How China Became the World’s Second-Largest Art Market

Veronica Mendez


Piles of deep red, rusted metal rods fill the expansive room of the Perez Art Museum. The bars lay side-by-side, mounted on top one another, producing a wave-like, rolling movement that permeates the space. They create a landscape reminiecent of countryside, rice-fields even.


The bars compose Ai Wei Wei’s “Straight” sculpture installation. Ranging in size and diameter, they were unburied and recovered by Weiwei from the rumble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of children perished due to the public school’s inadequate structures. Set in this context, the steel rods take on a new meaning, as they lay malleable and steely resilient they evoke a combination of sorrow and hope. “Straight’s” raw emotional power makes it easy to understand why Ai Weiwei is considered one of the greatest contemporary artists today.


The piece was but one of 30 that composed Weiwei’s exhibit According to What?, which was chosen to inaugurate the Perez Art Museum at this year’s Art Base Miami Beach. Both the exhibit, and its master are representative of the international importance that Chinese modern art has been receiving creatively and economically and how it’s reflective of the paradoxical narratives of China’s post-Cultural Revolution society.


The Last Supper


In the past two decades China has risen not only as an economic power, but an artistic one as well. It was only after Mao’s long, repressive reign in the late ‘70s that China began to open up economically, politically and culturally to the outside world in efforts to regain its status as a super-power. The process was a gradual, tedious one, as the country woke up from its Communist slumber.  At first, with the only economic channels open being Special Economic Zones and ports assigned by the government. In October 28, 2013, New York Times, David Barboza, Graham Bowley and Amanda Cox reported that the auctioning of art remained rare until the early 1990s, when the government lifted restrictions on the sale of cultural relics.



Fast-forward 20 years later, and China now possesses the second-largest art market after the U.S.  . In October 28, 2013, New York Times, Barboza, Bowley and Cox reported that China’s auction revenues reported revenue of $8.9 billion, and China’s native Poly Auction house has risen to become the third-largest auction house in the world, behind Christie’s and Sotheby’s.


And while, these auction houses are really the secondary market, they have an extremely important relationship with the primary art market like galleries and art fairs. They play an integral role in establishing a Chinese artist’s market value abroad. The prime example being China’s Zeng Fanzhi, whose “Last Supper” set a new record for contemporary Asian artwork this past October when Sotherby’s sold it at a price of $23.3 million dollars. It was seen at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, where Chinese contemporary art took center stage in exhibits like Ai Weiwei’s According to What? And The Rubell Collection, which presented the exhibit, 28 Chinese, in which they presented 28 Chinese artists after six research trips to China from 2001- 2012. This is from a country that barely had an art market two decades ago.


The Invisible Man


China’s explosion of creativity and the meteoric rise of its artists like Zeng Fangzhi, Yue Minjun, Zhang Huan, Sui Jianguo, Ai Weiwei and Liu Bolion is deeply intertwined with the opening of its economic channels that in turn created space for some cultural expression and liberalism. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution abstract art and any form of individualism was not only prohibited but also criminalized.  It was a period marked with destruction and violence of much of China’s cultural artifacts and traditional heritage and great suppression of the individual, and only after China began to open up economically, was there room for cultural expression.



 “ China was so repressed and restricted for so long, art was only made for dynasties and Buddhism, “ says Julien Isaacz , research assistant at Klein Sun Gallery, “ after the Cultural Revolution people felt an intense need to express themselves as individuals and in a way that was not Chinese.”


It was in this context that the avant-garde group, the Star Group emerged. They founded artistic villages, and after being censored for more than 30 years, the group of experimental artists organized exhibits and braved to perform. The group was the mover and shaker that opened the doors for Chinese artists to experiment and express themselves like never before. The Star Group set a precedent for future artists and fueled the movement that has led to some of the most successful contemporary artists today. Throughout the rest of the 80’s and 90’s other artistic groups and villages began to form fostering a creative and experimental environment. It’s from these groups that today’s most famous Chinese artists, like Ai Weiwei and Liu Bolin, emerged.


“ Most of these artists started out as poor artists doing performance art in special artists village in the outskirts of Beijing, and today most of them are world-renowned,” says Isaacz


Many of these artistic villages did not last long however, and were shutdown by the Chinese government after only a year. A prime example of this is Suo Jia Cun, one of the largest artistic villages in which Liu Bolin worked. In 2005, Suo Jian Cun was demolished on behalf of the Chinese government.  As a result of the demolition of the village, Bolin created his piece “ Hiding in the City” in which he painted his body into the background of the site where Suo Jian Cun used to be. “Hiding in The City not only gained Bolin international recognition and the nickname “Invisible Man” but it also brought attention to the repression Chinese artists still face.


Weiwei’s “Straight” and Bolin’s “Hiding in the City” are highly reflective and critical of the contradictions found today in China’s post-Cultural Revolution society, but the artists themselves have also come to represent the paradoxes they face as they are constantly trying to be censored by their own government. This is at the heart as to why these artists and their work are not just famous and economically valuable across the world, but what makes them important. Herein lies the biggest paradox of all, because despite being lauded internationally, China’s artists and their art are only a fraction of what they could be as a result of the social and political stigma applied to art on behalf of its government.



Author Bio:

Veronica Mendez is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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