Despite, growing interest, Chinese art remains under-represented in galleries
A complaint often heard from Chinese art lovers is that an ink painting by Zhang Daqian (199-1983), one of the world’s best-known Chinese artists of the 20th century, has been lying in storage since it was collected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1961.
“Ink painting is not so important in Western art as it is in Chinese art. Zhang’s ‘Lotus’ is the only ink painting we have, and it’s difficult to fit it into our collection,” explains Jay A Levenson, director of MoMA’s international programme.
Ancient artefacts, such as china, bronzeware and jade articles, have long dominated Western art museums’ exhibitions of Chinese art.
But China’s rise to become a powerful voice in the global community has sparked a growing interest in Chinese contemporary art.
However, because of the late start and skyrocketing prices, the scale of collections of recent Chinese art in Western museums is still very small.
MoMA started seriously collecting in the late 1990s, and only has about 70 pieces of Chinese art in its collection of 100,000 items.
At a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong on October 5, Beijing-based painter Zeng Fanzhi’s oil painting “The Last Supper” was sold for HK$180 million (Bt723 million), a new record for a contemporary Asian artwork. The painting, full of absurdity and irony, was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s medieval mural of the same name.
Aside from the prices, Western institutions are faced with a unique problem when collecting recent art from China, according to Levenson.
“Art that is old-fashioned in the West may be considered modern and contemporary in China because it was started later in the country,” Levenson says.
In his opinion, the internationally recognisable contemporary art in China started after the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) when Chinese artists “had a real dialogue with Western art”.
“They travelled or moved to the West, seeking publication for their artworks inspired by Western art. This type of Chinese art is very close to Western art, so it’s the easiest kind for our museum to bring into our collection,” he says.
Cai Guoqiang, the artist behind the installation piece “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows”, which is MoMA’s first major Chinese contemporary art piece, was one of those artists who ventured out, moving to New York in 1995.
A giant boat, struck by 3,000 arrows, “floats” into the air in the exhibition hall. It has a strong visual impact and provokes the viewer to consider the “global” issue of cultural clashes by “manipulating materials with skills similar to Western artists”, Levenson says.
It’s understandable for Western art museums to choose works and define modern and contemporary art based on Western values, says Lee Sook-kyung, a research curator at London’s Tate Research Centre of Asia-Pacific.
She says she thinks museums in China should encourage Chinese artists to showcase more individuality in their works rather than catering to Western tastes.
“The art museums in China should keep improving themselves to become world-class. Artists will be confident to display their works in local museums if they can gain attention and influence,” she says.
To share their experience of managing art museums and promoting Asian art, 82 directors and senior curators of museums from 30 countries and regions across Asia, Europe and the Americas gathered in Guangzhou in September, to take part in the first Asian Art Curators Forum, co-organised by Guangdong Museum of Art and National Art Museum of China.
Participants came to a consensus that Asian art museums will share their online resources and jointly put on biennials to display their collections.
For Western guests like Levenson from the MoMA and Lee from the Tate, the forum offered a great opportunity to learn about Asian art and seek international cooperation.
“Chinese art should proactively venture out to promote itself overseas. For example, many art galleries in Latin America travel around the world to art fairs to display their local artworks,” Levenson says.
Chinese artists could learn from the experience of some Asian countries.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea has taken its touring exhibitions of Korean art across Asia, to North America and Europe.
The National Museum of the Philippines is planning to engage people living in the Filipino community in Chicago to host an exhibition on Philippine traditional art.
Jason Sun, a curator from the Department of Asian Art of the New York-based Metropolitan Museum of Art, hopes Chinese art museums can be more open-minded in collecting Western artworks and enhancing their cooperation with Western art museums.
“The communication between the Metropolitan and Chinese art museums over the past 30 years has been one-way: The Metropolitan borrows relics from Chinese art museums to display to Western audiences,” Sun says.
The exhibition of the Metropolitan’s select collection at the National Museum of China in Beijing from February to May was the American museum’s first loan exhibition to China.
“It used to be high risk to lend our collections to Chinese art museums because their hardware, such as humidity and temperature-controlling equipment, was not good enough,” Sun says.
“But many newly built or renovated Chinese museums have world-class equipment thanks to the country’s rapid economic growth in the past decade. What they lack now is an open mind and curators with in-depth knowledge of Western arts.”
He advises Chinese art museums to be all-embracing like their peers in Japan.
The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo was established specially for introducing Western art to Japanese people. Tokyo National Museum’s collection of Chinese relics is even better than those of some Chinese art museums.
“For contemporary art, a global vision and an open mind are especially important,” Sun adds.
“Many Chinese contemporary artists I’ve met in the US don’t like being called a Chinese artist. They introduce themselves as a contemporary artist.
“They are not denying their roots in China. In their eyes, contemporary art is beyond national boundaries.