It’s definitive: Rubbish = Art

bacon_rubbish.jpgA month ago we did a piece commenting on the absurdity of a small UK country auction house selling leftovers from Francis Bacon’s studio floor and calling it Art. Well, the market has spoken. Rescued from a garbage bin by a local electrician, the discarded “Study for a Portrait”, estimated at an already high  £12,000 to  £18,000, sold for  £400,000 before buyer’s premium.  £400,000. That makes it hard to simply write this off as memorabilia. (Total proceeds were  £965,490. Pre-sale estimates ranged from a realistic  £30,000 to a very optimistic  £500,000. The range in pre-sale estimates is, in itself, a good indication of how difficult it was to estimate the ‘collection’s’ value.)

hirst_stalin.jpgWhen last we broached this topic we also made passing reference to a certain “Damien Hirst Stalin”, sold at Sothebys for  £140,000. In this case, Hirst helped out his friend, writer AA Gill, dispose of an unwanted Soviet era portrait of Stalin that Christie’s had refused to sell. One hastily painted, off centre, red spot later, and Christies accepted the new Damien Hirst into a contemporary art sale with alacrity (although it was Sothebys that eventually sold it), and again the market responded warmly.

In the first case, Bacon’s clear intentions have been ignored, and works he never intended to be seen, let alone sold, have been designated Art. In the second, an artist’s intention to poke fun at the market succeeded royally. And the result is again labelled Art.

In both cases it is the name of an artist that has turned rubbish into Art. The name alone. Should we care?

Saatchi buys; China sells (out?)

Catching up on reading over the weekend I saw an article on Guardian Unlimited on the state of the Chinese Contemporary market, highlighting Charles Saatchi’s moves in the sector. The quote that stuck in my mind was this from Brian Wallace of Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery:

“If you were in it for the money 10 years ago, you would be very well off today. But it is not easy. With all the new entrants into the market, more galleries are taking up more artists. So the overall quality is not as high as before. There are many good artists out there, but a lot of them are now painting for the market – even some of the big names.”

There are parallels with a previous thread about young artists being exposed to buyers too early and having their content and ‘language’ skewed to attract more money. At the moment the Chinese Contemporary market as a whole seems to be acting like a money hungry new art graduate: more concerned with producing work that buyers have shown they will buy, than trying to say anything new. This is, fortunately, not entirely true, but it is certainly the impression one gets from wandering around the galleries.

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.

Sanitised Sensation

Jake And Dinos Chapman, UbermenschAfter last week’s visit to the “Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation” exhibition I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the “Aftershock” show of YBAs at the Capital Museum here in Beijing. Arriving at the imposing new museum building on FuXingMenWai DaJie, a mile or so West of the entrance to the Forbidden City, I was slightly perplexed by the lack of any external indication of the show (though there was a large banner proclaiming an Italian Heritage exhibition) and the fact that it was clearly a museum for antiquities found in and around Beijing. After confirming that the British show was indeed there, and buying my 50RMB (€5) ticket, I was gently directed to a small unmarked door to the right of the main atrium hall and shortly thereafter found myself staring up at Jake & Dinos Chapmans’ homage to Prof Stephen Hawking: Ubermensch.

The show is essentially a smaller (12 artists), milder, version of Saatchi’s YBA Sensation show at the Royal Academy a decade ago. And yes a smaller, milder sensation is what you get. Tracy’s bed is neatly made without a condom in sight. There is no Hirst formaldehyde and the only totally naked form is that of Marc Quinn’s medical milk formula and synthetic polymer wax baby (Innoscience).

Mark Quinn, InnoscienceBut none of the Chinese I saw at the show (art students and casual middle class visitors alike) were complaining. We may find it all a little humdrum now but these two shows (300 Years and Aftershock) are both firsts for China; groundbreaking in their display of particularly contemporary western art in China, in a prestigious forum, and are welcome for it.

The reticence to promote and slightly odd, if impressive, location are therefore forgivable in the context of exposing local Chinese to art they have only ever been able to see before in books and online. The organisers are thus to be commended.

Perhaps, as a result, local art students will be encouraged to be a little more adventurous again. I, for one, am getting a little tired of the current vogue for cartoon style paintings…

Americans in China

“Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation”, a show that has spent a decade in gestation, is on display at the National Art Museum of China, here in Beijing. (360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.) It is an ambitious show, as anything trying to cover 300 years of art in a single show would be, and generally succeeds at both informing and entertaining. Supported principally by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, it contains many of the names you would expect, if not, of course, their best works. But it is surprisingly broad church from the 1700s right up to the present.

20070210_mgyssbn_36.jpg - 193.11 KbIt is quite something to walk through rooms starting with Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, and end up with Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle) and Kara Walker (Insurrection). On the way you will have seen: Albert Bierstadt (Sierra Nevada), Frederic Remington, George Bellows, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer (Watching the Breakers: A High Sea), Childe Hassam; then jumped to Edward Hopper (Dawn in Pennsylvania), Georgia O’Keefe (Red Poppy VI), Walt Kuhn (Clown with Drums); and then Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Bell, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Judd, Serra, Nauman, Weiner, Schnabel, Haring, Gonzalez-Torres, Basquiat, Koons, Currin, Wiley and more. As I said, quite something. For those interested, the only artists that merited two works (as I recall) were John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim led the curatorial team.

I went partly to enjoy the walk, and encourage my art-student daughter to go, but also curious to see local public reaction.

20070210_mgyssbn_22.jpg - 312.50 KbPerhaps predictably, the members of the Beijing public I saw on the two days I went seemed to be most perplexed by the room containing works by Judd (Untitled 1970), Serra (Right Angle Prop), Flavin (Green crossing Green: to Piet Mondrian who lacked Green) and Nauman (None Sing – Neon Sign). Many walked straight across Carl Andre’s 10×10 Altstadt Copper Square without being aware of their intimate experience with a work of modern American Art. There were many more people looking at the more accessible 19th-century works and the, I suppose, more conceptually familiar late-20th-century video works. Indeed Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle had its own room packed with people sitting and standing around the room in front of the five screens. Also interesting, and consistent with Lawrence Weiner’s concern with context was the translation of his To See and Be Seen into 3-foot-high Chinese characters 而为人所视 alongside the English. Not that anyone seemed to take notice. One recent work that did seem popular was the Felix Gonzalez-Torres cellophane-wrapped-candy piece (“Untitled” Public Opinion). I saw a number of people pick up single sweets to try and one lady take a two-fisted bundle into her coat. The young fresh-faced guards, Continue reading “Americans in China”

Late night TV in Beijing

Found myself idly channel flipping at 1am last night here in Beijing (sad I know) and came across “The Art Auction” a regular TV series covering (last night at least) a chinese contemporary art sale held recently at Poly Art Auction. The entire auction seemed to be covered (I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) with a post-buy discussion (for each piece sold!) by a two man expert panel back in the studio. As far as I could work out with my nascent Mandarin they were discussing bid prices, people in the room and reasons for interest or lack thereof. I think this was the recent record breaking sale by Poly Art Auction. The commentators certainly seemed excited.

I mention this because it is an interesting example of the government here indirectly supporting the promotion of contemporary Chinese Art and Culture as a means of boosting pride in the country, and supporting social cohesion (through pride and nationalistic fervour) in general. Poly Art Auctions is owned by the same Chinese State Owned Enterprise that owns the Poly Art Museum (reputedly better than some of the directly state owned museums) here in Beijing. The programme, and other Chinese state owned media, cover each new record price set for a Chinese artist as an indication of the rise in stature of Chinese Art in general, paralleling the rise of China in other domains in the world. Buyers at these local auctions come from all over the Asian world (a recent record Chinese work was bought by an Indonesian Chinese businessman) but many are young succesful businessmen with new money. The heat of the contemporary market, and the source of the new money, parallels current (Art) affairs in the West. The government (indirect) support of rising prices does not. Another interesting factor in todays market bubble.

Vanity Fair Dec 06 “The Art Issue”

Does anyone have any comments on the fact that Vanity Fair have elevated (dropped?) Art World participants to the same level as media titans and celebrities? This (Dec) issue is their first ever Art World focus. A first and last? Or a status that will endure?

And of course they used Brad Pitt on the cover instead of the usual group pic…vanity-fair-dec-2006-cover

Sothebys tries talking-head video to promote sale

The Tobias Meyer video interview that Sothebys is using to promote the 14 Nov sale is interesting. Have they done one before? Interesting use of the medium; both to push the sale and to show Meyer at his (pretentious) best. Wonder how regular buyers will react? Wonder how the new buyers from Asia that he mentions will react? Interesting that he highlights their presence but makes no comment about how their new tastes may shift the market.

Has anyone done any studies on whether the arrival of successive waves of new money (US, Arab, Russian et al) have shifted the core contemporary (or classical for that matter) Art markets at all? I would guess not much. New money is often not Art informed and therefore it relies on advisors who, in turn, perpetuate the same current Artist vogues. The same Art sub-movements. The only real changes come from new gallerists if they latch on to new sources of capital, as they discover/create new artist reputations, no? I wonder if the arrival of the slightly more confident Chinese will change any of this?