Tons of sterilised domestic and industrial waste lay strewn across the gallery floor. Against one wall mounds of unidentifiable detritus are shrouded with ribbons of black tape like seaweed on rocks. Beyond, the work of sifting and sorting and baling recyclable material has begun. Despite the sanitisation, the place reeks. All around are the sounds of Guangdong — of the ships, the trucks, the machines and the people involved in processing the rubbish that the developed world has dumped in China. On the walls, in both Mandarin and English, a litany of statistics and quotations offers a damning indictment of the environmental and public health disaster of this ugly new China Trade.
The irony of the venue is not lost on artist Liu Jianhua. We are in the Shanghai Gallery of Art, a handsome new commercial space opened in 2004 at Three on the Bund, one of the grandest of the old colonial commercial buildings that line one side of the Huangpu River. Below us is the flagship Armani shop; above the Evian Spa and the best and most expensive restaurants in town. Gaze out of the windows of this symbol of imperial power and you see the futuristic skyline of Pudong and the ‘economic miracle’ of 21st-century China. It is a good place from which to contemplate the real cost of the country’s rapidly growing economy.
Liu Jianhua is also posing the question of whether foreign rubbish can be transmogrified into ‘art’ and re-exported. Classified according to material and colour, he has repackaged some of it in plexiglass wall vitrines and crates labelled ‘Art Export’. At this point it also seems to pose a question about the nature of some of China’s other art exports. Few would deny that contemporary Chinese painting has become the hottest and fastest-growing art market since it exploded on the international auction scene just three years ago. Plenty would argue that, despite all the hype, the lion’s share of it is, to quote Philippe Koutouzis, Marlborough’s agent in Asia since 2003, ‘crap’.
Says Koutouzis, ‘In 1993 the game was to buy a painting off an artist in Beijing for $1,500 and sell it in Hong Kong for $10,000. It was not good for the healthy development of the market. But the real problem was the quality of the work itself. The situation has not changed much except the prices have risen.’ Indeed, prices have risen so much that just two weeks ago, Yue Minjun’s ‘Execution’ sold for almost $6 million (£2.9 million) at Sotheby’s in London — a record for any work of Chinese contemporary art at auction.
It seems to me that this Western-style contemporary painting is the new Chinese export art. Even those writing the cheques probably have no idea how many of the most popular post-’89 ‘Cynical Realist’ painters employ teams of assistants to produce a regular supply of their distinctive and overtly political canvases, and tailor their work according to foreign market preferences. It seems little different from the heyday of the Dutch and English East India Companies when the artisan potters and painters of Jingdezhen produced a particular kind of porcelain to feed the ‘China-mania’ sweeping Europe. It was quite different from that demanded by the home market.
One of the most unnerving aspects of the burgeoning Chinese contemporary art phenomenon is that its audience is Western. The earliest museum shows were curated first in Europe and then the US; its biggest collectors include the Swiss Pierre Huber, organiser of the new ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai, Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, and the Belgian entrepreneur Guy Ullens, whose new museum opens in Beijing next month. Charles Saatchi is a recent convert. One of the reasons why the dynamic Weng Ling opened the Shanghai Art Gallery in 2004 was to educate the public about the art the country’s young artists were producing and to help foster a collecting class among wealthy Chinese.
Certainly the past few years have seen a growing number of Asian buyers entering the market. Insiders believe that most are speculators, attracted by the giddy returns of recent years. Koutouzis, for one, has seen a number of his paintings appear in auction catalogues even before he has sold them. Others have overheard businessmen discussing who is most likely to become the first $10 million Chinese painter. It is not the art that is important but what it represents: collecting is as much a status symbol as a Rolex. How depressingly Western.
Even Weng Ling is reportedly concerned about the commercialism of the market and the loss of freshness and idealism in Chinese contemporary art, and is encouraging artists to create original works that address the issues of contemporary society. Arguably the most interesting work being produced in China today is installation, video art and photography.
Just as Liu Jianhua is questioning China’s acceptance of Western waste, so might the country’s artists question their acceptance of the demands of Western collectors. Says the Beijing-based designer and former Asian art dealer Jehanne de Biolley, ‘This is an exciting moment in China. It is a moment of renaissance. I am sure great art will emerge but now I feel like shouting to some — not all — of today’s painters, “How dare you produce this clichéd, mass-produced rubbish just because it is what the West wants?”’
Perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the Chinese export porcelains that once bankrupted European collectors are now worth a fraction of the superlative Imperial wares made for the home market.