Beijing – Singapore

Last week I returned from a long awaited visit to Asia. I started in Beijing, the heart of the Chinese art world and the home of many of China’s leading contemporary artists and dealers. I met many of my colleagues whom represent the whole spectrum of the local art industry: artists, dealers, collectors, private consultants and auction executives. I visited galleries like Star Gallery, Platform China, Shanghart, White space, 0110001 and many others to get a sense of current trends and the state of the market.

As ever before, the market’s health is not very clear or easy to understand. Due to the very volatile and rapid development of China’s economy and society in recent years, the contemporary art scene in the mainland is struggling to find a balance. Collectors, buyers and dealers are very cautious and sometimes act nervously, trying to find the right path forward. They spread their interests and targets in different directions whilst trying to hit or create a new trend. Their focus varies from Contemporary painting to classic painting, from Chinese contemporary ink to modern abstract. Their search extends well beyond the mainland, from South East Asian contemporary art to Japanese avant-garde from the 1960’s. 

The long period of adjustment in the mainland’s visual art-world will not come to an end, in my view, any time soon. Some established art galleries are closing, including some early western owned ones that have been there for over a decade and initially helped shape the local market. Others are shifting to ink, classic paintings and mature artists who exhibited in the 80’s.

A number of other factors have affected the mainland’s art market in the last few years. The most significant ones were the authorities new regulations that tightened the grip on the art trade, and the other was the negative international media reports about China’s auction industry practices. These two factors resulted in the industry feeling even more nervous and lacking in confidence. Some have lost their faith entirely and shifted their business elsewhere in the region, whilst others have slowed down their activities whilst waiting for the ‘sky to clear’.

Not withstanding this however, I believe, that we are experiencing a healthy recovery of the contemporary Chinese art market and that we are seeing a sustainable growth in confidence. Some of the strong galleries, who represent the most established contemporary artists are gaining more power. And that is one of the most positive outcomes of this period. These galleries have stayed focused and worked hard to continue working on projects and shows. Artists can identify the most dedicated and solid galleries and collaborate or join them. Due to this process there are currently less contemporary art galleries and less competition from private agents. Galleries like Beijing Commune, Platform China, Shanghart, Long March, White space, Star gallery and a few others are the ones that are emerging stronger from this period.  The bond and trust between these galleries and their artists, which was once the weakest link in this young market, has become much stronger and mature.

A number of young and emerging artists are showing signs of a promising future. These artists are creating strong works of high quality, the like’s of which I haven’t seen for a long time. Artists like Zhang Yexing, Zhai Liang and Tang Dayao are some of the young rising stars. The careers of artists from the 1970’s-1980’s are also gaining momentum and recognition, with many being signed by international galleries and some being given exhibitions in established galleries and public spaces. This trend will continue this year with a number of exhibitions by emerging and established Chinese artists at international galleries like White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Sean Kelly, Perrotin and many more. Furthermore, leading art fairs are planning events focused on China including the Armory in NY and Art Paris, two fairs that will be providing an important international platform for Chinese artists and galleries this spring.  Auction results in recent months of the emerging generation or mid career artists like Liu Wei, Song Kun, Jia Aili, Wang Guangle, Sun Xun, Chen Ke and Chen Fei, have also strengthened towards the end of last year and this trend looks set to continue in 2014. Furthermore, The western collectors, who were at the heart of the Chinese art phenomena, are back, after years of shifting towards other emerging markets. These collectors feel confident and safe to return again to acquiring contemporary Chinese art. They are buying the emerging Chinese artists, looking for the next Zheng Fanzhi, Liu Ye or Zhang Xiaogang, and I believe they will find them.

The latter part of my Asian trip however was more disappointing. After Beijing I went on to Singapore to visit Art Stage Singapore. This art fair opened in 2010 to great fanfare and attracted a very strong regional crowd and many international art enthusiasts. Their program was exciting with a powerful display of the best art in South East Asia. The following year was even better with a number of key western galleries joining the fair alongside some exciting galleries from Asia. With the committed support of the Singapore government, the organisers managed to create an excellent program with a considerable number of events alongside the fair. The VIP collectors enjoyed free accommodation, free private tours and many other benefits thereby attracting most of the region’s art professionals. The Singapore Biennial, the SAM museum’s shows, the display of works from Asia’s top private collections, and the new cluster of international galleries at Gillman Barracks, all made it a great experience. It was all looking good! And then came Art Basel to Hong Kong…  and with all the great efforts of the Singaporeans and the capable organisers, headed by Lorenzo Rudolf to keep the event attractive, today the art fair is struggling.

At present, due to the attractiveness of showing and attending Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Stage Singapore’s future is unclear. The Hong Kong fair has grown dramatically in recent years and attracts all the international art world’s key players. Wisely, after a couple of years of reshaping itself, it has found a more balanced display of great Asian art alongside the best of western contemporary art. The powerful backing of Messe Basel with its excellent management infrastructure and expertise, can threaten any competitor.

The other interesting factor that has affected the Singapore fair is the rush of the top Asian collectors to acquire art on the international arena. On my extensive travels I have seen them individually scanning the aisles of international fairs or escorted by art advisors or in large groups with translators and experts.  They are not saving on the air miles nor the cash, travelling to Basel, Frieze New York, Fiac and Miami and visiting western auction houses, galleries and museums. Asian collectors are becoming international collectors, getting involved and buying what the global collector’s are buying, which sometimes means they are acquiring less in Asia.

Unless the number of contemporary Asian art collectors grows substantially, the Singapore fair will not be able to rise again and become a major international player. As promising as Asia is, and as much wealth as there is to be found there, the culture of collecting and buying contemporary art is still young and limited. I can see it changing, I have been following this region for well over a decade and I have no doubt it will happen, It just needs more time than anyone thought it will need, even longer than I expected.

Eli Zagury, London, January 2014.

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