When newspapers reported last month that a video clip on the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat had been withdrawn from an ongoing exhibition of Indian modern art in Beijing, readers got the bit of news that most concerned them. But there was also in the report a bit of fact that provided an interesting clue to the art world of China today, which they might possibly have failed to fully grasp.
Called “Indian Highway,” the exhibition is a travelling showcase of some 30 avant-garde artists that began its journey at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2008 and passed through several European locations before opening on June 24 for a two-month run at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. Billed as the most comprehensive show of contemporary Indian art, it includes works by M F Husain, Subodh Gupta, Jitesh Kallat and Vivan Sundaram, among others, and will be on till August 26.
That itself is significant. Even more so is the exhibition’s reported popularity, with some 1,000 visitors said to be queuing up for it on weekdays and 10 times as many on weekends. These are staggering numbers by Indian measures, where even opening-day gatherings don’t usually go beyond a 100 or so invited guests at the most. Cynics might wonder if the Beijing numbers aren’t an exaggeration, but UCCA wouldn’t have put up an Indian show for Chinese viewers for two months if it wasn’t sure of its appeal.
The exhibition is a clear indication that art awareness in China has broadened beyond its borders and become more liberal and eclectic. Exhibitions of works by Western and Asian artists are regular events in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere in the country. The Beijing International Art Expo is 15 editions old – the latest has just ended at the China World Trade Centre – and about this time last year was held the Second International Triennial of New Media Art at Beijing’s National Museum of China, where 80 artists and art collectives from 23 countries presented works that The New York Times thought rang the death knell for representational art and pointed to “our collective entry into a post-human era”.
Such exposures and the changes they bring to people’s attitudes, besides the fact that universities and institutions are often directly involved in organising art events, have helped build China’s reputation as an art-loving nation. Going to museums and galleries, where thousands of exhibitions and art events are held every year and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors, has become a cultural habit as strong and normal as in the West.
This is surely the reason private foreign galleries are descending on China in increasing numbers. UCCA is one of them. There are scores of others in Beijing and Shanghai, with huge spaces for large-scale installations and exhibits, and they all know that where there’s awareness, there’s a market, too. Founded in 2007 by Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten of Belgium, who are said to possess one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Chinese art, and located at the heart of Beijing’s famed 798 Art Zone – a Greenwich Village-like neighbourhood filled with galleries, art centres, artists’ studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars – UCCA alone holds more than 500 programmes every year, including talks, film screenings, workshops and festivals, trying to expand that market.
Driven by rising affluence and the growing interest among wealthy Chinese in buying modern art for speculation, contemporary art in China has metamorphosed in unbelievable ways. It’s bold, loud, at times thick in kitsch and sexually explicit, but invariably very cutting-edge modern. Beijing’s 798 and Shanghai’s M20 are just two prominent examples of creative communities that are coming up all over the country where artists and art marketers converge to create a larger and more global cultural environment.
Consequently, there’s a veritable boom in art funds. Estimates say these funds are about $900 million big already, and billions more held in art-related products offered by various investment trusts and art exchanges. Although regulations are still evolving and the government recently had to close down dozens of exchanges amid fears that they were growing too fast, these facilities are a major driving force behind art auctions in China and Hong Kong. Last year, auction sales of art works and antiques in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taipei reportedly fetched a staggering $12 billion, eclipsing even the US.
And now there’s the news that a Swiss logistics group, Euroasia Investment, is going to build a $100 million free port next to Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where art traders and collectors would be able to vault their collections without having to pay taxes or fill up customs forms. It’s another indication of China’s growing reputation as global art’s hottest new destination and the government’s effort to build on it.