The walls are brilliant white at Today Art Museum, a contemporary art center on the eastern side of Beijing. On one Saturday in late February the sis a lively atmosphere on the second floor of the building. Sitting on plastic chairs, a few tens of people joined a talk about art and environment held by Guillermo Munro, a Mexican artist.
The speaker described himself as an ‘eco-art warrior’ and explained that his work is inspired by environmental themes – of late, particularly by the preservation of endangered species. Munro said his interest in environmental issues is due to the early influence of his father, who used to give him toys representing animals when he was a child.
Growing up as an artist – he is now 42 – he abandoned the idea of painting on canvas for more environment-friendly materials: “In 2000, I started working with canvases and then with whatever was available. I think by now I have saved quite a few trees,” he said when we met in a bar in the old part of Beijing. He now roams the street and buys – or if possible takes off the streets – anything on which colors can be spread: frames, pans, old drawers, windows, even a cookie tray. But his favorite material is cardboard, as it absorbs colors well and is easy to carry.
Prior to becoming a member of the small, eccentric and tightly knit community of foreign artists living in Beijing, Munro had cut his teeth in Chicago and Dubai. “I first came to Xi’an and loved it, so I decided to move here altogether. It is amazing, I have enjoyed every single moment,” he said.
There are many reasons why artists may want to come to China. Expenses are low compared to other places and the country was left relatively unscathed by the financial crisis. Nevertheless, according to Cruz Garcia, cofounder of the WAI Architecture Think Tank, the reason why foreign artists come to China often has to do with a desire to explore the unknown and look for new inspiration. “There is a vibe of excitement and uncertainty that certainly drives them here,” he stated in an email interview.
“The first thing that brought me back here is the inspiring things you can see. It is so fascinating that you can see a Lamborghini next to a tricycle packed with cardboard and a fridge on top of it. It is full of contrasts and paradoxes. And it is very stimulating,” said Niko De La Faye, a French artist who first arrived in China in 2008.
He likely saw plenty of contrasting views during his multi-month journey through China in the spring of 2012 and 2013. The artist drove his kinetic sculpture – named ‘M2B’ – from Beijing to Shanghai and then all the way to Hong Kong, covering a total of 3,400 km in 80 days.
That particular project was inspired by the tricycles De La Faye first saw in Shanghai. After observing how versatile they can be, he decided to reach for the stars and manufacture an abstract representation of the universe based on Daoist principles, mount it on a tricycle and ride his creation through a large stretch of China. The result was pretty awesome: “Every day there were surprises for us and for the people on the way. People either reacted positively to the sight of the tricycle or were not really sure about what they were seeing. And that was the point: creating something that does not make sense in this particular time and space.”
While inspiration, new scenes and dynamism abound, China is no bed of roses for artists. From the outside, for instance, one might be tempted to think that the country’s large art market is a driving force for artists. The money flowing to the sector are indeed significant, with China now the second largest art market in the world, trailing the United States, and was briefly number one in 2011. But the cash is mostly channeled to Chinese and famous foreign names, rather than to little known emerging ones. According to De La Faye, “when it comes to contemporary art, Chinese collectors are buying Chinese artists. For them to be willing to purchase foreign art it has to come with a name.”
Munro, too, pointed out that foreign talents come here to produce and then sell somewhere else because they have a hard time in finding space for their work in big exhibitions. To support himself he works as a graphic artist for China Daily, one of the country’s main state-owned papers. At first journalism and art did not combine well but he said that over time mixing his professions has become easier, especially as he is often looking out for data for his productions (some of his recent projects report statistics about poaching and nearly extinct species). “I think I want to stay in both art and journalism: one does not exist without the other. Without journalism I would not do infographics and would not have information,” he said.
Besides the lack of interest from the public, it should be noted that China’s art market has recently began to show some cracks. According to Luxembourg for Finance (LFF), a public-private partnership between the Luxembourg Government and the Luxembourg Financial Industry Federation, “despite the positive development on a global level, the Chinese art market only raised an estimated US$367 million USD in new funds in 2012, a decline of roughly 150 million USD compared to 2011 (506 million USD in 2011)”. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that China suffered severe blow in 2012, “with roughly half of the country’s auction offerings going unsold.”
In the last few months, the local artist community has also faced a more bureaucratic challenge: tougher visa rules. Since September 2013, the Chinese government has decided to turn the screws on foreigners, reducing the time that can be spent in the country and the locations where a visa can be requested, as well as cutting down the opportunities for renewing an existing visa. And there are no exceptions for artistic-minded people.
The interviewees who spoke with Asian Correspondent said that stricter regulations are making life harder for aspiring artists, but some said that this will not necessarily herald an evil destiny. According to Garcia, along with a post-financial crisis revival in other countries, new rules “will filter the amount of artists coming in, and the effect could be a concentration of an even more interesting generation of artists willing to take risks.”