Published in The Art Newspaper China, November 2014
The art market shows little sign of slowing down, particularly as oligarchs at auction continue to rack up records for high-end art works by American abstract painters and international contemporary stars. Earlier auctions this year resulted in record prices for American artist, Barnett Newman’s ‘Black Fire I’ (1961) at USD$75m; Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards’ (1984), $72m; Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled’ (1952) at $59m; and a Cy Twombly chalkboard painting, ‘Untitled’ (1970) at $69.6m.
But there are hundreds of different types of collecting groups, and the high-end blue chip consumers, although the most visible and media-friendly with their soaring record prices, are by no means representative of the entire art market, nor of all the trends. The art market is still fragmented with tastes differing across various regional art markets. But, having said that, there are a few art trends that have filtered across borders, making their appearance from Hong Kong to London.
Perhaps the biggest trend changing the way we buy, not just art, but across the board, is the internet. As the global art audience gets bigger so too does the art market, and online art platforms are helping drive this providing instant access to artworks, imagery, catalogues, and information, to greater numbers of people internationally. Christie’s CEO Stephen Murphy has in the past referred to the online market as the biggest opportunity in the art world. Collectors now enjoy the conveniences of technology, with many making purchases from digital images viewed online via auction houses or platforms like Artsy and Paddle 8.
Alex Errera, the Hong Kong-based founder of online art platform, Artshare, and young collector’s group, The New Circle, says that “the trend for online buying is only beginning. These platforms provide immediate access, information, images and quality all at once, and it happens quickly. It’s an immediate approach to collecting, whereas before you had to wait for exhibitions.”
Collecting photography is also on the rise. Anticipating this, last year Christie’s France added a Contemporary Photographs auction to its calendar. This new sale achieved the highest price of the year in the category: €481,000 for 27 gelatin silver prints by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Photo Shanghai, a new fair specialising in vintage and contemporary photography with over 50 galleries represented, also took place this September, with an attendance of over 25,000 people, signalling that the Chinese market may also be ready for photography. Although it is still in the nascent stages, photography is accessible and in general a lower price point than painting or sculpture, thus easier to collect.
And call it the Marina Abramovic effect, but there does seem to be a lot more performance art at various international art fairs and galleries. Traditionally considered uncollectable, performance art does bring some practical challenges, due to its ephemeral and temporal nature. Often the artist gives the collector instructions on reenacting the work. Hong Kong collector, Alan Lau, recently donated Tino Sehgal’s ‘The Kiss’ to M+, after receiving only verbal instruction on how to execute the work by the artist. Founder of Spring Workshop in Hong Kong, Mimi Brown, argues that in some ways performance art works “are somewhat easier to collect as they don’t need to be stored.”
This year Frieze Art Fair created a new section for performance based work at the fair, “Frieze Live,” where six galleries were invited to produce artworks inserted into the fair. Art Basel this year also kicked off “14 Rooms”, an installation of 14 rooms of performance art by 14 different artists, including the high priestess of performance art herself, Abramovic. But performance art is also popping up with greater frequency in Asia too. Last year Hong Kong White Cube gallery saw Chicago-based social practice artist, Theaster Gates, who has turned urban renewal into an art form, performing gospel at the gallery; and South African-born Berlin-based artist, Robin Rhode, recently created a live and interactive performance-based work in Lehmann Maupin gallery Hong Kong. At Hong Kong’s Art Basel earlier this May, art patron Yana Peel commissioned a dance performance piece by Ryan McNamara; Berlin based multi-media artist Carsten Nicolai lit up a Hong Kong skyscraper in an interactive sound and light performance; and Singaporean performance artist, Ming Wong, whose work often draws on Chinese opera and film, performed at the Art Basel party, and will perform in Hong Kong next autumn for Spring Workshop, where the artist is currently in residence. Perhaps this renewed interest in performance art signals some sort of a shift away, for some collectors anyway, from a commerce and commodification driven art market.
There will always be others however, for whom it’s all about the hotter than hot younger generation of artists. In China there is certainly a new generation of artists making waves in the market, with the recent Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong affirming this. Jonathan Crockett, Senior Specialist of Contemporary Asian Art at Sotheby’s London explains that, “collectors are no longer just looking for works by the famous names from the 1990s. Rather, we are finding that our clients are prepared to pay increasingly higher amounts for works by newer, less established names such as Wang Guangle, Jia Aili and Liu Wei.”
Beijing based collector and entrepreneur, Sara Jane Ho, has included the works of younger abstract artists like Wang Yi in her growing collection, and cites Xie Molin and Wang Guangle as part of a new garde of Chinese abstract artists generating greater interest amongst Chinese audiences. “People are becoming more interested in how a work is made than what it ends up looking like. The artist thinks, “how am I going to produce this painting?” rather than “how am I going to fill the canvas?”
Crockett suggests that this appears to be a global trend. Abstract works, canvases teeming with daubs, smudges, dots, stripes and monochromes, with a nod towards the 1960s and ’70s colour field and abstract painters, have made their ubiquitous presence felt at art fairs, galleries and auction houses, world-wide.
Christie’s New York Senior Vice President and specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art, Barrett White, says that “Because of the very deep market for very blue chip market, such as Warhol, Calder, Richter, Basquiat, etc., and skyrocketing prices, there is a parallel move toward discovery and value, whether that is with overlooked historical works, such as Colour Field painting, or young emerging artists, where collectors can still participate.” In the West, some of these younger abstract artists include Alex Israel, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo, who have gained plenty of attention for their recent record auction prices, despite whispers of art flipping being at play.
Of course, flipping art work, buying to quickly resell at a profit, is still an ongoing practice and a scourge of the art market for many. It shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon as speculative investors search out emerging talent motivated by short-term profits. But, an investigative article on flipping, published in The New York Times in August, suggests it’s not as pervasive as it appears, with even Christie’s calling flipping “an anomaly” rather than the rule. The flipping phenomenon, “reached a high right before and after the financial crisis, and it has been declining since,” attributed largely to the hefty buyer’s premiums and fees of buying at auction.