by Roxana Azimi and Florence de Changy, Guardian Weekly
The art market, as usually understood by the players in the art world, has moved to Hong Kong to meet Asia, and is being transformed in the process. Unnoticed by the west, the Asia-Pacific region has developed several artistic centres and is now determined to assert its own tastes and preferences, with no regard for what some would call western diktats.
This awakening of contemporary art in Asia is backed by abundant regional cash. According to a 2012 study by consultants Capgemini, there are more millionaires in Asia than in the United States. To lure them to the cause of art, quality art fairs have burgeoned since 2007 in Dubai, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Singapore, with the next one, the Sydney Contemporary, due in September. They share a common characteristic, which is that the Asian component dominates. The stars here are not British (Damien Hirst) or American (Jeff Koons and Richard Prince), but Chinese (Liu Wei), Iranian (Farhad Moshiri) and Indonesian (Eko Nugroho).
Every country begins its artistic initiation with its own artists. People start out liking what they know – in other words what they recognise. In Asia, collectors are paying big money to acquire works by artists perceived as national heroes, and consequently propelling artists with only a local reputation and the occasional mention in public catalogues, to stardom. Few people outside Indonesia have heard of Nyoman Masriadi, but in 2008 he sold a painting for $1m at Sotheby's.
For years, countries remained focused on their own artistic scenes, but today mentalities are changing. Collectors are no longer satisfied with pushing up the value of their national treasures but are broadening their spectrum to include the whole of Asia. That is where the novelty lies. Previously, after getting a national collection together, Asian art lovers would eye the west but ignore their immediate neighbours. "Today if you don't know what's happening in Indonesia or South Korea, then you're not going to understand what's happening in Belgium," said Hallam Chow, a Hong Kong-based art collector who buys works by Indonesian artists as well as Chinese ones.
Some dealers such as Jean-Marc Decrop, who specialises in Chinese contemporary art, expect the Middle East and Far East to draw closer artistically. "Most Indonesian collectors I know are Muslim and do the Hajj pilgrimage. I know at least five who would like to collect art from the Arab world," he said. He has just opened the first gallery in Hong Kong to bring together contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists along with young artists from South-East Asia, Tibet and Central Asia. Asian institutions are following suit. In 2012, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo held an exhibition called Arab Express. One consequence of this interregional dialogue is that the west is no longer the sole reference point for Asian artists who are now equally happy to be exhibiting in Asia. "What's happening in London or New York remains important of course, but so is what's happening in Mumbai, Jogjakarta or Tokyo," observed Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which hosted the Indian Highway exhibition in 2012.
This all takes time. The mainland Chinese did not develop a sudden passion for Indian art after the Indian Highway exhibition, but the seeds were sown. The market will require structuring for them to grow. A well-organised art market is based on a foundation of collectors, experts and art critics as well as museums, galleries and auction houses (in other words a first and second market), in addition to framers, insurers, transporters and even specialised bankers. Only Japan and two of the four "Asian Dragons", Taiwan and South Korea, currently have all the components of this artistic ecosystem. In South Korea powerful galleries have been forming the tastes of rich buyers for the past 30 years, while in Taiwan collectors are mainly descended from the Japan-influenced elite that emerged during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945) and the Chinese bourgeoisie that fled from the mainland with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.
Elsewhere the situation varies considerably from one country to another, with a massive contrast between the millionaire Chinese artists and the "peasant" artists in countries that are still essentially rural, such as Indonesia and the Philippines. But the curiosity is there. Not all Asian countries have achieved the same degree of maturity but they are all preparing to meet their cultural ambitions by opening museums. Some countries such as Singapore have a policy of supporting art and culture, and even the Chinese government has understood that imperialism can be cultural too. According to the British monthly, The Art Newspaper, the number of museums in China rose from 21 in 1949 to 348 in 1978 and 3,400 today, 175 of which are dedicated to visual art. Many however, are still empty shells.
In India things are moving slowly but surely. Contemporary art is still only for a tiny elite and New Delhi's National Museum of Modern Art has a low visitor rate of 18,000 per year (the Louvre, in contrast, has 10 million). Despite that, Kolkata is planning to open the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art in 2015, a 23,000 sq metre building designed by Herzog & De Meuron that will mainly serve Asian art. That is also the ambition of the M+ Museum of Visual Culture, which is due to open in Hong Kong by the end of 2017 and will be twice as large as London's Tate Modern. The director, Lars Nittve, intends to devote 70% of his acquisitions budget of $218m spread over five years to Asian artists. The curators of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, also due to open in 2017, will devote 50% of their collection to Asia, in the broadest geographical sense of the word.
Asia's emergence on the artistic scene is therefore more that a mere geographic shift. Western sellers are getting in touch with Asian buyers and this is triggering a radical overhaul reminiscent of the migration of the art markets from the European capitals to New York in the early 20th century and the dominance of the American schools that followed. Asia is as diverse as it is vast and we may soon expect a multitude of Asian schools, art fairs and new collectors endeavouring to show their supremacy to the rest of the world.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde