By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China in 2016
With the recent success the Gillian Ayres and John McLean exhibitions and Sean Scully’s auction results, it would seem that British abstract art is going from win to win. But the reality is that Western art in general, and especially abstract art has been struggling to find a footing in a market that is dominated by local artists. From the point of view of both the collector and the public, there is still a weak awareness of the traditions of abstract painting; as recently as the 1980s. Western art books were deemed as “neibu ziliao” 内部资料 or contraband materials suitable only for the eyes of an elite group of government cadres. Given the reality that abstract art books, let alone paintings were and are still rare in China, it is unrealistic to expect both knowledge and interest in a form of art that still befuddles many Western museum-goers.
A Yet-to-Emerge Market
This lack of exposure is reflected in the middling sales of abstract painting in the auction markets of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Recently in an article for the art investment portal Mutual Art, a representative for Phillips boasted about the “electric pace” of their “20th Century & Contemporary Art” sale where a Sean Scully painting sold for 150% of the estimate. Though the auction houses would like to mesmerize us with these exponential figures spinning before our eyes with the hypnotic power of a Bridget Riley painting, the results themselves look much more Pollock than Mondrian. For every record-breaking sale there are many lots under estimate or bought in. For instance, in the aforementioned Phillips auction, a Rudolf Stingel selling for 12% above estimate, contrasted by a work by Ed Ruscha at 38% below estimate and works by Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer bought in.
The plain fact is that Chinese buyers are still largely interested in buying their own artists when it comes to abstract painting, and it will take a long time for the Qiu Deshu’s to replace the De Koonings in the Hong Kong and Mainland auctions. It’s really quite a struggle to get western artists, even blue-chip ones up on the auction block, says Ronald Kiwitt former business manager for Christie’s Shanghai, “A large part of the Chinese new collectors are hesitating and might not dare to approach foreign artists unless they have some consultant introducing them to them, explaining the importance of the work and guaranteeing a very good investment that is secure and might bring a profit in a few years. So we started to introduce a fine selection of Western contemporary artists of various price ranges to the Chinese market and received very different responses from clients and the media.”
Besides galleries such as Pearl Lam Galleries (Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore) and Pifo Gallery (Beijing), very few galleries are interested in showing Western Abstract artists on a consistent basis. Says Kiwitt, “Actually I cannot think of any gallery showing abstract art as part of their permanent gallery program, because abstract art might easily be considered to be rather design-ish or decorative. We see that in how certain galleries position their work. I think since galleries are mostly privately owned and have a small target they would rather not go for abstract art because it’s risky and it might not sell very well.”
Opportunities to Get Involved for Institutions
Looking at both the auctions and the primary market situation we can see that there is not an overwhelming appetite for abstract painting in China, but institutional actors may see this as an opportunity to create both awareness and understanding of the abstract art tradition. From the point of view of museums, there is still a great desire for international content and institutions such as Power Station of Art, CAFA Museum and Himalayas Museum have proven keen to display British abstract artists in the past. Abstract painting resonates with the older generation of Chinese artists, many of whom are working as curators and museum directors and appeals to an older demographic of visitor not comfortable with more contemporary forms. Sadly, there is rarely a budget for such capital-intensive shows. Institutions either claim to be or are cash poor and ask for the foreign party to provide funding.
Often museums in more cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai want more flashy exhibitions which guarantee better ticket sales and appeal to younger demographics, for instance the abstract installation work of Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell presented at the Long Museum in two recent solo exhibitions which not only generated a lot of media attention but also had good mileage on social media. Audiences in Shanghai, in particular, are fairly sophisticated and desirous of new kinds of viewing experiences.
At the same time, from the point of view of providing educational opportunities, there is a great need for educational survey shows with clear didactics offering a primer of abstract art. In this context, there is certainly room for meaningful collaborations in terms of research-driven exhibitions that trace the development of abstract art in China and in the West. Given the strong enthusiasm for early modern Chinese abstract expressionism, and it would seem to make sense to try to explore the east-west dialogue of abstraction in a rigorous academic framework, working with local curators and historians rather than orchestrating a “made-in-the-UK” packaged exhibition. Second and third-tier cities, in particular, might be more open to such exhibitions given that their populations tend to be more conservative, appreciative of painting and averse to the esoteric nature of conceptual art.
SIDEBAR: Understanding China’s Indigenous Tradition of Abstract Art
The development of abstract art in China has been hampered by different intellectual and political currents. It is, in a sense, completely comfortable within its own skin dovetailing with the philosophical foundations of Buddhism and Taoism, but then completely out of place, in that its formal elements were influenced by abstract art in the West, which trickled in through the cracks in the bamboo curtain in dribs and drabs throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Critic and long-time curator at the former Shanghai Art Museum, Li Xu observed the scene as it was developing in the 80s and 90s and offers his take on the convergence between Chinese philosophy and abstract art in an article written for Leap magazine.
“There is an aesthetic orientation that cannot be separated from the Taoist theories of ‘unity of heaven and men’ and ‘nature as the ultimate way’. What’s more, the Taoist inclination towards the ‘void’, the ‘empty’ and ‘nihility’ can be adequately verified by famous sayings such as ‘the great sounds border on silence’, ‘the huge forms tend to be intangible’, ‘the most perfect presents itself as flawed’ and ‘the greatest appears to be the most humble’. This extremely particular value not only provided a theoretical foundation of appreciating the non-representational beauty for the later generations but also built up the aesthetic characters of simplicity, epitomization, symbol and metaphor in the cultural tradition of the Han Nationality.”
Art historian Michael Sullivan also writes about these philosophical connections mentioning a focus on “chaoyue” transcendence or metaphysics; “Metaphysics” was, in fact, the name of a series of exhibitions of abstract art held at the Shanghai Art Museum from 2001-2005.
Though Chinese artists may have been philosophically primed to be receptive to abstract art, their adaptation of the techniques was in the early stages somewhat awkward. In fact, Li describes their work as somewhat crude and Sullivan feels that this early “metaphysical” abstract painting did not really reach a developmental apex.
But as one learns to crawl before walking, these experiments were necessary to break with the state-sanctioned practice of (socialist) realism which, until the late 80s and early 90s, was the only acceptable form of painting.
At the same time, despite the waves of political and intellectual criticism, the practice of Chinese abstract artists continues on with a meditative surety. Artists such as Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Zhu Jinshi and others have received support from the theories of curator and art historian Gao Minglu who has recast their practice as “Maximalism.” Maximalism highlights the act of painting and its products as the “incomplete and fragmented records of daily meditation.” Gao mentions Li Huangsheng’s Diary, a repetitive grid-like pattern which is a testament to this kind daily praxis; the repetition of hand on brush on paper. Gao employs the phrase: “liushuizhang” 流水账which translates roughly as an “account book of flowing water” to illustrate the direction of Maximalist practice as a record of something which is fleeting and unimportant. One might look at the work of Hong Kong artist Lee Kit who has produced a series of works “Hand-Painted Cloth Used as Tablecloth, 2010–2011,” hand-dyed tablecloths, which he uses in his home thus recording the coffee stains, blotches of wine and other traces of the insignificant. Many of the Maximalist artists resist attempts to interpret their work and even the idea of guiding compositional principles are foreign to this artistic form of “time-keeping.” It is a practice which seems both “anti-meaning” and “anti-humanist”. Gao writes:
“In the Chinese context, however, the primary objective of Maximalism is to question and overthrow assumptions about the meaning of the artwork; that the meaning is content expressed by the object, that the object is a unique and privileged product of human culture containing the commonly held values of virtue and creativity. The practice of Maximalism inquires: who confers meaning on an artwork? How it meaning presented and interpreted.”
Sidebar: Galleries and Museums Showing Abstract Art
Pace (Hong Kong)
Pace works regularly with a number of important names in abstract Chinese painting, Qiu Shaofei, Li Songsong, Sui Jianguo (painting and sculpture) along with international names such as Sterling Ruby. Though the Beijing space is now closed, the Hong Kong space leans more towards abstract work often by younger artists including Xie Molin, Zhao Yao and international artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and Korean artist Lee Ufan.
Gingko Space (Beijing)
Gingko Space devotes itself to discovering local talent in the field of abstract painting with artists such as Shen Chen, Shi Jiayun and Chi Qun with about half of their exhibition programme devoted to abstract painting.
Pifo Gallery (Beijing)
Pifo also dedicates about half of their programme to abstract painters and produces annual abstract art exhibitions (“Decade Abstract Art” and “The 9th Annual Exhibition of Abstract Art”). International collaborations include, Alexandra Roussopoulos, Liliane Tomasko, Gillian Aryres, Benjamin Appel, Enrico Bach, John McLean and Simon Mullan.
Ink Studio (Beijing)
Focusing on building the understanding and appreciation of contemporary ink, the gallery produces mature and well-researched exhibitions but do not appear to work much with foreign artists. Under the stewardship of Dr. Britta Erickson (artistic director) ink studio displays the work of Li Huangsheng, Huang Zhiyang and Zheng Chongbin.
Beijing Commune (Beijing)
Although Beijing Commune exhibits a range of more conceptual art they occasionally collaborate with contemporary abstract artists such as Wang Guangle, Liu Wei and Xie Molin known for his unique “drawing machines”.
Egg Gallery (Beijing)
A small gallery in the Caochangdi focused almost exclusively on abstract painting, Egg aims to promote emerging and mid-career artists such as Li Xinjian, Yu Yang and Liu Buhua.
Aye Gallery (Beijing)
Open since 2005, Aye Gallery has been consistently working with a selection of lesser known Chinese abstract painters including the hard-edge painters Chen Yufan and Chen Wenji and the more gestural Xue Jun as well as bigger names such as Wang Guangle.
CAFA Art Museum (Beijing)
A university museum attached to arguably China’s most important art college, CAFA Art Museum has staged a number of key exhibition by British artists, including, John McLean, “Singing and Dancing”(Curators: Wang Chunchen, Philip Dodd an Enrica Costamagna) and Gillian Ayres, “Sailing off the Edge”, CAFA Art Museum, (Curators: Wang Chunchen, Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna)
UCCA has hosted a small number of abstract art exhibitions including “Vibration and Harmony” by Peter Wayne Lewis & Frederick J. Brown, artists of the African Diaspora in January, 2016, “New Directions: He Xiangyu” in June of 2015 and “Michael Chow: Voice for My Father” in January of 2015.
Pearl Lam Galleries (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore)
Pearl Lam seems to have quite a strong interest in abstract art with regular group shows by international artists such as Ben Quilty, Dale Frank, Sinta Tantra, Carlos Rolón,Leonardo Drew, Jason Martin and local icons of abstraction Qiu Deshu, Su Dongping, Su Xiaobai, Ding Yi and Zhu Jinshi. The gallery has also commissioned essays from curators such as Gao Minglu.
Long Museum West Bund (Shanghai)
In addition to a major Ding Yi retrospective “What is Left to Appear,” in June 2015, the Long Museum has recently mounted a series of abstract light installation exhibitions by Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell.
Yuz Museum (Shanghai)
The Yuz Museum, founded by Indonesian Chinese collector Budi Tek, has hosted a show by Secundio Hernandez, “Entre Primavera y Verano” in October of 205 and a solo show by Chinese artist Zhou Li in February 2017.
Shanghart has acted as a hub or the Shanghai abstract scene nurturing key figures such as Ding Yi, Shen Fan and Yu Youhan throughout their careers. They have also worked with lesser known painters and sculptors including Jiang Pengyi (abstract photography), Wang Yousheng (photography and painting), Shao Yi (sculpture and painting) and Pu Jie (painting).
Power Station of Art (Shanghai)
Though this state-run museum seems to have a strong focus on Japanese architecture it is also home to the Shanghai Biennale. The PSA was formerly the Shanghai Art Museum where curator Li Xu worked for many years. SAM played an important role in the history of abstract art in Shanghai and this history is still reflected in the programming of PSA. Recent abstract exhibitions include “Yu Youhan PSA Collection Series” (December 2016), “Michael Chow: Voice for My Father” (April 2015), “Calligraphic Time and Space: Abstract Art in China” (August 2015), and “Datong Dazhang” (December 2015).
Himalayas Museum (Shanghai)
This private museum is currently headed by Wang Nanming, one of the lead curators on the exhibition “Turning Abstract: A Retrospective of Shanghai Experimental Art 1976-1985” held in 2005 at the Zendai Museum (the precursor to the Himalayas). The exhibition sought to establish the importance of Shanghai in the development of experimental art in China and features largely abstract works. The Himalayas has also hosted exhibitions by Sean Scully “Follow the Heart: the Art of Sean Scully 1964-2014” (Curated by Philip Dodd) which traveled to Guangdong, Wuhan and Nanjing, and “Subtleties of Pallette—The Artistic Practice Abstract Art of French Artist Gérard Charlin” in 2015 as part of a residency project.
Selected Abstract Art Exhibitions (not mentioned above)
2003 “Chinese Maximalism”, Group Exhibition Millennium Art Museum, Beijing; University at Buffalo Art Galleries and Museum Studies, State University of New York at Buffalo, U.S.A., (Curator: Gao Minglu)
2003 Prayer Beads and Brush Strokes, Beijing Tokyo Art Projects; Dashanzi, Beijing (Cur. Li Xianting)
2006 “New Abstract Painting from Austria,” 2006 Guangdong Art Museum
2009 “Paul Huxley Asian Touring Exhibition”, Chang Art Gallery, Beijing
2010 “The Great Celestial Abstraction”, Yuan Art Museum, Beijing (Cur. Achile Bonito Oliva)
2013 “Early Abstract Art in Shanghai: A Retrospective of Art History”, Baoshan International Folk Arts Exhibition (Shanghai), (Curator Ma Lin).
2014 “REALITIES NOUVELLES”, National Art Museum of Beijing (French Abstract Art).
2016 “Abstraction and Beyond: A Research-Based Tour Exhibition of Chinese Art”, Shanghai Minsheng Museum of Modern Art (Curators Wang Duanting, Huang Du, Li Xu, Peng Feng and Zhu Qingsheng.
2016 “Abstract Paintings from the MAM Collection”, Macao Art Museum, Macao
2016 Beyond Form, Abstract art in China, Beijing Inside-out Museum, (Cur. Wang Danting)