Thursday, 30 December 2010


The Far East is The New West

First published @
Hit&Miss E-zine November 2008

It would be wrong obviously, to expect a comprehensive or reliable survey of recent Chinese Art from Charles Saatchi. For all the bulk of his acquisitions, his taste is eccentric, his methods hardly dedicated. The new Chinese art that appeals to him, as critics have noted, is much like previous work collected, tending to the showy and shallow, the melodramatic but trite. One can only conclude this is the man. Saatchi notoriously ignores the work of artists collected by others, prefers extensive holdings of his own, impulsive discoveries, if only temporarily. The result is that categories for his collection, like ‘New Chinese Art’ inevitably beg qualification. For example, New Chinese Art can offer no place to acclaimed talents such as
Ai Weiwei, in spite of his prominence in prestigious international surveys such as the 2007 Kassel Documenta or Cai-Guo Qiang, who earlier this year had a retrospective at the Guggenheim museum in New York. Both artists champion entrepreneurial commission and fabrication, extended installation and integration with costume, music and applied design; all the things explicitly urged on the Saatchi Gallery website. And yet Saatchi’s taste in new Chinese art does not extend to them, not because he cannot afford them, but rather because others have. It underlines a crucial flaw to his collection.

His new Chinese art favours painting and sculpture, a little performance documentation and installation, but virtually no photography, video or digital works and not much in the way of calligraphy or prints - areas one might have assumed of some traditional interest in China. The painting is divided between tired Maoist satire, such as Wang Guangyi’s
Materialist Art (2006) or Shi Xinning’s Yalta No 2 (2006) – a seam heavily mined throughout the 90s by artists such as Wang Ziwei and Yu Youhan – and the broad, polished caricatures and stereotypes that emerge from the disaffection with socialist realism, such as the work of Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Feng Zhenjie and Zhang Xiaogang. Feng’s work in particular is pervasive, a rare concession to popularity perhaps, by Saatchi. Just as curiously, there are no examples of Liu Ye, whose work offers a telling feminine counterpart to Zhang. Elsewhere, painters sift through common photo sources, unable to quite match them to compelling painterly treatment.

The sculpture looks less obviously Chinese, more derivative of western trends. Zhang Dali’s
cast of nude casts recalls Juan Munoz, with added pathos, sadly more than the artist realises. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Old Person’s Home (2007), the much publicised installation of motorized wheelchairs occupied by meticulous models of ancient officials of various nations, could easily be Jake and Dinos Chapman in collaboration with Ron Mueck. Xiang Jing’s Your Body (2005) with its deceptive scale is similarly indebted to Mueck. Zhang Huan’s Ash Head No 1 (2007) is arguably the most successful piece, certainly the most pungent, uneasily addressing China’s aging population and Confucian reverence for elders as a burden of identity, sinking under lack of means or indifference.

While China unquestionably has a buoyant art market, the attention received from the west is disproportionate and puzzling. The art is competent and comparable, but there is no striking new movement or attitude, no ‘ism’ or school. One assumes it is seen as somehow reflecting the nation’s impressive economic growth and the title of the exhibition hints at something of a kind. In which case, the title might more accurately have been ‘The Revolution Comes Full Circle’. For China’s new prosperity is highly selective, centralised, rapacious and corrupt. It is built upon the exploitation of the disenfranchised and oppressed in its own population, in collusion with a spurious global ‘free’ trade, that denies them health and security benefits, educational opportunity and basic rights. The gap between rich and poor widens to feudal proportions. China is once more in the grip of a ruthless colonization by the west, but this time it proceeds by more insidious business practices, more discreet delegation.

If recent Chinese art reflects or responds to this extreme capitalism, it is through a persistent mediocrity and deference to western models. The deluge of Chinese artists in international surveys and markets then wittily parallels the flooding of manufacturing markets, at prices that endorse ‘de-regulation’ in every way, in the name of market dominance. Of course it does not quite work out – a little bit like the global economy just now. It lacks credibility, borrows heavily; only clouds the atmosphere, something China now specialises in.

On these terms, new Chinese art finds the perfect home in the Saatchi Collection, the indulgences of an ad-man and promoter, a fickle appreciation built upon markets and marketing, manipulation and deceit. The former Duke of York’s Headquarters, off Sloane Square, is Citizen Saatchi’s most stately pleasure dome to date, and while the collection grows more far-flung, more global, the focus, the seed to his needs, remains about as substantial as a rosebud.