collecting work by artists over years and even decades. Collecting contemporary art is a very special taste. Even in the 'developed' countries, there are inscrutable patterns. Why do Belgium and Switzerland have so many collectors, and Holland or Austria so few? Why does the US, with roughly double the population and GDP of Japan, have thirty or forty times the number of major collectors as the Japanese? Or why does India, with a similar population but half the GDP of China, have such a vibrant domestic market for its artists?
The fundamental issue is that China's economy is fueled by investment, not profits, which motivates people to position themselves to get more investments rather than planning for achievement in the long term. The current 'boom' in the Chinese economy is all about positioning and manipulating perceptions to help attain certain short-term goals. This infects the art world as much as anybody else. Art has also become an asset class at a time when there are very few vehicles for wealthy people to invest in, due to an increased awareness of how rich people spend their money in other countries, and the higher status of artists in Chinese society at the moment.
You might call China a blank slate for big ambitions. But too often they are shallow ambitions.
This is not to say there is no real basis for the current foreign interest in Chinese art. This huge country, for so long off the map, is producing artists who can draw on a wellspring of images, concepts and issues that are totally unique to China and produce works that have that elusive 'local flavor' increasingly rare in a globalised world. There are also a small but growing number of first-rate galleries in China. The current infusion of cash into the market brings them some short-term profits, but is also destructive in the long run. It inflates the expectations of artists and makes them even more exploitative of their galleries. It encourages pricing that is unrealistic in the long term. It prices younger or novice collectors out of the market, leaving many artists vulnerable to the whims of a few deep-pocketed collectors. It will one day crash, when the speculators who are now blindly following their 'advisors' realise prices have started to fall and dump their collections on the market.
Watching these auctions, I began to wonder if things were actually "improving" in China at all. Maybe they were actually getting worse. The radical undermining of orthodoxy, the sense of mental and physical freedom, that crude playfulness and deep engagement with life itself that made Chinese art so attractive, have been replaced in all too many cases by cynical, rote repetition without feeling or thinking.
- Mon, 1 May 2006