Two-thousand eleven was the year in which China’s galleries became galleries. No longer content to present projects at the whim of their directors and catch the excess wealth of the more politically dominant institutions of the art world--auctions, collections, and foundations--over the past twelve months the commercial galleries have begun instituting exclusive contracts for representation, moved into more manageable spaces, reworked exhibition programs, and, perhaps most dramatically, stopped partying. This latter move has been obvious in the artist community as well, particularly in Beijing: larger gatherings are rare these days, and everyone seems focused on something, even if they don’t yet know what. Artists are becoming serious across the board, from the bitter and embattled complaints of more quixotic and conceptually-driven figures who feel left behind by these recent changes to the workaholic factory spaces of the pragmatists--for whom it has been a banner year. In parallel with the self-evident evolution by which much of the global art world has lost interest in contemporary culture from China, many of those working at home here have also become significantly less active. Things are getting done, but no one is excited. Exhibitions come and go, but conversations are fewer and further between.
Not so, however, for the collectors and dealers, for whom this past year has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of power. One might suspect this has something to do with the increasing visibility of local and regional art fairs and their importance to the core gallery scene: ArtHK has assured its dominance across much of greater China, but has also met with two new challenges in the form of Art Stage Singapore and a revamped ShContemporary. The former presents a more international option with a heavy slant towards southeast Asia, a market that emerged as integral to the mainland Chinese art business due to the surprisingly robust activity of a handful of Indonesian buyers. ShContemporary, almost as good as dead a year ago, brought in new fair director Massimo Torrigiani, who promptly left behind any remaining delusions that Shanghai was Hong Kong and instead put together a pleasant fair that felt like a fair--something the city had lacked for years--with a solid regional focus. Shanghai may now be the Torino of eastern China.
Increasing professionalism in the gallery world, even when this represents the infusion of New York-centric “best practices” with little inherent relevance to the situation in China, probably owes much to the influence of these fairs, which allow much more mature international galleries a beachhead within the only real market of dealers in the region. But it must also owe something to the galleries that have actually taken the next step: White Cube plans to open shortly in Hong Kong to join Gagosian, Simon Lee has secured a space in the city, and rumor has it that both Emmanuel Perrotin and David Zwirner could be next in line. By way of response Beijing and Shanghai have both stepped up their exhibition programs: recent highlights include a trio of absolutely stellar exhibitions at Beijing Commune (operated not coincidentally by Leng Lin, who also acts as manager of the Pace Beijing space) from Liang Yuanwei, Wang Guangle, and Zhao Yao, all of whom have been reviewed previously in this space. Other strong showings in 798 over the past year include Chen Yujun at Boers-Li Gallery and Weng Wei at Pekin Fine Arts, while power players Long March Space and Vitamin Creative Space have instead focused on external projects. Further south, the Shanghai Gallery of Art has, under the directorship of Mathieu Borysevicz, finally mounted a workable challenge to the monopoly of ShanghART over Shanghai Art: closing out the year with solo exhibitions from Jiang Zhi and Gao Weigang and offering a high point of the art fair calendar in the form of “dAfT,” a bizarrely satisfying group show, this is the Shanghai space to watch. That title may, however, be soon challenged by Leo Xu Projects, a crisp new gallery focusing on small-scale private showings that is currently exhibiting the architectural paintings of Cui Jie, a young Beijing artist poised to make her mark on a wider platform.
If the galleries rose to the occasion, however, 2011 was a year of curatorial malfeasance in the museum world, rife with overblown exhibitions of institutional pseudo-critique spurred on by the return to a largely commercial mentality in the Chinese art world coupled by the newfound focus on politics in the form of Ai Weiwei and other activists working at least partially within the art world. For much of the year everyone expected the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art to close down unceremoniously, rumors fueled no doubt by a sale of a portion of the Ullens collection at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong and drawn out speculations on the future of the institution after Jerome Sans. Fortunately, LEAP editor-in-chief Philip Tinari was selected to lead the center in a new direction, and was just installed in the position of director several weeks ago. The other reigning institution this year was the Minsheng Museum in Shanghai, although it is also said to have closed a deal on a massive exhibition and reseach space in Beijing. Also in property acquisitions, the Taikang Group that also sponsors Taikang Space in Caochangdi was once considering a full-scale private museum closer to the city, but discussions here remain unclear. The Time Museum in Guangzhou, once a satellite of the Guangdong Museum of Art but now independent under a property development group, also made a curious comeback, currently hosting an exhibition curated by Hou Hanry.
When the curators at and around these institutions weren’t busy questioning the value of the museum in the current climate they did manage to put on some impressive exhibitions, though largely with the continued inappropriate financial and curatorial involvement of the dominant galleries--even if these are sometimes the best shows on the calendar. The Minsheng Museum managed to pull off three excellent solo presentations, all involving new work, from Liu Wei, Zhang Enli, and Zhang Peili, while the retrospective of the latter was also the first serious look at the pioneering moments of video in China. Video was itself something of a focal point, enjoying a horrendous historical survey at the Minsheng Museum and a better, if significantly less ambitious in scope, showing at the Times Museum. But even as video has been adopted into the historical pantheon, new media generally continues to function as the embarrassment of any otherwise decent curatorial program: Zhang Ga’s “Translife” at the National Art Museum of China was enough to bring anyone familiar with the artists included to tears, while Li Zhenhua’s “One World Exposition” at a range of venues across Hong Kong was saved only through the elegance of a Yang Fudong piece installed at Spring Workshop, an extremely exciting new non-profit space that will soon be launching the first serious residency program in the city.
The notable success of this particular project at Spring Workshop suggests another direction for the coming years that presents itself as a radically networked possibility for curatorial excellence and rigor, creating satellites of potential outside of the usual and expected sites of power: Hong Kong’s Para/Site may be another, where incoming director Cosmin Costinas’s first exhibition has delivered a new sense of possibility for exhibition practice in China generally, while a recent one-off exhibition curated by dealer Pi Li, artist Gong Jian, and poet Li Jianchun in K11’s new art village in Wuhan allows for a similar kind of excitement in exhibition practice.