On the rise: Asian art's not just about the Chinese
At an April 5, 2010 Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong a world record was set with the sale of a piece by Lee Man Fong for US$3,243,590. The significance of the record? It was the highest selling price for any Southeast Asian painting ever sold at an auction.
The high price of Lee's painting, Bali Life, is an indicator of just how far Asian contemporary art, not just Chinese contemporary art, has come, and the potential it has to gain further recognition in a world with art giants from the West getting the majority of the attention.
But compare the US$3.2 million sale of Bali life with that of Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi’s oil-on-canvas diptych Mask Series 1996 No. 6 that set the record for the most expensive contemporary Asian artwork ever sold at US$9.7 million at a Christie’s sale in 2008. It would appear that non-Chinese Asian art still has some way to go in achieving that kind of market value.
Not just about the value
Fortunately for non-Chinese contemporary Asian art, its not only about the market value, but also the art and the recognition of great artists and works. One recently formed organization called Asian Auction Week (AAW) is working to promote artists not commonly seen at the big auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's. Think of the AAW as similar to a minor league sports organization that cultivates talent in preparation for the Big Leagues (Sotheby's). The AAW is comprised of auction houses Asian Art Auction Alliance (AAAA) from Japan, K Auction from South Korea, Kingsley's Art Auction from Taiwan, and One East Larasati from Singapore.
Daniel Komala, president and CEO of Larasati and AAW spokesperson told CNNGo that the lesser known Asian contemporary artists will catch up to the Chinese "within a lifetime, but not to Damien Hirst levels!" Larasati features a boutique type of collection of works by artists from Indonesia, China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and in conjunction with the other AAW auction houses, is striving to "enhance the appreciation and development of art in Asia." Even Hirst had to start somewhere before he became a household name, and recognition starts with appreciation.
Vinci Chang, vice president & head of sale of Chinese 20th century art & Asian contemporary art at Christie's Hong Kong sums up why the cultural value and significance of Asian art is starting to gain that appreciation on a world stage: "Information floods the countries via the internet and Western ideas merge with Eastern cultures."
Chang continues, "Artists take these external influences and reject, accept or contrast them with their own culture. It is this fine balance of Eastern aesthetics, philosophy and a perspective that intrinsically distinguishes Asian contemporary artists from their Western counterparts, creating new visual commentaries on a powerful contextual revolution through their art, and thus engaging in a global dialogue between the traditional and the contemporary."
Promotion will get you everywhere
Yoichiro Kurata, managing director and CEO of AAAA says, "Christie's did a really good job promoting Japanese contemporary art, and since 2006 the contemporary art market has been on the rise." Maybe not coincidentally, Christie's Hong Kong was the first auction house to introduce stand-alone Chinese 20th century & Asian contemporary art sales in the fall of 2006.
Yoichiro Kurata wants to promote really good Japanese art outside of Japan, especially considering "more than 70 percent of Japanese contemporary art buyers are Japanese," according to Kurata. He continues, "And younger Japanese are strong buyers. We spend!" He contends that the AAW will help promote Japanese art because smaller auction houses compete against each other, but when "joined together in an alliance, it opens everything up."
With more promotion of not just Japanese contemporary art, but Taiwanese, South East Asian, and Korean, suddenly a new world of emerging artists becomes more visible to the West when "New York and London need a new set of toys." says Daniel Komala. "The players (buyers) can't be only Southeast Asian," admits Komala. "You can't effect the high prices with just Southeast Asia players. To be on the world stage you need the West."
Emerging contemporary artists from these regions could have an edge over Chinese contemporary art because potential collectors breaking into the Asian contemporary art buying scene might think its "Easier to sit on US$10,000 than US$10,000,000," says Komala. Yoichiro Kurata supports this line of thought in regards to Japanese art, "For Asian collectors, Japanese art looks reasonably priced," he says.
That's not to say Chinese contemporary art isn't going to break out as a result of lower priced works from other Asian countries. "They're like barbarians at the gate. Cannot stop them (Chinese)!" Daniel Komala emphasized.
Artists to watch
Komala suggests looking out for RE Hartanto, a graduate of the Bandung Institute of Technology Indonesia majoring in painting in 1998 that has participated in numerous group exhibitions. FX Harsono is another Indonesian painter Komala favors and is featuring in the AAW May 29 auction in Hong Kong. One of Harsono's 2009 works was inspired by the terrorist bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003. Ahmad Zakii Anwar, another artist up for auction, is one of Malaysia's most promising contemporary artists. Anwar was trained as a graphic designer, went into advertising, then made the shift to fine art. His current on-going series features charcoal figures of the male nude form such as his work Reclining Figure No. 9.
Yoichiro Kurata mentions Takashi Murakami and photographer/artist Ken Kitano as favorites. Kurata says "Murakami is going to be a really great artist." In the grand scheme of contemporary art sale prices, Murakami's pieces aren't very expensive and are very accessible, as long as you snap them up before they sell out. Kurata added, "He sold out in one day in 2002 to Korean, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong (buyers)." Some of his works are available to bid on during the AAAA contemporary auction on May 28 in Hong Kong.
Ken Kitano has been making composite portraits of groups of people, layering multiple images on top of one another until one common face and a ghostly body emerge.
Thai contemporary artists are on the rise as well, says Bangkok based artist Steven Pettifor, writer, curator and author of "Flavours -- Thai Contemporary Art." Pettifor mentions some noticeable Thai artists on the international radar, including "artists like Araya Rasdjarmreansook, Navin Rawanchaikul, Surasi Kusolwong, Sakarin Krue-on, and Nipan Oraniwesna, who harness media, situational and process art, with Asian identifiers. Of Thailand’s younger emergent artists, Tawan Wattuya is gaining notoriety for his satirical fluid watercolors that poke fun at conformity in Thai society, while Chusak Srikwan employs Nang talung, or shadow puppetry, to breakdown boundaries between folk art and fine art."
"Undiscovered" contemporary artists are also gaining attention through supportive avant garde galleries like those found in Macau, known more for its gambling than it arts scene, or through lo-fi exhibitions like the Katallog Catalog at AOD Art Space in Jakarta.
Chinese contemporary art is still the 500lb gorilla of the region leading the charge even if it is still considered 'emerging' on the world stage. But Asian contemporary art is emerging as a whole with the help of auction alliances like AAW, the support of more local and international buyers, and increasing appearances of artists at the large auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's.
As Asia's importance rises in the world, so does its art. Despite the heavy focus on Western contemporary art on the world market, the quality and artistic talent of Asian contemporary artists has always been there. It is a pivotal time for Asian contemporary art and art lovers would do well to consider Andy Warhol's words, "The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting."