Temperature check in Beijing

Green ShootSo how does it feel where you are? Arriving back in Beijing after 3 months traveling I passed through the requisite temperature checks at the airport (swine flu mania abounds); and so I thought I would do the same for Art markets around the world. I touched base with gallerists, collectors and intermediaries in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Without wishing to over generalise: the Americans were still mostly doom and gloom; while the response from Europeans was more varied, with some friends reporting good works finding new homes. This is rather at odds with the general Economic environment. I heard more about “green shoots” while traveling in the US than in Europe. But maybe the American collectors had had more money in the game to lose?

So it has been interesting to arrive back in China and talk with friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, things are at least a little more positive here. Whilst there has been a general pull back from foreign buyers, young wealthy mainland Chinese buyers seem to be taking up some of the slack. The locals might prefer “decorative” to “difficult” and positive themes rather than negative or political, but they are starting to buy some of the same “big brand” names that the foreigners have made so popular over the last 8 years. And brand names have always been important in China, for all products.

But the foreign buyers haven’t disappeared completely; they are just taking a little more time and doing a little more due diligence. Emily de Wolfe Pettit, an independent Chinese Contemporary specialist, reports that the days of people buying straight off emailed JPEGs seem to be over. Those that are still buying major works now generally want to see the item close-up; and take a little time to think about it. And while volumes are definitely down, good works from the better big names are still fetching prices close to pre-2008 highs. Not all, though. And not quickly.

Fabien Fryns, a principal gate-keeper for one of the stronger “big brands” Zeng Fanzhi, accepts that traffic has slowed through his F2 gallery in Beijing, but says that this is no bad thing. “It’s quality over quantity right now. Which is a much needed process for an emerging market. Some artists were hugely over valued.”

So a green shoot of new local buyers entering the game helps an otherwise slow and flat market.

What is happening where you are?

2 thoughts on “Temperature check in Beijing”

  1. I was also recently back in Beijing, but only for a brief visit to old friends and colleagues. As an interesting aside to Ian Charles’ comments on the mainland contemporary Chinese art market, my old auction house co-workers assured me that while the contemporary market there had taken a dip, the market in classical Chinese art was still strong by comparison. I wonder if the same can be said for other regional markets.

  2. Dozens of gallery openings last night permitted a New York temperature check. It’s hard to generalize, but the mood was a mix of ebullience and anxiety.

    There were crowds, to be sure. Last night was also “Fashion’s Night Out,” Anna Wintour’s “bailout” for the garment industry, which meant that, between the art crowd and the fashion crowd, every able-limbed New Yorker who goes out was out. The blocks between 10th and 11th avenues in Chelsea were jam-packed. Blockbusters, such as Pace’s Maya Lin vernissage, were overflowing with people.

    There was a whiff of a fall chill in the air, however, and a closer look at Chelsea’s streets revealed more empty spaces and more hyphenated gallery names. (Collaboration is a virtue borne of necessity, as Art Basel’s recent suggestions about sharing shipping costs attest). The Towers of Light tribute had been lit up downtown, somewhat ominously, sending beams of light into the dark clouds ahead of the 9/11 anniversary. A Basquiat lookalike in shorts ambled down the West Side Highway, texting.

    The art world was out in force: Robert Longo paying respect to his old gallery mate Troy Brauntuch in front of Friedrich Petzel (old Metro Pictures ties still bind); Thelma Golden strategically positioned at the entrance of Zwirner, where Chris Ofili was showing light-as-a-feather pencil drawings. Many a radiant tan furnished evidence of recent weekends in the Hamptons. Yet there was “no sense of a moment,” as one museum veteran declared. “Just people going through the paces. It’s what we do.”

    The question on many lips: Is there a recession art? Some works, such as Hayley Tomkins’ scrappy assemblages at Andrew Kreps, or Jason Dodge’s sculptures of quotidian materials, like plumbing pipe, could, perhaps, be interpreted in that frame. But aside from a preponderance of small and even tiny works, it was hard to find a discernible or dominant pattern. New art is rarely a faithful mirror of new realities. Denial may be a more suitable word.

    Some works still flaunt their bigness. Or maybe it’s just that, in this chastened moment, big work looks bigger and slick work looks slicker. Lawrence Beck’s gorgeous photos of lily ponds at Sonnabend seemed conspicuously pretty and desirable. Does sublime appear more sublime in times of opulence or at times of bust? Who knows. But if the art hasn’t changed, context did, and that matters.

    The backdrop to last night’s bacchanal is, of course, a year in which old assumptions were tossed aside, like a bunch of stale gallery invites. It was a year to the day when Lehman Brothers reported a $3.5 billion loss, the financial equivalent of that gunshot in Sarajevo that ended the belle époque. The ground has steadied in recent months, but memories of the freefall are still raw.

    “Capitalism, we have a problem,” heralded a poster next to the Marianne Boesky Gallery–a well-placed reminder that we’re not out of the woods just yet. Dealers who permit themselves to speak openly describe nighttime jitters and fears of a “double dip.” They report that only the most loyal clients are tiptoeing back into the market, and then, only for really great work. Confidence hasn’t been restored. Blind faith is a long way off.

    Even so, walking around in Chelsea last night, it wasn’t hard to conjure memories of 2005 and 2006. For a moment, it felt like the tape had been rewound, the recent pains were just a hiccup, a brief detour into unpleasantness. Then it started raining.

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