Professional Feel, but Mixed Market, at ShContemporary

The second edition of the ShContemporary art fair ran from September 10–13 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, and while some of the 150 dealers cleaned up, others had scanty sales and were left wondering, ‘Why were the aisles so quiet?’

The fair had a lot going for it this year. Shanghai was a natural stop on a kind of Grand Tour of biennials taking place in Asia this fall, including stops in Guangzhou, Gwangju, and Yokohama. And there was plenty else to see in the city, including the Shanghai Biennale, the Shanghai Art Fair (which has been around since 1997), and plenty of gallery exhibitions, from a meditative new video by Chinese artist Yang Fudong at ShanghART to a sprawling project involving mass-produced dog sculptures by another Chinese artist, Qiu Anxiong, at Contrasts Gallerys new warehouse space.

Given all the events, some big guns were on hand. Miami collectors Mera and Don Rubell, along with son Jason, were seen strolling the aisles. (The fair had cleverly flown in these recognizable collectors to participate in two panel discussions.) “My parents were here in 2001,” said Jason. “It was time to come back. This is an exploratory trip.”

The fair also initiated a new Outdoor Projects section, anchored by Zhan Wangs monumental stainless steel scholar's rocks, which provided a dramatic entrance courtyard, and most dealers and visitors agreed that the quality of the material in the fair, what with new exhibitors like PaceWildenstein, had gone up since last year. Jerome Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, said ShContemporary is “the most promising” fair in Asia. “The level is very high. China deserves a fair on this level.” Asia Society director Melissa Chiu, in town from New York for the Shanghai Biennale, echoed his sentiments. “It’s an improvement on last year and provides a great focus on the Asia Pacific region and Asian galleries.”

But there were also hurdles. A new fair, Showcase Singapore, launched in Singapore the day after ShContemporary’s first VIP preview and may have stolen some of its fire. And Shanghai’s hefty taxes make completing deals at the fair prohibitively expensive — there’s around 30 percent import tax and roughly 15 percent sales tax on top of that — leaving some dealers wistful for the new ART HK - Hong Kong International Art Fair, which launched last spring and doesn't suffer from high taxes.

An Improved Look, but an Uncertain Market
Despite the fact that by all accounts ShContemporary looked better than it did last year, one was left wondering, ‘What kind of material sells best here?’

One thing is for sure — contemporary Indian art is soaring. In the first few VIP hours, Bodhi Art, which has locations in Berlin, Mumbai, New York, and Singapore, nearly sold out its booth of works by painters Jagannath Panda, Jitish Kallat, and others, priced between $75,000 and $110,000. Half of the collectors were Chinese; the rest were Indians and Europeans.

Some galleries opted to spotlight iconic work from the West, only to get a lackluster reaction. Korean gallery Kukje displayed, front and center in the booth, a spot painting and a butterfly painting by Damien Hirst. “Last year there were some well known rich people looking for Hirsts,” said the gallery’s Yvonne Yu, who added that all the collectors they dealt with at last year’s fair were Chinese. “We didn't see those people this year. Lots of people ask for the prices, but no one is buying.” (The fair’s attendance was 25,000, about the same as last year.)

What they were buying, Yu said, were pieces priced at $30–50,000 or less. “We did sales but it wasn’t extraordinary,” she added. “It’s less crowded, it’s quiet.”

On the fair’s first day, the gallery sold a photograph from Korean-born artist Hye Rim Lee's “Crystal City” series to a Chinese collector. It depicts a group of transparent objects that on closer inspection turn out to be sex toys. Asked why it wasn’t censored, Yu shrugged. “Maybe they didn't look closely enough.”

Censors had looked closely enough at Chinese artist Huang Min's large painting at the booth of Berlin and Beijing–based dealer Michael Schultz — and forced the gallery to place a square of white paper over the portion of the canvas that contained the unmistakable visage of Mao Zedong. According to Schultz, the trouble with the image was the paint dribbling down Mao's face — a stylistic flourish that wasn’t seen as flattering to the former leader. Still, the painting had been put on reserve for €70,000 ($103,000) by a collector from England.

Other than the Mao cover-up, Schultz had nothing to complain about. He sold a new, life-size sculpture of a car in mixed media by Chinese-born artist Ma Jun for €80,000 to a German collector, as well as three smaller versions of the car, in porcelain, for €12,000 apiece. Ten artworks had sold off his stand in the fair’s preview days alone, to collectors from around the world. “This fair is the highest quality,” said Schultz, whose business strategy includes banking on fairs in developing markets like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Dubai.

Much of a Western dealer’s investment in any new market comes down to education. Ask James Cohan, whose New York gallery recently opened a branch in Shanghai. At his booth, a representative of China CITIC Bank was seen inquiring about holding an event in the Shanghai gallery so that he could introduce some of his high-end clients to contemporary art. China, clearly, is a long-term investment.

Also making an investment — or perhaps better called a first foray — at the fair was esteemed Milan gallerist Massimo De Carlo, whose booth was stocked with flashily colored works by current Western market darlings Rudolf Stingel, John Armleder, and Piotr Uklanski. De Carlo explained that he had also brought these artists because their brightly colored works have “an aesthetic that matches what collectors here like.”

Taking a Stand
That guessing game — What appeals to the local sensibility? — is one thatdealers from the West are known to play at fairs in developing markets, from Dubai to Moscow. Then there are the brave dealers who take a stand — sometimes a very large stand — and eschew that game entirely in favor of sticking to their programs.  

Such was the case here with Paris, Cologne, and St. Moritz, Switzerland–based gallery Karsten Greve. Its vast booth was immaculately designed, with something of an icy, museum feel about it — there were even a couple security guards — and was packed with millions of dollars of difficult, and in many cases, stunning, works by the likes of Piero Manzoni, Louise Bourgeois, and Lucio Fontana. Sales, according to a representative of the gallery, had been scant, but, she said resolutely, “We are making a statement.”

“These artists are not well known here,” she continued. “You can’t see them in museums. But it’s important to keep with your program. We did meet Chinese collectors, but it’s difficult.”

She might have been interested to know that at least one Chinese collector, the automotive dealer Yang Bin, is embracing art of the West. He had just bought a sculpture by German artist Stefan Balkenhol at the booth of Helsinki, Finland’s Forsblom Gallery, for around €65,000. He said that he has long been collecting Chinese art but has recently begun branching out.

“This is the best fair in the mainland,” said Yang, who could be found relaxing at the booth of his wife’s gallery, the three year old Aye, of Beijing, which was showing, among other things, work by young artist Gao Lei, who makes photographs and photo-based sculptures. “Last year was a good start but few people came to buy. Now lots of Chinese are buying.” Aye gallery sold nine pieces in three hours during the previous day’s preview, and Yang expected to see more collectors from Taiwan and Indonesia make appearances in the coming days. Yang also spoke approvingly of Damien Hirst’s recent primary-market sale at Sotheby’s; Hirst’s move resonates differently in China, where auction houses are far more prevalent and sales take place more frequently, than it does in Europe or the U.S.

“This fair captures the artistic energy of Asia,” said Peter Boris of PaceWildenstein, which shared a booth with Beijing Commune, the gallery run by Pace Beijings director, Leng Lin. Pace sold pieces by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang and American Tara Donovan. Mostly, said Leng, they had been selling to clients from the West.

Another newcomer, Lehmann Maupin gallery of New York sold a chandelier piece by Korean artist Lee Bul to a mainland Chinese collector and several Jennifer Steinkamp video installations to collectors from Beijing, Germany, and Korea. Fairs like Shcontemporary can be as much about making connections for business down the road as they are about making sales. Lehmann Maupin sales director Courtney Plummer said an Asian designer expressed interest in working with the American Steinkamp on projects. And the gallery had become friendly with representatives of Beijing gallery Long March Space, whose booth was across the aisle, and might collaborate with them eventually. “There’s been more exchange of information than at your average art fair,” said Plummer.

The Bottom Line
But fairs aren’t just about making connections; they are, to put it crudely, also about making money. A window into China’s new money, and the attitudes that have developed around it, could be found at the booth of a wealth/lifestyle magazine called the Hurun Report, which puts out a publication akin to Forbes magazine’s rich list for China, and which just released its first art issue. “No one knows China’s rich better” boasted signs in the booth, which was throbbing with activity on the fair’s VIP preview night.

China’s richest are, of course, the individuals ShContemporary’s dealers would like to attract. But has the art market already developed too fast? Across the hall from the Hurun Reports booth was German dealer Alexander Ochs, who has had a long-standing involvement with Chinese art. “Europe had 80 years to grow a market,” he said. “In China they have had four to five years.” He added that if the market is now cooling down a bit, that could spell a healthy correction. “People are learning to separate the important from the unimportant artists.”

At last year’s fair, Ochs sold out his booth in short order. By the end of the preview this year, he had so far parted with only several pieces, among them a sculpture made from neckties by Chinese Yin Xiuzhen, which went to a Chinese collector for €20,000, and two sculptures from an edition of 20 by Yang Shaobin for €12,000 each. (One went to a European collector, one to a Chinese.)

Vienna gallery Volker Diehl, which in April opened a new space in Moscow, sold Ling Jians painting Beijing Girl Mei Mei (2008) for $200,000. Hanging prominently in the gallery’s booth, the large work depicts an Asian girl’s face with smeared lipstick. “This fair was highly attended by Asian collectors and buyers,” said the gallery's international director Monica F. Eulitz. “The appeal and attraction is Asian art rather than Western.”

Much Asian art is getting expensive. At least one artist’s work, appearing in several booths at the fair, served to illustrate the rapid rise of Chinese art's prices. Feng Zhengjie makes large paintings in fluorescent colors, generally depicting the faces of dazed-looking women. At Art Basel Miami Beach last December, a painting of his sold for $180,000, but his prices rose drastically in the past year, particularly on the auction market. At ShContemporary, Beijing’s Xin Dong Cheng Gallery had a 2008 painting called Chinese Portrait for €390,000; Milan gallery Marella had a smaller 2008 painting for €260,000; and Beijing's Tang Contemporary had a large 2007 painting for €350,000. At the time of this writing, none of them had sold, though the galleries said they had many inquiries. “His works are very popular with Chinese collectors, and last year you could have sold three or four of them,” said Xin Dong Cheng director Daphne Mallet, “but not this year.” She blamed the artist’s high prices and the gloomy economic climate.

If established artists are getting pricey, the fair’s Best of Discovery section, which was comprised of works chosen by a set of curators and installed in a vast, open hall, proved true to its name as a place to spot new — and more affordable — talent. One highlight was a single-channel video by Taiwanese-born, Berlin-based artist Effie Wu, picked by Taipei-based independent curator Sean Wu and represented by Connoisseur Art Gallery of Hong Kong, which sold relatively quickly. The piece picked up on an expression that well-known Chinese painter Yue Minjun has made the central motif of his work: the smile. Wu’s video, entitled Super Smile and one of an edition of 6, depicts the artist walking around her apartment, engaged in quotidian activities such as brushing her teeth, all the while staring at the camera wearing a frozen, manic-looking grin.

New York dealer Max Protetch has been working with Chinese artists since the mid-1990s. “Now I’m discovering a new generation,” he said. “Chinese art is like an onion you never get done peeling.” He praised the fair for being “more professional” this year. Last year, he reported, he had run-ins with runners, people who claim to be buying artworks for themselves but actually plan to swiftly resell them. “This year,” he said, “no runners. And serious interest from China and elsewhere.” He made a number of sales — in one day parting with an artwork for $20,000 and another for $95,000. “We brought mix of Chinese and Western art. That was a good choice, as it turns out.”

Protetch, who has degrees in economics and political science, reflected on the importance of this market. “One thing that is saving us is the East, not the U.S. economy.”

Although the results from this fair were uneven, that statement may well turn out to be true. Art fairs are popping up around Asia, and in the coming years dealers will be making choices about which ones are most successful. Director Lorenzo Rudolf remains upbeat about Shcontemporary's potential. “You have to make people curious about Asia,” he said. “It goes step by step. Rome wasn't built in a day.”

Sarah Douglas is Staff Writer at Art+Auction. She blogs at "The Appraisal."