Asian Art Takes a Transnational Turn the assessment

Asian Art Takes a
Transnational Turn
Top-end collecting is now largely the accumulation of
instantly recognizable, investment-grade trophies. The
range of artists regularly offered in evening postwar and
contemporary sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s—which
generate most of the market’s headlines—has contracted
to a narrow band of 40 to 50 blue-chip Western names,
many of them dead. It’s rumored that the bulk of the
$1.1 billion spent in November came from wealthy Americans sinking money into Abstract Expressionist classics as
a hedge against possible post-fiscal-cliff tax hikes.
A similar air of risk aversion now hangs over the world’s
top art fairs. Regardless of where on the planet an event
takes place, the dominant U.S. and European galleries
present selections of works by their familiar (sometimes
all-too-familiar) brand artists and give a pronounced
occidental slant to the word international.
Just at the point when many in the art world are complaining about fair fatigue, a new event this spring in London,
may/june 2013
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From top: Alexander Ochs Galleries, Berlin and beijing; Christie’s
Sea Hyun Lee’s
particular brand
of globalism,
seen in Between
Red 162, 2012,
evokes the
familiar style of
Toile de Jouy
fabrics in the
depiction of
It may be time to look at some basic art world definitions.
Take the word international. A serious collector sitting
at home in New York or London or Zurich, surrounded by
Kapoor, Condo, Wool, Kiefer, and Murakami, probably
feels if he bids at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips auctions
and buys at fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, his taste is already
irreproachably international. Pretty well everyone involved
in buying and selling contemporary art portrays it as an everexpanding global business. Christie’s reported that buyers
at their February sales in London hailed from 33 countries,
demonstrating “a truly global appetite for the category.”
Yet the exaltation that followed the record $1.1 billion
sales total at the three main houses in New York last
November masked a creeping conservatism. Both new
and existing buyers, chastened by the collapse of the
financial market in late 2008 and early 2009, which burst
bubbles for Chinese political Pop, Damien Hirst, and
others, have retrenched.
Sea hyun Lee and Hakgojae, Seoul
After years of dominant venues offering a narrow view of international art, new fairs
such as Art13 London are broadening buyers’ perspectives by scott reyburn
at which about half the artists on view were born outside
Europe and North America, offered the chance for visitors
to take a wider view. Art13 London was organized by Tim
Etchells and Sandy Angus, who cofounded the Hong Kong
International Art Fair, and sold a majority stake to Art
Basel’s MCH Group in 2011.
“We wanted to create a global art fair with a high percentage of dealers who hadn’t shown in the U.K. before,”
said Etchells in an interview after the event. “There’s a huge
number of international people who live in London who
want to see art from all round the world.” Further events
in Istanbul and Sydney are planned for September.
In London, 129 galleries from 30 countries set up shop
under the stately cast-iron roof of Olympia Grand Hall
in West Kensington. It was the first time 70 percent of the
exhibitors had showed at a London fair, and Etchells’s
and Angus’s background in Asia gave the event a distinctive
feel. Galleries with spaces in China outnumbered U.S.–based
dealers by 3 to 2; South Korea and Singapore each had six
booths. Hakgojae from Seoul and Pearl Lam from Hong Kong
and Shanghai occupied the prime positions at the front of the
event. Conspicuous absences included Gagosian, White Cube,
Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Michael Werner, and Pace.
“I’m not naming names, but there were certain galleries
that I deliberately didn’t invite to Art13,” Etchells says.
“If you’re a regular collector, you see the same brands
all the time and it’s tedious. I also wanted to appeal to a
slightly different audience. There were good-quality people
there and very few tire-kickers.”
In the run-up to the fair, the organizers carpet-bombed
the £1 million-plus residences of Kensington and Chelsea
with invitations. If tires were going to be kicked, they would
be with handmade Jermyn Street brogues. Private museum
owners such as Don and Mera Rubell from Miami, Li Bing
from Beijing, and Ramin Salsali from Dubai were among
the visitors and contributors to panel discussions.
During the show’s run, March 1 through 3, 24,735 people
turned up—less than half the attendance of established
fairs such as the Armory Show or Art Basel. The most
expensive confirmed sale was a Banksy ruined landscape of a
Guantánamo Bay captive on a sunset-suffused beach. Priced
at £375,000 ($570,000), it was bought by a U.K. collector
from the London-based street-art dealer Lazarides.
Detractors could easily dismiss this event as a showcase
for dealers who can’t get into Frieze, a sort of Salon
des Frieze refusés. They might
also point out that the inaugural
exhibitor list was padded
with plenty of midmarket U.K.
galleries catering primarily
to a domestic audience.
“We want to attract more
dealers who haven’t been
seen in London,” Etchells
concedes. “We’ll target more
countries so that we can
build on the global perspective.
We’d like to invite more
galleries from Australia,
for instance.”
| may/june 2013
Yet there were plenty of non-British dealers at Art13,
particularly from Asia, who’d flown thousands of miles to
show works that asked challenging questions about what,
exactly, international means in the context of today’s global
art market. Many of these works were priced in the $20,000
to $100,000 range, which can be an awkward segment of the
market. Wealthy buyers may regard it as too inexpensive
to be blue-chip, yet too expensive to make a bet in the hope
that it could be the next hot tech stock—or Jacob Kassay.
In this price range fell three paintings from the “Collective
Memory” series by Chinese artist Chen Shaoxiong, brought
by Primo Marella Gallery of Milan and Beijing. Chen, who
works in variety of media, is based in Guangzhou, one of the
202 cities in China that McKinsey & Company predicts will
have more than a million inhabitants by 2025. Concerned with
the psychological effects of urbanization and globalization,
Chen uses his fingers to paint fuzzy, newsprint-style dot
canvases of familiar landmarks that neatly infuse China’s
millennia-old ink-painting tradition with an awareness
of Georges Seurat, Roy Lichtenstein, and Gerhard Richter.
The paintings Chen made after 2006 of Tiananmen
Square and the Olympic stadium in Beijing have a meditative
resonance that would have appealed to a writer like the
late W.G. Sebald. But at Art13, Primo Marella was showing
more recent finger-painted
dot canvases of Venice, priced
between €20,000 and €25,000
($26–32,000). Quite what
La Serenissima has to do
with the Chinese collective
memory remains obscure,
but a painting of Palladio’s Il
Redentore church found a buyer
during the fair, underscoring
Chen’s success in appealing to
an international audience.
Primo Marella is one of
many globally-minded dealers
who are betting that China
Earth, Ink & Fire,
2013, above,
an installation
combining the
Song-style bowls
of Korean artist
Young-Jae Lee
and hangings
by Chinese ink
painter Chen
Guangwu, was
sold at Art13 by
Alexander Ochs
Galleries, of Berlin
and Beijing, for
$65,000. Song
Hyun-Sook, whose
17 Brushstrokes,
2002, left,
earned $39,000
at Christie’s last
November, nods to
the West in her use
of tempera on
canvas while alluding to the Asian
calligraphic tradition in her style.
undergone internationalization. Uniform, recognizable,
and with a secondary market easily trackable on Artnet (15
entries, top price $56,000), Lee’s stylized landscapes are
cropping up at more and more of the world’s 200 art fairs.
Hakgojae of Seoul found buyers for two at Art13, priced at
£22,750 and £14,300 ($35,000 and $22,000).
Lee’s formulaic but commercial vision made an
instructive contrast in Hakgojae’s booth with two paintings
by another Western-trained Korean artist, Song HyunSook. Song worked as a nurse in Germany in the 1970s
before studying at the College of Fine Art in Hamburg.
She paints austere canvases inspired by her childhood
in rural South Korea. Unusually, these abstracted closeups of farmhouses, ceramic pots, wooden posts, and
hanging ramie fabric are rendered in the Western medium
of tempera, but with the broad sweeps of the Asian inkpainting tradition. Works are titled according to the number
of strokes they take to complete. 12 Brushstrokes over
2 Brushstrokes, a canvas featuring the artist’s favorite
motifs of hanging ramie and a wooden post, was being
haggled over as the fair closed. Hakgojae was asking
£21,450 ($28,000). Song’s secondary-market prices reached
$HK300,000 ($39,000) at auctions in Hong Kong last year.
Lee and Song were each in their own way definingly
representative of the two strands of globalism running
through Art13. Both artists, in their different ways,
fuse East and West, old and new. Lee’s paintings, cannily
commoditized, brashly colored, and conceptually
knowing, have all the ingredients of Western-style international art. By contrast, Song’s gentler, more contemplative
paintings refract a contemporary Minimalist aesthetic
through the age-old calligraphic tradition. This art, with
its technique more firmly rooted in the East, might be
characterized as transnational.
The Collins dictionary clarifies the distinction. International, adj.: Of, concerning, or involving two or more nations
or nationalities. Transnational, adj.: Extending beyond
the boundaries, interests, etc., of a single nation.
may/june 2013
| BlouinArtinfo.comAsia
“Asian artists are definitely returning to a more
minimal, less ostentatious aesthetic,” says London-based
art adviser Arianne Levene, who noticed a number of
works that express new ideas with old techniques. “It feels
appropriate for the world we live in today. Political Pop
was very 1990s and 2000s. That felt right at the time.”
Levene was one of the many Western advisers,
dealers, and collectors who were impressed by the sheer
distinctiveness of Art13. “I was pleasantly surprised,”
Levene added. “There were some serious galleries from Asia
who brought subtle, unexpected things. We don’t have
any other fair in London that shows these kinds of artists.
I hope they build on the international element.”
The subtle, Minimalist strain of transnational art was
also on show at the booth of New York and New England
dealer Cynthia Reeves. She was offering the abstract
ink paintings of Shen Chen, a U.S.–trained Chinese artist
who divides his time between New York City and Beijing.
Two of Chen’s canvases, the sort of works Rothko would
have made if he’d taken up traditional Chinese ink painting,
sold at the fair for $28,000 and $22,000.
Alexander Ochs Galleries of Berlin and Beijing presented
Earth, Ink & Fire, a refined collaborative installation of more
than 200 monochrome Song Dynasty–style bowls by the
Korean artist Young-Jae Lee, set on the floor in front of abstract hangings by the Chinese ink painter Chen Guangwu. It
was snapped up by an Italian collector for €50,000 ($65,000).
“You can no longer use the Western aesthetic to evaluate
this art,” said Pearl Lam, who was showing works by the
Chinese painters Zhu Jinshi and Su Xiaobai, both of whom
studied in Germany and have established secondary markets
in Asia, if not the West. Lam sold six of Zhu’s massively
impastoed abstracts for up to $150,000, while two of Su’s
lacquered color field paintings found buyers at up to $250,000.
Pearl Lam galleries, Hong Kong and Shanghai
will eventually produce a new generation of
contemporary-art collectors. They are also
backing Africa as a growth market. The 2013
blanket triptych, Tibet, by Mali’s leading artist,
Abdoulaye Konate, was given pride of place at
the front of its booth at Art13.
At the moment China is suffering from a
shortage of contemporary-art collectors. After
the crash of 2008, many of them migrated from
names like Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang
into what they regarded as the safer haven of
modern art. The early 20th-century calligrapher
Qi Baishi became the most expensive Chinese
“contemporary” artist when a 1946 scroll
painting of his sold for RMB425.5 million ($65
million) at a 2011 auction in Beijing.
“Young Chinese artists lack support from
wealthy local collectors,” said Michela Sena,
director of Primo Marella’s Beijing gallery. “Now
Chinese contemporary art is required to be really
international. The works have to speak a global
language, be generally understandable and not local anymore.
Only a few artists achieve this. Many from the past generation
who are too restricted in their localism just disappear.”
There is a new generation of Chinese contemporary
artists, not particularly well represented at Art13, who have
become instant internationalists. Liu Diu, for instance, makes
digitally enhanced photos of giant amphibians running amok
in Chinese megacities. The danger is that internationalization
can lead to an artist’s losing the sense of place that originally
made him interesting. As Seneca put it in his Moral Letters to
Lucilius, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
At the moment, Chen Shaoxiong has just nine entries on
Artnet, with a top auction price of $35,467. It’s not difficult
to imagine him producing dot paintings of the most famous
sights in the world, churning out global collective memories
of the Statue of Liberty for the Armory Show, of Big Ben for
Frieze London, and becoming rich in the process.
This is rather like the moment in 2011 when the
Indian artist Subodh Gupta cast limited-edition bronzes of
Duchamp’s mustachioed
L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa
rather than making
sculptures out of the tiffin tins
used in his village of Bihari.
Great career move—one
of the bronzes was bought
by billionaire collector
François Pinault—but what
has been left behind?
The Korean painter
Sea Hyun Lee—who trained
at London’s Chelsea College
of Art and Design and
produces monochrome
inundated landscapes
reminiscent of 18th-century
porcelain and toile fabrics—
is another artist who has
From top: Chen Shaoxiong and Primo Marella Gallery, Milan; Cynthia-Reeves, New York
Presented at Art13
by Milan-based
Primo Marella
Gallery, Chen
broadened the
the market—for
his “Collective
Memory” series
when he began
employing his
technique to depict
landmarks beyond
China’s borders,
such as in this 2012
view at right of a
Venetian church by
Palladio. Taking a
subtler approach
to blending diverse
traditions, Shen
Chen’s acrylic on
canvas 42222-12,
2012, below, was
brought to the fair
by Cynthia Reeves,
of New York and
New England.
| may/june 2013
For all Lam’s claims that these painters are beyond the
ken of Western aesthetics, both are big on wall power in
a very Western kind of way, and Su’s market has benefited
from her training with Richter, the ne plus ultra of
international artists. Su’s lacquer abstracts have climbed
to prices as high as $355,000 at auctions in Asia.
“Fairs like Frieze are too Eurocentric,” says Lam.
“They want to define what is international, and that
definition is American and European. Western Conceptual
art loves to take political and economic positions.
This is not so much the case in our culture. Chinese art is
all about enhancing oneself internally.”
Lam has a point. Asian culture is built on the intellectual
bedrock of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. All are
contemplative disciplines of thought that revere tradition,
continuity, and a sense of personal growth within a
communal context. Western culture, at least for the past 200
years, celebrates individualism, iconoclasm, subversion.
Which view will prevail in the little world that is the
global art market? (It’s salutary to remember that the entire
value of the planet’s auction and dealer sales last year was
valued by the European Fine Art Foundation at $56 billion,
while Facebook is worth $60 billion.) At the moment, it
is Westerners who organize the major contemporary art
fairs in Asia, as well as in the U.S. and Europe. As Art13
exhibitor Ochs put it, “We have new broader markets,
but the new art markets haven’t developed with them.”
Meanwhile, international people continue to fly round the
world to stay in international hotels to visit international
art fairs where international galleries show international
art that is explained in International Art English (IAE).
There has always been an implicit, slightly colonialist
assumption among American and European auctioneers,
dealers, curators, and collectors that sooner or later
the booming economies of Asia, with their fast-growing
populations of high-net-worth individuals, will finally
recognize the innate superiority of Western contemporary
art. This epiphany has yet to happen. If it had, Sotheby’s
and Christie’s would be holding auctions of Western
contemporary art in Hong Kong, as they do with wine.
This situation may well change. Thousands of students
from China and other Asian nations are attending universities in Europe and North America and are being exposed
to Western art. “A new generation of young Chinese
collectors is growing up,” says Sena of Primo Marella.
“They are starting to approach Western contemporary
art, and I suppose that they will soon build interesting
collections updated with an international taste.”
The question is whether Western-style internationalism
will become the mainstream of Asian collecting taste
or growing economic and political power will give the
region greater confidence in its own ways of thinking.
What will happen, for instance, when entrepreneurs from
China, Malaysia, and Korea start to organize their own
contemporary art fairs?
At the moment, the Christopher Wools and George
Condos on your walls are worth 10 times more than Chen
Shaoxiong, Sea Hyun Lee, Song Hyun-Sook, and even Zhu
Jinshi. That might not be the case in 10 years’ time.
Shown by gallerist
Pearl Lam, of
Hong Kong and
Shanghai, Zhu
Jinshi’s impastoed
such as Children’s
Dreams, 2012,
were reported to
be the first stop on
tours of Art13 by
art advisers from
the fair’s sponsor,
Citi Private Bank.