20111121-Christies zeng_fanzhi_d5511535h.jpg
work by Zeng Fanzhi

In February 1989, at the “China/Avant-Garde show” at the National Gallery of Art — the first Chinese government-sponsored exhibition of experimental art — the female artist Xiao Lu whipped out a pellet gun and fired two shots into a mirrored sculpture made from two telephone booths , which she created with another artist, Tang Song. Police officers swarmed into the museum. The international media covered the story as an act of rebellion. Xiao was embraced by the Chinese intelligencia as a hero and became the most famous female Chinese artist ever. Some even said the incident was an inspiration for the Tiananmen Square demonstration a couple months later.Later Xiao said that the motivation for her action was not political or aesthetic but emotional. She was expressing anxiety over her relationship ship with Tang which was on the decline, and firing at a reflection of herself. Many found this revelation trivialized what was perceived as a great revolutionary act.

On his only visit to China in 1982, Andy Warhol wrote: “I went to the Great Wall. You know, you read about it for years. And actually, it was really great. It was really, really, really great.”Warhol painted Mao because Life magazine called him the most famous man in the world. In the mid 1990s, the art scene was still largely underground and most artists were poor, often living in squalid conditions. Modern artists were accused of being sources of ‘spiritual pollution” and worried about being arrested if they talked to foreign reporters. With money in short supply, censors watching them and no galleries to market their works, they mounted one-night shows that doubled as rent parties in their small apartments.

An exhibition featuring Chinese artists at the Saatchi Gallery in London called “The Revolution Continues” drew lots of attention in late 2008. On the vibrant Chinese modern art scene at that time, John Howkins wrote in The Australian, “ New movements multiply with bewildering speed, as cities, artists and international dealers promote their favorites... the Stars Group, Scar Art, the Red Brigade, Nativist Realism, Cynical Realism, Rational Painting, the Stream of Life, the New Generation...and Political Pop through to Youth Cruelty and Visual Comics. This rapid turnover is caused partly by Chinese people's instinct to operate in groups and partly by their mania for labels. [Source: John Howkins, The Australian July 28, 2008]

20111121-Christies chen_yifei_d5511533h.jpg
work by Chen Yifei
One of the most happening places for artists in China is Factory 798 in Beijing. It is more touristy than it used to be but still interesting. See Factory 798 The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), opened by a Swiss collector in 2008 has become the center of art life in Beijing. Shanghai’s art district is located around 50 Moganshan Lu (M50) near the train station and embraces several neighborhoods and is expanding. It houses lots of artist studios used by modern artists. Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, 425 Dingxiang Road, Pudong, is one of the leading performance and cultural facilities in Shanghai.

Websites and Sources: Art Scene China Art Scene China ; Artron ; Saatchi Gallery ; Graphic Arts ; Yishu Journal ; Asia Society ; Art in Beijing Factory 798 in Beijing Wikipedia Wikipedia; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters ; More Posters still Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection ; Chinese Modern Artists Cai Guo Guggenheim Show ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Zhang Xiaogang Saatchi Gallery Wikipedia article ; Wikipedia ; Various works ; Yue Minjun Works

Chinese Art Schools and Artists

The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing is China’s top art school. Less than 10 percent of those who apply are accepted. Among the famous contemporary artist that have studied there are Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan, Faculty members include the artists Liu Xiaodong, whose works have sold for as much as $8.2 million, Sui Jianguo, regarded as China’s best sculptor; and Xu Bing, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius award. Many of the school’s professors have become millionaires from selling works by their students.

Work by Wang Guangyi
In the Maoist era the Central Academy of Fine Arts occupied a small area near Tiananmen Square, It had only 300 students and professors who mostly taught Social Realism and prepared students to work for the state. In 1989 its students created the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that was a focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests. Today the school occupies a new 33-acre campus and has 4,000 students, a 160,000 square-foot museum, spacious classrooms and studios and the latest video editing equipment. Students tend to be less idealistic than they were in the past and more commercial minded.

Works by students who have not even graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing are being featured at major galleries and being sold for thousands of dollars. Collectors often show up at the university to search for rising talent. Some artists sign their works with their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers.

Faculty members at the Central Academy of Fine Arts have told the New York Times that today’s students are less interested in politics and more interested in their personal struggle. One artist, whose works feature subjects that look himself dressed in women’s clothes, performing violet sexual acts, told the Times his art tells “my own story, my mentality. The whole process of art is like a process to cure myself.”

Traditionally students have been taught to paint by painting the same figurative works over and over in a training method that emphasized discipline. At the Central Academy of Fine Arts these training methods have given way to a freer teaching styles that encourage students to look deep in themselves of inspiration,

Other noteworthy schools include the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (formally known as the Hangzhou Academy) and the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. The latter has a reputation for producing innovative painters. In 2007 it received more than 64,000 applications for 1,600 openings.

Chinese Art and Censorship

Art is arguably the freest medium in China. The government for the most part tolerates the Chinese modern art scene no matter what they create. Unless a work is blatantly offensive or politically subversive, censors tend to look the other way and allow it to be shown. Even some humiliating portraits of Mao and offensive shock art have been allowed to circulate.

20111121-Christies yue_minjun_d5511557h.jpg
Work by Yue Minjun
That is not say censorship doesn’t occur. Lines that can be crossed at punishments for crossing those lines can be dished out. Gao Qinag, an artist who runs a gallery at Factory 798 and produces Mao figures with breasts, Pinocchio noses and dragons emerging from “his” vagina, had his lease for his gallery taken away. On Mao with breasts, Gao told Reuters, “During the Cultural Revolution, we used to say that Mao was like the mother of China. So we decided to give mother breasts.” Zhao Jianhua, who paints pictures of Mao with a Nike swoosh and pop-art style paintings of Deng Xiaoping, was forced to withdraw from a group show in 2007 after authorities threatened to shut down the entire show.

In the summer of 2005, authorities in Beijing and Shanghai removed a large number of art works from galleries. In 2007 the staff at the Dulon Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai walked out over a disagreement over what could and could not be shown. The artist Wang Qingsong was detained for two days when a model in one of his tableaux works complained about nudity in the piece.

Chinese Modern Art in the 1980s

The relatively free-wheeling 1980s is regarded by some as a sort of golden age of Chinese modern art. Many critics argue that more innovative works emerged during that period than during the painting boom that followed when artists became more commercially aware and made “a fortune manufacturing machines to read credit cards.” The movement was started some artists who had little formal training. In 1982, a couple years after the Cultural Revolution ended, there were only 100 or so graduating art majors in the whole country. Today there are around 260,000. The revolutionary Stars Group was formed in the late 1970s.

The 1980s is regarded as key period in Chinese modern art. Artists from the influential 1985 New Wave include Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Geng Jianyi and Hunag Yongping. Some of their works are clearly copies of Picasso, Munch and the Dada artists but others are original and offer insight in what Communist China was like as it was emerging from the Cultural Revolution.

20080303-Xu Bing.jpg
A Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing.
In 2013 the Asia Society in Hong Kong hosted an exhibition called “Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985", which examined influential contemporary artists from three different artist groups of the period: Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Star), and Caocao (Grass Society). According to the exhibition curators: “Wuming, Xingxing and Caocao were formed by like-minded artists in Beijing and Shanghai during the 1970s. Spanning two generations, the artists never ceased to create artworks, sometimes working quietly and even secretly, until the Communist Party’s decision to relax restrictions on artistic practices in 1985. Between the pivotal years of 1974 and 1985, the young members of Wuming, Xingxing and Caocao sought to resist the proliferation of official art by innovating through new interpretations of nature, abstraction and ink painting. Crossing the boundaries of subject matter and style, they often questioned, re-evaluated and redefined the forms, the nature of beauty and the art of China. Works in the exhibition trace the beginning of modernism in the post-Mao era. The exhibition aims to shed light on the little-known artwork of this era, which helped to set the stage for the emergence of a contemporary art movement in China and also on the global scene. [Source: “Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985 exhibition, May 15-September 1, 2013. Asia Society Hong Kong]

In 1988, an exhibition of relatively modest nude oil paintings in Beijing was singled out by Communist officials as a display of Western decadence and closed down. A protest over the closure grew into larger protests that led to the crack down at Tiananmen Square. The “China Avant-Garde” show in 1989 at the National Gallery if Art in Beijing was a defining moment in the Chinese modern art scene. It was the first contemporary art exhibition permitted in an official forum. It lasted for only a few hours. It was shut down after the performance artist Xiao Lu entered the show with a pellet gun and shot two bullets through her work — a pair of mannequins in phone boxes.

One of the most famous works from the 1980s was “A Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing. Attracting a lot of attention when it was shown at the National Art Museum , it consists of a bunch of books and wall scrolls that appear to replicate ancient literary text but up are comprised of intelligible characters. The work was interpreted by many to be criticism of Communist propaganda. Madeleine Boucher wrote in the Art Genome Project: Book Xu "invented, hand-carved and typeset the apocryphal “classical texts” according to traditional Chinese printing methods, a process which took him and his assistants over three years to complete. The result is a powerful experience of the limitations of language for any viewer: while Chinese speakers find their desire to decode the opaque text constantly frustrated, all viewers are immersed in the almost mystical presence of so much unintelligible language. [Source: Madeleine Boucher, Art Genome Project, June 24, 2014]

Chinese Modern Art in the 1990s

20111121-Christies zhang_xiaogang_d5511543h.jpg
work by Zhang Xiaogang
In the early 1990s the art scene in Beijing was centered around an artist colony called Dong Un (East Village) behind the city’s Third Ring Road. There was a very lively underground scene there. Shows were held in basements in out-of-the-way areas to avoid police detection. If an exhibit stayed open a week that was considered a long time. Artists sometimes moved four or five times a year. After one controversial exhibition in 2001 police raided the colony and arrested some of the artists and razed the village and built a public park in its place.

“Apartment art” described the movement and experimental and avant guard artists who showed their art in private or alternative spaces because had no other place to show their art. The artist Wang Gongxin told the China Daily, “The government didn’t allow our works to be shown in public galleries,, so young artists of the time were looking for a private space to transform into a contemporary space.”

"Cynical Realism" is the name of the movement that sprung up after Tiananmen Square. Typical of this period was an oil painting by Fang Lijun showing a bald man with his back to the viewer, facing towards clonelike men in grey Mao suits; and sculpture by Wang Keping called “Fist,” consisting a wooden bust of a man with a giant hand wrapped around his mouth.

Modern Chinese art got its first major dose of international attention when Princess Diana showed up at the 1995 Venice Biennial, which featured several Chinese artists. Collector and fashion designer David Tang, the one who got the princess to come, later told Vanity Fair magazine, “I got the most famous person in the world to come and give us a lift, If this doesn’t succeed, nothing will.”

Chinese Modern Art Scene in the 2000s

Artists working in the late 1990s and early 2000s explored the social dislocation and isolation associated with the economic reforms or did various takes on Mao or Chinese iconography. The Beijing International Art Biennial was an enormous exhibition at the Millennium Monument Art Museum and the National Art Museum in Beijing. Dubbed “the largest international art gathering ever held in China,” its featured many non-Chinese artist. Shanghai also has a biennial. Large exhibitions of works by modern Chinese artists have also been held at galleries in London, New York and other places.

Factory 798

Even with this high profile exposure artists complain they get little institutional support and don’t have enough places to exhibit their works. Some have taken up living together in warehouses and pulling their resources so they can pay their bills and work. Some have been harassed by police. One group of performance artist cooked up a dish made with potatoes and jewelry and placed then in condoms that were buried in the earth. For their trouble police arrested them and put three them in jail for two months.

On the art scene in China in the 2000s, Arne Glimcher, owner of a prestigious New York gallery, told Vanity Fair, “It’s a little bit like Germany after the Second World War. With the culture being annihilated, it was fresh to start again. Or like America in the 1950s when we really didn’t have an indigenous style, so we were fresh to start from scratch.” On the art scene in Shanghai, one American architect and collector told Vanity Fair,”There’s a kind of energy. In the art districts, ladies in Bentleys pull up dressed to the nines, and slog through mud to get to a gallery where they’re seeing a new artist’s work, while some deranged person is quivering off to the side. There’s a visual bombardment to the place.”

On the art scene in Beijing one collector told Vanity Fair, “If you got to other art centers of the world — London, New York, Los Angeles — you may hear about a new gallery opening here and there. In Beijing, you hear about entire neighborhoods opening up overnight. The construction happens so quickly, and the number of galleries and the amount of art that’s proliferating is just astounding.” Li Xianting was s regarded are leading force in the Beijing modern art scene. He was the editor of an official art magazine before he was canned for supporting controversial art. Gaudy Art is China’s version of Pop Art.

The 8,000 square meters of exhibition space at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing is known for displaying the latest trends in the art world. In China the words for graphic design — “ pingmian shiji “ — didn't come into existence until the 1980s. Designing is not a high-salaried job. Designers can only expect to earn an average of $300 a month at their first job out of college. The Pace Gallery has moved aggressively into China, opening a huge space here two years ago and signing up some of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art, like Hai Bo, Li Songsong, Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan.

Hostility Towards Chinese Artists

20111121-Christies cai_guo-qiang_d5511547h.jpg
work by Cai Guo Qiang
“We Don’t Need Artists Here! Get Out!” This slogan was written in white on a wall along the road in the 008 Art District. It is especially eye-catching, hasty, and powerfully authentic, because it was placed across from several pledges by artists to protect their space in the art district. Things like this really do happen. [Source: Huang Rui, a Beijing artist, from an Internet posting MCLC Resource Center]

“In the summer of 2010, on a street of Kunming City a man, who locked himself up in a wooden instrument for prisoners in the ancient time and attached 100 Yuan bank notes all over her body, staged a stunning performance art to his audience. But he confronted the notorious officers of chengguan (City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, also known as City Urban Administrative Enforcement Bureau in Chinese), who are responsible for cracking down the street vendors, hawkers, and even the shoe shiners in the streets. [Source: jeffleem China Buzz (7/15/10)] Images: cers-in-kunming/

In 2010, Wu Yuren, an artist who helped lead an unusually bold public protest over a land dispute, was jailed and beaten by police officers, his wife told the New York Times. Wu’s wife, Karen Patterson, a Canadian citizen, said that the police were accusing her husband of assaulting an officer when he visited the police station. Patterson said she learned this only through their lawyer because the police had so far not formally told her that Wu had been arrested. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 8, 2010]

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 1.jpg
Cai Guo Qiang and
his team at work
“Patterson said she and friends of Wu, 39, believe that he had been arrested because of his recent activism, including his leadership of a group of artists from an artists’district known as 008 in resisting the encroachment of a real estate developer. In February, those artists joined forces with artists from another Beijing neighborhood to march down Chang’an Jie, a wide ceremonial avenue that runs past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Chinese leaders are especially sensitive to protests in that area, and police officers stopped the protesters after they had walked about 500 yards.”

“The police detained Wu briefly in March. After he was released, he and the other artists successfully negotiated for compensation for the seizure of their studio space by the developer. Wu and some other artists then moved their studios to 798, Beijing’s largest arts district. The land grab dispute had attracted lots of attention in the news media, in part because Ai Weiwei, a well-connected artist who is a vocal critic of the Communist Party, had joined the street protest and sent out Twitter feeds about it. Some of the artists in the protest, including Wu and Ai, had taken part in other kinds of activism, including signing Charter 08, a liberal manifesto calling for democratic changes that was signed by thousands of Chinese.” “Wu’s latest fracas with the police began on May 31, when Wu went with a friend, Yang Licai, to the Jiuxianqiao police station to discuss a dispute with a landlord at 798, Patterson said. The police argued with the two men and took away their cellphones, which then led to more insults, Patterson said, citing an account by Yang. The two men were interrogated separately, and Wu was beaten by about five policemen, Patterson said. He has been held since then and was not allowed to see his lawyer shortly before she contacted the Times. Yang was released after 10 days.”

“A person answering the phone at the police station declined to comment and said senior officers were not available to talk. Patterson said she and the couple’s 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, have not been allowed to see Wu. Patterson said she expected that Wu would be formally charged within a few months. She went to collect his personal belongings from the police station. His shirt, pants and shoes were in a plastic bag, she said, along with a letter he had written to the police telling them to call his wife. The police haven’t explained anything to me, she said. Trying to ask for accountability is very difficult.”

Urban Development and Chinese Artists

Songzhuang (30 kilometers west of Beijing) is a trendy suburb in eastern Beijing that attracts the nouveau rich and artists with money and is the home of Beijing oldest surviving artists colony. According to “Songzhuang is the most famous and biggest artist community in China. The first artists moved here including Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun,in the early 1990’s, having been driven out of another community near the Old Summer Palace in Beijing’s north-west. For more than 10 years these artists were virtual outcasts with much of their work politically inspired, lived and worked under the watchful eye of communist authorities. With the booming of Chinese art market, Songzhuang is undergoing a dramatic expansion of artist population which has reached to 4000 in year 2008.

20111121-cai guo wiki 4.jpg
materials for a Cai Guo Qiang work
The artist Huang Rui wrote on an Internet posting: “In July 2009, officials at the Chaoyang District Work Mobilization Conference to Promote Land Reserves and the Unification of Urban and Rural Areas decided to promote the unification of the city and the countryside by reclaiming 26.2 square kilometers of countryside for the city land reserve. This area included seven villages in Dongba, Cuigezhuang, Sunhe, and Jinzhan. Regardless of whether these areas were pastures, fields, residential areas, or construction sites, they were all incorporated into the new urban expansion plan. Since the beginning of winter, any structure on this land has been demolished or is scheduled to be demolished; this single area includes nearly twenty art districts.”[Source: Huang Rui, a Beijing artist, from an Internet posting MCLC Resource Center]

“Chaoyang District is using the same kinds of methods as local governments nationwide; it has resorted to making money with land. The larger policy of economic development is meant to expand government interests. The policy of demolishing buildings and moving residents involves nearly twenty art districts and more than one thousand artists, it is hurting a primary artery of cultural life in Beijing. Chaoyang District is also endangering the interests of the entirety of Chinese contemporary art, and so it has become a problem that urgently needs a solution.”

“After the legal issues related to the 798 Art District were resolved by the Beijing municipal government, art districts such as the Liquor Factory, Huantie, Dongying, Zhengyang, 008, Caochangdi, and No. 1 Artbase all publicly responded to the local government’s land development plans. Residents of the districts personally invested in their construction. This expanded Beijing’s 798, this newly-established art district that had the halo of 21st century urban business card.” It is strange that while the art districts were being demolished, some called into question the legality of art districts, but no one over questioned the legality of the government’s decision.”

Urban Development, Land Values and Chinese Artists

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 5.jpg
Cai Guo Qiang and
his team at work
“In the past, the areas where the city and countryside met were not worth anything, but in the last thirty years, the majority of these areas have undergone the following stages of development. What started as farmland became green spaces to meet green targets for the City of Beijing. As a result, the value of this land increased slightly. Next, the land doubled as a green space and as a place for small-scale production or even recycling, and so it once again increased in value.” [Source: Huang Rui, a Beijing artist, from an Internet posting MCLC Resource Center]

“Until after the neighborhood around the 798 became an urban phenomenon, many art districts appeared to the east and the north of 798. Around this time, the trend for land income to be changed to real estate income began. As before, these areas were collectively operated, they were not included in actions by the city. Therefore, the city did not benefit and government officials did not have achievements to report. Presently, collective ownership under the original policy in which land was divided by family has been changed to public ownership, which is defined in the constitution as city land is state-owned.

“In development plans for urban expansion, cities can turn what was originally farmland into public or commercial land to be sold at auction. Farmers on collective land all became city residents and accepted compensation at 21st century levels. In this Chaoyang District land conversion movement, nearly 110,000 farmers have traded a standard one-time payment for land that could earn them money year-round.”

Chinese Art Communities and Large Works of Art

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 6.jpg
The artist Huang Rui wrote on an Internet posting: ‘so why do artists continue to stay in the grey areas called art districts’They stay because of the unique nature of the artists’profession in China China’s present conditions still have not created a true art market. Quantities of artworks, the tastes of collectors, estimations of value, and the shortcomings of the critical world are all impediments to the normal operation of an art market. To satisfy the ferocious appetite of speculators, artists continuously produce large works. Only large works can be exhibited in large spaces and retain the imposing Made in China air. This production method also determines that artists will favor large spaces like factories or warehouses. These kinds of spaces are easy to manage, because works can enter and leave freely, light is plentiful, and the surroundings have few of the impediments of common life.” [Source: Huang Rui, a Beijing artist, from an Internet posting MCLC Resource Center]

“Why do artists all like to gather together to work? This is also due to the unique characteristics of urban society. First, space is scarce in cities, and there are only a few kinds of space from which to choose. Second, there is pressure from the neighborhood or the street. Generally, organized neighborhoods are not tolerant of different people and special circumstances. Third, there are legal issues. Artists are scattered individuals, but in reality they are a group that requires support in areas of legal and institutional uncertainty, and so artists think that the individual is powerless. They often make decisions based on the surface-level and inessential aspects of things, or they rely on the judgments of friends as a reference. Artists in many art districts may be from the same school or hometown.”

Purchasing Art in China in the 2000s

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 12.jpg
Cai Guo Qiang and
his team at work
On his experience purchasing art in Shanghai, John Howkins wrote in the The Australian: At “a new art gallery in central Shanghai called Bund 66... I am attracted by a spare, abstract work, a few hieroglyphic marks on a white canvas, and ask the price. It's $3000...That afternoon, I ask a friend about the artist, Zhou Chang Jiang, and she arranges for the three of us to meet in an empty, freezing cafe. The price is now $300...We shake hands and the picture is delivered to my hotel that evening. It's another reminder that China has real artistic talents but the markets aren't working. Artists need galleries as much as galleries need artists, and neither side benefits if an artist who has an exhibition sells direct to the public at a 90 percent discount.” [Source: John Howkins, The Australian July 28, 2008, John Howkins is a visiting professor at the Shanghai School of Creativity, Shanghai Theater Academy, and author of The Creative Economy.

By the late 2000s, China had overtaken France as the world's third largest art market after the US and Britain, with a painting by Cai Guo-Qiang fetching $US8.5 million ($8.88 million), a record for a contemporary Chinese work. ArtPrice's list of 100 living artists whose works sell for more than $1million includes 35 Chinese. Five years earlier only one artist made the list.”

“Most Chinese people don't like abstract art. She is steeped in traditional virtues and the madcap fun and intellectual shocks of Western art are a mystery to her. She is unmoved by the art and perplexed by the artists. When, a few days later, we see a pop video of Kylie Minogue cavorting with six butch and well-oiled sadomasochistic men, and I explain that this lovely, winsome woman is a gay icon, she gives up. It is all too difficult. But she knows China is changing.

“The question facing the Government is how to encourage creativity without disrupting the social harmony that is the country's most admired quality. Artists, of course, play on this tension. It's what artists do. Some of the best work does so openly, as in Yue Minjun's smiling faces and Liu Xiaodong's New Immigrants at the Three Gorges, which restaurateur Zhang Lan bought for $2.7 million. But sometimes the Government gets nervous. Zhang Huan's solo show at the Shanghai Art Museum was mysteriously cancelled last March because, it was rumored, the city's authorities disapproved.

“The Chinese are always conscious of rank and position. One hesitates to say class, but it's the right word. Everything has its place, and knowing one's place produces the much-loved harmony. But creativity thrives by being different, and art weaves its magic by being shocking and disruptive. Most Chinese artists and designers welcome the Olympics and Shanghai's 2010 Expo as significant steps in opening up their country. Few want to give up harmony, but many are beginning to be as fascinated by creativity as we are in the West and they are discovering that the devil has many of the best tunes.

Chinese Modern Art Market in the 2000s

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 23.jpg
creating Cai Guo Qiang works

These days Chinese contemporary art is very fashionable and Chinese and foreign buyers are snapping up works by Chinese artists. Galleries, auction houses, private museums and studios are opening up all the time in Beijing and Shanghai. More than 50 art auction houses and a number of new galleries opened up in Beijing alone in the mid 2000s. Sotheby’s has organized a sale totally of Chinese contemporary art.

Galleries, dealers and middlemen between buyers and artists have sprung up to meet the demand. European and American galleries are also climbing on the bandwagon, signing up Chinese artist that no one has heard of. One art dealer told the International Herald Tribune, “What is happening in China is what happened in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century...New ground is being broken. A revolution is underway.”

In 2006, the volume of trade at the major art auction houses in Beijing rose to around $145 million — about 2.5 times higher than in the previous year. Total sales in the art market in China in 2006 topped $300 million and was 21 times higher than in 2000. The same year Southbys and Christies sold $190 million of Asian contemporary art, most of it from China, compared to $22 million in 2004. In March 2006 a Sotheby’s auction of contemporary Chinese art netted $12.7 million. Similar auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2007 netted $26 million and $37 million respectively. In December 2007, Christie’s sold $107 million worth of art on the first day of a five-day auction in Hong Kong of works by Chinese modern artists.

Dujiangyan is a city in Sichuan which is allowing eight contemporary artists — including Zhang Xiaogang, Wu Guanzhong and Yue Minjun’to open up their own museums on an 18-acre plot of land. A studio designed by Zeng Fanzhi — whose works are popular in Europe — is a vivid testament to the riches reaped by China’s hottest contemporary artists,” wrote David Barboza, in the New York Times, “The high-ceilinged 2,200-square-foot space is adorned with European and Chinese antiques, museum-quality floors, a small gym and a traditional landscape garden that Zeng said contains authentic Ming and Qing dynasty relics. Hanging on the walls are his massive canvases, which not so long ago could easily fetch $1 million apiece. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, March 10, 2009]

“Globally, the recent rise in Chinese artists’ fortunes was unparalleled. Only one Chinese artist Zao Wouki, a traditional painter who lives in France ranked among the Top 10 best-selling living artists in 2004, according to, which tracks auction sales. (He ranked ninth.) But by 2007, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists at auction were Chinese-born, led by Zhang Xiaogang, who trailed only Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst. That year, Zhang’s auction sales totaled $56 million, according to” In 2008 a cultural company in Taiyuan (the capital of Shanxi province) organized coal mine owners to massively purchase art works from the 798 art district in Beijing for cultural purposes. Even art students are finding markets for their work. One art professor told Reuters, “All my graduate students can sell paintings these days. But I think they are being influenced by the market too soon...Youth today lack a lot of experience. Their evaluations of things are realistic, practical.”

Buyers and Speculators in the Chinese Modern Art Market in the 2000s

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 24.jpg
creating Cai Guo Qiang works

Premium buyers are treated like high rollers.They are flown in for new openings and parties with quality Chilean wine, pan-fried sea bass and peppered-beef capriccio at a restaurant in the same building that houses an Armani store in Shanghai.

Many buyers are Chinese. Explaining the mentality behind the frenzy one gallery owner told Time, “It’s what I call panic old new money, The government is killing the property market, the stock market has been up and down like a bouncing ball, and people don’t trust it. They can only buy so many Mercedes. They have to put their money somewhere and right now that means contemporary art."

During the boom period art was bought up by speculators and traded like stocks and commodities. Auction houses were accused of colluding with artists to jack up prices and critics were blasted for hyping artists in return for cash. The artists themselves produced art almost assembly line fashion and sold it directly through the auction house to maximize their profits rather than going through galleries.

The art market in China has attracted speculators. It was not unusual for the value of pieces to double in a single year. Stories abound about works of art that sold for 50,000 yuan in the mid 1990s and were resold for 3.5 million yuan in the mid 2000s. By one estimate 80 percent of the people who buy Chinese modern art do so for investment purposes. Many are young entrepreneurs or people that made money in the real estate market. Hong Kong real estate mogul Joseph Lau bought Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash for $71.4 million at a Christie’s auction in New York

Chinese auction houses seem to encourage speculation. Many works of art are sold over and over again and artist place their work directly into auction. There are reports of Chinese artists bidding on their own work to jack up prices and hiring women from the countryside to paint their paintings Another art dealer art dealer said, “Modern art in China has become a monster. People’s attention is no longer focused on the art itself but on what kinds of return they will get on their investments, like the stock market.” As has been true with real estate market in China, many fear the art market has bubbles and is bound to collapse.

Among the well-known collectors of modern Chinese art are Hong Kong real estate heiress Pearl Lam; Uli Swigg, the Swiss Ambassador to China form 1995 to 1998 (he amassed a huge collection when paintings sold for a few hundred dollars a piece); Baron Guy Ullens, a Belgian philanthropist, and David Tang, the founder the Shanghai Tang fashion brand. The main auction house in Beijing, Poly Auction, is run by the Poly Group, a former unit of the People’s Liberation Army, and founded by Wang Yannan, daughter of Zhao Ziyang, a high level official who opposed the crackdown ay Tiananmen Square.

Collapse of the Modern Chinese Art Market

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 25.jpg
Cai Guo Qiang works
The bubble burst in the Chinese modern art market in the late 2000s. Works by artists such as Yue Minjun that were fetching hundreds of thousands — even million — at art auctions as late as early 2008 were going unsold by early 2009 or sold for half of what they might have sold for in 2008. Few were reaching the $1 million mark.

The market peaked in 2007 and 2008 and then collapsed. Princes plunged by more that 60 percent in 2009, hit hard by the global economic crisis, a glut of art and a declining interest in it as collectors were showing more interest in classical Chinese art and porcelain than contemporary Chinese art. Plans to build new galleries and art spaces were canceled; artists with inflated egos were brought back to earth; copy art centers in southern China laid off hundreds of artists.

“A global financial crisis has wiped out vast amounts of personal wealth, prompting a plunge in art prices. Suddenly bereft of visitors, galleries are laying off staff members, and the collectors who patronized them now worry that their art investments may prove a colossal folly...Auctions, perhaps the most popular barometer of the recent craze for Chinese contemporary art, have also been hard hit... with some works going unsold.” Experts say the contracting market is also putting the squeeze on major collectors, many of whom had been hoping to unload high-priced works... Many collectors were seduced by the numbers. For people who got into the market three years ago, I feel sorry for them, said Fabien Fryns, who runs F2 Gallery in Beijing.”

20111121-Cai guo Wiki 26.jpg
Cai Guo Qiang works
“Artists who have benefited most from this country’s rising profile as an arts center are still living in luxury residences and driving BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. But recently, they’ve been getting fewer visitors. Before, every day visitors would come and knock on the door, and I had to spend the morning taking them around, Zeng said, sitting on a leather sofa in his studio. Now it’s about half as much.” The artist Nan Xi told Reuters, “The Chinese contemporary market was over-swollen before. I felt it wasn’t very healthy...The financial crisis has been a good lesson for us to better know what the market is, and art’s relationship to it. Having too much money is not good for an artist’s development.”

Rebirth of the Modern Chinese Art Market

By the early 2010s, the art scene was humming once again. An auction in Beijing in November 2013 had total sales of $384 million. The highest price at the auction was for “Tajik Bride”, an oil painting by Jin Shangyi that fetched sold for more than 85 million renminbi, nearly $14 million, against a presale estimate of 16 million renminbi. “The painting, which depicts a young Tajik woman, dates from 1983, a few years after China began to shed its isolation under Mao Zedong, and “shocked” the art community, China Guardian wrote, for its use of “Western classicism techniques to depict a beautiful and elegant bride.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, November 21, 2013]

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, Christie's

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.