The Kings of Beijing On the Trail of China's Hot Art Market

Chinese artists are the new stars of international auctions and there’s a bull market for their work. A new center is now showcasing the beginnings of the 1980s Chinese avant-garde art movement for the first time.

They gave themselves names like Xiamen Dada or the North Art Group. And they did things that would previously have been unthinkable in China’s art scene: they washed newspapers in washing machines to build traditional Chinese tombs with the resulting pulp. They openly burned their work and simulated suicide as "Happenings." One even spent four years painstakingly drawing on paper and canvas thousands of Chinese symbols that came purely from his imagination -- not one of them actually existed.

Twenty years on, many of these artists' works can be seen in Beijing. The show, "85 New Wave," which opened in November, marks the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, created by Belgian entrepreneurs Guy and Myriam Ullens. After the National Gallery in Beijing, the Ullens Center is now the largest permanent exhibition space for contemporary art in China.

The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 17, provides a unique glimpse of a particularly dynamic era in Chinese culture. As China's Communist Party slowly moved away from the planned economy in the 1980s and the insular empire began opening to the outside world, many artists were exposed for the first time to the works of their counterparts in New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. Visitors brought catalogues of international exhibitions to China and soon the first of the Chinese could travel abroad.

Up until that point, painters and sculptors had mostly been employed by colleges, the army, companies or the Communist Party. Suddenly, artists who were used to depicting brave workers, smoking chimneys or docile women, began to experiment with new subject matter and techniques. Amidst the installations at the Ullens Center stand four giant bald heads, painted in gray and black, with wide open mouths, titled "The Second Situation." Another picture shows a dark Madonna behind red bars, a third a shadowy world of penguin-like figures, with the title: "Polar Region Series." There is even a reconstruction of austere artist's quarters from the 1980s.

The fact that it happens to be a Belgian industrialist who is putting the most significant collection to date of work by this first generation to enjoy artistic freedom in China on display is not altogether surprising. At the time the artists started getting greater leeway to be more creative, few Chinese were interested in their young, renegade artistic talents; and even if they were, they had no money to spend on art. That was the preserve of foreigners, like Ullens, whose family made its fortune in the food market and who came to Beijing for the first time in the 1980s. He wanted to do business, but his efforts were "not very successful," he explains in his suite in the Grand Hyatt Hotel near Tiananmen Square. Fortunately, though, his foray into the art scene was more fruitful.

Fascinated by the "magic of China," Ullens spent his free time with creative artists. "I lived together by painters," he says. When he and other foreigners bought the first paintings for a few hundred dollars, their creators suddenly became "the kings of Beijing. They were the first to be able to afford their own cars."

The Belgian has assembled a collection of around 1,300 pieces by Chinese artists "and I’m still buying," he says. It's a profitable hobby, because it is not only Hong Kong and Beijing that are reaping the benefits of the Chinese economy -- the art market is flourishing too. There is a bull market in Chinese artwork and Chinese artists are the stars of international auctions, where their work is often more expensive than that of established Western painters. One recent example of this phenomenon was the auction of painter Yue Minjun's work "The Pope," a giggling Yue dressed as the prelate, at Sotheby's in London last June for an amount equivalent to over €3 million ($4.46 million). A few weeks later, the work "Execution," which alludes to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, fetched over €4.3 million.

It's not just foreigners who are driving prices up, but also China's nouveau riche themselves. Liu Xiaodong’s socially critical canvas "The New Migrants of the Three Gorges," which recently went under the hammer for almost €2.2 million, was bought by the founder of a Beijing restaurant chain.

Many Chinese are buying art not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it also promises a good return. "I have increasing numbers of Chinese clients, " says Beijing gallery owner Emily Zhang, "who see the purchase of paintings as an investment."

After cars, villas and jewelry, paintings and sculptures are considered solid assets. Top foreign auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s are thronging into the Middle Kingdom, because "that's where the buyers are," as one British dealer says. More and more galleries are springing up and the Web site even sells paintings online. It is time "to add an aesthetically pleasing angle to your assets," the site advertises, waxing lyrical about the "meteoric rise in value of contemporary Chinese art."

"The Chinese market is developing quickly and intensively," says New York art expert Arnold Chang, who is of Chinese origin. Even for small-scale gallery owner Zhang, who shows her pieces in a first-floor apartment in southeast Beijing, high prices have become normal. On the wall hangs a painting in sparse brush strokes of a naked woman with red pouting lips, by the painter Pang Yongjie. "A few months ago I would have asked about €2,000 for it," says Zhang, "Now I’ll get €5,500."

But all this has a rather unfortunate consequence: artists are churning out work as though they were on an assembly line.

"Some of them are already copying themselves because they don’t have the time to be creative any more,” says Zhang. When she recently wanted to order a painting from a "not even particularly good painter," she says, "I was number 54 on the order list." And, complains Zhang, the works are not always worth so much. Chinese art is so sought-after that many clients are prepared to pay large amounts for lower quality work -- speculating by collecting.

"The assistant jots something down. The artist stands beside him and makes a few calls. Then he adds in a few brushstrokes and sells the whole thing for thousands of dollars," observed Berlin painter Ekkehard Stoevesand, who has worked and taught in Beijing in recent years, on the subject of producing art. "When I was selling my things, they all thought I was crazy because I was selling them so cheap."

Many of the once wretchedly poor artists are now prosperous. Lots of them live in handsome villas in Songzhuang, an artists’ village on the outskirts of Beijing, drive big cars, employ secretaries and assistants. Yue Minjun, 45, whose laughing face brought in so many million euros at the recent auction, is one of them. He personally won’t see a cent of that money today, because he sold the work in the early 1990s. "I have no idea why the buyer spent so much on it now. I don't want to know, either," says Yue.

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