Secondary links

State of the Art


Viewed as another commodity during the era of hot money and easy credit, Contemporary Art – particularly from the ‘it’ country of China – was greedily acquired by hedge funds and market players to be quickly flipped, with little interest in the actual art or its background.

Since opening ShanghART, one of China’s earliest Contemporary Art galleries, in 1997, Lorenz Helbling has witnessed Chinese art grow from an infancy of obscurity to a much hyped global frenzy in recent boom years.“There was one guy who stood right in front of a work by Ding Yi,” who paints distinctive repetitions of crosses, “and declared ‘I want to buy a Ding Yi painting. Do you have any?’” Helbling recalls.

Chinese contemporary art experienced, independently, a tremendous expansion of talent and institutions over the past decade. That growth coincided, though, with international factors that created two mutually reinforcing bubbles: the global exploitation of contemporary art as a speculative investment scheme, and the international enthusiasm for all things China making Chinese art very ‘hot’ in the art world. Auction prices sizzled into the multi-millions of dollars for some Chinese works. In particular, the cynical realism and political pop Cultural Revolution tropes in paintings and sculpture by a cabal of art superstars like Yue Mingjun, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Xiaogang racked up sales and spawned a generation of imitators.

"Artists need to have time to experiment, to play around, rather than chase whatever is popular."

Stylistic redundancy and topical predictability ensued. Small and new collectors were priced out. Many installation and video artists switched to the more saleable format of painting. Some artists reaped a financial windfall, but paid creatively. “Even painting students were in auctions,” recalls critic and curator Samantha Culp. “Careers were sped up. They were ruined by success. Artists need to have time to experiment, to play around, rather than chase whatever is popular.”

“An artist, right out of the studio, needs to develop,” echoes Helbling. “We set the price at say US$10,000 for a reason – because at the moment it does not merit US$20,000-30,000. It is easy to get the high price, but then how does the artist go on working?” He says that, for artists to play to the hot market, they had to produce some hundred works per year, all of them recognisably, marketably similar. Now, “the speculators are gone, so life is much easier, we don’t have to be so careful” not to sell to them, because, “a bubble is a bubble, and we didn’t want to feed the bubble. We want to work with artists, and help them develop over many years. And I want to sell to someone who likes the work, who will hang it and defend it, not just on the grounds that they bought it for US$10,000 and now it’s US$20,000, but who will still defend it if the price goes down.”

“The special characteristics of the China boom,” Helbling specifies, “were: Speculation. Money. Big productions. And stupidity.” He stresses that these are elements generally not attributable to the artists, and that many artists – particularly outside of Beijing – opted out of the madness.

Almost all of the high-priced commercial stars of the past five years were Beijing-based; the exceptions being a few émigrés such as Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing, who had risen to international prominence a decade earlier. Painting, and the political themes and clichéd Chinoiserie popular with foreign art shoppers in China, predominate more in Beijing. The capital has long attracted artists from around China – and increasingly around Asia and the world – creating a much larger scene, but also greater competition.


Anonymous's picture


I appreciate these type of instructions and guidelines for the beginner and sometimes it useful fr professionals as well.landing page design

Anonymous's picture


hey were ruined by success. Artists need to have time to experiment, to play around, rather than chase whatever is popular.

Wall Street Journal Wine Club Reviews

I like your illustration work, your creativity and designs are really amazing.

CLCB's picture

Continued Momentum

Good overview. I think, as the article points out towards the end, a readjustment of prices is a good thing in the long run, as hype will always cloud people's conceptions of quality art and artists. If this adjustment in the Chinese art world does separate the wheat from the chaff and solidify the position of a handful of top historical artists, it will be a great thing for contemporary Chinese art (and collectors).

Two things I've noticed in the last year that give me great hope about the potential of Chinese art to be truly global are the increased purchasing of Chinese art by Chinese collectors (a group that never really existed before), and a huge increase of purchases of contemporary Chinese art by some of the world's most important art museums like the Getty and MOMA in the US, the British Museum in London and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. These are the things that will give contemporary Chinese art the longevity, attention, and long-term value it deserves.


Recent comments

Talk Partners

Talk Insider - Register now and win!

Upcoming Events