Illustration by Mágoz.

Fast and Furious

China USA Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Sometime in 2006, I went to observe our competitor’s New York evening sale of Post-War & Contemporary Art—as one sometimes does in the industry—to gauge the mood, to observe the “action.” I ended up in the standing-room area, next to a mainland China-born private art adviser based in Europe. As a freshly minted auction specialist in Chinese contemporary art at Christie’s, I thought myself on the brink of a fortuitous professional connection, and introduced myself eagerly. “Chinese art? I never touch it,” was her response. “That stuff was all painted yesterday for the market. None of those artists has ever been in a major museum. It’s just a bubble waiting to burst.” At that moment, we both looked up, just in time to catch a Richard Prince “Nurse” painting, which could not have spent much more than four years in private hands, hammering down for a new record price.

The irony may not have been lost on her, but I expect her convictions were unmoved. This was an early rehearsal of some clichés about the Chinese contemporary market that are now well worn. The spread of such stereotypes highlights more than anything the ways in which the Asian auction market has served as an easy object of projection and a punching bag—a vessel for all the anxiety over what is already true about the longer-established Western market. The auction market, and even the art it sells, is increasingly disparaged for failing to mirror the conventional rules and relationships between artists, museums and collectors, between primary and secondary markets. Auction houses bear the brunt of criticism for disrupting this matrix, but this analysis makes an all-too-quick dismissal of the productive role of the auction house in Asia in building conversations about contemporary art.

It is true that the Chinese market for contemporary art market got big fast. A lot of money has changed hands. Prices paid, and paid publicly, get attention and drive a significant portion of popular discourse. Auction houses play no small part in these dynamics, but they also play a significant role in providing exposure for artists, periods and histories that have not been addressed in other institutional settings, whether in Asia or elsewhere. They are capable of giving these histories more exposure, more regularly and more quickly, than any other venue. The scale, speed and agility of the auction houses, and even their apparent conflation of taste and price, have been essential aspects in developing critical and comparative discourses about art.

While preparing for Christie’s Hong Kong November 2012 auctions, we came across a small collection of early works by the Chinese painter Zhou Chunya. Born in 1955 and educated at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Zhou studied in Kassel from 1986 to 1988 and was an early practitioner of a kind of nativist realism. Artists of Zhou’s generation often carry the burden of China’s latter-day transformation, but these works are not about global market forces or urban modernization, but capture instead the explorations of a young artist developing his own brand of expressionism, feeling his way through his studies of art and history, and finding inspiration in the changing landscape of his trips across Europe and Tibet. These are not necessarily the best works that Zhou has ever made, but they are exquisite moments in time; too minor for their own exhibition, too hard to find for a museum retrospective, they nonetheless enrich any understanding of the artist and of this period in Chinese art in a fundamental way.

More recently, we also had the opportunity to curate a small group of early works by Gu Dexin. Gu will never be an “auction artist.” By the late 1980s, he had already put painting behind him and embraced instead a rigorously conceptual practice. He is best known today for powerful and challenging installations of rotting meat or fruit. Yet, over just a few short years, Gu’s painterly inspiration was tireless, his styles ranging from what might be called his Post-Impressionist period, through what might be deemed his death-metal rock-album period, to a completely unexpected series featuring blissfully erotic and polyamorously perverse creatures.

In both cases, the works sold, and sold reasonably well. But the significance of their moving through the market is justified not merely by the prices that they achieved. These paintings significantly complicate and enliven the triumphal narrative of China’s “commercial canon.” In the catalogs distributed online and in print, in essays and marketing brochures, and most importantly, in the pre-sale exhibition, such works appear alongside internationally known headline-stealers, offering not only an opportunity for exposure but an occasion for critical comparison and assessment of value (in every sense of the term), as well as a refinement of what we already know about Chinese art and a vista into its many still-unsung corners.

There are endless numbers of artists and aspects of art-making that auction houses do not generally cover: installation, performance, video and most conceptual new media remain largely beyond their purview. The institutional field in China and Asia continues to grow and change, and as a result the critical landscape is poised to evolve as well. In the meantime, while record prices may steal the spotlight, they’ve also brought audiences into regular contact with unexpected aspects of Asia’s own particular modernities, and with an emerging canon in all its peculiarity. The fact that prices demand so much of our attention is no small problem, but the advent of a significant market for Asian and Chinese contemporary has finally given these art worlds a proper place in popular and critical discourse.