China rising (Part 3)

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CLEARLY a movement is afoot. As Guo asserts, the pieces featured in the exhibition are neither decorative nor functional; they are meant to make a statement. There are shades of criticism and opinion that one does not usually associate with Chinese artists. 

Guo, having worked faithfully behind the scenes for the past 15 years, trying to bring recognition to some of the contemporary voices, is understandably ecstatic about all the sudden publicity and recognition these artists are receiving. 

“It took us 10 years to do the education, not only in the universities but also through twocities. But I think in another 10 years, maybe, the market will finally take off. That is my hope, that the Chinese market will finally rise for contemporary [applied] art,” she says.

Guo says she didn’t start the gallery to make money. “We started it to promote contemporary glass and ceramics art. So, my hope and purpose is that more and more people will understand and appreciate this form of art. If we can break even, if we can make money, that will be a plus. It would make for a long-term sustainable business model.”

And slow as it has been, she is starting to see some breakthroughs. The first was the Ahead of the Curve exhibition.

“From what Kate [Newnham] wrote me, there were curators from other top museums who came to see the show and they are interested in purchasing some pieces. That’s very encouraging for me to see that these first-class museums are interested in collecting these artists’ works.”

Newnham agrees. “When I am talking to museums around the world, a few of them have started to collect Chinese applied art, but not that many. While quite a few museums and collectors have bought fine art from China, not so many have bought applied art like ceramics or glass. They are just starting to now. I think this is the beginning of a wave and Chinese applied art is becoming much better known outside China.”

How much would you need to invest to get in? Newnham couldn’t say. “Usually in museums, we don’t discuss the monetary value of things. We discuss the cultural and aesthetic value. But I do think these works are good value for money at the moment. I think it might be for people who are interested in a new field, or a field where prices aren’t overinflated and they can get something very beautiful for a reasonable amount of money.”

Being a gallery owner rather than a museum curator, Guo is more forthcoming on the subject of dollars and cents. “In my gallery, we have two sections — one where we exhibit the professional artists’ works and another that we call the starter section for those who are not sure if they want to spend a lot of money to get into this market.”

A professional artist’s work can range from RMB50,000 (RM29,752) to RMB500,000, but you could get a starter piece for between RMB1,000 and RMB10,000. This includes small one-of-a-kind pieces or special limited edition pieces (where they make only 10 from one design). 

“So, we have different price ranges, different media and different artists represented in this area. When we have exhibitions in this gallery area, we also have these one-of-a-kind smaller pieces in the other area.

So, if you are not sure you can spend RMB100,000 to buy a piece, you can try a smaller one,” she says.

Guo recommends getting to know the artists before buying one of their pieces. “We help people visit artist studios and watch the artists at work. When they get to know the artists, the way they work, the way they think, they will be more appreciative of what they produce.”

If people want to buy a piece of studio ceramics or glass, do they have to go to Shanghai? “No, they don’t. They can visit our website. We have a gallery website with the different artists listed. For example, if you are interested in Kang Qing’s work, you can go to her page and see her different pieces. Then, you can contact us and we can give you a pretty thorough introduction of who she is, what people appreciate about her works, which museums have collected her pieces and the price range,” she says.

Where else can one learn more about the Chinese contemporary arts movement? Right now, resources are limited, admits Newnham. “twocities gallery made some catalogues. The professors at the universities have written a bit about the techniques in Chinese. 

“The research we did for our catalogue was based on the artists. We sent them a series of questions and twocities gallery arranged for them to respond. Our questions were very simple; we asked for a short biography and to tell us something about the works we were going to include in the exhibition. From that, we got information about what inspired the artist. But the only place that is currently published is the Ahead of the Curve catalogue,” she says.

Newnham adds that some of the artists have personal websites, but most of them are in Chinese. There are also some filmed interviews with the artists on YouTube. Again, these are in Chinese. 

“I was working with my colleague Alexandra [Nachescu] who has a degree in Chinese and has trawled everything on the web so that she can find out more about these artists. When we have additional questions for these artists, we email the twocities gallery and ask for further information about their various pieces of work.”

But there are other catalogues — the University of Wolverhampton’s Glass Routes catalogue, which is available as a PDF document online for glass, and a book about Chinese glassmakers called China Rises, written by Vanessa Lee Taub and published by Gallery V in Hong Kong.

“But there isn’t a lot of published literature thus far, so I think the best advice I can give for someone interested in collecting contemporary Chinese ceramics or glass is to get in touch with twocities gallery or The Pottery Workshop gallery,” she says.


This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 13 - 19, 2015.