China’s new clout on the global art market, and its taste for home-grown works, is driving up the price of contemporary Chinese artists — forcing the Western art world to make space at the table for the rising stars. Last year China became the world’s leading auction marketplace for fine art, after overtaking France, Britain and finally the United States in the space of five years, according to research by Artprice. And China’s rise as an art hub is flipping the traditionally Western-dominated market on its head as wealthy collectors snap up art by their compatriots, fuelling a surge in prices for Chinese artists. “Chinese collectors are basically looking at Chinese art,” explained Barbara Pollack, author of a recent study entitled “The Wild Wild East: an American art critic’s adventures in China.”
As a result five Chinese artists currently sit among the world’s top 10 as measured by combined sales at auction, overtaking giants like the US pop artist Jeff Koons, ranked third, or Britain’s Damien Hirst, ranked ninth by Artprice. Taking a broader view, Chinese artists accounted last year for fully 45 of the world’s 100 top-selling art names. Some of these are established figures, like Beijing-based Zeng Fanzhi, best known for his “Masks” collection of paintings, who was the world’s second best selling artist in the year to June 2011, just behind Jean-Michel Basquiat. The late Chinese master Chen Yifei is ranked fifth while the gunpowder specialist Cai Guoqiang, who directed the special effects at the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies, takes 32nd spot. Scanning down the list, however, many names are unfamiliar to the Western eye, such as the painters Wang Yidong and Zhou Chunya — neither of whom enjoys major international renown — ranked seven and 10. “There are names which are totally fuelled by the Chinese market, some of them traditional ink painters, who are almost unheard of in the West,” explained Pollack.
Few of these Chinese artists have so far been invited to show at Western art fairs, which remain weighted towards Europe and North America despite growing participation from Asia, Africa and Latin America. “Some of these artists are outside of our tradition. Others have not yet gotten the museum attention from Western institutions that they clearly deserve, and that is hindering their acceptance in the West,” Pollack explained. Jennifer Flay, president of the FIAC contemporary art fair, one of the top events in Europe’s art calendar which wrapped up Sunday in Paris, said she was looking to expand the Chinese presence at the event. “There’s a lot of very interesting art emerging in China,” she said. Of the 168 galleries present for this edition, however, just one was Chinese.