A 4,000-year-old city in central China, Chengdu traces a unique silhouette in the contemporary scene vis-à-vis the coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Since the 1990s, Chengdu was the training ground for the most prominent generation of Contemporary Chinese artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, He Duoling and Zhou Chunya. From its rich history, the city is poised to become a burgeoning contemporary art center in China. But is Chengdu ready to live up to this promise? What can Art Chengdu offer to a global art scene already occupied with a calendar of proliferating art fairs?
The second annual Art Chengdu ran from April 28 to May 2 — including the May 1 national holiday— this year taking place at the Century City New International Exhibition and Convention Center in the Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone, located in a popular upmarket area. In just its second year, the fair appears to have matured, well attended by gallerists, collectors, curators, and other art professionals. The gallery roster suggests a growing interest in Chengdu’s market, particularly from mid-range mainland galleries. While some upscale galleries opted out, such as Long March, an increased number from Beijing and Shanghai joined, as well as local galleries.
Beyond the fair itself is the question of what Chengdu, as a city, can offer the contemporary scene at large. Artists and scholars are beginning to ponder this very question; earlier this year, Zhang Xiaogang, He Duoling, Zhou Chunya, Wang Chuan, and Liu Hong were among the artists featured in an exhibition at Chengdu Museum titled Resonating with the Times: Sichuan Oil Painting Invitational Exhibition. An academic symposium attended by art historians, critics and artists followed shortly after the opening, and much of the discussion centered around the museum’s role in shaping the future of Chinese contemporary art.
There is great potential for this ancient city. Young artists are moving their studios to Chengdu, due in no small part to the sky-high rents elsewhere. Small independent exhibition spaces are opening and experimenting with new curatorial approaches as well as collaborating with different artists, groups, and organizations in Beijing and Shanghai. Furthermore, Chengdu’s historic landscape makes it an outstanding setting for contemporary art. In April this year, Dior opened a pop-up store in Dacisi, Taikoo Li, featuring a sculpture by Japanese contemporary artist Hajime Sorayama. The futuristic work appeared fantastically surreal against the backdrop of the traditional temple. Attracting the attention of residents and tourists alike, the sculpture went viral on social media.
Around the same time, the contemporary Tibetan art exhibition Discover Himalaya, organized by Tihho Art, opened in Chengdu International Financial Center. One of the largest contemporary Tibetan art exhibitions ever staged in China, the show featured works by well-known artists Gonkar Gyatso and Gade, among others. With this event, Chengdu had come slightly late to the party, as group shows of contemporary Tibetan art have already made their way to London, New York, and Beijing. However, this may be a case of better-late-than-never. From a more positive view, it suggests that Chengdu is catching up to the more established hotspots.
Will Chengdu put itself on the global map of contemporary art? The answer right now is a strong maybe. But perhaps it would do better to foster traditions and currents unique to the city rather than model itself so closely after Shanghai and Beijing. If Chengdu is to live up to its prestigious legacy in Chinese art history, it should draw deeply upon its rich local heritage of culture while also keeping abreast of global contemporary currents. It will be interesting in the next few years to see what new creative energy will bubble up to the surface.