The surging market for fine-art photography from China, PDN, 2007

 Alex Cao.

Alex Cao.

Back in the mid-90s, a handful of collectors quietly began buying up contemporary Chinese fine art and photography. Maybe they sensed that China was going to become a major economic force. Maybe they were simply intrigued by what they saw; the Chinese avant-garde was at its peak, led by artists such as Rong Rong, who has been compared with Nan Goldin. But one thing is certain: They got in at the right time. China is hot.

“The market for contemporary Chinese art in general has exploded over the past five years,” says Christopher Tsai, who runs the New York investment firm Tsai Capital and who has been collecting this work since 2003. And with Beijing set to host the 2008 Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo coming just two years after that, he says, people perceive the economic boom to be continuing on for some time. 

Naturally, paintings are commanding the most handsome sums; works that could be purchased for as little as $500 in the 90s now sell for $500,000. But photography has nothing to be embarrassed about. “Follow Me,” a photo by Wang Qingsong, who the international art magazine Modern Painters dubbed “the heaviest hitter coming out of China’s art scene at the moment” in its April 2007 issue, sold for $318,400 (with premium, an additional percentage charged by the auction house) at Sotheby’s in New York last September, setting a new record for the artist. And Christie’s sold Qiu Zhijie’s self-portraits “Tattoo I and II” in Hong Kong last November for $115,681 with premium.

Ingrid Dudek, a specialist in Asian contemporary art at Christie’s, notes that most contemporary Chinese photography sells “well below” these figures. But the profit margins for the primary market are still noteworthy: Howard Farber, president of China Avant-Garde, art consultants and dealers with offices in New York and Beijing, estimates that a limited-edition print of Zhang Huan’s “To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond” that he bought for roughly $2,000 in 1997 is now worth between $80,000 and $100,000. 

China, too, has been quick to capitalize on the demand for its artists’ work, resulting in a surfeit of homegrown auction houses. The two best known are China Guardian Auctions, established in 1993, and Beijing Poly International Auctions (est. 2005), but there are hundreds of others. “The opening up of auction houses in the last two years has been outrageous. They’ve opened in Beijing, Hong Kong, and now in Shanghai,” Elisabeth da Brabant, co-director of Art Scene in Shanghai, told EuroBiz in April 2006 in a piece appropriately headlined “Avant-Garde Gold Rush.”

The movement in prices has also caught the attention of gallerists and curators worldwide. Shanghai-born, New York-based commercial photographer Alex Cao opened the 4,500-square-foot China Square Gallery in Chelsea last month [MAY 2007] with “Dragon’s Evolution,” an exhibition featuring nearly 50 of China’s best-known contemporary fine-art photographers. On June 22, Nashville’s Ingram Gallery at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will present a show of 21 Chinese photographers called “Whispering Wind.” Through September 23, Artium: Basque Museum of Contemporary Art in Spain is showing “Zhuyi! Contemporary Chinese Photography,” a survey of 30 photographers, all of whom were born after 1960. (“Zhuyi” approximately translates to “what about.”) And the photographer Rong Rong plans to open the vast Three Shadows Photography Center this year. Located in Caochangdi Village, just outside Beijing, it will comprise gallery space, classrooms, a library, and technical facilities.

Rong Rong is unusual among contemporary Chinese fine-art photographers in that he does his own printing and does not use a computer to manipulate his photos, some of his most celebrated being black-and-white slice-of-bohemian-life portraits. Though he is not yet 40 (he was born in 1968), he represents photography’s old guard in a country where artists eagerly challenge the definition of the medium. “Rong Rong is highly prized because he’s one of the few artists still working with the traditional method,” notes Chris Mao, who founded the China-centric Chambers Fine Art in New York in 2000. “Yet he’s very original, as well.”  

Original, distinct, fresh—everyone PDN spoke to for this story described the photography coming out of China in these terms. This is in part a commentary on approach. What’s billed as a photograph may actually be a multimedia piece incorporating drawing or painting, a still from a video, a photograph from a performance, or a computer-generated product. Until recently, Chinese art academies’ curricula were based on Soviet neoclassicism, explains the ICP’s Christopher Phillips, who co-curated the museum’s groundbreaking 2004 exhibition “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China.” The artists emerging from these academies boasted superb technical skills and have tended to use photography as a tool rather than an end in itself. 

“There are a lot of interesting photographers all over the world,” says Ethan Cohen, whose Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in New York, which represents work by artists such as Xiao Lu, who is notorious for her “15 Shots” series, in which she shot bullets into photographs of herself. “But I think what’s happening in China is you’re seeing artists with very powerful backgrounds in other areas—sculpture, performance, painting, printmaking, video—who are choosing photography. And what they’re coming up with is fresh and significant.” 

  But boundary-pushing in itself is does not explain why contemporary Chinese photography is so coveted. There’s also an undeniable fascination for the work itself, which deals with issues of identity, politics, and increasingly, social and economic change. “I think people are fascinated by Chinese contemporary art right now because it has a unique voice. It has come from the liberalization that took place in the 1980s, which has now reached a level of maturity where we see individual artists respond to the seismic shifts they are witnessing in their society,” says Melissa Chiu, museum director of the Asia Society and Museum in New York. (When the Asia Society named Chiu curator for contemporary and Asian art in 2001, the post was the first of its kind in the U.S.). 

For his “My Things” series, Hong Hao composed jam-packed still lifes of items ranging from Mao buttons to cigarette packs, photographed them, and then produced chromogenic prints. Measuring 22 x 38 up to 4 feet by 6 feet, the images sell for between $6,000 and $15,000 apiece, says Jon Burris, who for 20 years was a private curator of the Hefner Collection, a large contemporary Chinese painting collection—and who recently started a consulting company called Chinophile. Hong’s new work, a mix of ancient and modern that includes hand scrolls onto which he has inserted photos of present-day gallery goers, went on view this past April at Chambers Fine Art, where it sold briskly, reports Chris Mao.

Cao Fei, widely regarded as China’s It Girl, exhibited her series “COSPlayers,” featuring photos of young people dressed as videogame characters, at Beijing’s Courtyard Gallery and made her New York debut with it at Lombard Fried in 2005. Cao, born in 1978 and an accomplished video artist as well, is among the artists representing China at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Hai Bo, another of China’s big names in contemporary fine-art photography, drew praise for a series in which re-created 1930s-era family snapshots with the surviving members of the families, then exhibited the original and re-creation side by side, as with 2000’s “They No. 7 (Three Sisters). And Weng Fen has produced highly collectible chromogenic prints (measuring 31 x 39 in an edition of 10 that sell for $25,000 to $30,000) of young Chinese girls looking out over a city or a body of water—the next generation wondering what the future holds.

Beijing is still considered China’s art capital, with major players like the 798 Gallery; Art Scene China (which also has an outpost in Shanghai); the Courtyard Gallery; Beijing Commune, which New York’s Max Protetch Gallery, an early supporter of contemporary Chinese art, launched in early 2006; Galerie Urs Meile, whose headquarters are in Switzerland; and Red Gate Gallery, the city’s first contemporary art gallery (it opened in 1991). 

And Shanghai, home to ShanghART, that city’s first contemporary gallery, is a close second. (ShanghART plans to open a space in the Caochangdi Village, outside Beijing, this fall.) But even that is changing. Ai Wei Wei, perhaps China’s preeminent artist, opened China Art Archives and Warehouse roughly 30 minutes outside Beijing in 2000; earlier this year, The New York Times reported that Meg Maggio, a well-known contemporary art dealer in Beijing (her gallery is Pekin Fine Arts), is relocating there, as well. “So far, Western collectors have only really tapped those artists that are based in [big cities like] Beijing and Shanghai,” says Phillips. “I think this whole process has quite a lot further to run.”

It’s stunning to think that in 1999, artists relied on word of mouth. “If I had just landed at Beijing Airport [in 1999] wanting to look at artists or photographers, I probably wouldn’t have gotten very far,” says Phillips. “It was still very much an insider’s situation then.” The late 90s also brought digital photography to the fore. Japanese manufacturers were, explains Phillips, dumping their older models on the Chinese market. “For the first time, Chinese labs were able to make large-scale digital C-prints,” he says. Artists also were now able to travel outside China to see works they had only been able to view online or in books. Clearly, one of their observations was that large-scale pictures were ubiquitous. 

“They immediately started scaling up their work and doing technically and artistically impressive work,” says Phillips. And that brought them attention from collectors; at the time, it was mostly Europeans and diplomatic personnel (notably, Uli Sigg, who was then the Swiss ambassador to China) who were buying. Notes Burris: “The Chinese have learned that big is good, color is good and limited editions are necessary.”

Where there’s a booming photography market, there are portfolio reviews, and China is no exception. China also hosts two major festivals on its own turf: Pingyao Photography Festival, which launched in 2001 and has drawn Western photographic luminaries like Susan Meiselas and Sebastiao Salgado; and Lianzhou Photo Festival in Guangdong, on China’s southern coast. When FotoFest launched Meeting Place FotoFest Beijing last October, more than a thousand photographers tried to register for the 240 slots, recalls FotoFest co-founder Wendy Watriss. 

Watriss expects to be making studio visits in China two to three times a year and says FotoFest will award scholarships to Chinese photographers to attend next year’s portfolio review in Houston. Last month [MAY 2007], FotoFest was due to launch photo.eye, a “gallery-website” (the site is accessible through fotofest.org) boasting work by 34 Chinese photographers. 

Censorship is not quite the problem it once was in China, which takes some of the pressure off of artists and galleries. Through the year 2000, recalls the ICP’s Phillips, “it was totally normal for exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai to open and be immediately closed by various police officials for all kinds of quirky reasons.” 

And the public at large, so accustomed to government-sanctioned, propagandistic work, is warming to the possibilities of contemporary art, even if only because it is so in demand. “Most average people and older people don’t understand contemporary art and see it as ugly, grotesque and weird. But it’s catching on quickly, largely because it’s so hot with foreign collectors and wealthy Chinese intellectuals,” says Lynn Zhang, publisher of Artzine China, a new online Shanghai-based arts publication (artzinechina.com). “The art schools are packed, and the Shanghai Biennale last year set records for attendance.” Artzine China, which Zhang says has more than 20,000 visitors a month, also has a shopping site. “And,” says Zhang, “we’re receiving lots of orders from overseas.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the current fixation on contemporary Chinese fine art. Wang Qingsong, who gained international attention through the ICP show, has profited not just by the sale of his work but by unexpected business opportunities: He was hired by the English department store Selfridges last year to decorate 19 windows along Oxford Street during Chinese New Festival, and he says he’s been approached by companies like Volvo and Fendi abut product promotions. But he worries that artists are making work that they know collectors will want to buy. 

“On the surface, the market is booming and fine-art photography as well as other forms of art—painting, performance and installation—are all being well received by collectors worldwide,” he tells PDN through a translator in an email interview. “This is an exciting time because we don’t need to worry about making a living, as 10 years ago. However, many artists think less of creative works; rather, they repeat themselves and follow the market trends.” 

Qingsong’s concern was echoed by many of the people PDN spoke with. “Everything is moving at a breakneck pace, and I fear that the critical appraisal is not what it should be,” says Burris. “Galleries are opening and closing quickly because so few actually know how to operate an art business. Everyone thinks short-terms because so much money is changing hands, and they don’t want to miss out on a part of it.”

And yet, some would say they already have missed out. When Howard Farber started buying contemporary Chinese art after a mid-90s trip to Hong Kong, his accountant told him he was nuts. “Last year,” recalls Farber, “he asked me if I could get him something. I told him, ‘You’re too late.’”