Rising censorship and conservatism dampen the mood at Shanghai art fairs, but China still has “economic firepower”


Shanghai’s two flagship shows, Art021 and West Bund Art & Design Fair (both November 11-14) ended on Sunday, with mixed results and spirits after patchy business performance.

After the jubilant post-containment comeback that was Shanghai Art Week 2020, this year’s season has felt scattered and relatively subdued. The mood was cheerful but tired from ongoing and recently tightened Covid restrictions and nervous about stepped up censorship and a Beijing plenum further consolidating the power of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Nonetheless, the purchasing power of a growing national collector base unable to travel abroad fueled generally satisfactory sales.

“The atmosphere was jovial, with newer and younger collectors showing interest and a really serious purchase. Although it can be difficult to gauge age with masks, they were buying top notch artwork, ”says Dawn Zhu, Thaddaeus Ropac director for Asia. New collectors included new institutions opened in second-tier cities like Qingdao, Chengdu and Shenzhen. Zhu says works in the $ 150,000 to $ 200,000 range have sold well. “Clients might not know artists very well, but after seeing them in other galleries before… and knowing them, they can make a decision in the early hours. However, works over a million dollars were either pre-sold or required further discussion. Ropac sold Jason Martin’s Untitled (Ultramarine blue, 2020) for £ 65,000, Yan Pei-Ming’s Self-portrait, denial (2020) for € 80,000, and several pieces between $ 45,000 and $ 55,000 by Mandy El-Sayegh, “which we could have resold several times”. Collectors were interested in their prime kernel, but also very curious about rising stars, and particularly “sought out artists with ties to China or influencing Chinese artists like Rauschenberg”.

Lehmann Maupin’s stand at the West Bund

Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin

Tiffany Xu, China director of Lehmann Maupin, has also observed a proliferation of young collectors. “My most intuitive feeling is that new collectors have a forward-thinking vision and have diverse information channels. They also show a more marked interest in young people [and more diverse] artists. ”She adds that sales“ have been going very well this year, ”although they are slower than last year, although“ there are still a number of deals under discussion. ”Xu said that other galleries are also conducting similar ongoing post-fair negotiations.In addition to placing works by El-Sayegh and Angel Otero in current and future museums in Beijing, Lehmann Maupin has sold to private Chinese collections a painting from the “Altar” series by McArthur Binion for $ 170,000, Otero’s Silence (2020) for $ 50,000, three works from the Lost series by Lee Bul for nearly $ 400,000, as well as works by Do Ho Suh and Chantal Joffe, Marilyn Minter and Billy Childish.

Shanghai’s artistic calendar has expanded this year with the new Design Miami / Podium + Shanghai (November 5-14) and Photofairs Shanghai (November 3-6) rescheduled from its usual September date, as well as the openings of new spaces in Shanghai for Longlati, M and CC Foundations. Major museums like Long, Yuz, and the Power Station of Art held their grand openings at the end of October, although the Ming Contemporary Art Museum (MCAM) unveiled an impressive five-year anniversary respectively of performance art from Shanghai, and Prada Rongzhai opened an exhibition of Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Merchants and collectors were this year bifurcated between the two major fairs on identical dates: in previous years they overlapped but had one or two separate days. Both returned to full capacity before the pandemic, with 134 galleries at 021 and West Bund extending to a third hall, West Bund Dome, mostly containing nonprofits, design stands and branded promotions.

According to a spokesperson for the show, West Bund Art & Design this year attracted more than 120 galleries, designer brands and art institutions from 18 countries. The addition of the third hall makes this eighth edition of the West Bund the largest ever, covering over 30,000 m². The spokesperson said that overseas galleries accounted for 60%, and “the rate of overlap with first-level galleries in [Art] Basel reached 50% ”. New Covid outbreaks elsewhere in the country have meant the city government has demanded that Photofairs, West Bund and 021 require all visitors to have negative Covid tests within 48 hours, in addition to wearing masks and presenting green QR codes, a move that has reduced public visitors but not, say merchants, many collectors.

Beyond the Veil (2021) by Vaughn Spann

© Vaughn Spann. Photo: Thomas Mueller. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech

As Chinese collectors get younger, so do artists, the West Bund spokesperson said. Personal exhibitions brought to West Bund by more than ten galleries also confirm this trend: the “post-75s” artist by Lévy Gorvy, Tu Hongtao, the “post-80s” Mexican artist Gabriel Rico (Perrotin), Japanese “post-80s” artist Miwa Komatsu (Whitestone Gallery) and American “post-80s” artist Sayre Gomez (Xavier Hufkens), Japanese “post-80s” female artists Ed Shiori (A2Z Gallery) and Almine Rech brought in ‘post-90s’ artist Vaughn Spann.

Black figurative art was visibly well represented at the fair, a new twist in a market generally more interested in white and Chinese artists. Black artists were also present around the institutional exhibitions: Spann joined Amoako Boafo and Derrick Adams for the first exhibition of black portraits of the Longlati Foundation while M Art Foundation also launched its new space in Shanghai, in the former premises of the Gallery Vacancy, with a solo presentation by Ghanaian artist Emmanuel Taku. “Black artists, or more specifically, black history and racial issues have been very targeted social topics in recent years,” Xu said, adding that this has been reflected in the art market.

Young collectors are also more enthusiastic about digital spaces, explains Zola Shao, sales and marketing director of the Sarthe gallery, exhibiting at 021. Their interests, according to Shao, turn to “thoughts on escapism in the touching virtual world like post-internet, games and cityscapes. Shao says this has fueled good sales “for our three post-Internet artists Lin Jingjing, Zhong Wei and Mak2”, with works ranging from 50,000 RMB to 250,000 RMB.

Art censorship has spread to fairs this year, far beyond the usual taboos of politics and sexuality. Works that had passed customs censorship and were successfully imported were restricted at the cultural bureau level, usually without explanation. Foreign artists appear to be scrutinized much more intensely than Chinese artists, who have been allowed to show levels of soft nudity that have had foreign works banned. Military themes seem to have joined the list of verboten, and anything that contains text must be explained in detail to the censors. Dealers say they’re willing to follow the rules but are puzzled as to where the line is drawn. Some have observed that the Chinese Communist Party’s plenary session that runs alongside the Beijing fairs has had a dampening effect on sales, as more globalized businessmen in east China fear the country’s growing conservatism. only gets worse as Xi consolidates his rule until at least 2027. As borders remain closed indefinitely under a zero Covid approach, there are fears that two decades of China’s openness to global engagement could be reversed.

Yet political changes are no more likely to dampen China’s artistic juggernaut than the pandemic and border closures. “The enthusiasm for collecting art and owning art is not going to go away,” Zhu said. “Chinese demand is also pushing new artists around the world. There is a lot of economic firepower here.


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