Why Contemporary Chinese Art should be shown more at Western museums

In recent years, interesting survey exhibitions of Contemporary Chinese Art have been shown, including the large show at the Guggenheim called “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World” which closed on 7 January 2018 after much critical renown. The exhibition brought together works by 71 key artists and drew record crowds, looking at art in China since the first “officially sanctioned” contemporary art exhibition in February 1989, "China/Avant-Garde" at the National Art Museum of China. The Guggenheim show is going to tour to its namesake in Bilbao later this year, and then to the SFMOMA in 2019.

As the Guggenheim show title represents, this is art that thrills - it is majestic, huge, impactful and memorable. It is exactly what contemporary audiences want to see, and it is so accessible.

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Installation view: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

Another exhibition that opened recently following this trend is the Noordbrabantsmuseum exhibition titled “A Chinese Journey” which looks at the collecting practice of Swiss businessman Uli Sigg, who was also once the Swiss ambassador to China. Open till 8 July 2018, the museum describes this as “the first time such a vast selection of the world-famous collection is shown in the Netherlands”.

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Wang Qingsong, Follow you, 2013, courtesy the artist, the Sigg collection and the Noordbrabantsmuseum

But why aren’t more museums showing these types of works?

Work by these artists, from the past 30 years in China, now sells for incredibly high prices. Given the blockbuster prices, many museums may think that this art is inaccessible to them to host. What our research has shown, is that importing shows of Contemporary Chinese Art doesn't need to be at one of those blockbuster venues - smaller and-medium sized museums can, and should, take advantage of the opportunity.

Many museums think of exporting their own content to China. They imagine huge empty spaces that are willing to take on European exhibitions for a fee, but may fail to realise that importing Chinese Contemporary Art is an interesting and attractive cost saver too.

Good artists in China have done really well for themselves, earning a good amount from the high prices of their work. But they often don't find collaborators and then have to rent a venue to show their work. Besides self-funding their exhibitions, the Chinese government is also proactively supporting many artists who exhibit in the West (including the USA, Europe, Russia, Latin America).

Artist Jia Aili draws on the contemporary anxiety that audiences can relate to, in huge painted canvases. The artist recently had an important retrospective at the CAC in Malaga, supported greatly by different Chinese entities. Any museum looking to work with the artist could easily get in touch with him and the curator he works with, on the Vastari portal.

This approach working with artists directly is cost-effective and can unleash creativity for an institution used to solely curating shows in-house. Often, an institutional curator tries to put a spin on the art but it should speak for itself. The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2015 allowed the artist to take the reigns in many ways. Probably, the RA (as an arts school) has more freedom to let artists take control of the spaces, and it showed; the results were different from what you would usually expect at the museum.

Another reason it can be cost-effective, is that lots of the content an institution can borrow is already in Europe or the USA. Museums can collaborate with European or American collections of Chinese Contemporary Art for very low fees. Given the work is so often is storage, and often quite large, the owners would be delighted to work with museums for a show.

One very public collection willing to work with museums is DSL Collection run by Sylvain and Dominique Levy. They have also built a VR museum to make their content more accessible, which can complement the many amazing works they still have in storage. In 2014, a selection of the works were shown at a hugely popular show at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center curated by Ami Barak. A show of highlights from the collection, "Old Ghosts, New Spirits" is currently looking for venue partners.

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An installation shot from the exhibition curated by Ami Barak - published on the Vastari Blog

Another smaller collection including Chinese Contemporary Art is in the Netherlands, another in Germany, while a third is kept by an activist Catalan collector in London who is open to collaborating with venues looking to open the audience's eyes to new political thoughts.

What is really wonderful about Chinese art from this period is that the themes can work in a major arts institution, but also at science or technology museums. You can find Jiangbo Jin’s Chinese Tyrannosaurus on Vastari's private collection search - wouldn’t that be wonderful at a natural history museum! Or you can also find privately owned works by Li Wei of people flying and defying gravity - something that can definitely work in an anthropology or technology museum.

A last example is the Annual Ink Painting Prize, which is currently touring to Australia and interested in finding venue partners in Europe and the USA. This initiative highlights works revolving around a theme. Having been shown at the SZ Art Center in Beijing, it is now ready to be shown around the world. These types of initiatives again, have backing from entities in China and are really enthusiastic to work with others.

Given the huge impact China will have on the world in the coming decades as it continues looking outward, it is important to have their voices heard and understood first-hand. Moreover, museums showing this content may draw local communities of Chinese emigrants who may be interested to see what is being produced. All in all, I look forward to seeing more exhibitions of Chinese Contemporary Art, in Western institutions, big and small.