On a lush riverbank, alive with nocturnal creatures, a small boy sleepwalks, then floats on the water. In this 10-minute video loop, the young film-maker Yi Lian explores the links between water, darkness and the unconscious.
Elsewhere, exhortations to “study well” deck the walls of a vast classroom, where students fall asleep over their books: the multifaceted artist Wang Qingsong has placed himself centre stage in a wry photographic comment on the “contradictory and crazy” epic that is life in China today.
With their contrasting “inward” and “outward” focuses, these two works hint at the diversity of Chinese contemporary art currently on show at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery.
Judith Neilson opened White Rabbit in 2009 and this is her 10th show. Since 2001, she has made several trips a year to China, travelling widely on the mainland and also to Taiwan. The plum works by the pre-2000 generation having long ago been netted – most notably by Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador whose collection will be a mainstay of the M+ museum complex due to open in West Kowloon in 2017 – Neilson has focused firmly on 21st-century art.
With almost 1,000 pieces by 350 artists, the White Rabbit collection tells a story of contemporary China, but Neilson never set out to capture the zeitgeist. It’s simply a matter of what catches her increasingly practised eye. “An artist has to be able to get someone to stop and look,” she says,
Faced with Xu Zhen’s riff on religion and bondage or He Yunchang’s surgery-without-anaesthetic video, you certainly do that. “Judith’s collection is extraordinary in terms of its pace, urgency and freneticism,” says Chinese art scholar Edmund Capon. “It still has a sensibility towards the heritage but it’s in the vanguard of contemporary art.”
Interviewed for these pages in 2010, Neilson noted that the pressures of “money and politics” in China were such that she might “find nothing” on her next trip, but her worries have proved unfounded. “Recently I’ve come back with 15 or 16 new artists,” she now says. “It’s really boiling at the moment – very different from four years ago.”
Much else has changed in the space of four short years. Chinese collectors, on the rise for about a decade, now dominate the scene. Last year, new records were set both for a work by a living Chinese artist (Zeng Fanzhi) and a piece of western art (by Picasso) purchased by a Chinese collector, and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have established salesrooms on the mainland. “The contemporary art market was made by foreigners,” says Sigg, “but Chinese buyers are now broadening their horizons and want to shape their art scene.”
What are they buying? With “New Ink”, contemporary artists are breathing new life into a 1,000-year-old form. In December last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum chose to place ink at the heart of its first large-scale exhibition of Chinese contemporary art. Two months before, Sotheby’s Hong Kong had organised its first Contemporary Literati auction, with the top lot (Liu Guosong’s “Midnight Sun”) selling for HK$6.28m (US$810,000). Other exponents include Xu Lei, Gu Wenda and the very droll Li Jin, who is represented by the Hughes Gallery in Sydney. Evan Hughes notes the steady rise of the artist’s price, from US$1,500 in 2000 to US$15,000-$45,000 at a sellout show last year, with most work going to Chinese collectors.
As Hughes sees it, the interest in ink is all about Chinese buyers’ desire for art that refers to their own culture – oil painters such as Zhang Xiaogang (one of whose haunting “Bloodline Series” recently sold for HK$94.2m) and Liu Xiaodong are equally revered, he says. “It has been the west, not the Chinese, who’ve rushed towards the conceptual art of China,” he adds.
If New Ink builds on the past, the work of many younger artists is rooted firmly in our networked present: meet the On/Off generation, highlighted by a show last year at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. “It’s a generation structured by its ease of access to information – but that comes with a hitch: ‘On/Off’ refers to the software people use to get over the internet firewall,” says UCCA director Philip Tinari.
For the curators, the show was a way of talking about the two realities these artists toggle between on a daily basis. “It’s also the first generation of artists whose work doesn’t look identifiably Chinese,” adds Tinari. “They have developed a bit of an allergy to playing the China card.”
Chinese collectors are reshaping the Shanghai art scene with a burst of museum creation. The Yuz Museum, due to open this month in a former aircraft hangar, will showcase the collection of the Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek. Equally large-scale are the Long Museum Pudong, set up by financier Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei, in 2012, and the Long Museum West Bund, which they opened this year. OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, backed by a property developer in Shenzhen, has added a Shanghai location – and also one in far-flung Xi’an.
“There was talk of building hundreds of museums in the run-up to the Olympics,” says Doryun Chong, chief curator at M+. “Then came the shady real-estate deal stories and museums that opened only to disappear. Now we are witnessing openings of museums by serious and committed collectors.”
Shanghai’s recently opened Power Station of Art is the country’s first official contemporary art museum. “There is a big cultural agenda to redefine what ‘contemporary’ might mean,” says University of Adelaide art historian Claire Roberts. “The international understanding of contemporary art is something that developed in Europe and America, so I think China is seeking to open up that discussion and reorient it to suit its own needs.”
At last year’s Venice Biennale, China packed the work of more than 100 artists into a remote corner of the Arsenale under the title “Voice of the Unseen: Chinese Independent Art from 1979 to Today”. A “collateral event”, it garnered few visitors and almost no press. “If they were trying at an official level to reset the discussion,” says Roberts, “they didn’t do a very good job.”
With its flush new collectors and flash new museums, the Chinese art scene of today is a world away from that of 1996, when Ray Hughes, Evan’s father, first explored Shanghai and tracked down cultural revolution-era prints. For Sigg, there’s also a hint of regret as he notes the “professionalisation” of the scene. “Even in the early 2000s the artist was a semi-underground person, an outsider,” he says. “All of a sudden, they became the subject of glossy magazines.”
Even Neilson, delighted as she is with her recent China visits, lights up visibly as she recalls her early trips: “Artists, writers, musicians … drinking a lot, talking, debating the nature of art … It was fabulous.”
But the speed of China’s advance leaves no room for nostalgia.