Shanghai vendors had come to expect a frenzy from Art Basel Miami Beach, the premier international contemporary art fair where patrons typically throw elbows as they rush to buy the hottest pieces after just a glance. But at November’s fair, sales stalled. Vendors tossed around idle theories about the cause, with some blaming buyers’ trepidation on the economic uncertainty that followed Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, construction was underway at West Bund, Shanghai’s newest arts district, located along a bustling post-industrial waterfront. After the international art fair ended, Chinese avant-gardists packed up their artwork and prepared for a year focused on the home game.
In years past, the Chinese contemporary art scene depended heavily on the global market for both sales and prestige. But now, 20 years since Shanghai’s first contemporary art spaces began sprouting up, the city’s gallerists are unfazed, their 2017 schedules showing faith that the market they so carefully cultivated can now sustain itself.
Since its inception in the mid-’90s, Shanghai’s contemporary art scene has been a trading outpost mostly comprised of showrooms featuring foreign exhibits for Chinese audiences, or studios exporting overseas the work of local artists for whom international fame was once a precursor to domestic recognition.
“People used to think contemporary art was something done in the West,” says Lorenz Helbing, a Swiss artist, curator, and longtime Shanghai resident who in 1996 founded the city’s first independent contemporary art gallery, ShanghART. “We would send catalogues [of contemporary Chinese work] to collectors, and they would not be interested,” he says. “Once they see the same piece at Art Basel, then they think it’s art.”
For many years, attendance at Art Basel Miami Beach was all but mandatory. But this year, for the first time since ShanghART launched, the gallery will not send representatives. Instead, they are opening a satellite gallery in the M50 Creative Garden on the other side of Shanghai. For his part, Helbing says he sees signs of health in the local market.
An exterior view of the ShanghART Gallery in Shanghai. Courtesy of ShanghART Gallery
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe are on shaky ground these days, after a dearth of sales drove a 23 percent global decline. The Chinese market, on the other hand, showed a modest 8 percent increase in 2016. For the first time, the Chinese market constituted a greater portion of global art sales than the U.S., with auctions accounting for $4.79 billion of the $12.45 billion global total last year — a 38 percent share. But many Chinese collectors nonetheless subscribe to the notion that contemporary art is a restrictively Western style. Even in 2016, calligraphy and traditional painting accounted for 81 percent of total sales in the Chinese market and 92 percent at auction lots.
“Auction sales for traditional art and antiques have expanded vastly,” Christopher Moore, publisher of the Chinese art magazine Ran Dian, told Sixth Tone. “The contemporary market has too, but from a very low base.”
The expansion is not necessarily confined to Shanghai, either, as contemporary artists are starting to find fans all over Asia. Around half of this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong participants will hail from galleries in Asia or the Asia-Pacific region — the largest representation ever.
But particularly in Shanghai, galleries have managed to find legs. A younger generation of moneyed patrons are more informed and adventurous compared with their forbearers, and young Chinese artists are matriculating at prestigious foreign art schools. Unparalleled social connectivity has arisen thanks to one-stop apps like WeChat offering huge marketing potential for young organizations hoping to expand.
Since 2011, four new Shanghai art fairs have taken root: ARTO21, Art in the City, Photo Shanghai, and West Bund Art & Design on the banks of the Huangpu River, where ShanghART is located. Helbing concedes, however, that Shanghai’s contemporary art scene is still not as developed as that of, say, New York or London. “It’s not the same size, and the choice of exhibitions [in other cosmopolitan markets] is much broader — but the feeling here is that it’s a slowly building landscape,” he says in ShanghART’s library, a room gilded with the portfolios of young Chinese artists.
Xu Yu sits at his desk, a piece by artist Liao Yijun hanging on the wall behind him, Shanghai, March 9, 2017. Beatrice Di Caro/Sixth Tone
Several other Shanghai gallerists are also cutting down on international appearances, saving energy and money, and waiting to see just how far the hometown rabbit hole goes. Shanghai-based curator and writer Xu Yu, known professionally as Leo Xu, was particularly overseas-focused in the past. But after an exhausting 2016, he relishes the opportunity to examine the emerging discussions Shanghai artists are starting.
“There’s a healthy, sound, full spectrum for the art market that has been built here,” says the 34-year-old head of Leo Xu Projects, a contemporary art gallery focused on new media and young artists. Work from his gallery is finding its way into the hands of two groups of buyers: small collectors who want a piece for their home or office, and big players whom Xu says actually have the power to affect an artist’s popularity and price point, at least in Asia.
Finding immediate work in the arts industry after graduating from college in 1999, Xu was a lucky exception among his peers. He started at the state-run Doulun Museum of Modern Art, a repurposed warehouse that had opened two years earlier. The seven-story structure in Shanghai’s Hongkou District played an important role in introducing the public to new subjects and new means of expression. But while its business model brought fresh blood to Shanghai, it did little to shape the city’s artistic voice.
“It was showing a collection, but not really curating a show,” Xu said of the museum. Years passed before low-budget, artist-run spaces started to establish a local scene, around 2005. But explanation still retained priority over experimentation long afterward. Today, that has finally started to change. “We are reaching a time when we do not need to concern ourselves with being pioneers, always introducing something,” Xu says. Rather, galleries can now test new material to a more receptive audience.
Now, Leo Xu Projects exhibits a number of artists and features work by a cohort of regular contributors. One of these contributors is Xu Wenkai (no relation to Xu Yu), widely known in the art world by his online pseudonym, “aaajiao.” In pursuit of a career as a professional artist, Xu Wenkai, originally from northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, moved to Shanghai in 2007 instead of attending art school as most young artists today would.
“Gfwlist” by Xu Wenkai, on display at Leo Xu Projects in Shanghai. Courtesy of Xu Yu
To Xu Wenkai, Shanghai’s high cost of living was offset by the weight the city gave to an artist’s reputation. Still, he found it difficult to gain a foothold in Shanghai’s then-nascent market, particularly as a new media artist who works outside of more familiar media such as photography, video, sculpture, or performance.
“I am interested in Chinese internet culture, and in ways of describing and exploring it,” Xu Wenkai tells Sixth Tone. It took years of dedication for him to establish an audience — but once he did, he left an immediate impression. In his first Leo Xu Projects exhibition, cheekily titled “Gfwlist,” Xu Wenkai installed a tall, matte black printer. A thin strip of thermal paper emerged from a slot in the center of the vending machine-sized device with a list of web searches that turn up blank in China. Comprised of automatically harvested terms, the list was long, but finite. Once it finished printing, it stood as a physical specimen defining the limitations of an entire generation’s early interactions with the web.
To both Xu Wenkai and Xu Yu, the import of “Gfwlist” was in the sense of shared experience, delivered through a data-driven approach rather than political commentary. But Xu’s work has proved popular both at home and abroad. Seven different collectors — three from China, two from Germany, one from France, and one from the U.S. — now own renditions of “Gfwlist.” Xu Wenkai says these collectors are an accurate representation of his audience right now: half Chinese, half foreign. Currently, he is preparing an exhibition to show at Leo Xu Projects in May. The installation will focus on artificial intelligence and humans, and on how they coexist.
Xu Yu poses for a photo outside his studio in Shanghai, March 9, 2017. Beatrice Di Caro/Sixth Tone
Xu Yu, the show’s curator, admits that it can be tricky to provide collectable representations of such ephemeral works, though he believes this is also a good problem to have, as demand from an eager audience is clearly there. For the younger generation of buyers, challenges like these are part of the allure of being a contemporary art collector.
“Luckily, we are all living together through these trends,” Xu Yu says. “The younger generation of collectors find it glamorous and relevant, and so they are increasingly the ones who give our art a home.”
Editors: Owen Churchill and Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A visitor interacts with an art exhibit at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, Aug. 31, 2015. Liu Xingzhe for Sixth Tone)