I recently received a call from a young artist based in Guangzhou. He spoke excitedly about a space he is launching soon with two artist friends from the same region. At a time when more art venues than ever are shutting down, such a move really seems to go against the tide. Further discussion revealed the simplicity of their vision: to establish a platform upon which they can put their thinking into practice, without being bound by anything other than their own creative urges, without having to measure results according to any pragmatic criteria.
Aptly named “The Observers Association,” such an initiative sets itself apart from the considerable number of lofty galleries and art spaces that have mushroomed throughout China over the past five years. Their rent is low. Their budget is minimal and consists of contributions from each of the three founders. They have even reached an agreement by which whoever sells his or her work elsewhere will voluntarily contribute 10% of the income to the operation of the space. There is only one goal: to keep the space going so that they can exhibit their own work, make their own projects, and have a space for free experiments and intellectual exchange. The three founding members are two artists and one curator, all of whom look forward to treating this space as the playground for their own practices. They contribute equally to the space and share responsibilities in accordance with their individual strengths. They emphasize fairness, so that each has an equal opportunity to use the space. Although Guangzhou seems far removed from the dominant gallery systems of its northern counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai, the artists from this area can still feel the commercial forces and pressures that have shaped the art world in China. “It’s a prospect all too familiar and foreseeable. I can imagine what I would become and what I would receive if I were willing to become a gallery artist,” this artist remarked. “I want to find a new way.”
Such reflections would have been inconceivable ten years ago. Even one of the earliest darlings of the Chinese art market, Fang Lijun, admitted that he had not had any experience working with a gallery and didn’t know a thing about the art market when he was picked up by a gallerist after appearing at the famed China Avant-garde exhibition in 1989. The burgeoning art market has produced an enormous amount of optimism and temptation in the past decade surrounding the production and dissemination of art in China, yet the unconditional passion for art found in the early movements and artist groups, and in heated debates across the country in the 1980s, has been all but drowned out by the noise of that market. Founded on idealism and innocence prior to the introduction of monetary interests in art, that passion seems somewhat remote today, now that we are more sophisticated and aware of the intricate makeup of the art system and the kind of power games money fuels within it. Such awareness provides us with a completely different set of dynamics for artist initiatives and autonomous art projects, and at the same time poses a new set of questions and challenges.
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