Sitting at one of her exhibits in the West Bund Art & Design booth of Shanghai art week — a sake bar that has just been placed on hold for a collector — Pilar Corrias reflects on the huge change she has seen since she started exhibiting here in 2013.
“Energy has been building in China for well over a decade, but the way the scene has exploded over the past five years has been extraordinary — and it is driven by the fairs,” says the London-based art dealer, pouring sake from the bar, a work by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2019 (The Form of the Flower Is Unknown to the Seed).
“I’ve been coming to Asia for 10 years and got in early, via Hong Kong. I could never do that now: there’s too much competition. They all want to break the market,” Corrias said.
The focal point of activity in China is Shanghai, which two weeks ago hosted the November art week, a host of art and design fairs and the landmark inauguration of the Center Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project: a five-year partnership that sees the latest iteration of the Paris behemoth housed in a 25,000m2 building designed by British architect David Chipperfield.
Shanghai is known for its dynamism but the buzz during the week was particularly intense. According to the analysis of members of the global art community, the city is not just having a moment, it is changing the art world order. Currently the world’s third-largest art market, after the US and the UK respectively, and with more ultra-rich citizens than the US for the first time, China looks set to become the greatest art market of all, and Shanghai is fueling this shift.
Of course, there are caveats to the prognosis, not least the bothersome matter of how to reconcile art with the repressive Chinese state. But the general feeling among western gallerists seems to be that this is China’s century.
“There are some macro-economic and bureaucratic factors that have to be ironed out,” says Nick Buckley Wood, the Asia director at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery.
Buckley Wood is half-Chinese, grew up between London and Hong Kong and lived in Shanghai for five years.
“If political tensions increase and the government continues capital controls on transferring money out of China, it’s an issue. VAT was actually lowered this year, as was art tax last year, but it’s complicated, and the rules change all the time,” he said.
Shanghai’s buoyancy, in light of these concerns, as well as issues of censorship and a sense that government controls are increasingly heavy-handed, is all the more remarkable.
Art week sprang up around the openings of two museums founded by local contemporary art collectors, the Long Museum (2012) and the Yuz Museum (2014), coupled with the launch of two fairs, Art021 in 2013 and West Bund Art & Design the following year. It has evolved into a major art world fixture with all the frantic activity of the best international art fairs and biennales. There is even an outpost of the Parisian nightclub Le Baron, which pops up at Art Basel Miami Beach and has become a louche signifier of substantial art world presence.
The week’s launches included that of a new fair, Unique Design Shanghai, the first platform dedicated to collectable design in China, as well as 23 exhibitions at museums and foundations and 24 gallery shows. The scene-stealer, though, was the Pompidou. Billed as “the largest ever cultural exchange and cooperation project between two countries,” the extensive, multidisciplinary program will also include the training of Chinese museum professionals in curating and conservations as part of a skills exchange.
French President Emmanuel Macron flew in to join Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) for the launch and was received with much fanfare.
Macron’s speech was “very Chinese in tone, with lots of metaphors,” says Morgan Morris, co-founder of Unique Design Shanghai.
Morris has worked between Paris and China for almost two decades and is one of the few Westerners I meet last week to have learned Mandarin.
Morris founded UDS with Cao Dan, publisher of The Art Newspaper China, and the boutique fair is housed in the Tank Art Park, a spectacular group of five abandoned aviation fuel tanks converted by Beijing studio Open Architects. The Tank Park is a stone’s throw from the Pompidou, the West Bund fair and a slew of museums in Shanghai’s burgeoning cultural district that brings art, culture and technology together in a 10km-square waterfront development.
The Yuz and Long museums are there, and the Yuz has just announced a collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Qatar Museums in Doha, which aims to share “art and ideas among the three cities.”
Four works did not make it past the censors in the Pompidou’s opening exhibition, “The Shape of Time,” although Pompidou president Serge Lasvignes, claims to be sanguine for now.
“Almost everything got through. It’s the first time that they’ve partnered with a foreign museum for this long, and that’s huge. The dialogue can sometimes be difficult but we’re working on it and on building mutual trust,” he tells me.
But he has also warned this can only go so far, telling the New York Times: “If we cannot do interesting things any more in the relationship we have with the Chinese authorities, we’ll stop.”
Lasvignes claims the Pompidou will not be tempted to self-censor, but Buckley Wood suggests that in order to work in China, the art world must think about content.
“The government asks every gallery to submit a list of works, and that leads to self-censorship because it’s pretty obvious what they won’t like. Graphic nudity would be a problem, while a beautiful black and white photograph of a naked person would probably be fine. Someone self-harming would be a no-no, as would anything overtly political or religious.
“Of course, artists should be completely free to express themselves in their work, but there is a way of life in China that is different to ours: they value harmony and don’t want to see work that is too uncomfortable.”
Of the 109 galleries participating in the West Bund fair, there are 28 newcomers this year, including the London gallerist Stephen Friedman.
“We have just done a two-week pop-up show in Hong Kong and wanted to use our time in Asia, so we came to Shanghai, having made a research trip last year,” he says. “I am extremely impressed by the facilities, which are as good as, or better than, any international fair.”
Friedman’s sales on opening day included several works by David Shrigley and Jonathan Baldock and a large painting by Luiz Zerbini for over US$100,000. Every dealer I spoke to reported healthy sales, with Timothy Taylor declaring this year’s West Bund his most successful opening day at a fair for years. Taylor sold Frank Auerbach’s Reclining Head of Julia, 2006, for “over US$700,000”, two Armen Eloyan paintings “for US$100,000 and the other a bit less,” an Eddie Martinez sculpture for over US$100,000, and another five pieces for up to US$50,000 each. “And this is over the first day and a half.”
Taylor has been coming to China for years.
“It’s all about building relationships. There is a word in Chinese — guanxi (關係) — which literally means ‘relationships’ and refers to the support networks and goodwill generated by cooperation,” he says.
West Bund art fair gossip includes a rumour that Pearl Lam, who has galleries in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, has been offered a multi-million dollar guarantee by an auction house on the Nara painting at her stand. Lam will not confirm, but a selling show of Basquiat and Warhol drawings presented at the fair by Sotheby’s independent gallery arm, S2, clearly anticipates that level of spending. The problem with the market is that it can make mistakes, points out Lasvingnes. “It also has the effect of making everything homogenous.” The antidote is the “museum effect,” he says, where work gains value by dint of being exhibited there.
But During a party for an art exhibition at the Prada Foundation, in the former French Concession, a young Chinese journalist tells me she worries that the imposition of the Western art canon on China smacks of “colonialism-lite.”
The next day, a couple of Brits are trying in vain to attract the attention of the sales team at the Tanks gift shop.
A Chinese man with the air of a collector is watching and suddenly bursts out: “If you’re Western, you have no traction.”
But the people who have spent the most time here find constant points of connection, language barrier notwithstanding.
“When I’m talking to Chinese people, even through a translator, they always laugh exactly where I’m hoping they will,” says Taylor. “I think we have far more in common that we realize.”
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