Lei Yu taps a code to unlock a steel apartment door that looks more like a safe. Not even he can proffer a good estimate about the value of his collection: shelves of figurines from American designer Kaws, closets stuffed with Louis Vuitton handbags, adidas JS Wings and Air Jordan sneakers, lamps from Philippe Starck.
And on the walls, art: inverted-colour lunarscapes by Wang Yuyang, sensual photo-realist images by Marilyn Minter, complex abstractions of modern life by Zhang Changjiang, detailed floral designs by You Wendi, a reflection on time and movement through table tennis by Wang Jianwei.
Yu, 35, was born into wealth. He hangs some of his art in his sprawling office in the family headquarters (dedicated to a fashion design brand he has created), situated on the top floors of one of the high-rises the family owns, complete with a rooftop bamboo tea house. He posts pictures of his yellow Lamborghini on social media.
But he has little interest in the business endeavours that have provided him access to immense funds. Most of the money he spends goes not into corporate acquisitions, but into the brightly coloured abstractions and curiosities of contemporary art.
“It’s kind of like an investment. But it’s different from stocks and futures,” he says. Art is something “you can enjoy, you can feel. It makes you happy. Stocks don’t make you happy. They’re only money. You can’t even touch a stock.”
Over the relatively brief but explosive course of China’s recent embrace of art acquisition, most collectors haven’t looked much like Yu. They have tended to be older and more politically connected, with appetites that have driven their country to the forefront of the art world. China, in 2011, briefly became the world’s largest art market, and Chinese art and antiques continue to make up fully half of global art-auction sales.
With a slowing economy and long-lasting government crackdown on corruption, however, that flourish of money has waned. Last year, Chinese art-auction sales revenues fell by 17 per cent, demoting the country to the world’s third-largest art market, after the United States and Britain. Much of the decline was because of waning purchases of antiques, fine art and calligraphy.
But sales of contemporary art – of the variety Yu and other younger Chinese collect – are a notable exception, their dollar value rising 50 per cent last year, when 43 pieces of contemporary art fetched more than 10 million yuan ($1.87-million) at auction.
Sales are up again this year: Sotheby’s set a record in Hong Kong this spring for an auction of contemporary art, with sales of $135-million. In mainland China, spring auctions in 2019 sold a total of $144-million in contemporary art, according to statistics provided by the China Association of Auctioneers.
And Chinese cities, fuelled in part by the money wielded by Yu and others his age, are expanding ambitions to become global centres for contemporary art – most notably Shanghai, a 25-minute bullet-train ride from Hangzhou. The city is, through the buying power of its billionaires and the determination of its government planners, attempting to fashion itself into a place where a generation of youthful and well-heeled local buyers mingle with Chinese creators and some of the most prestigious names in the art world.
In early November, French President Emmanuel Macron attended the grand opening for a Shanghai outpost of the Centre Pompidou.
Tate, the British institution, has agreed to lend from its collection to the Pudong Museum of Art, which began construction in 2017.
Smaller international galleries have built outposts at a West Bund Cultural Corridor designed to be a haven for art and technology in a city that has long prided itself on its global outlook.
Wealthy Chinese have erected private museums in the city to display their own collections – most notably Liu Yiqian, who paid US$170.4-million for an Amedeo Modigliani in 2015, then the second-most-expensive art auction purchase in history – and an annual November art week brings in the world’s sellers, buyers and brokers. “The consensus among many in Shanghai last week was that the 21st century still belongs to China,” ARTnews wrote about this year’s festival.
"November in Shanghai is really an amazing time for contemporary art. All the biggest players coming to town. Great museums and institutions,” said Enrico Polato, the founder and director of Capsule Shanghai. It’s a small gallery that he established in Shanghai because “it’s really a centre at the moment,” a city with significant potential “to become an international spot for contemporary art.”
It’s all set against a backdrop of official Chinese encouragement: the country is now home to some 5,000 museums, 1,500 of them private.
The rush of acquisition and exhibition may not prove entirely sustainable, with even the best-funded endeavours struggling for profit, while many new art galleries have been erected inside new apartment complexes to fulfill government mandates. One Shanghai art-gallery owner joked despairingly about being in the business of “decorating the real estate business.” The trade war with the U.S. has imposed 20-per-cent tariffs on some art purchases, a further weight on China’s art market.
But young and wealthy Chinese have proven a potent – and, for the art world, lucrative – counter to those trends. The most recent report by Art Basel and UBS Art Market shows an unusually high percentage of millennial collectors in Asia, some 46 per cent of collectors surveyed in Singapore and 39 per cent in Hong Kong.
They are people like Yu: educated overseas, conversant in English, wired into social networks and uninterested in their parents’ tastes.
“Due to their educational background and cultural upbringing, they often find the collecting categories of Chinese antiquities [Chinese works of art and Chinese paintings] less appealing. They are more attracted to Western and Chinese contemporary art,” Sotheby’s Institute faculty member Kejia Wu writes in TEFAF Art Market Report 2019: the Chinese Art Market.
Contemporary art is “fresh, interesting,” said Cheng Xixing, the owner of Don Gallery, a privately run space that she first opened in Shanghai in 2007. Her gallery is regularly visited by collectors in their 20s, some of whom have formed a “Young Patron Program” – which uses WeChat to organize VIP tours and receptions.
“They are familiar with gallery-hopping, they are familiar with killing their time in museums. Not only karaoke,” Cheng laughs.
Some have gained a familiarity, too, with young local artists whose work speaks to the experience of growing up in a country that has been gripped by breakneck change. Cheng’s gallery, for example, has displayed Zhang Ruyi, 34, a Shanghai-based artist who uses stainless-steel scaffolding, cement cactuses and a repurposed exterior air-conditioner unit to express themes of resiliency and isolation.
A cactus grows “extremely slowly, and that slow speed stands in very strong opposition to the rapid pace of life in Shanghai,” Zhang said. “And it looks sharp outside but is quite soft inside. It’s a lot like a human being, especially one in this fast-paced society.”
If a cactus dies, she adds, “you can hardly tell the erosion from its outer appearance. A physical characteristic like that reminds me of many things, including a person and their interactions with our world.”
Still, rising interest in contemporary art has not always fit comfortably in China. Zhang laments an infatuation for foreign goods among local buyers, who crowd into galleries to take selfies in front of international artwork “because they think it’s very fashionable.”
“Sometimes, money is not the best ingredient in the cultural sphere,” observes Alice Wang, an artist born in Xi’an who grew up in Canada – and holds a Canadian passport – but has now returned to China as an assistant professor at NYU Shanghai. She remains partly supported by Canada Council grants.
But the money sluicing through the Shanghai art world has also brought opportunity. Moving back to China has been “very fruitful, because my goal is to create a sustainable source of income so that I can fund my own production,” Wang says. And she is optimistic that cash will beget maturity.
”What the money does is first it creates an industry, but hopefully that will eventually become a discipline, or a field,” she said.
At the same time, the dictates of official China have imposed new pressures. In Beijing, urban workers have torn down neighbourhoods and studios in a broad campaign to sweep away structures deemed illegal. Many artists have fled, decamping for Shanghai and elsewhere.
Chinese cultural authorities have also strengthened their grasp on the country’s artistic community in recent years, restricting the space for expression. The country’s most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, left for Germany in 2015. Global trends of rising nationalism and social-media-stoked outrage have taken hold in China, too.
“I definitely can no longer do the kind of art I did a few years ago. It’s impossible,” said Xu Zhen, a provocative artist whose older work includes videos of him shouting at passersby and smashing a dead cat against a concrete floor. He assigns the greatest blame to online commentators, whose rage can cut more deeply than any censor’s scalpel.
But the result, he said, is that the work of young Chinese artists is comparatively focused on “trivial elements and small things in everyday life. They seldom depict things like politics, or other relatively huge matters.”
That may not place them far from the demands of young domestic buyers, however, a cohort Xu says is on the hunt for art of the moment, and pieces “considered a good and highly profitable investment.”
Yu, the Hangzhou collector, grins when he talks about the money he’s made from art. Thanks in part to his own skill for promoting art to his millions of social-media followers, his acquisitions have a habit of being profitable.
As he walks through the apartment – a place he keeps pristine, with sneakers stored in sealed bags with silica gel desiccant sacs and designer chairs that appear to have never accommodated a human – he points to his various profits. One piece doubled in value in a month. Another is up a hundred-fold. Painters he has promoted sold out of all of their stock within days, giving their work a shortage premium.
His social-media followers buy without seeing more than an image on a smartphone screen. “Many just think, ‘if I don’t buy it now, it will be sold out,’ ” he said. For him, that’s money in the bank. “Ninety per cent of the stuff that I bought, the price goes up,” he says.
Yu is of two minds about what this means.
“Chinese people care too much about profit. In general, they rarely purchase art just for its aesthetic value. The words on their lips are: ‘will it keep going up in value?’ ”
But, he adds, that value is more than monetary. It wasn’t long ago that a car might signal social standing. Today, with Porsches and Range Rovers a common sight, people “draw their judgments from art collections, because they are often more priceless,” he said. His own collection has brought him into friend circles of others like him, other wealthy scions he might otherwise never have met.
“These art pieces – when I purchase them, they are no longer just items,” he says. “They are more like a tool.”
With reports from Alexandra Li
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