China’s Art Boom

On my bedroom wall hangs a Grand, Price and Co. water-color advertisement for Haig Whisky geared at the British colonised populace of Hong Kong during the 1930’s. In a large, brown Edwardian leather chair sits a quirky yet sophisticated Chinese woman with an alluring smile. She is dressed in a pink evening gown that wraps tightly around her neck and wears her hair in the modern style of the time, her ears adorned with drooping diamonds. Bottles of the then-famous whisky magically float around the natural glow of this beautiful figure. The entire scenario screams male chauvinism, with the idea that the angelic model will possibly have to commit to certain undesired sexual favours once the British gentlemen is done with his whisky. What contradicts the vulnerability and the obvious colonial sadness of the picture is the fact that the woman is subtly revealing her negligee through a tiny slit from the side of her dress by crossing her legs. Yes, the Haig Whisky girl is coy and objectified, but her smile and demeanour makes her a strong player in a simmering cultural revolution that would eventually shatter the pre-conceived notions of the Chinese culture in the twentieth century. “Get them while they’re horny, drunk and defenceless”, she says smiling to her compatriots.

The Haig Whisky ad foreshadowed the artistic threads that are now found in Chinese modern art of the twentieth century – which is just now beginning to garner much cultural and financial interest in the Western world. Just last month in Hong Kong, Christie’s Auction House managed to raise $67.9 million from Asian contemporary art, and more specifically on 20th century Chinese art, selling mostly to Western bidders. Much like our Haig Whisky advertisement, most pieces, such as Wang Guangyi’s iconic pop images of Mao Zedong made famous during China’s cultural revolution of the 1960’s, subtly depict Chinese society as something needing to be constantly maintained and in need of liberation.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many young Chinese artists have been empowered by the idea of being able to express what was once politically or socially forbidden with alternative mediums. The “click-click” art generation, dubbed so on account of their access to and obsession with electronic mediums, has managed to create an entire art movement based entirely on being the first to artistically explain their consumerist/communist world through art and performance. Zhang Xiaogang, a famous surrealist, has been producing a photographic series since 1993 entitled “Bloodlines”, in which the artist uses old family photographs and distorts them with oil paint to create fuzzy images evoking the idea of social confinement and lost history. On the other hand, performance artist Han Bing would rather satirise the faltering agricultural state in contrast to the prosperous economy of his country by walking a cabbage on a leash in Tiananmen Square.

The recent art boom and high financial interest came as surprise to many who usually equivocate Chinese art as something drabbly depressing filled with communist undertones. But it would seem that those attributes are just what buyers of modern Chinese art are looking for, in the end. For an entire generation living under the individualistic ideals of the Occidental, a culturally repressed communist society attempting to express itself through any art form is something very fascinating. Nothing is more tempting to see and to grasp than the forbidden.

The idea of something provocative incites empathetic notions of liberalism in most Westerners. But empathy can also foster vulnerability, and the Western art buyer should be wary of the rapid pace of the Chinese art boom; many art scholars admittedly paint for the sake of wanting to make money, not for the love of expression. Nowadays, being a Chinese contemporary artist is a very lucrative career choice – very tempting for someone who would like to make a lot of money. The highly commercial feel of Chinese art may eventually end up being its own downfall, but for now it is invigorating and tempting, like an old Haig Whisky advertisement, even for the most cynical art dealer.

Justin-Barry Mahoney

Latest posts by Justin-Barry Mahoney (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>