Page last updated at 02:45 GMT, Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The changing face of China's art scene

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

The sign outside the 798 art district
A former factory is being developed in Beijing's contemporary art district

At Beijing's premier art district - known as 798 - workmen carrying tools are as busy as artists wielding brushes.

They are building shops, cafes and, of course, galleries at a former factory complex that has come to symbolise China's contemporary art scene.

Modern, Chinese art burst onto the international scene several years ago and its worldwide popularity is reflected in the bustle of 798.

But it is not just a story about art. It is also a story about how artists, gallery owners and auction houses are cashing in on the boom.

Profit motive

Sotheby's was the first auction house to hold a sale solely dedicated to contemporary Chinese art, in Hong Kong in 2004.

Sales figures over the last few years reveal just how hot the market has become.

Sotheby's sold just $2.9m (1.5) worth of modern, Chinese art through its Hong Kong office in 2004, but that figure rose to $69.9m last year.

And the profile of those buying the art has changed: in 2004 it was 80% foreigners, but now, as the Chinese economy booms, 80% are from China.

Evelyn Lin, head of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, said prices are still relatively affordable.

Buying contemporary Chinese art could be about pure appreciation, but it's also very much about making money
Brian Wallace, Red Gate Gallery

That has attracted investors; people who are more interested in making a quick profit than in buying a piece of artwork.

But Ms Lin said investing in art was a dangerous game to play, and has led many people to pay over the odds for mediocre work.

"We do not recommend people buy pictures for investment," she said. "It's not like purchasing stock where you can research a company's background."

Australian Brian Wallace, who set up the first contemporary art gallery in Beijing in 1991, agrees the profit motive is helping drive the market.

"(Buying contemporary Chinese art) could be about pure appreciation, but it's also very much about making money," said the man who runs Red Gate Gallery.

Mr Wallace, whose wares are displayed in one of Beijing's last remaining ancient watchtowers, also criticised some established Chinese artists.

"I think some of them should step back and think about what they are doing, rather than churning out things for the market," he said.

Record sale

But recent prices at auctions across the world show just how tempting it must be for these established artists to cash in on their fame.

Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang's painting Big Family No. 1
Contemporary Chinese art is getting increasing attention internationally

A painting entitled Execution by Yue Minjun was sold by Sotheby's at a London auction last year for nearly 3m ($5.9m).

The picture - which features four laughing men dressed in only underpants - was supposedly inspired by the Tiananmen killings in 1989.

At the time, it was the most expensive piece of contemporary Chinese art sold at a sale.

Other, less established figures have also associated themselves with this booming market.

New York City artist Eric Lee, whose parents were both born in China, decided to work in Beijing for part of the year to give his career a boost.

"It was a strategic move because right now the contemporary Chinese art scene is getting a lot of attention," the 37-year-old told the BBC.

"Some of my friends joked that I'd have more New York galleries knocking on my door in Beijing than in New York."

And that is just how it turned out. Mr Lee said he noticed interest in his work increase when he added his Beijing address to his business card.

Social changes

Despite the hype, China appears to have a number of highly talented artists at present.

Artist Chen Jie
Chen Jie is part of China's new generation of artists

Since the country embarked on an economic reform process in 1978, society has undergone fundamental changes that have reshaped society.

These changes provide plenty of inspiration for artists such as 27-year-old Chen Jie, one of a new generation hoping to make their mark.

Mr Chen sold his first painting to a South Korean collector three years ago and now makes a reasonable living from his art.

One of his pictures, entitled Fresh Goods, is in on sale for $6000.

As he showed off some of his latest work, Mr Chen said it was art, not money, that motivated him.

That might be so, but many in the business - like the gallery that markets his work - are also in it for the money.

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