Armory Focus: China – The Verdict

On 12/03/2014 by Site Default


As the Armory Show drew to a close on Sunday, visitors compared notes about the highs and lows of this year’s fair, and particularly about “Armory Focus: China,” the exhibition of contemporary Chinese work curated by Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing.

BLOUIN ARTINFO invited a Hong Kong-based guest contributor, Alexandre Errera, to share some of his thoughts on this year’s Armory Focus. Errera is founder and CEO of, a global online platform dedicated to the exhibition and sale of contemporary Chinese art, and a keen observer of the contemporary Chinese art scene.

Expectations were high for “Armory Focus: China.” Two exhibitions — the Metropolitan Museum’s current “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” and a show of 28 young Chinese artists put on by Don and Mera Rubell in Miami — have lately given the American public rare overviews of new Chinese art. But the Armory presentation was really the first market test. Seventeen galleries and 30 artists were shown in a section curated by Tinari, the influential director of UCCA. It was a great introduction, even if some visitors might have been left slightly frustrated.

The selection of galleries, which included many that had never exhibited overseas, was particularly interesting. It was a bold move to bring these newcomers to New York, home to some of the most established dealers in the world, and overall it paid off. The group seemed thoughtfully selected, rather just a Who’s Who of the most important Chinese galleries, and there was a strong focus on conceptual artists born in the 1970s and ’80s — visitors who came looking for the usual suspects, like Zeng Fanzhi and the other auction stars, were knocking at the wrong door. “Focus: China” was about the post-Cultural Revolution artists, with just one real exception: Hong Kong-based gallery 10 Chancery Lane, which chose to focus on some of the first Chinese contemporary artists, such as Huang Rui and Wang Keping. This was actually an interesting decision, as it provided a historical context to the other artists exhibited throughout the section.

The booths were small — too small, in fact, which might have been the exhibition’s biggest drawback. Chinese artists express themselves better in large formats, and galleries did not have much choice but to bring relatively small works. (Still, a few larger pieces were in evidence, like Xu Qu’s labyrinth painting at Tang Contemporary, Zhao Zhao’s sculpture at Chambers Fine Art, and Xu Zhen’s installation in the middle of the section.)

In contrast to some other “young and hot” galleries elsewhere in the fair, which showed only one or two pieces to stir up interest in a very limited supply, the Chinese galleries mostly chose to exhibit a significant number of works. One inventive way of doing this was Platform China’s decision to divide its booth in two: a “permanent” section, and another rotating one, with artworks changing every day.

What proved somewhat frustrating was the fact that some of the best artists of the new generation were missing, and that the focus was most often on paintings, rather than installations or videos. Those who know what these artists are capable of were disappointed, but this is perhaps inevitable at a fair. One notable exception was an original installation by Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas, shown at Gallery Exit.

The question on everybody’s mind was simple — how did American collectors react to this section? For many of them, “Focus: China” was their first encounter with artists they had never heard of. One way of judging their reaction was in terms of sales, and overall these were said to be very good. Some galleries sold out quickly (perhaps with the help of a few pre-sold works), while others attracted more interest as the fair progressed. Nobody seemed to regret having made the costly trip. Some galleries actually priced their works lower than what they would have charged in China, reflecting the artists’ desire to get some American collectors behind them.

The word that one heard most often from U.S. collectors was “surprise”: They did not expect the new generation of Chinese artists to be so different from the contemporary Chinese artists they see at auction. The exhibition was always crowded, which may a better indicator of the American reaction to these artists than actual sales — after all, the ultimate goal was to stir up their curiosity and interest.

Although the art that was exhibited represented just a fraction of the current talent in China, the show may well have succeeded in making American collectors aware not just of these artists, but of the breadth of contemporary Chinese talent. A symposium of China-related talks by prominent speakers, sponsored by Adrian Cheng, was also important in this regard. The key question is whether the interest generated by “Focus: China” will fade or not. The answer will largely depend on how the galleries follow up on this initial effort, and on how other fairs frame young Chinese artists going forward. Art Basel Hong Kong, which starts on May 14, will be one to watch closely.

Also: Read Alanna Martinez’s roundup of Armory Focus: China here.


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