As news reports of the devastating 8.0 magnitude Wenchuan earthquake on May 12 poured out of Sichuan province, artists and art institutions across China opened their wallets and their studio doors to provide aid to survivors. A set of hastily arranged charity auctions, including a section of Poly Auction’s Spring sale on May 28, brought together recent and older donated works by hundreds of artists eager to help those suffering. The 117 paintings sold raised RMB 84.63 million (USD 12.19 million) in relief funds, which will be donated to the Red Cross Society of China.
For some of the artists involved, the tragedy struck close to home. Zhang Xiaogang, who studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, not only has friends in the area, but his daughter attends middle school in the capital of Chengdu, where the earthquake shook buildings.
“I didn’t sleep for two days,” said Zhang, whose daughter and friends are safe. “This tragedy is a disaster to everybody in China, and I was worried about everyone.” Father and Daughter (2008), his work for the auction, which he began shortly after the earthquake and completed in a week, speaks to the earthquake’s personal relevance. It is a typically stark portrait of a father and daughter, their faces frozen in shock and melancholy. In the tradition of his ongoing “Bloodline” series, which hinges on the theme of family, a light red thread crosses the two-meter-wide canvas. “Nothing can compare with life,” he said of the painting’s relationship to the events in Sichuan. “There’s a personal effect for me, but all the Chinese people feel the same. We all became family.”
The auction was planned in the days following the earthquake by Sichuan-based artist Zhou Chunya and Lu Peng, an associate professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. After they contacted Zhao Xu, a senior consultant at Poly Auction in Beijing, the auction house altered its preparations for its Spring event and, with Zhou’s assistance, immediately received pledges from 40 leading artists, including Guo Wei, Wu Mingzhong, Gu Wenda, Xu Bing, Chen Gang, Wang Jinsong and Li Haibing. Chinese collectors such as Yu Deyao also donated works. “We know there is still a long way to go for the reconstruction,” said Xu of Poly Auction. “What we are doing now is just trying our best to raise more money.”
Eight other participating contemporary artists—Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, He Duoling, Zhang Peili and Wu Shanzhuan—had been planning to establish individual galleries in Dujiangyan, a city in Sichuan affected by the quake. The gallery project, funded by a local entrepreneur and currently under construction on an 18-acre site donated by the government near Mount Qingcheng, has been put on hold as the immense task of reconstruction begins.
“I cannot help but weep for the loss of lives and the terrible destruction,” Zhou said in a statement. “As an artist, what I am able to do now is use my brush to express my sympathy and condolence.” A week after the disaster, Zhou and other artists arrived in Dujiangyan with RMB 10 million ($1.4 million) worth of flashlights, mineral water and other supplies.
A number of other art auctions have raised relief funds for the families affected by the earthquake, which include 5 million homeless. An auction organized from May 25-27 by China Guardian collected RMB 16.96 million ($2.44 million) for 160 works, including that of Cai Guo-Qiang and Wang Du. The auction also featured an immense, 20-meter-long collective oil painting centering on the theme of rescue efforts created by Ai Xuan, Yang Feiyun, Wang Yidong and two dozen other realist artists. An auction at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, one of many charity art events held in Beijing, raised RMB 452,470 ($65,200) and featured works by gallery founders RongRong & inri, as well as Han Lei and Liu Heungshing.