Painting by Numbers

Searching for Authenticity in China's Art Factory

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Over the past thirty years, Chinese art’s journey from the mass-produced propaganda of the Mao era to the lucrative darling of the art market has mirrored the nation’s own momentous changes. After visiting the studios of China’s art-world elite, author and journalist, Claire van den Heever, paints a picture of contemporary Chinese art’s bumpy path to commercial and critical success.


The village waste ran through a shallow latrine. A man stared at it, unmoving. The same manure would fertilize his modest patch of farmland. The latrine’s contents were connected to the man’s subsistence; it was a fundamental cycle.

His small, patient eyes were sunken into cracked clay skin. Crisscrossing lines marked his cheeks, as though crows had scratched into the clay below his forehead’s deep furrows. And though the sun had beaten his smooth olive face into leather, it had overlooked the wide, fleshy nose that the man stared beyond, unobtrusively.

He wore a rudimentary turban to keep the worst of winter out. His hands were strong with long fingers, at the end of which were hard, misshapen nails: ridged and yellow with black dirt along the edges, like grubby sunflower seeds. Below a toothless mouth, he held a porcelain bowl of brackish water. I could see the dirt caked onto his turban, crumbling on the edges, and the skin on his lips — drier than his cracked face. As I stared, the man stared back from a painted canvas, through oil-painted eyes. The painting was more alive than any photograph — it was an enormous, confrontational rendition — and it hung in the National Art Museum of China.

The painting told the man’s story with each crease and callous painted onto his body. The artist had reproduced the man’s every feature with perfect photorealism. The crystalline drops of sweat rolling down his face seemed as real as the labor that had caused them. There was such a personal quality to the work that when I first read the title, “Father”, I took it literally.

The artist, Luo Zhongli, had not known the man well, but had been struck by his quiet acceptance of hardship. It was the eve of Chinese New Year, 1975, a year before China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ended.

Father by Luo Zhongli, 1948, oil on canvas, 227 x 154 cm.
“Father” by Luo Zhongli, 1948, oil on canvas, 227 x 154 cm

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It was in 1942 that Chairman Mao Zedong’s increasingly drastic views on culture were first expressed at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. At that time, his principal belief was that art should serve the people; artists should understand the people for whom they were creating, and produce art relevant to China’s masses. Idyllic landscapes, grandiose architecture or purely expressive artworks did not appeal to the average Chinese peasant, and art for art’s sake served no purpose whatsoever. Mao’s instructions were that the “rich deposits of literature and art that actually exist in life itself” be “the sole and inexhaustible source of processed forms of literature and art.” He believed that an artist’s goal should be to “awaken and arouse the popular masses, urging them to unity and struggle.” The key principles outlined at this series of lectures would influence artistic production for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution aimed to crush art, culture and anything considered bourgeois, art became an essential tool for spreading its message. By firmly defining the parameters in which art could be created, Mao transformed the artistic ideals first expressed at Yan’an in 1942 into reality. Art now served the people in exactly the manner that Mao desired: It spread his ideology while heightening him to the level of a god.

Art that did not further the revolution was forbidden. True-to-life (or rose-tinted) paintings depicting Mao, model workers, peasants, soldiers or other revolutionary subject matter (like hydroelectric dams or signs of industrialization) were prescribed. The Cultural Revolution Committee used Russian Socialist Realist art as a guideline, and so warm tones and smiling workers’ faces became commonplace.

Previously well-respected artists often had their masterpieces destroyed before their eyes, or their traditional artworks displayed in specially set up exhibitions as cautionary examples. Traditional ink and brush works were labeled “black painting” because they used black ink, which conflicted with the warmth and brightness emanated in Socialist Realist works. Before the Cultural Revolution began, an artist named Li Keran created an ink painting that depicted the army carrying their red flags along steep mountain paths, but because the seemingly patriotic work employed a traditional style, he was sent to the countryside for re-education in the years that followed.

Sometimes, when an artwork showed the potential to become a socialist symbol, painting rectification teams intervened and brightened up the colors, or gave the figures more intense facial expressions. The Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department often supervised the painting process to ensure that the work communicated an appropriate political message. It was essential to pay attention to minute details when painting Mao himself, because the slightest error could be misinterpreted as disrespect.

One artist notoriously painted only one of Mao’s ears, which was taken to mean that the leader was a selective listener. Instances like this often led to public beatings, prison or even death. For some young artists, the political climate was an opportunity to excel. Many worked solemnly in service of the revolution and painted images of Mao that were filled with emotion and reverence. The chairman often appeared in paintings with a burning red halo-like light behind his beaming face. In some paintings Mao is the sun: his head floats in the sky above blissful workers who bask in its warmth. The words “Maoism Will Always Shine” and “Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our Hearts” appeared along the bottom of posters. The more revolutionary fervor a painting showed, the more likely it was to be deemed a model artwork, included in artists’ source books or reproduced countless times in poster form.

As China’s economy developed, so did contemporary Chinese art. The country was becoming steadily wealthier and as people’s relationships with money changed, and the availability of consumer goods grew, artists found ways to criticize and comment on the changes around them. For the first time in the mid 1990s, as prices for contemporary Chinese art rose, there was a sense of irony in this criticism. Artists were criticizing society’s consumerism while their own works become luxury goods. Yu Youhan is often thought of as the first Chinese artist to start a discourse about money through his art. In 1988, he painted “Renminbi”, a version of the Chinese 100-yuan note tinted in vivid colors, giving Chairman Mao’s face a somewhat livelier appearance than the somber tones usually reserved for painting him.

The vitality of this brightly colored currency hinted at the excitement with which it would be spent in the New China — a consumer-driven China that would make the Chairman stir in his grave. The artwork preceded Li Xianting’s naming of the Political Pop movement, but contains all the same elements: political icons, bright colors and simplified forms. The art scholar Britta Erickson called Yu Youhan “a leading light of the Political Pop movement” and noted that, by the late 1980s, currency already had symbolic significance and, to Yu, was “deserving of sly undermining.” Yu’s artwork commented on the relationship between art and money. It seemed to ask: If his “Renminbi” note amounted to art, could art also amount to money?

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In October 2004, Sotheby’s — arguably the world’s most exclusive auction house — held a sale of contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong. It was a momentous day: sales amounted to an astonishing US$2.9 million. The following year, Sotheby’s opened a separate contemporary Chinese art department in its New York headquarters. Confidence in Chinese art’s market value was growing. Just a year after Sotheby’s inaugural sale in Hong Kong, the October 2005 auction sold just over US$9 million worth of art – more than triple the previous year.

Now things began moving at an incredible speed. Having opened a department for Chinese contemporary art just a year before, Sotheby’s presented its first Pan-Asian contemporary sale in March 2006 in New York, at which a painting from Zhang Xiaogang’s “Bloodline” series sold for almost US$1 million, to the audience’s applause. That spring day, Sotheby’s made auction history: US$13.2 million worth of contemporary Asian art was sold, almost all of it Chinese, establishing several records for Chinese artists. A week later, Sotheby’s spring auction of contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong rode the wave of confidence created by the outstanding New York sale, and US$17 million of art from China was sold – an 88% increase from the previous autumn’s sale.

'Comrade No. 120' from Zhang Xiaogang's series. A painting that sold for just shy of a million dollars at the March 2006 Sotheby's auction in New York.
“Comrade No. 120″ from Zhang Xiaogang’s series. A painting that sold for just shy of a million dollars at the March 2006 Sotheby’s auction in New York.

The records broken in 2006 sent out the unambiguous message that the market for Chinese contemporary art was booming, and entrepreneurs and opportunists rushed to secure their piece of the pie. After the mind-boggling leaps in price that Sotheby’s had realized in the last two years, the only figures that came close to echoing this new demand for Chinese art were the number of galleries springing up. In China’s savvier cities, Chinese contemporary art became the next big business. Talk of its explosive market potential reverberated through Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Shanghai. As people rushed to satisfy the growing demand, galleries were set up left, right and center – many of which more closely resembled art shops run by businesspeople, not art experts. In Beijing alone, the number of galleries that arrived on the scene in 2006 accounted for more than 30% of the total number in the country.

While China hype swept the rest of the world and the country’s economy raced ahead, art was among the economic sectors the government actively promoted. Ahead of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the country’s Tenth Five Year Plan stated the intention to promote and develop “industries related to culture”, as well as to do work to improve “the culture market.” Art historian and curator, Martina Koppel-Yang, wrote about the official support of art and culture as a means to convince the world of China’s sophistication and progressivism. Shanghai’s government had gone as far as encouraging its citizens to invest in art rather than real estate, which — along with the city’s local stock market – has been among the investments of choice in Shanghai since the 2000s. The growth of Chinese auction houses was one way that this focus on “the culture market” – which was by no means limited to contemporary art — became apparent.

It was also a case of another relatively undeveloped sector that — like art galleries — attracted entrepreneurs with more interest in profit than art. The auction house China Guardian — a joint venture between the Ministry of Internal Trade and the Bureau of Cultural Relics, launched in 1993 — also jumped on the Chinese contemporary art wagon.

Not everyone was rubbing their hands together as prices for art at auction hit all-time highs. Painter Liu Xiaodong was annoyed at how prices for his art had recently shot up. He blamed the soaring prices on a hyped-up market, which was causing people to buy art purely for the purposes of speculation. Liu had been a prominent artistic figure within China since the 1990s. He didn’t need the affirmation of a market that seemed to be indifferent to his art, treating it like a commodity, so he simply withdrew from the open market indefinitely. In October 2006, after half a year had passed since Sotheby’s New York auction, Liu held an unusual exhibition at Xin Beijing Art Gallery in which each of his paintings was painted directly onto the gallery walls.

The exhibition continued until late November, during which period several buyers made offers to purchase the actual gallery walls, but at the end of its six-week run, the artist painted the walls white again, as he had intended to do from the start. That same month, Poly Group — a newly-established auction house belonging to one of China’s largest state-owned companies and affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army — sold a painting that Liu had completed two years earlier, “Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population”, for over US$2.7 million. Chinese entrepreneur and art market newcomer, Zhang Lan, was the successful bidder. “This has come out of nowhere,” said Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s global head of Asian arts.

A huge amount of money was thrown around on Sotheby’s sales floors in 2006. In October, the auction house saw its annual autumn sale in Hong Kong break another handful of records — one for a painting by Yue Minjun that sold for US$4.08 million. Less than a week later, one of Yue’s paintings sold for US$6.6 million at a London sale, another record for contemporary Chinese art.

The results that contemporary Chinese art was achieving at auction were, for many, mind-boggling. In October 2007, Sotheby’s autumn sale in Hong Kong sold just over US$34 million worth of contemporary Chinese art. It was more than a fourteen-fold increase in sales compared to the auction house’s inaugural contemporary Chinese sale just three autumns before in 2004. What was causing the insatiable appetite for contemporary Chinese art? Some said it was purely hype. Others underlined the fact that by 2007, hype for all things Chinese had taken hold globally.

It was as collector Guan Yi had pointed out: The world’s media was crammed with China-related news. Tourism had hit an all-time high as people poured in to witness the sheer speed of the country’s development. The booming economy encouraged investment in several sectors, including art. In an analysis of the growth in China’s art market, Joe Martin Hill — a consultant to Sotheby’s — sheds some light on the otherwise confounding figures. He points out the parallels between the remarkable growth of China’s contemporary art market and the advances made in the Chinese stock market. During the eighteen-month period when prices for contemporary Chinese art at auction soared way above expectations (March 2006 to October 2007), China’s stock index also increased by 158%. “[It was] a remarkable advance for a stock index by any measure,” Hill writes. And while he makes a point of acknowledging that stocks and art cannot be treated identically as investments, the comparison proves useful in showing “it’s not just Chinese contemporary art that’s hot. It’s virtually everything Chinese . . .”

Commenting on the record-breaking October 2007 sales, one of Sotheby’s specialists in Chinese art, Jonathan Crockett, confirmed the close relationship between art and finance: “The art market is a market which follows the financial markets by at most a year or two. China is doing exceptionally well economically, so on the back of that we also see every auction in the past five years hitting a new record.”

With China garnering so much of the world’s attention, the global contemporary art market in such a strong position and a general climate of cheap money, the conditions for the expansion of the Chinese contemporary art market were ideal. Add to this the appeal of an emerging market that seemed bound to explode, a new host of Chinese buyers as well as a string of auction records that made quick profits seem foolproof and you had everything necessary to send Chinese contemporary art into orbit.

Bidding was the perfect way of instilling a sense of urgency in buyers: people would get carried away by the rising numbers and their competitive streak often drove them to climb further. Who needs to wait a few years to see a zero added to an artwork’s value when the whole process could be fast-tracked on the floor of an auction house? Whether you were an avid supporter of contemporary Chinese art, a collector, a dealer or an investor, there was nothing suspicious-looking about anyone buying a contemporary Chinese artwork at auction for large sums of money once high prices had become the norm. With the market booming, no one who had jumped on the bandwagon could be accused outright of foul play.

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Forbes ran a series of controversial articles in 2008 that revealed some of the most common Chinese art shenanigans. In one, the artist Liu Anping told of his unusual road to riches. It had all begun when China Guardian Auctions contacted him about being included in their 2006 autumn sale. In the past, the artist hadn’t experienced much commercial success, but at the Guardian sale a photograph of his performance art sold for US$9,000. Guardian’s next auction, in spring 2007, saw one of Liu’s paintings bring in US$50,000. Later that year, another painting from the same series sold for US$87,000. “It is quite strange in the domestic market,” said Liu. “I have never met the buyers. In Europe I am always introduced to the buyers by the galleries, in case I can sell more work.” But in China, he said, “It is not as transparent.”

After making my way through lists of art world people “in the know”, I only heard more vague references to “funny things that went on” and “dodgy deals”, and even more declarations of “We’ll never know . . .” And then I met with Zhou Tiehai, the artist who had delegated the painting of his “Joe Camel” artworks to assistants; someone who did not seem to care about getting on anyone’s wrong side. Over the years he had broadened his scope, becoming a wearer of many hats in China’s art world. He was instrumental in bringing one of Asia’s largest art fairs (ShContemporary) to China in 2007, and today he runs one of Shanghai’s first private contemporary art museums, Minsheng Art Museum, which is entirely funded by the China Minsheng Banking Corporation. As an artist, he has always been unconventional, speaking openly about his own systematic entrance into the market through a process of networking, public relations, appearances abroad and, of course, a unique approach to art-making — namely, avoiding it. He has seen how money-oriented the scene has become.

“It’s just like stocks,” he said, sounding disappointed. I asked how the market has impacted China’s artists; how easy it is to be distracted and influenced by the money. “Depends,” he replied, “every artist is different.” I had heard that before; it goes without saying. And just as I was losing heart — we had been talking for over an hour and still, no mysteries uncovered — he said, “I’ve been thinking about why it’s like this [why some artists are driven by money]. Because they are afraid — afraid!” Afraid of what? “Of people forgetting their names; they had to achieve high prices,” he said. “These prices were actually arranged by some people from the United States.” My eyes widened.

A selection from Zhou Tiehai's 'Camel' series, airbrush on canvas.
A selection from Zhou Tiehai’s “Camel” series, airbrush on canvas

It was 2003 or 2004 when a group of people made the first in a series of trips to China to start a collection of Chinese art that would earn them millions. They had been given a list of around twenty artists to approach, before making offers that few could refuse. Contracts were signed for a three-year period. Every year, the artists would produce between ten and twenty paintings, which the group would buy for a fixed price – considerable sums of money so early in the game.

“Who gave them the list?” I asked. “I can’t say,” Zhou replied, and continued, “so they bought a collection of paintings and started regularly auctioning them, until prices reached US$1 million.” He was referring to the sale of Zhang Xiaogang’s record-breaking “Bloodline” painting in 2006, which — at US$979,200 — was just shy of one million.

But why had bids for that particular painting climbed so high? Did it reach its price naturally — through regular auctioning — or was someone bidding on the investors’ behalf? Zhou wasn’t optimistic about the likelihood of the former option.

“Then, auction houses started to come to China,” he said. It wasn’t the first attempt to auction Chinese contemporary art in mainland China. “In 1996 or 1997, the current director of Beijing Pace Gallery, Len Ling, organized two auctions at Zhongshan Shengjia auction house.” The auctions weren’t successful.

“Then Zhang Xiaogang came close to reaching US$1 million at Sotheby’s, so Poly and Guardian — the two biggest auction houses in China — started to approach artists and say, ‘Can you sell us a painting?’” As Zhou Tiehai pointed out, it was the secondary market going directly to the primary market. “‘We can make your price go up,’ the auction houses said. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t lose value — this will put the price up. We’ll keep the price high,’ they told them.”

He shrugged. “So you see . . .” I saw very clearly. But there was more. “So they said ‘Okay we’ll put you on the [catalogue] cover, to make your prices go up.’ Zhang Xiaogang had gone to US$1 million, Yue Minjun went to US$2 million and Zeng Fanzhi went to US$3 million, and the prices went up . . .” No one had been so direct — so honest — and I told Zhou Tiehai so. He didn’t seem surprised.

I never did discover which artists were on the list, who had actually signed one of the contracts, or who had orchestrated the ploy. Although it is virtually impossible to prove whether the three artists Zhou mentioned had knowingly played the system or entered into auction house scams, they were three of the very first contemporary Chinese artists to enter the millionaire’s club.

A few months later, I met Fei Dawei, a respected critic and curator who was on the organizing committee for the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. Today he spends much of his time in Paris, where he curated the Chinese section of a seminal exhibition of international art at the Pompidou Center, “Magiciens de la Terre”, also in 1989.

“During this period of time, there was a lot of speculation using large sums of money from a hedge fund,” he began, referring to the period between 2005 and 2008. “This group of speculators spent several million US dollars on Chinese contemporary art and wanted to see a ten-fold — or even a fifty-fold — increase in value within three years. It may be that all the deals [during this time] were fake. And many American and British speculators were engaged in it.” As he confirmed Zhou Tiehai’s story, I began to wonder just how many people who I had already spoken to knew about the set up. The critic continued, “For example, a speculator selects thirty Chinese artists. He gives each artist US$1 million and takes all of their artworks. Then he sells the works at auction – but he buys them back later when the value has risen. Finally, when the value is very high, he sells them on.”

Fei Dawei had been solicited for his advice on which artworks were the safest investment. “Some British speculators wanted to spend £40 million on [entering] the Chinese market. I told them they should make the investment in India — it was a great place to speculate,” he said, laughing. “They offered me a lot of money. I said it was too late. You couldn’t get good [Chinese] artworks because the Americans had already done a lot.” It was necessary to have Chinese collaborators, he explained. When I asked which artists these speculators had chosen to work with, he was unwilling to name them.

The next day, I met with the artist Zhang Dali in his Beijing studio, who related a similar account. We were discussing different kinds of artistic success when he said, “There are many kinds of artists. Their success or their persistence in working with their own style is closely related to the times they live in, or their personalities. It is very complicated — artworks are also products. But the key point is how you create its value. In China, many paintings are sold at a very high price, but that’s not their real academic value. The operation works like this: Ten rich people, for example, tell an artist that they want to buy their works immediately, and the artist can’t sell them to anyone else. So only those ten people own the works, and then they sell them at auction. They paid US$3,000 for the works, but sell them at US$30,000. Then someone buys the works back again. The value has risen from US$3,000 to US$30,000. Then they do it again and again in this way — and the value continues to rise. They turn it into US$40,000, or US$50,000 — the same way real estate works.”

When other buyers notice the vast increases in the value of art that cost next to nothing a few years previously, they jump on the bandwagon. “The reason these people are buying artworks is not that they are precious or the artists are great. So, I think that most things sold at auction represent a bubble, just like a real estate bubble. It has become a good method of hoarding money. But eventually the bubble will burst, for sure. The market determines the value of some art, but other art has its market value determined by its artistic value,” he said.

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The extent to which China has changed — and could continue to change — is evident from the legendary “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition of 1989 and, in particular, the history of one particular painting series by Wang Guangyi that includes the provocative works of Mao with a black grid, or cage, superimposed over his face. Although the works had been approved ahead of the exhibition, when one of the paintings later appeared in Timemagazine, there were repercussions for Wang. Local officials, together with the directors of the Institute in Zhuhai where he had been working, promptly informed him that he had to leave his position, and preferably the region itself, to prevent any future problems.

'Mao Zedong: AO by Wang Guangyi, 1988, oil on canvas, 360 cm x 120 cm
“Mao Zedong: AO” by Wang Guangyi, 1988, oil on canvas, 360 cm x 120 cm

Ironically, fourteen years later, in 2003, having undergone renovations, the National Art Museum of China held a major exhibition in which Wang was invited to exhibit. He showed three paintings from his “Great Criticism” series, one of which was none other than “Great Criticism: Time”, featuring the magazine’s logo. Certainly, China had loosened up politically since 1989, but this change in attitude can also be attributed to the fact that by 2003, Wang’s art had been validated — both by Western acclaim and a foreign price tag. There are always exceptions, but in today’s China, fame and fortune go a long way toward earning respect, and can even influence or change official opinion.

'Great Criticism: Time' by Wang Guangyi, 2002, 120cm x 200cm
“Great Criticism: Time” by Wang Guangyi, 2002, 120cm x 200cm

But what does auction success really amount to for Chinese contemporary art? Is it significant that a large percentage of key artworks’ new owners are investors, rather than long-time patrons of Chinese art? This art’s value now exists within a new framework: it is a symbol of wealth. The proportion of past and present collectors that actually love it — and would display it in their homes — compared to the proportion that is chasing the fruits of the unique sociopolitical circumstances in which the art was created, is unknown.

Optimism about the future of China’s art scene cannot come from auction results alone. If art is to bloom, it must be cultivated, and then nurtured. The work that is currently being done on the ground to develop China’s cultural sector involves precious little of either. Government funds cannot compensate for fettered expression, nor can they inject vitality into an art scene that is infected with cynicism.

This article is a selected excerpt from Claire van den Heever’s book “Paint by Numbers: China’s Art Factory from Mao to Now”.