The passing twelve months have seen the greater Chinese scene piqued by scandal, pressure and anti-climax and sprinkled only lightly, it seemed, with really effective art; enticing it were auction records, international exhibition opportunities and the resilience of artists’ ambition. No change here, perhaps, and as usual, it is difficult to gauge those reactions to art that are not strictly financial. In sum, 2013 felt like a tense and ambivalent year.
Kicking off the proceedings on this note was “ON/OFF,” UCCA’s giant salute to the younger generation (and their collectors). Arranged rather awkwardly across the exhibition spaces (beginning with a room devoted to paintings, progressing through video, installation and photography and ending with a distracted grouping of outsized installations), the exhibition delivered—consciously or not—a sense of very uneven but willful artistic production. Coming from the artists themselves were remarks about it all looking less like an exhibition than an art fair, and indeed, the pressure to create new works for a swelling number and frequency of exhibitions has been increasingly felt. Reactions to this include retaliation in the form of a return to pure studio practice, nonchalance and sniggering at the term “contemporary artist” and sheer changes of tack to create more sale-able work.
The run of commercial exhibitions on the mainland saw few spikes of real quality from Chinese artists. In Beijing, Tang Song’s “Eulogy” at Boers-Li drew deserved attention for its abstract strength born of sincere reflection. Cheng Ran made thoughtful gestures at Urs Meile in May with “The Last Generation,” and “I Am Not Not Not Chen Zhou” at Magician Space was careful and compelling (though the next appearance of this artist at the same gallery was disappointingly cocky—a suspended plastic chicken). The group exhibitions “Memo I” at White Space and “New Figuration I” at Hadrien de Montferrand were encouraging—particularly the latter, which offered some highly individual approaches to portraiture. Some existing smaller galleries seemed to suffer a decline in quality, whereas newer kids on the block (Gallery Yang, for example, not to be confused with Yang Gallery) showed potential with exhibitions by Li Binyuan and Dong Yuan, among others, in 2013. Long solos by Zhang Xiaogang and Yin Xiuzhen (auction and Biennale veterans, respectively), made for a rather un-progressive program at Pace in Beijing, which has perhaps been distracted by the diversion of its gaze toward Hong Kong.
On the private museum side, a massive self-titled solo outing by Wang Xingwei at UCCA inspired confidence with this artist’s surprising and wilful versatility. In Nanjing, the Sifang Art Museum’s inaugural show was also memorable —though for different reasons. Philippe Pirotte’s curatorial comment in “The Garden of Diversion” was less sanguine than provocative—reflecting on the corrosive character of much private museum exposition in China. Both of these shows felt timely. The keenly anticipated “Duchamp in China” exhibition, however, was disappointing.
Commercial or not, exhibitions by foreign artists were very strong in 2013—at least in Beijing. The Irish artist Brendan Earley delivered a great solo show at Urs Meile (“In the Midnight City,”) and Galeria Continua was illuminated by Berlinde de Bruyckere’s dark sculpture. A concise look at the work of Louise Bourgeois warranted repeat visits to Faurschou Foundation. Taryn Simon’s “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters,” which ran through to the start of 2014 at UCCA, has heft which eclipses much of what went before it over past year in China.
While the earlier part of 2013 brought anti-climax, in some ways, with the first edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, and relative decline for Shanghai as SHContemporary stopped (though rehab may come in the form of the little-publicised Art021 and SHcon’s purported resurrection in 2014), the close of 2013 reached a many-headed crescendo. Auction prices for Chinese works—namely the “Last Supper” by Zeng Fanzhi, which went for US$23.3 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and Zao Wou-Ki’s 1958 oil painting “Abstraction,” which fetched US$14.7 million in Sotheby’s first mainland auction—set shocking new records. Ink-mania has taken hold this year, with new galleries springing up to cater to it and validation (though the reviews have been very mixed) from a huge show at the Met in New York (“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China”) which opened in early December. Watching eyes were quickly distracted from this, however, by the Hanart scandal which erupted later in the month, apparently revealing the true fate of Chinese art works “mislaid” following the 1993 Venice Biennale, though Hanart has recently issued a statement which paints things in a somewhat different light. In America, the “28 Chinese Artists” exhibition which opened recently at the Rubell private museum in Miami has had much publicity, though the works on show do not diverge much from what one would expect.
With these and other events has 2013 gone un-smoothly by. Besides talk of expectations, the state of development of the contemporary art scene in China and the factors that influence art anywhere (the market, cost of studio/gallery space, rotations of curators and institutional machinations)—at least from where this viewer stands, it’s hard to know where to look. As 2014 gathers pace with its promises of exhibitions and events, one wonders what could follow or supplant this feeling.