NEW YORK — As this year’s Armory Show drew to a close, much of the talk of the town was about the contemporary Chinese showcase at Armory Focus: China, curated by Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
BLOUIN ARTINFO invited our Hong Kong-based guest contributor Alexandre Errera, a keen observer of the contemporary Chinese art scene, to share some of his thoughts on this year’s Armory Focus. Errera is founder & CEO of artshare.com, a global online platform dedicated to the exhibition and sale of contemporary Chinese art by organizing both curated online exhibitions and private sales.
Expectations were high for this year’s Armory Show, which focused on contemporary Chinese art. While the current “Ink Art” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Don and Mera Rubell’s exhibition of 28 young Chinese artists in Miami provided the American public with the first taste of Chinese art, the Armory presentation was really the first market test. Seventeen galleries and thirty artists were shown in a section curated by the influential Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. The verdict? A great introduction, although some might have been left slightly frustrated.
The selection of galleries was particularly interesting, with many having never exhibited overseas. It was a bold move to bring them to New York, home to some of the most established dealers in the world, but overall, it paid off. China Focus felt like a carefully selected group of galleries, and not just a who’s who list of the most important ones. Visitors could see the strong focus on conceptual artists born in the 1970s and 80s — clearly, those looking for the usual suspects, like Zeng Fanzhi and the other auction stars, were knocking at the wrong door. This fair was about the post-Cultural Revolution artists, with the exception of Hong Kong-based gallery 10 Chancery Lane, which chose to focus on some of the first Chinese contemporary artists, such as Huang Rui and Wang Keping. This was actually an interesting decision, as it provided a historical context to the other artists exhibited throughout the section.
The booths were small – too small, in fact, which might actually have been the largest drawback to this section. Chinese artists express themselves better in large formats, and galleries did not have much choice but to bring relatively small works. A few exceptions were in evidence, such as Xu Qu’s labyrinth painting at Tang Contemporary, Zhao Zhao’s sculpture at Chambers Fine Art, or Xu Zhen’s installation in the middle of the section. In contrast to some other “young and hot” galleries elsewhere in the fair that showed only one or two pieces to stir up interest in a very limited supply, the Chinese galleries mostly chose to exhibit a significant number of works. One inventive way of doing this was Platform China’s decision to divide its booth in two: a permanent section, and another rotating one, with artworks changing every day.
What proved somewhat frustrating was the fact that some of the best artists of the new generation were missing, and that the focus was most often on paintings, rather than installations or videos. Those who know what these artists are capable of were disappointed, but this is perhaps inevitable at a fair. One notable exception was an original installation by Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas, shown at Gallery Exit.
The question on everybody’s mind was simple — how did American collectors react to this section? For many of them, China Focus was their first encounter with artists they had never heard of. One way of judging their reaction is in terms of sales, and overall, they were very good. Some galleries sold out quickly (perhaps with the help of a few pre-sold works), while others attracted more interest as the fair progressed. Nobody seemed to regret having made the costly trip. Some galleries actually priced their works lower than what they would have charged in China, reflecting the artists’ desire to get some American collectors behind them.
Talking to some prominent U.S. collectors, the word that one heard most often was “surprise”. They did not imagine that the new generation of Chinese artists would be so different to the ones they see at auction. The section was always crowded, which is probably a better indicator of the American reaction to these artists than actual sales — after all, the ultimate goal was to stir up their curiosity and interest.
Overall, the China Focus section was a great opportunity for these Chinese artists to be shown on a global stage, and to be seen by some of the most important collectors in the world — many of whom had likely never heard of them. The curatorial effort of Philip Tinari was notable, showing that fairs can add up to something than just a list of names and galleries. Although the art that was exhibited was just a fraction of the current talent in China, what matters is that these artists are now hopefully on the map for American collectors. The symposium of China-related talks by prominent speakers, sponsored by Adrian Cheng, was also important in this regard. The key question is whether this interest will fade or not — an issue that will largely depend on how the galleries will follow up on this particular effort, and how other fairs will focus on young Chinese artists, most notably Art Basel Hong Kong, which starts on May 14 this year.