This is part 2 of an interview I did with curator Luo Fei, in which we discussed the successes and failures of the Chinese art market, and its influence on art. Our discussion is loosely based on the views that Huang Zhuan expressed in a 1991 interview with Art Market.
Orion: In the 1990s and later, some curators asked companies for economic support in order to create independent galleries. Is this a better solution? Perhaps some galleries work like this?
Luo Fei: Strictly speaking, they do not support. Rather they rely on a kind of exchange. They ask for gifts from the artist or collectors in order to regain the capital invested in the exhibition. There’s no free lunch.
Orion: Alright but at that time in the 1990s there were some curators who convinced companies to support them, no strings attached. Then it really was a kind of free lunch.
Luo Fei: Generally speaking there are very few. This kind of support is based on the personal relationships or short term tactics of a system that isn’t public. Some museums or galleries select artists and offer them full support, perhaps because the artists are already successful and can guarantee market success. Others will exchange support for some pieces. Some galleries pay artists a material fee, living fee, or appearance fee. Lijiang Studio, for example, has some projects like this. Performance and installation artists prefer this because they know there’s no way to sell their works. They just hope you can cover some of the costs.
Orion: In China, it’s common for artists to support galleries by paying exhibition fees. Is this correct?
Luo Fei: It depends on which exhibition, which person, and whether the gallery’s vision fits with the artist’s vision. There are also galleries that support artists. Generally speaking, if galleries invite an artist to have an exhibition there is no fee, but if the artist personally applies for an exhibition then there will be a fee, and the fee is quite high. In short, galleries are still in an undeveloped period, except those very big galleries from west. Galleries need artists to pay the bills and artists need galleries to offer support. It’s not support, it’s more like cooperation. That’s why a museum is a better solution. The goal is not to earn money and they don’t rely on selling paintings or collecting exhibition fees to exist.
Orion: In the West museums have government support, both direct support and in the form of tax breaks.
Luo Fei: Maybe you are critical of this solution but in China we still need to establish a system of public support for art. When private businesses support art, they are still basically focused on earnings and the company is limited to commercial tastes. This leads to the expansion of commercial art and the weakening of experimental art.
Orion: In this case, the curator doesn’t have power.
Luo Fei: This is always a discussion point. Who is the curator? Normally it’s whoever has money and relationships. Now it’s changing but in the 1990s or 2000s it was like that, very chaotic.
Orion: Is there space for artists operating outside the market in China?
Luo Fei: I think there is. Otherwise how would they do work? The art market is always only for a few, very lucky artists. In Kunming we can count only a few artists who have signed with galleries, maybe ten.
Orion: How do artists survive?
Luo Fei: They are teachers or they do public projects, sculptures. They may have their own studio to teach students as an alternative to university. There are also some who work at galleries, companies or other institutions. For example, He Libin teaches at Yunnan Art University but he also acts as curator and has other various projects.
Orion: Huang Zhuan felt that the market might not be the best system, but there’s no alternative. Do you agree?
Luo Fei: In the early period of the 1990s and before, this might have been the case. Their understanding of these things was very limited, as were the circumstances at the time. Art workers had never heard about government support or non-commercial art organizations. At that time, China was going through reform and opening. The strategy is drawn from private business and property reform. My understanding is that at the time, their strategy was to break the old art environment and this was the only path, to encourage individual sales of art pieces.
Orion: They wanted to use money to break with the government.
Luo Fei: In those days the strategy had value. In the 1992 Guangzhou biennale, curator Lu Peng organized the first commercial exhibition, and that first exhibition had symbolic significance.
Orion: He was one of the first to open the official system.
Luo Fei: Many people criticize him now. They say he’s not a historian, he’s just a business man (Lu Peng was criticized for his organization of the 2011 Chengdu Biennale, which featured traffic cone barriers and large “Do Not Touch” signs). But in that time (1992) he did a good job. Afterwards those artists who participated were invited to many countries. They became a kind of national team. Traveling in a bus together, they would also go to president’s house and meet politicians. They suddenly become so important. That’s why they were accepted by the government in the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. Chinese contemporary art had already become a global business card.
Orion: Huang Zhuan argues that the market is a kind of pressure, and that the mark of a true artist is how they navigate the pressures of the market and express themselves.
Luo Fei: I agree, but that’s not the only thing. The market is not the only standard to judge the excellence of artists. There should be other standards as well.
Orion: It raises the question, what is the role of luck in the market? Huang Zhuan might argue that luck is unimportant, that being a true artist involves making connections and presenting your artistic view to buyers.
Luo Fei: There are some very good artists but they have no relationships with this circle. Or they don’t like this circle and need a bridge. The typical example is Van Gogh (Van Gogh is also mentioned in Huang Zhuan’s article). Non-commercial galleries and organizations have the responsibility to reach out and explore who is good. They must evaluate artists from a different view.
Orion: Some artists and critics criticize young Chinese artists for vapidly pursuing financial success, but I would say that the most (financially) successful artists, including Damien Hirst and others, are producing works that are critically interesting and engaging. Perhaps we should stop encouraging artists to be aesthetics, and tell them that only by truly advancing their craft they will achieve financial success.
Luo Fei: For artists there are many possibilities to make good or interesting works. But this is not the only value of art. I would not say that poor artists are the best artists. The reason for this criticism of market oriented artists, though, is because it is having a larger and larger negative influence on new artists. The new artists have less space to think about what is good art. There are lots of voices about commercial art, and they have no system to participate and think about what is real art, what are the problems of the art scene right now.
Take Yunnan landscape art for example. Many artists follow successful artists. They think this is the best art, and they never wonder if landscape has problems. They never ask “Why do we need to paint landscapes? Why are our styles so close?”
Orion: I guess what I’m saying is that on a high level, the market is doing what Huang Zhuan says it should. It is responding to what works are good and what aren’t. For example, we have talked about how Yue Minjun’s work seems stale now, and the market is now responding. His works don’t sell as well as they did in the past.
Luo Fei: It’s true, the market is becoming more and more mature. Yue Minjun’s work is no longer increasing in value on the auction floor, and it seems the collectors have also learned. It’s just that the cost of this knowledge was a bit too high.
Orion: The largest influence of the market I see is the preference for oil painting. Will the market ever move beyond this single medium, or is it simply too convenient and we will always have oil paintings?
Luo Fei: I think in the Chinese art market, traditional master (ink paintings) will always be expensive. As for oil paintings, some of them are good, but collecting oil paintings is really a kind of investment.
Orion: Do you think this preference for traditional ink painting and modern oil painting will change? Will there be more mediums represented in the future?
Luo Fei: I think it is already changing. In Beijing some video works sell well. Some artists have established a video art museum and you can go there to see the DVDs donated by artists. In Beijing it’s easier.
Orion: Maybe it will take a long time to come to Yunnan.
Luo Fei: Maybe it will never arrive. Some goods can’t find a market everywhere.
Many thanks to Luo Fei for working on this text with me.