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East meets West

Jochen Kürten / hw
April 19, 2012

China has claimed its place as leader of the global art market. But contemporary art from China can hardly be found at Art Cologne. When it does appear, it plays with stereotypes or is barely indentifiable as Chinese.

"Man on Chairs" by He Xiangyu at Art Cologne 2012
"Man on Chairs" by He Xiangyu at Art Cologne 2012Image: DW

"China is number one on the international art market" - "An earthquake which changed the world for art dealers" - "An electric shock in the history of the global art market." These recent headlines in international art magazines and feuilletons confirm the shift of power on the global art market. China had long been a member of the small group of nations leading the art market, but now, according a diverse range of statistics, it's pushed the former market leader, the US, from the top spot.

But at the world's oldest art fair, Art Cologne, that fact is barely visible.

Contemporary art not yet in focus

How can that be explained? Firstly, the art market statistics sum everything up: If you add up the sales revenues from auction houses, the top prices for auctioned artworks, and the worldwide presence of art fairs and galleries, it quickly becomes clear that China has the largest share of the international art market. But Chinese collectors usually invest in large quantities of expensive antiquities. In contrast, contemporary art from China plays an important but in no way dominant role on the world art market stage. That is reflected in the offerings at European art fairs like Art Cologne, where classical modern and contemporary art are on show.

It is relatively uncommon to stumble across artists or galleries from China - at least not at the 46th edition of Art Cologne. But it was a Chinese artist who created this year's entrée. In front of the entrance to the exhibition halls, visitors are met with the monumental installation "Man on the Chairs" by He Xiangyu. For this expansive work, the artist transported wood from a former water canal to Beijing in order to make chairs. The crudely thrown together wooden chairs greet visitors to the art fair as they arrive, or provide a welcome point of relaxation after a long day perusing the stands. The uncomfortable aesthetics of the piece should not put visitors off - the chairs are more comfortable than they look.

"Man on Chairs" by He Xiangyu at Art Cologne 2012
"Man on Chairs" by He Xiangyu at Art Cologne 2012Image: Courtesy: ALEXANDER OCHS GALLERIES

Not always political

And what does the artist himself want to say with the piece? He Xiangyu's German gallery representative, Alexander Ochs, describes the artist's intentions in the exhibition invitation: "Time and the transformation of materials are important themes of the work, as well as the elementary experiences of humans and, also thoroughly political, of community."

What sounds like arbitrary art-speak points to the fact that contemporary Chinese artists are working and marketing their works just the same as artists in any other part of the world. It's also a reminder that one should be wary of the reluctance of galleries to label Chinese artworks as acts of political dissidence. At the end of the day, they want to sell their works.

At least that's how Alexander Ochs sees things. He's been an active gallerist in China and Germany for many years now. An interview was rejected: He is there as a dealer, not to make political statements. The case of Ai Weiwei continues to have an effect.

But there are also other reactions. Michael Schultz, like Ochs, has been well connected in China for many years and recently returned from Asia. He explained that he had never seen such a large police presence as he experienced during his most recent trip to Beijing. The import and export of artworks was more difficult this time, he said, adding that he was unable to export a work specifically intended for the current Art Cologne.

Michael Schultz is showing works by Huang He and Ma Jun in Cologne
Michael Schultz is showing works by Huang He and Ma Jun in CologneImage: DW

Porcelain and images of Mao

Schultz only shows works by Chinese artists on his stand at the fair. Many are easily identifiable. The pictures and sculptures on display play with traditional and historic images and symbols of Chinese art and culture. Ma Jun places classic Chinese porcelain designs in new forms and contexts. In contrast, Zou Cao's large mural painting "East is Red" takes a directly political stance toward national history. The image of Mao is repeatedly duplicated on a red flag - the hammer and sickle reference Stalin and the Soviet Union rather than communist China. This work had to be smuggled out of China a few years ago, explained Schultz. A so-called Culture Office - nothing more than a censorship agency - controls every artwork set for export. "East is Red" would not have stood a chance.

Soviet flags adorned with Mao's likeness can now be bought in Cologne. According to Schultz, the artists did not encounter the wrath of the agency following the export of the works. What counts for the Chinese authorities is only what attracts attention within Chinese borders.

Gallerist Michael Schultz standing before Zou Cao's "East is Red"
Gallerist Michael Schultz presents Zou Cao's "East is Red"Image: DW

Photographs from China

Things are different at the stand from London's Ben Brown Fine Arts, which is offering Chinese photographic works at Art Cologne. The artists were introduced to the gallery through a curator who they had been working with in China. The large format photos by Chen Wie, similar to the monumental photographs of German photographic artists such as Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth, avoid making any kind of direct political statement.  

This is also true of the works by Kexin Zang, who has been living in Germany for the last 12 years. The photographer and performance artist is presenting her series, "Überhalbhunderter." Old men and women are depicted by the artist in parks and squares. With their hobbies, such as singing, dancing or meditation, the subjects appear to protest against the all too rapid development of modern China. They are among the most contented people in China, explained Kexin Zang. Current sociological studies confirm that.

Nearby, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a non-profit institution, presents more works by Chinese artists. Their works show that, when Chinese people or symbols are not incorporated, the origin of the artworks is indistinguishable. Instead, they engage with the elementary human experience - and aren't always political.

"Anonymous Station": Panoramic photographs by Chinese artist Chen Wei
"Anonymous Station": Panoramic photographs by Chinese artist Chen WeiImage: DW

Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen