Art and Freedom

Writer and curator Pi Li discusses art fairs, megagalleries and why Chinese art can’t flourish without freedom of expression, from the November 2014 Power 100 issue

By Aimee Lin

Pi Li is the Sigg senior curator at M+ Hong Kong. Previously he lectured at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing as well as cofounding the Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing. He was on the curatorial team of Mediacity Seoul 2006 at SeMA, the Seoul Museum of Art, and has curated a number of museum shows, the latest of which is Right Is Wrong: Four Decades of Chinese Art in M+ Sigg Collection (2014), at Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden.


How is the art ecosystem in China constructed?

Pi Li

Chinese contemporary art has always been under ideological pressure. There is no complete local ecosystem here. When Chinese contemporary art was first accepted during the 1980s and started being circulated globally in the 1990s, its success was determined by Western academic evaluation and its validity established by exhibitions in galleries and institutions – that is what we now call ‘the postcolonism situation’. On the commercial side, when the market was first built up, it was not for the purpose of dealing but to liberate art from ideological pressure. Since 2000, the country’s participation in the World Trade Organisation and its hosting of the Olympics have generated a new wealthy class, which needs to differentiate itself from the high officers in the government and the real-estate tycoons. One way is through buying contemporary art. 

This need, together with the other developments in the market since the 1990s, has contributed to the boom since 2005. In this process, the community of taste built up by critics during the 1980s was absorbed and dispelled during the 90s. However, after 2000, the booming market didn’t spur academic development and it was still consuming the art that had been produced by the academic mechanism in the 80s and 90s. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the market is getting bigger, but because of ideological pressure, artists’ interpretation of art is shrinking and weakening. Meanwhile, because of issues with Taiwan, Tibet and Ai Weiwei, the Western leftist intellectuals have lost faith not only in the Chinese government but also in Chinese artists and their art. So overseas research and exhibitions are decreasing, too. Personally I feel quite pessimistic now.

AR It has been two years since Art Hong Kong was ‘Basel-ised’. What does it mean to the Chinese art market?

In a country that lacks freedom of speech and infrastructures such as museums and institutions, local collectors might need to take more responsibility

PL Let’s first talk about fairs in general. During the 1990s, when the artworld was globalised on the back of post-oil-crisis money, frequent international travel and Internet technology, art fairs started to change the art ecosystem dramatically – primarily because one starts to be able to buy art from places other than where one lives. We can view Chinese art’s postcolonism situation during the 1990s as part of this bigger context of the artworld’s globalisation. Since then the territory of art has been continuously expanding: first Russia, then China, Asia Pacific, Southeast Asia, India and Latin America; and more recently Africa, the Middle East and Israel. This is the good part of art fairs. The bad part is that it shocked the galleries. To participate in an art fair, a good gallery needs to expend money, stock and manpower. Besides selling art, galleries used to support local artists by making exhibitions in their local communities, and encouraging research. Now galleries are busy dealing with the fairs – where they indeed profit – and can’t support local art so much by their regular programme. And a local collector might not get the work he wants in the local gallery, but will have to travel to the fair to buy it – because it is reserved for the fair. No wonder some gallerists are talking about nonfair models now. I used to support local collectors buying international art, but now I have changed my mind. In a country that lacks freedom of speech and infrastructures such as museums and institutions, local collectors might need to take more responsibility.

Concerning Art Basel Hong Kong, it indeed changed the map of the Chinese art market. Since 2011 and 2012, the trading centre has been moving to Hong Kong because of the exchange rate and tariff issues in China. At the same time, artists and especially collectors and especially more and more events are moving to Shanghai, and Beijing is on the wane. International art fairs have changed the ecosystem here. Local galleries keep the best works for Hong Kong, which forces the collectors to travel to the fair. Therefore, an art fair is not only a commercial organisation, but also a power system, which selects the local galleries. In order to be selected, the galleries need to provide the best programmes and certify their influence over the collectors – by contributing their local collector resources to the art fair. Fairs also crush each other. For example, Art Basel Hong Kong is moving to March next year, so in China the fairs in April and May will all be problematic. I am not a nationalist, but I think it is necessary to have a nationalist view on this.

AR Let’s go back to the ‘changing situation’. Who is getting more power or getting stronger in the current chapter? And who is crushed or weakened?

PL Those international galleries with branches or representatives in China are becoming more and more successful. They are like the bulldozers, taking away everything created by the local galleries. Therefore the local galleries have no choice but to pursue quick success and instant benefits, to survive the art-fair mechanism. And the big galleries also create a monotonous taste.

AR Can artists deal with this situation?

PL I have met a lot of interesting artists, for example, in those new small galleries in Shanghai and Beijing. I don’t know very much now, but from what I have seen, there is potential and possibility. I think Shanghai is now seemingly more energetic than Beijing, because the big international galleries haven’t touched it yet. But I can’t really answer this question at the moment. Let’s wait and see. The evaluation system in China is still quite monotonous. There should be the museum and biennial system, the critics and the market, but in China, the only centre is the market. I am not sure if the value system will be diversified or not. But I know that if it shakes, artists will surely be awakened.

AR The last 20 or 30 years in China have created a group of what we call ‘established artists’. Some people think that they have too great a position and that younger artists have to face this internal situation as well as a changed, external environment. Where is the space for these young artists?

PL From my point of view, they are just less lucky. The older generation got lots of opportunities via the postcolonism discourse. But since 2008, as Western leftists have lost their favourable impression of Chinese contemporary art, the concept of ‘Chinese contemporary art’ itself has also disappeared. The younger artists must separate their own work from the idea of ‘Chinese contemporary art’. They must be artists first, individuals. Then a more equal relationship will begin.

AR What’s the challenge, then, for those artists who were successful during those first 20 years?

PL It is determined by the next economic trend. If the Chinese economy becomes more conservative and domestically oriented, they will have a better chance. Because a conservative society always needs cultural difference, or uniqueness. If the economy is getting more export-oriented and more liberal, they might face some problems. But it is very dangerous to talk about ‘those artists’. I have been looking at them for years – most of them are painters who have used the same language and style for 10 or 20 years, and it will be too difficult for them to change rapidly. We need to observe them over a long timescale, and to evaluate them case-by-case. It is easy to think that those artists are not so creative now, but who knows what they will be when they are in their sixties or seventies? Let’s wait and see.

AR What is art’s role in Chinese society? Is it related to everyday life?

PL Let’s look at it from a different angle: how is art accepted in everyday life? I think in China, art is seen as a kind of fashion, a kind of success story. I think it is not so different in Western society.

AR Is art an alternative way to create a social elite?

China is a country in which expression is severely limited. Even the most successful artists can only speak a special code in a relatively secret world. In this way, art does create a new elite, but it is a silent elite

PL Yes and no. It does create many stars, but in the end China is a country in which expression is severely limited. Even the most successful artists can only speak a special code in a relatively secret world. In this way, art does create a new elite, but it is a silent elite. I am not saying everyone should act like Li Xianting or Ai Weiwei, but any elite that wishes to have a social impact must have personal points of view on public affairs and a public platform to express them. At this moment I can see art that is abstract or aesthetic, but I am waiting to see art that is capable of intervening in social events.

AR In the global art pattern, is Chinese art a better participant today than it was before?

PL I think that is what I am working on at M+. From the 1980s to the 2010s, whenever we explained Chinese contemporary art, we always located it somewhere outside the mainstream artworld – Chinese art was first socialist, then orientalist… We were always emphasising its differences, because only by doing so could it have its own selling point. But that also caused new culture barriers. Chinese art has entered the circulation of international art since the 1990s – I think it is just as important to establish an international understanding of it. So where we used to talk about difference, now we talk about understanding. Only when the new understanding is established can younger artists finally step onto a bigger, brighter stage.

AR Have Chinese artists contributed something valuable (not just valued by price) to the world?

PL Sure, like the works of Huang Yong Ping, Gu Dexin and Chen Zhen, which expanded Chinese art from symbolic figurative expressions to a more conceptual level. Their works are not only rooted in local cultural tradition, but are located and developed in global art families as well. Therefore, their value will be more recognised over time. And Ai Weiwei, although today he has become something of a structural and stressful power, back in 2007–8 he brought art to society’s attention. His being overinterpreted is another issue, not the one we are focusing on. And the local interests and development in ink art, cinema and photography are also part of China’s cultural contribution to the world.

AR If there is a ghost haunting the artworld in China, what is it?

PL The lack of freedom of speech. It is crushing the core value of art. I hope it is just temporary.

AR In general, is art playing a positive role in Chinese society?

PL I think so. The fact that we are talking about these matters now is of great significance. You can still see a number of interesting developments in China in recent years, for example the development of small and new galleries and of fairs in Shanghai, of artists’ self-organising in Beijing, and young artists and curators who studied aboard coming back home. In this sense, Chinese art is in its time of globalisation. It is not the best of times, it is not the worst of times. 

This article was first published in the November 2014 Power 100 issue.