“YuGong YiShan” by Xu Beihong, auctioned in June for 33 million RMB (US$4.12 million)

Here is another interview I did while researching a piece of art in Beijing for Art Review. Chaos Chen is a curator working mostly with public institutions. This conversation did a lot to undo some of my assumptions about the relationship between China’s government and its contemporary artists…

Chinese Art is Undervalued
A conversation with Chaos Chen

BM: The Chinese government is generally portrayed in the foreign press as hostile toward contemporary art, but many of the people I’ve met in Beijing feel strongly that this isn’t a fair view. Having worked in the public sphere, I’m curious about your view on the government’s engagement with contemporary art.

CC: China is now undergoing a transformation in the sense that the government has started to consider the positive impact of cultural activities. They are willing to put large of amounts of money into cultivating cultural life here, by paying for international exhibitions to come over and sponsoring exhibitions of Chinese artists abroad – starting from the ["Living in Time"] exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in 2001. That was pretty much the beginning of the Cultural Ministry getting involved in [Chinese] contemporary art exhibitions overseas. Before they only sent Peking Opera and things like that. But after the exhibition in Berlin was such a success, not only in terms of the public’s response but also the collaborative governments from other countries, you started to see an immediate change in the approach to contemporary art, with the government involved in the [2003 Chinese contemporary art] exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, which was curated by [Fan Di'an] from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. And from there they started to really twist the scenario. Before that [the presentation of Chinese contemporary art] was dominated by non-Chinese born curators. So, when China started to get fully collaborative, it showed major progress.

I’ve recently been meeting with one of the chiefs in the Cultural Ministry, and he gave a very open opinion: he said to me, if I can quote, ‘Contemporary art is no problem at all.’ And I’ve seen one of the officers showing up at the gallery openings, trying to get himself well prepared and well informed. And I think that that’s a very good sign. It’s not segregated as before.

Also, I think one of the most important things [the government] is doing is to change the legal infrastructure – to reconstruct the legal system. Very recently, there was a new law passed that will provide a 100% deduction for charitable giving. This is enormous progress. I think it’s even more advanced than in the United States. And I believe that within five years, this change to the infrastructure will have a strong effect on whole climate. About a year ago, China passed a new law to protect the ownership of private property, and this immediately had an effect: you see all these wealthy businesspeople starting to buy art in a very active way. And so, the government involvement in this sense has been very positive.

BM: In terms of these businesspeople you mention, a lot is now being made of the emergence of a domestic market for Chinese art. This is talked about from a lot of angles – as emblem of national pride, as a force that it pushing the prices of art to new, possibly unrealistic levels, etc. What is your impression the more active buying now happening here?

CC: Well, first I should say that I’m not a specialist in the art market; I work mostly in the public domain, but I have witnessed the up and coming contemporary art market here. But I think it’s important to emphasize that the buying and collecting of art in China has a long tradition. It was interrupted during the cultural revolution, but before that and after that there were always people buying art. But usually the focus was only on traditional ink paintings, calligraphy, pottery, and all the traditional Chinese forms of art. Only very recently have we begun to start buying contemporary art. And I believe this was encouraged by the success of contemporary Chinese art internationally, but the domestic buyers have their own voice, and you can see that the artists who have been successful in the domestic market are very different from the artists who succeed in the international market. But within the last ten months, I think, these groups have begun to merge.

Before the emergence of the domestic market for Chinese contemporary art, many of the artists were dependent on international sponsorship. And international funding can be tricky, the link can be very weak, and domestic financial engagement will reduce the risk that one day the international interest will move on – and I believe it’s already turning to India. Ultimately it is the national-based art market that you can count on, because the international art market is almost entirely about shifting interests.

BM: Who, in your experience, is making up this domestic market?

CC: The majority of the most visible people in the domestic market are from real estate, where they might have spaces to decorate. But actually there is more power behind the people in the energy industry – people who own power stations or coal mines. These people can be relied on; they won’t go bankrupt. Even real estate can be high risk.

And how do you feel about the increasing talk of an art bubble forming here – partly due to the engagement of these new buyers?

In my opinion, Chinese art, generally speaking, is undervalued. So, all the record breaking sales are understandable. Compared to European or American contemporary art or with antiquities, I think it’s undervalued.

I think the bubble only refers to the young, up and coming Chinese artists. And for them, it is positive, because they are being provided with tremendous resources that they can use to put back into their art. Their only limit is their imagination. And besides, the bubble is just one part of the picture, it’s important not to fixate on the bubble. It’s there, 100% bubble, but there are a lot of other things going on as well.

Chaos Y. Chen is curator, writer, and founder of art consultancy chaosprojects. Prior to starting chaosprojects, she was Chief Curator at the Millennium Art Museum in Beijing.

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