“China, The Empire Of Art?” Takes A Hard Look At The Chinese Art Market Since The 1980s
A documentary collaboration between French journalist Emma Tassy and Chinese filmmaker Sheng Zhimin, “China, The Empire Of Art?” tackles the history behind Chinese contemporary art as well the issues surrounding the rapid advent of the Chinese art market. More provocative than many films or publications concerned with China, Emma Tassy and Sheng Zhimin ask critical questions about how politics change the way art is made and seen, as well as what the Chinese-Western exchange is and what it should be.
The film features prominent blue-chip Chinese artists such as Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Rong Rong, Huang Yongping, Yue Minjun, Qiu Zhijie, Zhang Peili and Yan Pei-Ming, shedding light on their in-progress works and sharing their thoughts on their work and careers. Zhang Huan touches on China’s changing political atmosphere, having previously considered himself an “anarchist artist” but now working within a certain governmental structure. Major art world figures such as collector and gallerist Pearl Lam, critic Li Xianting, writer Zhao Chuan, curator Hou Hanru, and Swiss collector Uli Sigg also appear in the documentary and contribute to the ongoing conversation. At one point in the film, Uli Sigg visits an exhibition and is quickly pounced upon to express his opinion on a Chinese collector’s new purchase and to consult on a new museum opening, bringing into question the influence and interdependence of Western forces on the domestic Chinese art market.
While the film was released in late 2010, it’s interesting to revisit now, since the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is interspersed throughout the film. In one scene, UCCA director Jérôme Sans expounds upon UCCA’s patronage of the 798 art district in Beijing and its goal of opening up dialogue between China and the West. Now, as Sotheby’s prepares its Ullens Collection auction (April 3), it’s fascinating to revisit Sans’s interview to reflect upon the film’s discussion of Western interest in and influence upon Chinese contemporary art.
“China, The Empire of Art?” artfully weaves scenes into a broader discussion of the global position of Chinese contemporary art, as the focus turns from the political restraints in which artists originally flourished, to the turning point that put artists in the spotlight and the future going forward. With one-third of the world’s best-paid artists now coming from China, the film turns an eye towards the proliferation of art students at art universities cropping up all over China, but as these students name off their favorite Western painters, such as Monet or Van Gogh, the narrator asks, “Where is Contemporary art’s place?”