Andy Warhol once said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.
On April 3 2017, a painting of Chairman Mao from Andy Warhol’s series of Mao portraits got more than its fair share of fame when it auctioned off at US$12.7m.
The painting, which had garnered a large amount of attention, is titled as Mao and is one of the 28 oil-and-silkscreen inks on canvas painted by Warhol in 1973.
It measures at 50 by 42 inches and the picture is based on the most reproduced Mao Zedong portrait of all: the official photograph of the former Chinese leader’s head and bust with the iconic buttoned-up jacket.
The original portrait hangs from the gate to the Forbidden City at Tiananmen square in Beijing and is regularly changed for a fresh one due to the heavy pollution in China.
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Marcello Kwan, Senior Specialist Head of Sale in Asian Contemporary Art, from Christie’s shares his thoughts on Chinese art
On 30 May 2016, art auction house Christie’s will be conducting its Hong Kong Spring Auctions, 30 Years: The Sale, in Hong Kong. It marks the 30th year of Christie’s in Asia and is set to feature 30 lots across all categories. We catch up with Marcello Kwan, Senior Specialist Head of Sale in Asian Contemporary Art, who shares his thoughts on the burgeoning interest in Chinese paintings and artists to note.
Let’s start with the popularity of Chinese paintings, which have grown in the past decade or so. What are the main reasons for the increasing popularity?
The art market is constantly evolving, and we have seen a take-off of the Asian art category. Taste is a key influencing factor, with the gap between values for Chinese and Western art closing as collectors are increasingly starting to look for new and dynamic works that stir new excitement and expand their horizons. China as the major force in Asia has built up its own cultural power for thousands of years. Many revolutionary works in the 90s reflect the evolution of China, and these have attracted collectors to zoom in on China after the revolution period. The resurgence of Chinese ink works for example, can be attributed to the fact that ink painting is so distinctive of a particular cultural period, and such traits garner an international appeal amongst collectors.
Since China implemented the ‘open door’ policy in the 90s, their works have gained additional exposure. Reforms initiated in 2011 have also helped boost the national art market in China, cultivating genuine connoisseurs who are now able to acquire great works of their own past.
Why are collectors shifting their investments to works with greater longevity?
Not all collectors buy blue chip artworks only. Many collectors enjoy exploring new talents whose works are priced at more attractive and affordable prices. While the basic criteria of quality – rarity, freshness and provenance – still stands, collectors without fail respond well to material which comes fresh to the market.
What’s the level of interest for contemporary Chinese art today?
In general, there is strong and growing interest in Chinese and Asian art, as we see new buyers coming into the market every succeeding season. Another way to measure the level of interest is to look at the top ten artists by auction revenue. We continue to see modern Chinese artists enjoying a strong presence in the art market.
This year being Christie’s 30 years in Asia, you have artworks from artists all across Asia. What are the notable works to look out for at the special anniversary sale?
In the Asian Contemporary art section, we have iconic works Sex-Obsession C by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and Enigmatic Night (07-18) by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi.
As for Chinese art works, what are the highlights at the Christie’s Spring Auctions in Hong Kong?
For Asian Contemporary art section, we have a collection of early Chinese contemporary art with strong exhibition and literary support. The top work is an early oil painting called Meat No. 3: Nativity by Zeng Fanzhi, an icon in the art world. Other important works include Bathing Beauty III by Liu Wei and Arcadia by Wang Xingwei.
What percentages of the works are made up of classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy works?
Christie’s specialist department for Chinese art is defined by Classical, namely classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy by artists active before the late Qing Dynasty, which was before the 19th century, and Modern, with works that date from late 19th and 20th century onwards. The 2016 Spring auction only contains works on 20th-century contemporary art.
Is there a difference in the kind of Chinese art that appeals to collectors in the West and Asia?
This depends on the content but there is really no rule at all in reality. Pieces with a stronger relation to Chinese history or culture tend to be appreciated more by Chinese collectors, who identify with the expressiveness of the works. Some artworks in abstract or more contemporary style could be easier for international buyers to relate to and understand.
Can you name three notable Chinese artists and why collectors should look out for them?
This Spring Auction, collectors can look out for Wu Guanzhong whose art had great influence in Singapore. In 2008, Wu Guanzhong donated 113 oil and ink paintings to the Singapore Art Museum, his largest donation to any public museum. Today, the National Gallery Singapore has a gallery named after Wu Guanzhong in honour of his affinity with Singapore. Another artist to note is Xu Bei Hung, most notable for traditional style ink and wash paintings of horses and birds. Xu’s works give light to his years spent at the Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, amalgamating Western perspectives with the traditional Chinese ink and brush form.
Finally, we would like to highlight Cheong Soo Pieng, a prominent Singapore modern artist who pioneered Nanyang art and played a pivotal role in the history of Southeast Asian Art. Trained in the arts at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Art and subsequently relocating to Singapore in late 1946, Cheong taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts before becoming a full-time artist. Cheong is most noted for his Nanyang Style paintings, which drew inspiration from observations of material culture and people in the region.
Words Rossara Jamil
Photos Albert Tan
Who are some of the notable artists in Singapore?
There are so many that it’s almost impossible to name even a few. Whether or not they stay artists 10 years from now, it’s still a big question mark. Especially in Singapore, when trying to make a living by working as an artist is not easy. You can win a prize today, but it’s only the first step. It’s an everlasting marathon. You just have to keep on running and be noticeable among thousands and millions of other runners. As for the more established ones, we can name a few because they are making so much progress. There are Donna Ong and Jane Lee. Surprisingly, the female artists are the frontrunners, for a change, and I’m happy for Singapore.
Tell us about an art trend to watch.
If you watch the works at ArtStage, the main shift to me is that everyone is going back to basics. It goes back to visual, rather than performance art. It’s more about painting and sculptures. It’s less conceptual. It’s only normal because, at the end of the day, you want to see something with skill and the human touch. But when you look at winners of the Turner Prize, it’s typically awarded for works that are very unfamiliar to the layman and even the expert. At the end of the day, however, what critics like is very different from what collectors like.
The return to skill is also reflective of the general mood.
The way I see is that when you buy art, it is a bit more serious than buying home décor; you would like to get to know the person who created it. If you were told that the piece is produced in multiples, it would put you off. You would want to see that the artwork reflects the individuality of its creator. And that you can connect with it in individual ways. The big word is that the artwork speaks to you. You’d want to see skill, exclusivity, the human touch and the soul of the artist.
As for South East Asia, which countries are going strong or coming up?
Looking at the demographics of the Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia, by its sheer volume, is right at the top. It’s followed by the Philippines. Singapore and Malaysia are doing well. Then there’s Vietnam, and the most recent, Myanmar. Myanmar art is shaping the market. When it comes to buying and selling art, though, Indonesia still leads because of the diversity of the art.
What are your top tips for those looking to invest in art?
Look at quality. Find out about quality by looking at more things. It’s only through looking and talking to people that you could define quality. There’s also rarity. Size also matters. It’s always difficult to deal with big canvases. You cannot just blow things up and translate everything by size. Look also at the condition of the artworks too because artworks travel a lot. Last but not least, it’s the track record of the artist.
How do you determine the track record of the artist?
The more established the artist is, the more important the shows and events he would be participating in. Who collects his work also matters. Also, the art world is cruel. I always say this to artists, young or established: the storm will come so enjoy it while you can. What differentiates the good artists from so-so ones is the ability to reinvent themselves and get back on their feet.
At a Christie’s art auction held over the weekend in Hongkong, Cheong Soo Pieng’s Balinese Dance sold for US$1,000,753, a record price for the artist at an auction. The auction, titled Convergences: A Special Sale of Singapore Art was held on 29 November and marks the first time an international auction house has dedicated an individual sale to Singapore Art. The Singapore Art auction garnered US$4,769,295 in total sales, setting 10 new sales records in the process, with buyers coming from seven countries across the region.
“Christie’s auction dedicated to Singapore art was enthusiastically received by buyers selling 93 percent by lot and 97 percent by value. The strong results demonstrate the growing appetite for Singapore art with Pan-Asian collectors, both seasoned and new, competing passionately for the works presented,” said Wang Zineng, Head of Sale -Southeast Asian Art. “The sale established numerous artist’s records, bringing Singapore art to a new level within the Asian art market.”
Although numerous works by first generation Singapore artist were on auction, Balinese Dance was the only Singapore art piece that crossed the US$1 million mark. Chen Wen Hsi’s Sea Palace, sold for US$658,527 although the majority of the art on sale, including works by both Cheong and Chen, and other pioneer Singapore artists such as Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee, sold in the five-figures.
For the full results from Convergences: A Special Sale of Singapore Art, click HERE.