Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei Part 1

Note: This interview is posted by R. Orion Martin, he interviewed me last week, and this is the part I. Thanks Orion:)

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

View from the auction floor of Sotheby

In 1991, Huang Zhuan participated in an interview for the magazine Art Market. In it, he argued that the creation of an art market in China would establish a relatively fair arena in which artists could compete while also supporting those artists. He further explained that artists are always under pressure (political, religious, social, and economic), and that the test of a true artist is how he or she responds to that pressure.

20 years later, I think many in China would say that the development of the art market didn’t work out quite as well as he predicted. I sat down to discuss his ideas with curator Luo Fei.

Orion: Let’s begin by talking about what happened to the development of the Chinese art market after this interview written. During the 1990s, Chinese art was “discovered” by foreign dealers.

Luo Fei: Yes that’s right. In the 1990’s foreign embassies became important to Chinese artists as alternative sites of exhibition.

Orion: This is the so called “embassy art”?

Luo Fei: Yes. At that time artists had no space to exhibit. Sometimes they would show in embassies or private spaces. Of course, the artists who were able to exhibit in an embassy or a diplomat’s house were those artists who were already discovered and were relatively well known.

Orion: Throughout the 1990s there was more and more attention paid to Chinese art circles, but what about major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies? When did they become involve?

Luo Fei: I’m not sure about the specific dates, but the legitimization of 798 was a major turning point because it was a signaled that the government had acknowledged contemporary art. In the beginning 798 was a spontaneous, independently founded community like the Artist’s Loft in Kunming. It was a place where artists and art organizations gathered together and resisted the pressure of urban development. Then in the mid-2000s it was recognized by the government as a cultural center.

Orion: The 2000 Shanghai Biennale was also an important turning point, correct?

Luo Fei: That’s right. I remember reading many art magazines talk about the biennale when before they had never introduced contemporary art.

Orion: Around 2006 the art market really began to heat up. Since then it has cooled a bit, but there was a lot of money invested in the 2000s.

Luo Fei: In Yunnan during 2005 and 2006, the hottest thing was wasn’t the market but Jianghu (a series of experimental exhibitions funded by the Lijiang Studio). After that, the market’s influence on Yunnan became stronger and stronger. Particularly in 2006, many Yunnan artists were invited to display in Shanghai and about 20 or 30 artists participated in an exhibition. Most of the pieces where oil paint, sculpture, installation and photography. One particularly large event was the “New Impulse” exhibition held at the Yuan Gong Fine Arts Gallery. I think this definitely had an influence on Yunnan artists, the chance to go out and exhibit, look at different kinds of exhibition. Through these large exhibitions, artists with commercial value began to filter out. Some good artists sold all their works and began to work closely with galleries.

Personal experience with commercialization was an important learning experience for Yunnan artists. I remember that once when I was installing an exhibition in Shanghai, someone from China Post came and asked if I was willing to print my works on postcards. They wanted to expand the market and its influence by printing these postcards. I remember thinking that there were no China Post officials in Yunnan going to exhibitions and asking about collaboration, and if you went to them they would definitely look at you with indifference. The entire Yunnan market was still clearly very immature.

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1998, No. 26, Sale price: $2.6 million

Orion: What happened then?

Luo Fei: In those years there were many artists who moved to Beijing or other locations and established studios. Many of their studios were huge, even as big as a gallery, in order to make large works. Some young artists also began to employ small teams of assistants to produce their work. At that time there was really a lot of investment in studios, art production, teams and selling. I did a very simple installation involving a loudspeaker on a six meter long wooden pole that played recordings of the prohibition of violent and grotesque performance art in public spaces. They wanted to take the installation to Shanghai but to move that long piece of wood across the country they had to rent a huge shipping container. Personally, I thought it was unnecessary, I just wanted to do a new art project in Shanghai. But at that time many galleries really didn’t care how much the price was. They wanted to try presenting a grand exhibition. I think that this kind of thing rarely happens today unless you are a very successful artist.

Orion: In your opinion, does the market now establish a “legitimate arena” with “rules of competition”? (terms drawn from Huang Zhuan’s piece)

Luo Fei: First I should say that I’m not in the market. I focus on experimental art. But my friends and teachers who are involved say that the art market is no different than other areas of the economy. In actuality, the Chinese art market is governed by Chinese rules of competition. All of the society’s rules of competition clearly have problems, there are too many unwritten rules and background connections. For example, Bo Xilai’s case is dramatic because there are a lot of things going on behind the official news. Maybe the art market is not as dramatic as the political sphere but it has the same characteristics.

The infamous Bainsbridge vase

The infamous Bainsbridge vase, a dusty antique discovered in an English home that auctioned for a stunning $85.9 million dollars

Orion: Are you referring to corruption in the art market?

Luo Fei: It’s a bit different but yes, it’s there. In politics we have corruption, but in art circles it is expressed in a different form. For example, if a boss wants to support an artist, he may ask someone to buy their work at a high price in an auction.

Orion: There are reports that during auctions of Chinese works, some organizations will plant buyers in order to push up the prices.

Luo Fei: Yes, it’s a game. In addition, the critics who assess value are also involved. The boss will gather buyers and art critics for dinner. The critic says good things and at the end of the night he/she gets a red envelope (Chinese tradition for passing gifts of money or bribes). It’s good that the critic gets some income but they lose their independence.

Orion: Zhuan sees a very large role for critics in the art market. Do you think critics can be the arbiter of art’s value?

Luo Fei: This is one of the critic’s responsibilities, to distinguish between good and bad, to assign art value, and to publicly interpret art. But as to the value of art, I personally do not believe that critics can act as the final arbiter. In terms of the public value of art, I am more interested in establishing a robust art system based on museums. Museums are a more fair way of selecting outstanding artists. Critics today are all self-employed or teaching at schools. Some work in galleries. I work at TCG Nordica, and therefore my responsibility is to introduce artists to the public. Interestingly, some independent curators will ask their students to write essays for them. This makes evaluations of worth very dubious and ambiguous, turning art criticism into a kind of advertisement.

Orion: They just tell the students to write some nice things?

Luo Fei: Yes, as a kind of practice for the students. Artists often complain to me about critics who do this. You can read the work and recognize that it’s really bad.

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 1, 1994, Sale price: $8.4 million

Orion: You mentioned that museums are a better alternative, but if there were more museums, wouldn’t they be like the Yunnan Provincial Museum? I recently saw an exhibition there that was absolutely terrible.

Luo Fei: I’m not talking about official museums. I mean those run by companies or independent individuals. In this system, buyers buy the art in order to collect the history. The public institution (whether private or a type of organization) profits from society, and then those profits are translated into cultural value and given to society. This is the function of those museums.

Orion: We’re talking about independent large scale galleries and private museums.

Luo Fei: Yes, we need different kinds of organizations that can show the public there are different values. Ideally, art critics would not have all the power. Different systems would reflect different values. We need a rich art ecosystem with all kinds of organizations including commercial, nonprofit, experimental, government, religious, classical, fashion, conservative, large scale, small scale, stable and mobile. The audience can decide what good art is, or what is good in different areas.

Part 2 will be posted next week.

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