Different from the “aged is better” principle in the traditional art market, it’s no doubt risky to buy works from less established artists. In fact, no matter how much research you put, no one can predict the future. So how can art collectors grasp the right opportunity with the recent meteoric rise of young artists in the Chinese art market?
Author: Cecilia Chan / Editor: Wen-Xi Chen
C ollectors are always on the lookout for the next big thing. With the focus shifted to “young artists” in the past two years, these artists have been making serious headway in the market place. In this new wave of speculation, which artist’s works will yield the biggest investment returns has become the question on everyone’s minds. “The last two years saw the rise of young artists, largely because younger people are collecting art now,” Sotheby Hong Kong’s Contemporary Asian Art Head of Department Evelyn Lin explains, “For these younger collectors, the easiest works to accept are those by young artists… their prices are lower – many well known artists’ prices are very high – and therefore make for reasonable starting points for young collectors. Also, younger artists’ works are more easily understood by younger collectors, often they come from a similar time period, environment, and have similar frames of reference so their work resonates more with young people.”
With the concentration of capital going into young artists’ works, it creates two effects; firstly the price of their art increases, secondly, an ongoing selection process creates a “pyramid” of hierarchy within the field. Untested by time and market forces, collecting works by young or emerging artists can be a risky business. Unlike established artists who have a proven track record, young artists can see their work rise astronomically in value, or fall by the wayside. If we were to divide an artist’s career into the following phases: sprouting phase, growth phase, rapid development phase, and finally, the mature phase. Each phase contains its own risks and challenges for artist and investor alike. Lin Ming Zhe, a Taiwanese collector, bought a copious amount of work from now-renowned artists Zhang Xiaogang and Zhou Chunya back when they were still emerging. While some may envy his foresight, the truth is of the many artists he collected, half of them quit art within 10 years of graduating. Of these works, other than Lin’s personal appreciation for them, have no investment value.
As the Chinese contemporary art market calms down and more regulations fall into place, the prices of students’ art will become an important indicator of future pricing. A trend we have seen so far is that it is often the graduates who have inherited traditional artistic practices, but can apply it to their own unique ideas and expressions, who tend to stand the test of time. For the current group of young artists, the leaders of the pack are already emerging. They include Jia Aili, Wang Guangle, Liu Wei, and Chou Xiaofei.
Of course, for collectors looking to buy work from younger artists at the most opportune moment, we have to tell you there is no crystal ball to predict the future. While it may be tempting to rush head-long into purchasing what you perceive to be undervalued works, it is important to understand the artists’ creative trajectory and stability of output in order to best gauge their market value and potential in the future.
The first Chinese artist to be signed by top gallery Hauser & Wirth, Zhang Enli, born in 1965 in Jilin, revealed his artistic talents early in life. Despite his relative maturity, Zhang’s works have more in common with the current crop of young artists than with his own politically-minded post-60s peers. In the early 1990s, his paintings were full of angst, anger, and violence, but by 2000, these themes had all but disappeared. Zhang calls 2000 his dividing line. He slowly worked out his own artistic philosophy, deciding that, like photography, painting is about capturing a moment of existence. Often focusing on the seemingly banal, Zhang does not seek to make grand statements. “Painting possesses a great energy, its meaning and interpretation can be extensive. My attitude is we live in the moment, to feel, to absorb, there is no need to exaggerate or propagate.”
“A lot of viewers are not accustomed to looking at the paintings,” Zhang muses, “they are used to searching for meaning. My attitude is to remove from cultural and geographical context… once these are gone, will the painting still have meaning?” Indeed, Zhang’s paintings do not raise qualms with society, they pose no questions, and offer no answers. Rather, they are but a process; a fleeting, momentary feeling captured in paint.
“It was not until that languid afternoon when a ray of light penetrated through curtains… that kind of atmosphere and feeling was what I wanted,” Wang Guangle reminisces dreamily, “You can say that I am concerned with looking inward; my interest with what’s inside surpasses that for the outside world.” Born in 1976, Wang was an important member of the ‘N12’ art initiative. “Space is visible, time is invisible,” Wang says, “when looking at a painting, only space can allow the viewer to envision the passage of time.”
Wang’s abstract communicative works are the products of his ultimate inspiration: the passage of time. Most of his paintings take two to three months to complete, producing just five or six paintings a year. Some people question his speed; but time itself is the trunk of his ‘tree of life’, each passing moment adding to its rings. For Wang, the painting process, and feeling the tranquil passage of time, is its own pleasure. Almost Taoist in outlook, the artist allows his works to take their own course, arriving at their destinations in their own time.
One of China’s most watched emerging artists, Jia Aili attributes his creative intention to enjoying the process: “Whether it’s the artist or the audience, people often only see what’s ‘in’ the painting, and not what’s ‘not in’ it, so it’s difficult to get excited about the process from non-existence to existence.” To let the audience share in his love of the process, Jia exhibited at his OCT Contemporary Art Terminal of He Xiangning Art Museum show his tools, sketches, roughs, and painting materials. Put together, Jia’s paintings hold the whispers of art movements past, coming together in frosty shades to capture fragments of this world in flux.
Born in 1979, Jia is removed from the politically-driven paintings of those Chinese artists who made it before him. Reflecting on a rapidly changing world, Jia’s works depict loneliness surrounded by symbols of technological advancement and destruction. Rising to prominence following Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s 2012 auction where his It’s Not Only You Who Is Pale (2007) triptych sold for a staggering 6,620,000 HKD, far surpassing its initial estimate, the prices of Jia’s works have soared beyond all expectation. April 2015 saw Jia break all personal records when Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioned Good Morning World (2010) for 13,280,000 HKD (10.65million RMB), beating even his 11.8million HKD sale for Wasteland Series No.1 (2009) in October 2014.
Ouyang Chun is a contradiction. While his innocent, childlike paintings have attracted throngs of admirers, the seemingly naive imagery belies the artist’s complicated personal history. A high-school dropout, one can say that Ouyang graduated instead from the ‘school of life’. Spending time with all sorts of unsavoury underworld types, his early experiences and encounters eventually incorporated themselves as characters in his artistic oeuvre.
Those who have met Ouyang are struck by his diligence and wealth of imagination. Ouyang’s output is unrestricted by formal conventions and has aesthetic similarities to the art brut, or outsider art, movement. His dedication to art show him, not too long ago, painting every day for 12 hours straight.
Born in Beijing in 1974, Ouyang graduated from the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. Despite a formal education in art, Ouyang is happily unburdened by artistic conventions. His illusionary world offer an escape from the complexities of reality and exude a natural innocence. The recurring leitmotifs of clutter and accumulation can be seen throughout his works, enhanced by unrestrained brush-strokes, generous layers of paint, and intense colours. Perhaps it’s latent Peter Pan syndrome, but Ouyang’s style has resonated with the collective unconscious of the post-70s generation.
“The ‘85 New Wave artists are definitely stronger than our generation,” says Liu Wei, “but we think they were too steeped in idealism, politics, and symbolism, their works try too hard to prove a point.” In Liu’s view, you don’t need a reason to create art, its existence itself is important as long as it can move you. Born in 1972 in Beijing, Liu is an important member of the young artists of Chinese contemporary art, and many art-world insiders and collectors have their eye on his future development. Liu is renowned for his large-scale installations, which are equal parts striking and sarcastic. In addition to installation art, he is also well-versed in photography, video-art, drawing, and sculpture.
Like others of his generation, Liu is influenced by the rapid urbanization of China. His art explores such themes as friction between human nature and contemporary civilization, the transformation of the urban landscape. Liu is particularly concerned with the interaction of audiences with his art, making viewers re-evaluate their social environment. “To me, creating art is my way of understanding myself and the world around me,” Liu says, “even though in the end it’s a complete work, as long as I use the process for understanding then it has little to with theory.”
“The sense I get from today’s world is fragmentation,” says Qiu Xiaofei, “turn on a computer or smartphone and we can instantly enter a different scenario.” Qiu was born in 1977 in Harbin, graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts specializing in oil painting, and now resides in Beijing. A versatile artist, Qiu’s media spans oil painting, watercolour, sculpture, installations and more. Often, his work engages relationships between personal experience and history; between 2003 and 2006, Qiu based many of his paintings on photos from his childhood to create a dreamlike alternate universe for himself. From 2007, the start of a rational analysis of his inner self, to last year when the artist held a solo exhibition curiously named Apollo Bangs Dionysus, Qiu’s work has shifted its focus from memory to an exploration of consciousness in its various forms.
Auction-wise, at the time of writing, Christie’s Shanghai is setting an upper estimate of 1.8million RMB for the painting We Know Our Heavy Darkness, his market price undoubtedly buoyed by the success of Desolate Wood which sold in 2014 for 4.2million HKD.