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Documentary tracks rise of Chinese art

The documentary China, the Empire of Art? tracks the development of art in China since the dark days of Mao.

The need to build a scene that is both creatively and economically independent of the western world is the biggest concern among Chinese contemporary artists, a new film argues. 

China, the Empire of Art?, directed by Sheng Zhimin and Emma Tassy, was screened in the documentary competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this week. The Chinese-French production tells the story of "a community of artists with long hair and utopian ideals" who transformed an underground movement into the world's third largest art market in 20 years.

By interviewing some of China's best-known artists, including Yue Minjun, Xu Bing, Fang Lijun, and Qiu Zhijie, the filmmakers explore the witty and often disturbing images of the "cynical realism" movement and the ironic pastiches of western consumerism, known as "political pop".

From Xu's giant Phoenix, welded together from reclaimed metal, to Yue's paintings of bright, pink-skinned clones frozen in laughter, the works shown in the film are as varied and beguiling as any likely to be produced by artists anywhere. But in China - where fine art was condemned as "bourgeois" during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s - contemporary artists have made a journey that is unique.

After the death of Mao Tse-tung, elements within the ruling Communist Party who opposed the subjugation of culture gained prominence and artists were given greater freedom to create and display their work, and the seeds of today's contemporary art scene were sown. But an event in 1989 caused new problems.

"Tiananmen Square was a big symbolic rupture. It was the beginning for these artists because they were very young, at the beginning of their careers and just starting to be involved politically," says Olivier Mille, the film's producer.

The filmmakers' decision to include footage of the anti-government protests and ensuing massacre has made it impossible to screen the documentary in China. But Mille says censorship is no longer a major focus for Chinese artists or filmmakers.

Over the past two decades, wealthy western dealers and exhibitors tended to be the only patrons available to Chinese artists. While this helped many to continue to work, it also raised fears of a new Orientalism in the art world.

"In the film, the artists ask if they exist only as something exotic for the western market, or if they are something else - a new, authentic Chinese contemporary art," says Mille.

In 2006, Sotheby's in New York raised a staggering $13 million (Dh48m) with its first sale of contemporary Asian art, creating a huge spike in the prices of many Chinese artists' works. The next year, China was in third place in the international art market, behind the US and UK (dislodging France), with 36 out the world's top 100 artists by sales revenue coming from China, according to the Artprice Index.

But despite their newfound wealth and fame, many Chinese artists were still introspective. Mille comments: "It is now 20 years since the birth of the underground and now they are selling one piece for millions of dollars, but there's the question of whether they are imitating western art or creating their own thing."

The tidal wave of interest in contemporary Chinese art that sent values skyrocketing created more than just a crisis of confidence. When it became clear that a price bubble had been created, values fell sharply and many asked whether the Chinese art market was sustainable. However Mille believes the cooling-off will help Chinese artists in the long run.

"There is a question mark in the film's title because it is a fragile empire, related to the western market that caused the economic bang. Now, there has been a crisis and the value of their works has gone down. Over time you will see who are the true artists and who were just buoyed by the market."


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