Art Explosion: China is Hot!
25 years ago, China’s artists were begging for rice. Today they are they are driving luxury cars and partying like rock stars. The boom in the Chinese art market is unprecedented.
ASW chats with Fabien Fryns, owner of F2 Gallery in Beijing and Hugo Tillman an English artist who is collaborating with some of China’s leading artists to create photographs that reflect their psychological landscape.
Where did you grow up?
Fabien Fryns:I went to Jesuit school in Belgium for 3 years and then to Le Rosey in Switzerland where I completed a French Bac. From there I went on to Christie's London and EBS London.
Hugo Tillman: I was raised in England, Los Angeles and New York.
Artists who have made historyWang Guangyi
What led you to China?
FF: I was invited by a Chinese art dealer named Chris Mao, from Chambers Fine Art, to share a booth with him at the first art fair in Beijing in 2004.
HT: I went to Beijing for a trip in 2005 and was blown away by the dynamic art world.
What do you find sexy about China and Beijing in particular?
FF: I find my girlfriend Lucy Lu very sexy. Furthermore, what seduced me about this city is its tremendous energy in general and the very exciting art scene.
HT: There is something about being in a place that does not exist in the present, and that is being propelled from the past into the future. Also, although Beijing has the most vibrant art scene on the planet, there are no velvet ropes per se. There is a desire for a serious dialogue on both sides.
Newly Established Artists
What sparked your interest in Chinese contemporary art, and why did you decide to open a gallery in Beijing rather than Shanghai?
FF: I bought my first work by a Chinese artist, Zhang Huan, in 2000, but unfortunately this did not lead to a trip to China to discover what was going on there at the time. Like most Westerners, I initially liked the idea of Shanghai more, but once I visited both cities it became clear that the art capital of China is Beijing. Furthermore, I like to live in China among Chinese people and not among expats, and I think that Beijing in general is a more genuine and exciting city.
What is the significance of the new Pomipidou Center being built in Shanghai?
FF: I think it is very important that a major international museum is getting a foothold in China. I am sorry to hear that they opted for Shanghai instead of Beijing. I hope that other major international institutions will opt for Beijing.
HT: Shanghai is trying to position itself as a cultural center in order to combat its present image as superficial. It even is suggested that the Municipal Government of Shanghai approached the Pompidou with an offer to give them the land and pay for the museum. That aside, having the Pompidou in China at all suggests that the country is opening itself up for significant cultural integration into the international scene.
Up and coming artists to watch
It is said that the Chinese contemporary art market is one of the hottest in the world. In your opinion, is this true?
FF: Yes, I think so. Although the word HOT doesn’t necessarily have positive connotations. I think that the art scene in China is very interesting. A society that is undergoing so many fundamental changes is a great breeding ground for art.
The contemporary art scene in China has been compared to Paris in the 1920's. In your opinion, what makes what is going on so interesting?
FF: The fact that China is still a mystery to a lot of people. Throughout history, the West has been seduced by China over and over again. Also, some of the art being produced by Chinese artists is very important to Chinese history, but also translates very well on a global level. I think that it is wrong to buy Chinese art because of its "Chinese-ness". This is what seems to be fashionable today, but I do not think that in the long run the best Chinese art is that which looks most Chinese.
HT: There are two main groups of artists who are interesting for different reasons. The first are the fathers of Chinese contemporary art, the older generation made up of the STAR group of the late 70's who have made and are making art that mirrors and sometimes acts as a catalyst for the incredible change that has happened in China over the past 25 years. These artists have survived the Cultural Revolution as well as live today, a time that is described as the most capitalistic period any culture has seen in the modern era. Their work is a window into this incredible history. There are also the younger artists, born in the mid to late 70's and early 80's who now signify what is truly considered contemporary art. Beyond representing the cultural change in China, these artists are integrating themselves into the international art world by pushing new forms and media well beyond the familiar.
Artist that F2 represents
Who are the main players in the market? Which artists did the MOMA, TATE and Guggenheim buy on their recent trips?
FF: I am not sure which artists they bought. I hope that they have been a little more adventurous than most collectors whose Chinese "wanted" list contains always the same names (Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, YueMin JUn, Wang Guangyi, Liu Wei, Yan Shaobin, Yan Pei Ming, Ai Weiwei, Wang Qingsong, Li Songsong, Feng Zhengjie, Shi Xinning, Qi ZHilong, Tang Zhigang, and Zeng Hao).
HT: There many players in the Chinese Art Market, and a lot of great collectors like Uli Sigg as well as galleries like Goedhuis, Chambers and Max Protech in New York, the Red Mansion Foundation in London, the DF2 gallery in LA, Lorenz Heibling's Shangart in Shanghai. In reference to artists, I would say there are about 75 very significant artists living in China and perhaps 5 living in New York and France. I am lucky enough to have collaborated with the most of these artists.
Do you think the market is inflated? Is there more hype than lasting talent? What's the best example of this?
FF: I cannot give you any examples, but there are plenty around. Some of the art is hyped, some is still undervalued.
HT: I don’t think the market it overly inflated. When one compares the price of Chinese art to similar Western art, the Chinese prices are still considerably lower on average. There also remains a very small local Chinese market. The collectors are mostly foreign. This leaves plenty of potential for growth. Yes, there is a lot of hype. That hype is created by the media and is often fueled by ignorance. Of course, like in any period or any hot market, there will be those artists that stand the test of time and those that fall by the wayside. One can only let history decide who those artists will be. Already Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, and Wang Jianwei have become part of art history.
Do you think the Chinese Contemporary Art World is a sustainable system?
FF: The Chinese contemporary art world and market has changed profoundly and very rapidly. I am very happy to see that Chinese art is blending in more and more with western art. I am not sure how much sense it makes to have Chinese auctions or galleries that only show Chinese art. There is a lot of good Chinese art around, but not that much either. There are relatively few artists coming out of the academies. I hope this will change. For the moment, many artists have it a little too easy and this is dangerous. Some of them have had a very tough time for years, and I am very happy for them that they are doing so well now. There is too much pressure on the artists to produce to meet demand. Some artists compromise by turning out work of a lesser quality, others by being too repetitive.
HT: Of course it is. It is just beginning. Art is just beginning to become institutionalized in China. The resources are constantly being renewed and nurtured.
Can you suggest some up and coming artists to watch?
FF: We have a lot of demand for some of our young artists, especially Li Qing and Feng Shu, who are 28 and 25 respectively and are being bought by museums already. Furthermore, I think Zeng Fanzhi is still quite undervalued. He is just such an exciting artist, one of the few who is continuously searching to break new ground and reinventing himself. Other artists to watch are Liu Ye, Li Songsong, Zeng Guogu, Ling Jian, Cui Xiuwen, Zhang Huan, and Yin Zhaoyang.
HT: I do not want to say too much on that topic, as students are being picked up from the art academies and given exhibitions while still in school. This leaves no time for development or incubation. That said, I think Li Qing and Sun Xun are pretty interesting.
Tell me about an upcoming show you are having?
FF: Since its inception, F2 Gallery is committed to show western and Chinese artists. Some of the western art is produced in China by artists who like to take up the challenge of spending some time in Beijing. We have just inaugurated a new show of a 25 year old sculptor, Feng Shu. Later this year we will have a show of portraits of Chinese artists by Hugo, Keith Haring, Xu Wentao and Xu Hualing.
HT: I am having a show at F2 in May of my series titled “Chinese Contemporary.” For this project, I will have collaborated with about 80 contemporary artists on a photography project where I create a scene for them to act out in a set I create and document the scene with a camera.
Other than F2 of course, what are some other great galleries in Beijing?
FF: Aye Gallery, Longrun, CAAW, Pekin Fine Arts, Universal Studios, Marella, Continua, Urs Meile are the ones that spring to mind ... but there are galleries popping up on a daily basis in Beijing.
HT: There the really important galleries are Urs Miele, of course F2, Universal Studios, Arrario, Meg Maggio's Pekin Fine Arts opening in May, Continua, Courtyard, BTAP, Beijing Commune etc.
What's your favorite place to hang out in Beijing?
FF: My social life here is quite limited compared to what it used to be like in Europe. I enjoy going to dinner quite a lot, and my favorite places are Lan Club, China Club, Hatsune, Le Quai, and anywhere where I can enjoy a nice cigar in comfortable surroundings with good friends, really. What else can one ask for?
HT: I like places like At Cafe in 798, No Name in Houhai or Bed. I am a big fan of low-key places with great ambience that are more alternative and less commercial. There are so many little hidden places all over Beijing that are amazing. That is what is so wonderful about the city. It is not obvious
— Sabine Heller.