5 August 2009

Street Art London 
Andries Loots and Fred de Jager of 34 LONG FINE ART have just returned from a month long visit to London, Barcelona, Beijing and Shanghai. Their mission was twofold: to investigate for themselves the reaction of contemporary art markets to the credit crunch, and to scout for new works for their upcoming shows. 
They report:  
London presented a bit of a depressing start to our trip, with some of the smaller contemporary galleries closed down. We attended openings at the Black Rat Press, Stolen Space, the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, Tate Modern,  National Portrait Gallery ( BP Portrait Award 2009) and the Stephanie Hoppen Gallery where Motel7, who exhibited at 34LONG before relocating to London, had some works on show. Attendance was impressive throughout, but few red stickers were in evidence at some of the the commercial shows. Spectators appeared relaxed and cheerful, they were just not buying.  
The Jeff Koons exhibition, on until 13 September 2009, comprised a body of sculptures and paintings from the 2002 Popye Series, demonstrating some of his signature ideas and motifs like surreal combinations of everyday objects, cartoon imagery, art-historical references and children’s toys. Koons’s continuing interest in casting inflatable toys in aluminum was in evidence, with cast versions painstakingly painted to bear almost indiscernible resemblance to the originals. His paintings were complex and layered with iconic contemporary images as well as images of the sculptures on show. 
At the Bristol Museum nearby, a Banksy exhibition had people cueing up from very early in the morning. Waiting time for admittance was between one and a half and two hours, underscoring Banksy’s undiminished popularity. 
Attending previews and sales at the three major auction houses, Christies, Sotheby’s and Phillips were highlights of our London trip. We found the sales to be more condensed than in the past, but there were still some very exciting works on offer. At Christie’s, the special preview was a very exclusive affair, with champagne, strawberries and delicious canapés being served. The auctions were well attended and compared with the caution of last year October/November, bidding was energetic and positive. Most of the premier lots were sold and some even attracted higher than expected prices. Chinese works were still doing well although some of the big names failed to reach their extremely optimistic reserves.  
In our opinion, a healthy measure of realism and greater discernment has enterer the contemporary market. Though perhaps shrunken in scale, the market seems robust and trade continues. Buyers are prepared to pay high prices for the best works on offer. Lesser works, even those by highly respected artists, are passed by. 

Stolen Space Exhibition opening London

Yayoi Kusama trees at the Hayward Gallery London
In Barcelona we visited the Miro and Picasso Museums and were impressed by their collections of early drawings and paintings.  

Miró Foundation Barcelona
The real eye-opener, however, was Beijing. During our 2007 visit, moving around the 798 Art District was all but hopeless, as every available space was taken up by galleries, artist’s studios or elaborate private museums. International curators and buyers trampled each other to grab the latest and hottest art and trying to discover that one elusive great artist who hadn’t been exposed to the western world yet.  
This time round, we walked calmly through the entire 798 District within 3 hours, encountering no excitement at all. Many galleries have closed down. News papers and art magazines, unopened and dusty, were piling up in front of chained doors. Through some windows, we could see abandoned art from the last show still hanging on the walls. In some of the outlying districts, whole streets were deserted, a ghost town feeling hovering like a dark cloud in the air.  
Huantie Art City, which boasted a major Contemporary Museum, more than eighty art studios and international art residences in 2007, now lay derelict. The small number of galleries that remained open were selling, or not selling, decorative pieces. Owners appeared pitifully over-eager to invite us in.  
As the days passed and we traveled from district to district without coming across anything exciting, our concern grew into dismay. Fortunately, we had made appointments with some artists before arriving in China. Their stories were all identical. The market was booming in 2007 and in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, everybody wanted a piece of the pie. Prices were escalating because of high demand and more and more artists were entering the market. Rags to riches stories abounded. More and more artists were getting very rich very quickly and demand for space drove up the cost of renting. Then the credit crunch hit. Artists suddenly failed to sell as well as before and many had to vacate their rented studios, returning to their rural homes. Our troubles in finding the artists with whom we had hoped to establish contact, were aggravated by the language barrier. Without a definite address or telephone number, and not speaking the language, finding artists who had moved away became an impossible task. 
There is an upside to this sad tale, however. Those artists who are still working, have produced consistently good works, and are still in business. We managed to see Huang Gang, Sheng Qi, Zi Qi, Liu Fenghua, Hua Jiming and Zang Hongbo, all of whose works command strong secondary markets. They are all positive and, we believe, they have the same recipe for success. They haven’t increased their prices much in the last two years and many of them have worked hard at creating and sustaining local collectors’ markets for their work. Huang Gang observed that his Asian collectors’ market has grown larger than that in the West. Despite huge successes at auction, he managed to keep his prices relatively stable.  

Zang Hongbo

Huang Gang

Sheng Qi

Hua Jiming

Zi Qi
The big names like Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Yang Shaobin were all unreachable or too busy preparing for upcoming art fairs, exhibitions and museum shows. It seems that a great divide has been drawn between them and the more than 500 000 artists who have stopped producing work and taken on day jobs to survive, or are waiting for the next hype in the Chinese contemporary market, which, according to those who follow the market movements closely, WILL occur within the next five years. 
The other side of the coin is not a pretty one. Commercialism, unrestrained rising of prices and demand for work by well-known artists have encouraged commercial art studios, who in the past produced touristic Chinese landscapes or calligraphy, to manufacture copies of contemporary artworks. These copies can be found at any of the Dirt and Flee markets in and around all the major centers like Beijing and Shanghai. Thousands of canvasses in all sizes bearing the iconic images of the big names are stacked all over. For a mere ten dollars anyone can be the proud owner of an original oil on canvas of his or her favourite Chinese contemporary artist. Buying art from a non-reputable source with no proven provenance can be fatal to any potential collector. Effective policing is an impossibility in the face of the gigantic scale of the reproductive industry in China. Most often these canvasses are unsigned or signed by the producing artists, which lessens the potential problem, 
The future will no doubt bring interesting times with more discerning collectors and where quality will be the deciding factor.

Liu Yong and Liu Fenghua

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