On the eve of Sotheby’s first major sale in Beijing, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore explores China’s cultural capital and finds a thriving, diverse art scene poised for future growth.

BEIJING - In 2001 when Philip Tinari, then a magazine editor and journalist, first arrived in China’s capital, his local hangout was 798, a former factory complex on the northeastern edge of the city that housed a nascent art scene. Tinari recalls showing visitors from a New York museum around the area. The Chinese artists he was with jokingly referred to him as a 798 tour guide – “as if it was hilariously ironic for what was essentially a squatter location.”

Times have changed. Tinari is now director of 798’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), one of the most prestigious art institutions in the capital. And 798 has transformed into a thriving artists’ district, brimming with studios, galleries, shops, restaurants – and tourists. “There is an endless procession of tour groups,” says Tinari incredulously. “The fact that there is a whole tourism infrastructure built around the art scene shows that to a lot of people it stands for something.”

Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 Art District. Photographs by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE.

That something is culture – and cash. China’s art market is booming, buoyed by the country’s new collectors who are eager to acquire everything from Chinese Imperial ceramics to contemporary paintings. Just 20 years ago the art market barely existed in China. Yet in the last two years auction sales reached $13.4 billion, compared to $19.4 billion in the United States during the same period. Chinese business at Sotheby’s has ballooned: in 2004 it accounted for under ten percent of the auction turnover in Asia rising to nearly 50 percent in 2011. In addition, individual Chinese artworks have been selling for higher prices than ever before. In October, renowned contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for US$23.1 million – a world record for a work by a living Chinese artist.

At the heart of the Chinese art market sits Beijing, the country’s cultural and political capital. For centuries creativity has emanated from the city with its legacy of the Imperial patronage and the Forbidden City. While Shanghai may thrive as China’s financial centre, the capital has always been a hub for the arts, from fine art and music to dance and film. Historically and still today, Beijing is where China’s best artists have come to learn, to work, and eventually to sell.

The 798 Art District, located in the Dashanzi area in northeast Beijing, is a former factory complex, which has been transformed into a hub of contemporary art with artists’ studios, art centres and galleries. Photographs by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE.

A plethora of artists’ districts have shot up in impromptu workspaces on the peripheries of the city. As well as 798, there is the less flashy Caochangdi, a dusty village nearby whose most famous resident is Ai Weiwei. These grassroots areas are bolstered by a growing number of private museums and the country’s most eminent art school, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). “The most important thing is that Beijing is an art centre,” says Leng Lin, president of 798’s Pace Gallery Beijing. “Pace also follows the artists. Most of the artists are here. They want to get involved in this development inside China. They feel like a new culture is emerging, so they want to get involved for the big future.” Driving all of this forward is a hungry contemporary art market. “Everything is new,” continues Lin. “New ideas, new artists, new ways of thinking and doing things. And new money.”

This December, Sotheby’s will hold its second auction in Beijing since it became the first foreign art company to start operating there last year. The star attraction in the sale of more than 140 modern and contemporary Chinese art pieces will be Abstraction, a 1958 painting by Zao Wou-Ki, with a pre-sale estimate of $5.7 to $7.3 million. A series of selling exhibitions and educational programmes will precede the auction. “There is a phenomenal rise in China in terms of the number of collectors and the number of participants in our auctions,” explains Kevin Ching, chief executive officer of Sotheby’s Asia. “So we decided that this is a market that we cannot simply ignore and this is the right time to go there.”

For Sotheby’s, choosing Beijing as the company’s base in the mainland was an easy decision to make. By doing so the company and their clients stand to benefit from its joint venture partner, the state-owned Beijing GeHua Art Company. Gehua provides local know-how, expertise and guanxi (connection), while the licences that Sotheby’s has received from the Chinese government allow it to sell anywhere in China, and enjoy tax-free status at the Beijing Tainzhu Free Trade Zone near the airport. “In the United Kingdom we go to London, in America we go to New York, and in China we go to Beijing,” says Ching emphatically.

Leng Lin, director of Pace Beijing, located in the 798 Art District. Photograph by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE.    

In addition to galleries, museums and auction houses, the capital plays host to many of the best living Chinese artists. Yang Danxia, a specialist in Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Palace Museum, likes to compare Beijing to Paris. She explains: “They both have old histories and both have attracted all kinds of different artists to come and realise their own value. It is a city that is big enough to accept every different kind of art, of opinion.”

With its vast collection of paintings and artefacts the Palace Museum, housed within the ancient walls of the Forbidden City, is one of the most important in China. “It is a big platform for everyone to study, to learn, to communicate in the art world,” says Yang. But dialogue is not limited to the top institutions. Beijing is a city where migrants from all across China congregate, leading to a melting pot of different local cultures.

It is also the capital of an up-and-coming superpower that is commanding the world’s attention. “If you take it as a given that China is rising or has risen, the next question is: What does that bring to the table globally?” asks Tinari. “I think that art is a legitimate first place to look. [Art provides] exchange and a vibrant manifestation of what the social situation means for people who are living it. Art is fortunate in that it can transcend translation.”

At UCCA Tinari has tried to address this question. This year’s seminal exhibition ON/OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice showcased a generation of artists who were born after the death of Mao in the late 1970s and who came of age in the era of opening up and reform. Their work “at once moves away from identifiable Chinese signs and [simultaneously shows] a deep concern with the condition of the nation,” says Tinari. A highlight is Xu Zhe whose frank, humorous video Wake Flow points to a bigger conversation about where art in China can go.

Yang Bin is one important collector who also uses art as a tool to understand the world. The first thing that greets visitors in Yang’s airy Beijing penthouse apartment is a life-sized sculpture of a grotesquely fat naked man lying on his belly, his legs stretched out and his hands clasped together as if in prayer. He is receiving cupping, a form of Chinese therapy that creates suction on the skin. But instead of the usual cups used in spas around the country, attached to the man’s back are champagne glasses. The piece, I know, but…. by Mu Boyan, is a startling meeting of tradition and new wealth.

Yang Bin – patron, gallerist and contemporary art collector – has bulit a collection of almost 1,000 works.

Yang, now in his fifties, was first inspired to collect art in the late 1990s when he bought a villa in Shanghai and asked a friend to fill it with oil paintings. Curious about the works on his wall, he started to look further into the art market and discovered a passion for contemporary pieces. “Contemporary is more close to modern life,” explains Yang. “I can understand the meaning and why they created this art.” Over the past decade he has collected nearly 1,000 contemporary Chinese artworks.

But Yang is not just a collector. He also owns his own gallery, AYE, in Beijing and champions local and upcoming artists such as Liu Wei. Art for Yang is not just to look at – it is a way of life. “Whatever you have, you are thinking about how to combine it with art. You see my decoration here in the house?” he asks, gesturing to the art on the walls. “It is not just a decoration. It is a style and a way of living.”

In a separate part of the city lives Cai Wei, a very different kind of collector. Born in Beijing, Cai is an expert on Chinese ceramics who cooperates with Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology. He has witnessed a dramatic change in the city. “In the old days if you wanted to find a book to study on art it was hard to find even one,” he says over tea. “But now you can find anything you want.” Still, challenges abound. Cai believes that while in the West the system of collecting and auctions is “clear and mature, in China it is still blurred.”

Yet there are compensations. Not least the bright future of Beijing as the heart of China’s art scene. “The thing that I really want to see happen is for Beijing to be an international art centre that speaks from a Chinese perspective, but that is also in conversation with the world beyond,” explains Tinari. That, it seems, is already happening.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a London and Beijing based journalist who reports on art and culture.

Sotheby’s programme of events in Beijing includes The Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art sale, as well as selling exhibitions entitled Modern Masters, Age of Elegance and Sotheby’s Diamonds.