Sunday, 4 May 2008

Made in China

Inspired by the V&A's China Design Now exhibition, I have written an article for Epigram on the current 'Made in China' arts frenzy. Here it is:

Chinese art has never been as exciting as it is in 2008. The emerging superpower has been as prominent in art sections in recent months as it has on the front pages. From Pei Zhu’s circuit board inspired Olympic building to underground music fanzines, every savvy critic has their eyes glued to the county’s arts scene, for something big is happening.

The last few years have seen the demand for work by contemporary Chinese artists grow monumentally. The Hong Kong branch of international auction house Sotheby’s sold a colossal $69.9m worth of modern Chinese art last year as opposed to just $2.9m in 2004. The demographic of buyers has also changed radically. In 2004, over 80% of consumers where foreign nationals, now nearly 80% are from inside China.

This extraordinary transformation is due largely to China’s economic fortunes. A recently formed urban middle class has provided a fertile market for modern art and design products. International buyers are also showing increasing interest. Many are making calculated investments now in the hope that they will be able to sell the work back to Chinese buyers later for a considerable profit.

The UK art world is exploring and celebrating this cultural explosion by hosting China Now, a festival of contemporary Chinese arts that will take place throughout 2008. At the forefront of the numerous events is the V&A Museum’s China Design Now exhibition that runs until mid July. The remarkable exhibition explores the effect that the recent economic boom has had on contemporary design, and offers a snapshot of over one hundred designers responsible for this creative frenzy.

The exhibition is arranged geographically, starting in China’s manufacturing capital Shenzhen, which is renowned for its thriving graphic design industry. It then travels to vibrant fashion city Shanghai and finishes with an architectural view of the country’s capital Beijing. China Design Now succinctly showcases the wide variety of creative industries flourishing in China, from Wang Xu’s beautifully intricate book design to the surreal and quirky fashion photography of Maleonn.

The most recognisable image from the exhibition is Ji Ji’s ‘Hi Panda’, a trio of chest-high vinyl pandas that are a far cry from the conventionally cuddly Chinese emblem. Their demented grins, sinister eyes and gunshot-wounded foreheads are simultaneously cute and intensely creepy. Artist Ji Ji has said that the three are portraits of ‘the generation of the people born in the 1980s’, a period that saw General Secretary Deng Ziaoping declare that 'to get rich is glorious'. It seems poignant that mini versions of these deranged creatures can be purchased from the V & A’s gift shop.

The China Now festivities are not just contained to the capital, but will be will be reaching Bristol in the Arnolfini’s ‘The Far West’ exhibition in July. Here too the emphasis is on cultural geography and the economic exchange between East and West. Consisting of five of the Arnolfini’s gallery spaces, the installation will look to mimic the model of a trading company, complete with factory area, in house supermarket and an online shopping service. The exhibition will be unlike anything the Arnolfini has ever hosted before.

The speed of the creative boom has caused some critics to worry about the impact that the influx of cash may be having on China’s fledgling art scene. The rush of wealth into Beijing’s famous art district 798 for example, has pushed many of the smaller artists out of the area and put small workshops out of business. Others worry that the market could potentially stifle creativity, as artists keen to make a name for themselves as well as a living, will begin to produce work that will sell rather than attempting to break new ground.

Although China’s artistic future is uncertain, its present is just phenomenal. Check it out for yourself at China Design Now, which runs until 13 July at the V&A Museum, South Kensington. ‘The Far West’ starts production at Bristol’s Arnolfini from 21 July - 31 August.

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