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Chinese art market is now second biggest in the world

Only one market left to top.

While studying at New York University in 2014, young Chinese performance artist Li Shuang walked the streets of Manhattan with a placard that said: “Marry me for Chinese citizenship.” To her surprise, many men came up to her making remarks along the lines of: “Sure, I’ll marry you so you can get a US green card.”

Li says: “They completely misread my placard. They think I want to stay in the US, like so many foreigners do. But I was subverting that. I didn’t want to stay in the US. I want to live and work in China. This country is booming and there are many more opportunities for me here.”

Li’s artworks documenting that performance are now on show at Taikang Space in Beijing. The city’s galleries are running some of their best exhibitions of the year to coincide with the recent Gallery Weekend Beijing 2018. It is only the second edition of the event designed to attract foreigners and Chinese to the city’s main art districts, 798 and Caochangdi. But the list of international marquee names is impressive: Sarah Morris at UCCA, Paul McCarthy at M Woods, Richard Deacon at Beijing Commune and Carsten Holler at Galleria Continua, among others.



 The Chinese star wattage is, of course, high for their home event: Liu Wei at Long March Space, Liu Xiaohui at ShanghART Gallery, Liu Gangshun at Platform China, Guo Gong at Hive Centre and Zhu Jinshi at Tang Contemporary are just five famous names among many. Beijing continues to be the centre of Chinese art, even as the art scenes in Shanghai and other cities like Chengdu and Shenzhen are expanding.
Amber Wang, director of Gallery Weekend Beijing, says there’s a lot of media attention on just a handful of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi fetching stratospheric prices for their works in auctions. “We aim to expose the public to many other great Chinese artists who have been practising for a long time, but whose names are less familiar,” says Ms Wang. “There’s so much more depth and breadth to Chinese art than what makes the headlines.”

The Chinese art market is indeed stronger than ever, but it’s always the top-tier of artists, gallerists, collectors and auctioneers who reap the rewards. The most recent report on the art market by Dr Clare McAndrew, commissioned by The Art Basel and UBS, states that China has overtaken the UK to be the second biggest art market globally. The US retains pole position, accounting for 42 per cent of the market. China accounts for 21 per cent of the market – more than double its 9 per cent in 2008. The remaining Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Singapore, make up just 2 per cent of the market.

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While the overall global art market grew by 12 per cent in 2017, reaching an estimated US$67 billion, much of the uplift in sales was at the top end of the market. Away from the premium price segment, the picture is far less rosy. Many more small- and medium-size galleries are shuttering because of high overheads and shrinking margins. The ratio of galleries opening to closures stands at 0.9:1 – in other words, there are slightly fewer galleries opening compared to galleries closing.



Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the giants of the gallery world continue their domination. Art Basel Hong Kong, the region’s premier art fair, saw impressive sales last week: Taiwanese gallery Tina Keng sold out its booth that has numerous Asian works including six Su Xiaobai paintings priced at around 8 million yuan (S$1.67 million) each. Lisson Gallery sold two Anish Kapoor sculptures for £725,000 (S$1.33 million) each; Pace Gallery sold a Yoshitomo Nara paper work for US$750,000; while David Zwirner sold a Neo Rauch painting for US$1 million.

(RELATED: Highlights from Art Basel Hong Kong)

It’s Levy Gorvy, however, that takes the prize: Less than two hours after the fair opened for VIPs, the gallery sold a Willem de Kooning 1975 painting belonging to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for a jaw-dropping US$35 million. The buyer’s identity remains a mystery.

Speaking at its press conference, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler says: “Ten years ago, Art HK fair launched here. Founder Magnus Renfrew had the vision to immediately aim for top international galleries and a global audience. A decade later, the cultural scene in Hong Kong and the region has transformed enormously… This phenomenon has not slowed.” (Art HK was the original fair before Swiss exhibitions group MCH bought a majority stake and renamed it Art Basel Hong Kong.)

But the icing on the cake for Hong Kong’s art week was surely the opening of H Queen’s, the first purpose-built art and lifestyle building whose top-end tenants include galleries David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace Gallery, Pearl Lam Galleries and Tang Contemporary Art. On opening night, queues were doubling and tripling by the hour, as thousands of art lovers tried to get into shows by the world’s hottest artists such as Yoshitomo Nara, Ai Weiwei, Wolfgang Tillmans, Christopher Wool and Mark Bradford.

At Pedder Building, an older gallery cluster, the crowd-pulling solo shows include double twin attractions – twin street artists Osgemeos and twin painters Gert and Uwe Tobias in separate shows – as well as Doug Aitken, Jim Shaw and Jennifer Guidi. For many of the Western artists, it was the first time they were presenting solo shows in China, whose art market has become impossible to ignore.

Established German gallery Spruth Magers, for one, has been cultivating ties with Asian collectors for more than a decade. Its senior director Patricia Crockett says, “At first, we would sell maybe one photograph a year to an Asian collector. But in the past five years, Asian buyers started coming in dramatically – and I mean dramatically.”

Spruth Magers teamed up with another gallery, Skarstedt, to exhibit 13 paintings and paper works by George Condo at the Maritime Museum, an unusual venue on the Central Pier for Condo’s first solo outing in China. Before opening night, every work was snapped up by mostly Asian collectors. The show, however, is running for only two weeks. Asked why the duration is so short, Spruth Magers’ founder Monika Spruth replied candidly: “It’s Hong Kong. Everything is expensive here… But it’s the place to be.”




The Singapore artist centres his solo show on The Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper. He digitised several pages of the daily and layered them repeatedly until they appear as abstract images, blurring the distinctions between facts, fragments and fiction.


Bradford represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 2017. His first solo show in China features large mixed-media paintings that integrate discarded objects, such as string and paper fliers, to comment on urban landscapes, economic structures and political power.


Ai reflects on the refugee crisis by filling nearly the whole gallery with an inflatable boat carrying human figures. But even more poignant than this is the six stacked porcelain vases painted with refugee stories, as well as the gallery’s wallpaper that uses ancient Greek figuration to depict the crisis.


The LA-based painter lends much-needed humour with his satirical images of the American Dream, white privilege, religious fervour and the Trump presidency. In one particularly fetching series of works, Trump’s angry face is curled, stretched and squashed to comic effect.


The veteran British sculptor reworks the human form again, this time imagining the body as a plant-like branching system, with roots in place of torsos, and tendrils in place of fingers and toes. The cast-iron figures appear vulnerable.



Exploring the individual condition, Yin created a 6-metre-high fabric installation of a woman in the brace position on an airplane seat – an embodiment of anxiety in these turbulent times. Beside this centrepiece, other works variously depict our modern unease.


Morris has a way of transforming mundane architectural motifs into bright poppy grid paintings. Similarly with her films, she captures various corners of different cities and makes them thrum and glow anew. Her retrospective at the UCCA features her entire oeuvre of films, plus several paintings, murals, drawings and posters.


A comprehensive effort to trace the career of an important Chinese artist not well-known outside of China, the exhibition covers the artistic evolution of Li in more than 100 artworks over the course of two decades.


This wonderfully intimate retrospective of McCarthy’s video art features 43 works made between 1970 and 2013. One goes on a rabbithole journey through the museum to see films projected on unexpected corners, walls and recesses.


More monumentality from Liu as he transforms the gallery space into a playground of large-scale installations and assemblages, each governed by its own laws and physics.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Li Shuang/CargoCollective