Rise of the young Chinese brigade

HK EDITION | Updated: 2024-05-31 12:28
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While the sales of postwar and contemporary art seem to be faltering almost everywhere, a new generation of Chinese contemporary artists is attracting top bids at auctions. But then, could it be speculative buying? Joyce Yip investigates.

Bao Yifeng is among a growing number of collectors willing to take a risk on relatively unknown Chinese artists. [Photo provided to CHINA DAILY]

In 2018, Bao Yifeng purchased an acrylic painting by Sun Yitian. An emerging artist at the time, Sun has since made it to the big leagues through her collaboration with French fashion house Louis Vuitton, following in the footsteps of art-world superstars Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami.

The piece Bao purchased is not among Sun's most sought-after works, i.e., her photorealistic paintings of toys and mass-produced consumer goods. Titled Ass and Leather Pants, it's an abstract piece hinting at hunched black leather pants-clad figures. Currently the artwork sits, unframed, on the floor of Bao's living room in Shanghai, sharing the space with 100-plus works by big-ticket names of Chinese contemporary art like Xue Song, Zhang Ruyi and Zeng Fanzhi. In August 2020, Beijing's Yongle Auction sold Zeng's Mask Series 1996 No 6 for $23.3 million - the most expensive Asian contemporary artwork ever sold.

Bao is among a growing number of young Chinese art collectors willing to take a risk on relatively unknown artists. "I buy from artists' early exhibitions and wait to see if they will rise to fame. You can tell this by whether they switch galleries later. Artists do that only when their value is going up," says the co-founder of major art fairs held on the Chinese mainland such as the ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, Beijing's JINGART and DnA Shenzhen.

Bao bought Ass and Leather Pants, a painting by Sun Yitian, well before the artist became a sought-after name. [Photo provided to CHINA DAILY]

Happily for Bao and his ilk, this is a good time to back China's promising young artists. According to the last edition of the annual Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report, published in March, while the postwar and contemporary markets worldwide have been sliding since 2022, a young generation of Chinese artists has been gaining traction at auctions. For instance, Hao Liang's (born 1983) Theology and Evolution was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April for $3.1 million, one of the top three auction results achieved by living male artists under 40 last year. Combustion by Jia Aili (born 1979) sold for $4.8 million at Christie's New York this past November, setting a new personal record for the artist.

The relative scarcity of their works in the market has propelled the talented, up-and-coming Chinese artists - some of them available in the secondary market for the first time - toward auction stardom. However, though Chinese collectors are keen to pick up Chinese contemporary art - the largest group of collectors of the category being from the mainland - collecting new and emerging artists is yet to become a trend. Hence, auction houses and art galleries continue to tread with caution when it comes to backing talented newcomers.

Sun with some of her creations. [Photo provided to CHINA DAILY]
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