Modern art scene grabbing
investors By Pallavi Aiyar
BEIJING - "The first time I sold my
contemporary art collection was around three years
ago, and I tripled my investment. If I had waited
until today, the same works would have gone for 10
times what I sold them for," rued Robert Bernell,
a Beijing-based art publisher and collector.
Indeed, as China's booming economy rolls
ever onward, contemporary Chinese art has become
the latest "next big thing" in the international
art market, sending galleries, collectors and
investors alike into a rapturous tizzy.
Sotheby's first New York auction of contemporary
late last month, Chinese figurative painter Zhang
Xiaogang's Bloodline Series: Comrade No 120 (see below)
sold for US$979,200, more than twice the auction
house's high estimate of $350,000.
wasn't surprised at all. In fact I had bet money
that this auction would see a contemporary Chinese
painting reach $1 million. I narrowly lost the
bet, but there is no question in my mind that it
will happen at the very next auction," said
Ludovic Bois, founder of Chinese Contemporary, a
leading gallery of Chinese art in London and Beijing.
years of being forced to operate underground,
pariahs at home and ignored by the outside world,
artists in China are fast transforming from
near-starving outcasts to priority guests on
celebrity party lists. The flea-ridden, dingy
artist communities of the 1990s have metamorphosed
into ueber-chic neighborhoods, offering cappuccino
breaks for weary art-mongers.
Bernell's bookstore and Bois's art gallery are in
the 798 Space art complex, in the Dashanzi Art
District of east Beijing. Until a few years ago
the area was notable only for its hulking,
semi-defunct electronic-components and
military-equipment factories. Designed by
architects from East Germany in the 1950s, the
factories' Bauhaus architecture proved to be the
perfect environment for a new art community with a
fashionably edgy feel, and in the past three years
Dashanzi has emerged as the center of Beijing's
"What Montmartre was to Paris
and SoHo to New York, 798 is to Beijing," said
Bois, perhaps a tad bit hyperbolically.
The complex is home today to more than 30
galleries, cafes, boutiques and bookstores. New
York's Long March Foundation and the Tokyo Gallery
of Japan both have spaces here. According to
Bernell, the Guggenheim and Pompidou Center are
also currently looking to establish a presence at
the complex. Initially slated for demolition,
Dashanzi has now been given a stamp of approval by
the municipal authorities, who want to showcase
the neighborhood during the Summer Olympics in
This month, the high-profile third
Dashanzi International Art Festival will kick off,
a three-week extravaganza featuring 100 Chinese
and 50 foreign artists. The organizers are
expecting 150,000 people to attend. This month
will also see more than 90 art galleries from
around the world converge in the Chinese capital
for the third China International Gallery
Exposition (also known as the Beijing Art Fair).
"It's a heady feeling," said Bois.
"Museums around the world are buying [contemporary
Chinese art], Chinese collectors have begun to get
seriously interested and even funds are being
created to buy it. This is Chinese art's moment."
In the 1990s, little was known about
contemporary Chinese art. Most local artists at
the time belonged to what are called the pop-art
or cynical-realism schools. Both involved an overt
political critique. Wang Guangyi's Great
Criticism series, for example, slapped brand
logos on socialist propaganda images. At the time,
police routinely closed down exhibitions, and
denunciations of specific artists by the
authorities were common.
A few visionary
curators did organize shows abroad: the Oxford
Museum of Modern Art in 1993 and PSI New York in
1998 are examples. In 1999, the inclusion of 21
Chinese artists at the Venice Biennale was a
breakthrough, followed by a successful photography
exhibition called Inside Out that traveled across
the United States.
Bois recounts how a few
canny international collectors began to buy into
Chinese art early, when the market was still
brand-new to most investors. Kent and Vicki Logan
were the first noteworthy collectors in the US,
acquiring close to 200 works.
But the most
famous collector of Chinese contemporary art is
Swiss national Uli Sigg, who owns close to 2,000
works. Last year, ArtReview magazine ranked Sigg
72nd on its list of the most important
personalities in the art world. Bois predicts that
as Chinese art reaches its full value, Sigg has a
good chance of making it to the No 1 spot.
Aside from its popularity in the West,
Chinese art is now also beginning to be
aggressively collected by the Chinese themselves.
"In the 1990s, contemporary art was seen
as too risky, and most domestic collectors
preferred to go for antiques," recalled Boriana
Song, manager of the Chinese-owned Beijing Art Now
Gallery. "But now Chinese buyers are hungry for
culture, and they see contemporary art as
fashionable. The market is maturing, tastes are
changing, and more than 60% of our clients are
Moreover, as Bernell
explained, the routine oppression of artists by
the authorities, common in the 1990s, is over. In
fact today the government seems to be consciously
trying to find ways to use contemporary art to
bolster its image abroad, resulting in its active
involvement in sponsoring large-scale exhibitions.
"Satirizing Mao [Zedong]'s image still
remains taboo," said Bois, "but violence, sex and
nudity, which used to come in for flak, are pretty
much accepted today."
renaissance in Chinese art are museums, hundreds
of which are being renovated and built across the
country. The nationwide goal is to add 1,000 new
museums by 2015. In the capital, plans are afoot
to start up a privately run Beijing Museum of
Bois also points to the
important work of young and dynamic curators
intent on making sure that Chinese art is
exhibited and promoted by Chinese people and
institutions. "While the bulk of Chinese art
collectors are still Westerners, slowly tastes and
trends are starting to be dictated by Chinese
themselves," he said.
result of all this activity has meant that the
market for contemporary art is zooming ever
upward. Works by leading artists such as Zhang
Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi used to go for as little
as $1,000 in the early 1990s. By 1996 their price
had risen to about $10,000. Today, their works
routinely fetch $100,000-$200,000.
fears that the contemporary art market may be
overheated, Bois - who spent 15 years as an
investment banker in London prior to his artsy
avatar - remains bullish. "I think it's still an
'emerging market' worth investing in. It's still
undervalued, and upcoming artists can multiply in
value by as much [as] 30 [times], and more
established ones can go up at least 10 times."
Beijing Art Now's Song is more cautious.
"Prices seem to be going up too high, too quickly.
I think they will actually continue to rise for a
few more years. But [the contemporary art market]
can be dangerous - as dangerous as speculating in
real estate," she smiled.
Aiyar is the China correspondent for The