Speaking of fairs…

Forged_by_Qin_Chong.jpgWent along to the opening of the 5th China International Gallery Exposition (CIGE) here in Beijing on Thursday. Held at the snazzy central China World Trade Centre it gets cleaner and better organised each year. Sadly the Chinese works on display were mostly overpriced and familiar. Even when the artist and work were new. There are exceptions, of course. Urs at Urs Meile and Fabien at F2 are among those trying to build long term relationships with, and long term reputations for, the artists they represent; encouraging development of oeuvre and restraint in pricing. But this is gold rush time for China Contemporary. This sculpture (“Forged by Qin Chong”) probably best illustrates the focus of most Chinese contemporary artists these days.

I did enjoy seeing the work from other galleries around Asia. Attracted by the new deep pockets of the Northern Chinese, galleries from Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Mumbai were all in evidence. Many with their artists in tow. It made for a fun cultural mix in an otherwise fairly quiet VIP evening. They also provided refreshing views, textures and subjects in a room full of yet more pink, bloated cartoonesque Chinese works.

It will be interesting to see how this Fair evolves. There are fewer exhibitors this year (81 vs 118 last year) and there has been a large churn. For example not one of the 5 French galleries that came last year returned. And the number of mainland Chinese galleries who bothered to exhibit is down sharply; 16 this year, down from 39 last year. On the other hand there was a new area upstairs for solo shows of young artists from around Asia (not just China) and a surprising number of dedicated contemporary video art rooms.

Buyers seemed in short supply, however. At least the media present knew who they were after as they hounded the minor TV celebrities that wandered, slightly bewildered, through the exhibits. One interesting thing was the presence of Phillips dePury as one of the sponsors. Not there to launch a new office in Beijing, but to promote their ConArt sale in New York at the end of May. A long way to come for customers.

Interesting times.

12 thoughts on “Speaking of fairs…”

  1. The picture of the gold ingots and the description you provide of the works, coupled with my own recent experience in Dubai, makes me ask all of you who are in a position to comment whether there are commonalities among the works being produced by artists in emerging markets.

    It seems to me that many of these works are one-liners that hew to the same common denominator as Hollywood movies: The simpler the content, the higher the likelihood that the world will pay attention.

    Intense color, supersizing, flat graphic techniques, and titillating (but never too titillating) political subject matter seem to be what we get from many artists trying to break from their respective national scenes onto the international stage. It happened with the Russians, who were blending socialist subject matter with pop art, it certainly happened with the Chinese, and most of the Indians I saw at the Gulf fair were producing work of this kind.

    In short, why are artists emerging from post-communist and post-colonialist zones repeating a diluted version of Andy Warhol? Are these neo-pop zingers which speak the language of advertising the entry point into the international art scene? Will later generations follow with works of greater nuance and seriousness that also bear the hallmarks of their own cultural origin?

  2. But isn’t one of the questions we’re grappling with here the very notion of “cultural origin” to begin with? The pastiche of the local and the global, or the regional and the modern, is more of an effect or symptom of the growing international industry of art (Noel Carroll calls it “the transnational institution of art”), which also includes all of the new biennials and big multinational art shows. It seems to me that what makes so much of this work very bad is exactly this pastiche. This is not to suggest that pastiche itself is bankrupt, but only to point out that when it goes no further than crossing “origins” with some more apparently “global” discourse, the results just don’t cash out.

  3. Although it is not a much better choice for art, I think I prefer parody to pastiche, being unwilling to let go of the local and the historical entirely. Reaching for participation in a western history of modern art a certain level of parody was in the Gutai group’s reading of Jackson Pollock via Namuth photographs. Huang Yongping and Cai Guo-Qiang both show similar influence and strategies in their early work, finding a hook in the narrative, whether Dada or Dubuffet. It was post-Tiananmen China that saw a pop-Mao craze, much like the parody of Social Realism in Russian contemporary art. It may be thin, but parody holds a tension that Maoist contradiction once held, something that the more slippery quality of pastiche does not.

    And curiously such parody is also present in the work of expatriate Chinese artists. In 1994 American David Diao represented himself as an action-painting Bruce Lee in a forged advertisement to an exhibition at the Pompidou, and after him the French-identified Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming has also adopted Bruce Lee as his alter-ego. For a long time now there has been a curious deployment of parody and its effects with some notion of historical criticality in there somewhere, and so I wonder what might be differently at stake in these histories beyond/before what appears to be so blatantly commercial today.

  4. I think the saddest thing about the relative lack of content of much work here at the moment is that people keep buying it. And that includes many well known international collectors from both sides of the Atlantic, and a number of museums who I won’t name to save them the embarrassment. Don’t get me started on the museums who I think are speculating with entrusted funds. Their argument is that they are buying early to save their institution money. But that pre-supposes they are able to choose well and avoid the pitfalls of “whatever happended to…”. Aren’t they supposed to show “the best of” once it has been determined who “the best of” are?

    And of course all this so-called savvy money piling in just fuels the gold rush even more.

  5. The “growing international industry of art”, indicated in the mushrooming of biennials, fairs, traveling exhibitions, magazines, publications and the like, is a function of the huge proliferation of arts professionals, whose ranks are augmented each year by a new graduating class, each hoping to fulfill lofty ambitions, find a peer group to ascend with, and exert power as artists, museum curators, critics, institutional functionaries, art advisors, gallerists, PR servitors etc. The field has never been so replete. There are probably more academies than ever before and more graduates looking to make their mark, each feverishly endeavoring to attract the maximum attention and cachet. The contemporary art arena is like a nest with too many recent hatchlings, each cheeping louder than the next in a desperate effort not to be ignored.

    Part of the alacrity Ian observes among collectors and collecting institutions revolves around a “hipper-than-thou” mechanism. No ambitious curator or advisor wants to be second in anointing the newest artist or movement. To be late on the draw is to risk falling behind the competition. Hence the sometimes questionable purchases of unproven or jejune work. Often the artist and curator studied at the same academy and swallowed the same canon. If an artist deemed newly important cites an obvious reference or borrowing, or a particularly abstruse connotation for the work, the ambitious curator must be lurking in the wings ads as apologist and explicator. This is how reputations are made and power is consolidated.

    This model is even more applicable in younger arenas, where the borrowings and justifications resound with greater intensity. Parody intensifies with cultural difference, as there is a certain originality or exoticism in, say, a Chinese artist borrowing elements from Warhol — flatness, mechanical reproduction, seriality, off registration color, ironic attitude to content, etc. — than with a Western artist, where the Warhol references have been fully played out over the years.

  6. To Catherine and Jonathan, I think it’s neither parody nor pastiche. It’s imitation. Parody and pastiche suggest conscious and original aesthetic strategies, and a level of criticality at work. That may be true in some cases. Many works, though, look like they originated in old issues of Artforum magazine and were embellished with just a whiff of exoticism and instantly recognizable “otherness”.

    What’s the way out? One of the things I enjoy about the architectural landscape of formerly semi-peripheral cities like Prague or Budapest is how they replicate, in a slightly chunkier and more awkward form, the styles that architects saw in visits to Rome or Paris. By the time they came back and set their visions to paper, and had them built with local builders and craftsmen, the western styles had lost some of their nuance and easy elegance. But eventually, coupled with some local regionalist influences and folklore motifs, these slightly hesitant or heavy-set local styles matured into confident, legitimate forms that stood on their own.

    Much the same happened in art in the postwar period, giving rise to heavier and darker versions of abstract art–not to mention decidedly less colorful works, because the imitations took as their points of departure black and white reproductions of the original pictures.

    In sum, I hold out hope that imitative strains of art DNA, exposed to local cultures and political climates, will, in due course, grow into robust regional styles that are less in need of the safety net of overt references to New York, London, or Berlin.

  7. My inclination is not to generalize the other, but to refer to specific histories that might provide an accounting for what we see in contemporary Chinese art. I notice that Gutai was important to the present generation as a model – it matters that Cai Guo-Qiang was in Japan post-Tiananmen – and regard Gutai as offering more than imitation or pastiche, more than parody. Atsuko Tanaka stands out here.

    Chinese contemporary art has already been described as parodic by art historian Xiaoping Lin. (“Those Parodic Images:A Glimpse of Contemporary Chinese Art,” Leonardo, V. 30, #2 1997). Lin describes a politicized desire to destroy the past and to breach the gap between East and West – hence avant garde. This occurred at a time when postmodern parody was already rampant in the West, and so to locate it as “Chinese” is inaccurate, but for its fit with contemporary Chinese interest.

    As the imitation that occurs is within a postmodernism that has already embraced parody, I bring up the artists David Diao and Yan Pei-Ming as Chinese expatriates who have both turned to the figure of Bruce Lee. It does matter that Diao was in France at the time that he first came up with this imagery, and that Pei-Ming, also in France, knew of Diao’s Pompidou invite before using it himself. Arriving to New York at a young age, how Diao came across it is from within a very personal and specific New York history of abstract painting and postmodern theory; how Pei-Ming felt at ease in the appropriation of it likely comes from his boasted training as a painter of Maoist propaganda in his youth, as much as from anything called postmodernism. Same parody, very different stories.

    But this is only to establish that a history exists – and not to downplay the concern that what currently floods the market is without the criticality (however slight) of either parody or pastiche.

  8. In support of Catherine’s point, I find our discussion developing along very Euro-American centric lines, revealing a Gombrich/Story of Art view to cultural exchange.

    Firstly, not sure if Artforum is even available in China, it certainly isn’t in the sub-continent and the Middle East, where artists are much more likely to look to Bidoun, ArtIndia or Art Asia Pacific for their glimpse into the world of contemporary art (Disclosure~ I have written for two of them).

    Secondly,as the relative economic weight of art world centres shifts — and Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai and perhaps even Dubai start punching their weight economically — there will be no need for ‘safety nets’ from New York or London. For lets not kid ourselves — the importance of these centres is about economic might and the maturity of the cultural industry rather than the ‘quality’ of the art.

    Lastly, I am not sure we can or should expect Chinese or South Asian artists to ignore Warhol’s methodologies any more than we should expect MIT’s scientists or economists to ignore al-Khwarizmi’s invention of algebra. These are simply tools of the trade. What matters is how people use them and to what end.

  9. “Tools of the trade” — a nice image. But not so fast. There is a difference between adopting Warhol’s methodology and copying superficial aspects of his style. Nonetheless, by all means let’s give artists the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is a deeper cultural inquiry driving their work. We owe it to them to presume their seriousness, and in any event, history will sort out if the confidence had been warranted.

    I relish the thought — and this was the inspiration for my originating post — that artists working far away from New York and London would start making important and duly recognized contributions. The artistic weight and pull of these cities, however, will not likely shift as quickly as the centers of commerce and finance gravitate and proliferate to new shores. Consider the artistic dominance of Paris until half way into the so-called American Century.

    That’s because much more is involved than money: the presence of a committed collecting network, tightly linked coteries of artists, established arts institutions, enlightened state support or independent philanthropy, entrenched publications and popular watering holes — all the tangibles and intangibles of a full-fledged art world.

  10. Agreed. Your last point is what is of concern with projects like Abu Dhabi’s Sadiyaat Island, where there is an assumption that ‘art infrastructure’ will develop as fast as the buildings get built, and the art gets bought.

    There is a conference in Hong Kong next month on this notion of ‘cultural districts’— lest we forget Hong Kong’s version of Sadiyaat — which looks promising (www.aaa.org.hk/shiftingsites). Organised as a collaboration between a local university and the Asian Art Archive (a not-for-profit building up an asia-wide resource on contemporary Asian art) during Hong Kong’s new art fair, it should make for interesting discussions.

  11. One point, one question (possibly related):

    1. Regarding Catherine’s contention about “not generalizing the other,” I think the “other” here, and its “specific history,” is neither regional nor ethnic (nor personal) but the totality against and within which these particulars become legible.

    2. Accepting all of what Andras just noted (I was in the middle of making similar points but he beat me to the punch), I think Hammad’s comment raises one further fundamental question (at least for me): If we are realists about mathematical methods (which, I should add, is akin to being Platonists)–i.e. that such entities or methods transcend not only their ‘contexts of discovery’ but also their ‘contexts of justification’, then are we also realists about artistic methods?

  12. Regarding Jonathan’s other, I am interested in what might be a globalizing condition of visibility marked by a shift from the traction of parody to what Jameson calls the “dead language” of pastiche. (In writing what follows I find myself dangerously close to agreement with Drucker that there has been an historical shift from contingency to complicity, but here we go…) And as to Jonathan’s question about algebra and Warhol, the idealization of method as a conveyor belt for artistic production is certainly visible, and I would want to make a distinction between method and style – parody does not have to look like Warhol, for ex. This may be why parody appears in the guise of so many action figures over the course of time.

    But we are also talking about the production of commodities, and as I understand pastiche it has a certain cache as subcultural style. Am I right that a worry here is that what we see as “contemporary Chinese art” or art on the fantasy island of Dubai has become a form of hipster tourist art that is embraced by the people of its own cultures? And if so, what gives us Westerners (myself, anyway) the authority to judge in this way?

    I am reminded of Hal Foster’s “cynical reason,” an understanding of simulation painting and commodity sculpture of the ‘New York 80s as the condition of the split subject, who “knows his beliefs to be false or ideological, but he holds to them nonetheless for the sake of self-protection, as a way to negotiate the contradictory demands placed upon him.” Foster describes this need for buffering as an exaggerated skepticism in reaction to the “presumptive truth claims of ideology critique.” It seems rather obvious, and I think Steve Kaplan mentioned it earlier, that such conditions would arise most forcefully within the conditions of relativism that cultural exchange provides.

    It is true that without the infrastructure beyond the equivalence of economic and cultural exchange there may be little chance for anything else, but it may also true that this all started in New York, where “the presence of a committed collecting network, tightly linked coteries of artists, established arts institutions, enlightened state support or independent philanthropy, entrenched publications and popular watering holes — all the tangibles and intangibles of a full-fledged art world,” have existed for a long time. It’s a different kind of other, indeed.

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