Boats on the Bund

boatlogo.gifDown in Shanghai for a few days to visit people and galleries (and the 12th China International Boat Show…). A first chance also this year to sit outside at the really quite good Shanghai MOCA 3rd floor terrace cafe, wishing I had brought sunglasses. Samuel Kung (Chairman) and Katrina Chang (Chief Representative) kindly stopped by to say hello. Katrina was busy preparing for the arrival of the contemporary portion of the 300 Years of American Art exhibition on its way down from Beijing. I still think it is sad that local problems mean they have split the show across two venues. “Bureacratic issues” was the phrase used, but that can cover a multitude of sins from disagreements between overseeing ministries down to inefficiencies within the institutions themselves. But she seemed pleased to have the contemporary works they were getting.

The lunch, however, was the highlight of an otherwise dull day of gallery visits around both the centre of town and out at 50 Moganshan Road, Shanghai’s mini-798 (798 being the trendy gallery cafe area in North East Beijing). Silly bright pink- -and-green landscapes, with the occasional image of Mao or Stalin in the clouds, asking US$25,000 to US$70,000, from someone barely known, were among the worst of the day. The two university display spaces at 50MR might be interesting to watch, though there was a preponderance of traditional monochromatic brush paintings this week. (Perhaps a year-end compulsory-technique show?) Overall there was little to inspire, or amuse, at any of the galleries I visited. Shanghai just doesn’t have the volume or depth of Beijing. Though I did see some nice catalogues, Marc. %-).

We are at an interesting stage for contemporary galleries in China. Because of the high prices for Zhang XiaoGang and others at auction, prices have risen across the board for any contemporary artist at galleries all over China (Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou) no matter how little track record they have. For many galleries it is clearly a case of shifting canvas while the China fever lasts. For buyers I have no idea what is in their minds when they pay high prices for what is clearly derivative or vacuous painting. Perhaps they are just playing the pyramid game (last buyer is the loser) that we last saw in dotcom stocks in ’99?

Fortunately even China fever has its limits. It was good to see how many works missed their high estimates at the recent (March 21) New York Sothebys Contemporary Art Asia sale, and that a significant number were unsold.

1 thought on “Boats on the Bund”

  1. Fabien Fryns, founder of F2 Gallery in Beijing, emailed us this:

    Commenting on Ian Charles Stewart’s article about Shanghai and the art scene in China in general, his views are certainly very accurate and should be common knowledge to most people operating in this market. I feel sorry for the (what I hope are) FEW people entering this market clueless. Maybe I am wrong, and there are more of these people than I think? It is true that one certainly would think so when seeing the quantities of bad art that is being sold, although perhaps a little less effortlessly than 6 months ago.

    I was also in Shanghai last week with a collector who visited China for the first time. After having spent 5 days in Beijing and 2 days in Shanghai, he took me to the side on the same terrace on the Bund and told me, to put it mildly, that he was “a little disappointed” that he had come all this way from Europe and still had not been able to buy one important work, even though we had visited most of the important artists in their studios, especially in Beijing. This is not the first time that this has happened to me (and to some discerning colleagues who are looking to sell quality to their clients). In the end, I was offered a very important work by one of China’s leading painters and this collector immediately bought. Of course, because it was a great work – but maybe also so as not to leave China empty-handed?!

    There is a much larger group of buyers, though, who are less discerning about quality and if they cannot get access to a good work, they will compromise and buy “the next best thing,” which often is highly overpriced kitsch.

    It is absolutely true that when ZXG or Liu Xioadong’s work fetch a new record price at auction, the prices of almost all other artists rise accordingly. Many artists directly benefit from the achievements at auction of the top artists, and I am happy for them. They are not at fault. It is the people who purchase these works who are (mainly) at fault. So far this market has only risen upwards; it will be interesting to see how the artists will cope when works fail to sell it this level and when the market cools down. As many in the West know, some of the 1980s stars are only starting to recover now from the sudden market collapse in 1991!

    With few exciting artists emerging from the art academies and the intense competition, it is very difficult for galleries to operate. As I am writing this, I am bidding over the phone at the HK auction taking place right now. I have not managed to buy a single work! Several new auction records were set for relatively known artists. Time to update the prices of whatever little gallery stock I have ;)

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