ART When the East meets the West

Art can be the shared com­mon ground for both Europe and China

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - ALI­CIA LIU The au­thor is di­rec­tor of Singing Grass Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, an agency bridg­ing the East and the West through arts and cul­ture.

Al­though there is a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween Euro­peans and Chi­nese, there are some com­mon threads that they share, such as the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his­tory, civ­i­liza­tion and artis­tic tra­di­tion. The com­mon link­ages were aptly summed up by Win­ston Churchill, the for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, when he said: “Those who fail to learn from his­tory are doomed to re­peat it.”

China’s claim to be the old­est and con­tin­u­ous civ­i­liza­tion of­ten finds cre­dence in its rich artis­tic tra­di­tions that stretch with­out in­ter­rup­tion from the Ne­olithic era to the present. Mod­ern day Chi­nese, amid all the glam­our as­so­ci­ated with so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, are look­ing for a co­her­ent set of val­ues de­rived from the diver­sity and rich­ness of their his­tory, as well as the tra­di­tions and aes­thetic val­ues em­bod­ied in Chi­nese arts.

The phe­nom­e­nal in­ter­est in Chi­nese art and an­tiques that is be­ing seen in Europe is a re­flec­tion of this soul-search­ing process.

There are two con­di­tions that need to be met for sus­tain­ing the Chi­nese in­ter­est in art pur­chases. One is the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of cul­ture; the other is hav­ing the fi­nan­cial means to af­ford it.

Chi­nese in­vest­ment in the UK is now at an un­prece­dented high level, rang­ing from State-backed in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment to pur­chases by wealthy in­di­vid­u­als. The op­por­tu­nity to ex­ploit this eco­nomic cap­i­tal seems to be rec­og­nized

“The ac­tive ex­pan­sion of the Chi­nese buy­ing power has in­evitably caught the at­ten­tion of the de­mand-led art mar­ket in Europe. With eco­nomic cap­i­tal sure to change hands, it re­mains to be seen whether this re­nais­sance in Chi­nese art will al­low the East and West to es­tab­lish a com­mon ground through shared cul­tural un­der­stand­ing.”

with many auc­tion houses and an­tique deal­ers in­vest­ing in Chi­nese lan­guage signs and promi­nently dis­play­ing the UnionPay logo in their shop win­dows.

How­ever, on closer in­spec­tion, you’ll find that th­ese es­tab­lish­ments tend to hold a wel­com­ing but cau­tious at­ti­tude to­ward the new­com­ers. For them, cred­i­bil­ity es­tab­lished through a rep­u­ta­tion built up over the years is the most im­por­tant call­ing card for the trade, even more im­por­tant than new-found wealth.

In a highly reg­u­lated mar­ket, the bold­ness of adapt­ing to the change of new cus­tomers is on the con­di­tion of cau­tious and in­tel­li­gent deals. Peo­ple are likely to start with an area with which they feel com­fort­able and fa­mil­iar, per­haps a place of higher trans­parency in busi­ness reg­u­la­tions.

Take Asian Art in Lon­don, an an­nual Lon­don city-wide an­tique art fair, as an ex­am­ple. Their bilin­gual mar­ket­ing col­lat­eral this year is in tra­di­tional Chi­nese rather than sim­pli­fied Chi­nese which is com­monly used on the Chi­nese main­land.

Roy­alty and celebrity col­lec­tors of­ten flock to the Master­piece Lon­don, an art, an­tiques and de­sign fair held at the Chelsea Royal Hos­pi­tal in sum­mer. This year a Hong Kong pavil­ion was built at the fair, or­ga­nized in part­ner­ship with Fine Art Asia, one of the largest Asian fine art fairs based in Hong Kong.

All of th­ese seem to be send­ing mixed sig­nals to Chi­nese buy­ers. On one level they rec­og­nize the rise in in­ter­est in Chi­nese an­tiq­ui­ties and an in­crease in the wealth of Chi­nese col­lec­tors. How­ever, they con­tinue to use more fa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ries such as Hong Kong as a con­duit to the main­land.

The Chi­nese elite are of­ten drawn to Europe by the re­spect for authen­tic­ity and dili­gence when con­duct­ing busi­ness. They are drawn to spend some of their newly earned eco­nomic cap­i­tal, in ex­change for cul­tural cap­i­tal in the form of art. Some of them may even hope to un­der­stand the his­tory of their past through the art­work, in the hope that, by un­der­stand­ing the past, they will be able to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate where they are go­ing.

How­ever, it is not only the Chi­nese who have de­vel­oped a new­found love for the tra­di­tion and in­no­va­tion demon­strated in many of th­ese works. Their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts con­tinue to demon­strate a strong in­ter­est in Chi­nese his­tor­i­cal pieces. The cur­rent Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion “Master­pieces of Chi­nese paint­ing 700-1900” has been re­ceived warmly in the UK with many strug­gling to se­cure tick­ets for the show.

Some of the Chi­nese tra­di­tional val­ues il­lus­trated through the paint­ings are sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar to the pur­suits of the Bri­tish gen­tle­man. For ex­am­ple the leisure ac­tiv­i­ties in pur­suit of hap­pi­ness dur­ing pros­per­ous times is a com­mon theme. The paint­ings also de­pict the no­tion of em­brac­ing soli­tude to move away from ma­te­ri­al­ist temp­ta­tions. This car­ries a strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity with the moral views held in the Vic­to­rian era some 300 years ago.

For many Chi­nese, the tra­di­tional Chi­nese art­works hold more than just fi­nan­cial value. They em­body a set of philo­soph­i­cal, sym­bolic and his­tor­i­cal val­ues that are shared by the na­tion. It is as if au­di­ences in the East and West have found a com­mon ground, a shared so­cial value through the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese artists.

The ac­tive ex­pan­sion of the Chi­nese buy­ing power has in­evitably caught the at­ten­tion of the de­mand-led art mar­ket in Europe. With eco­nomic cap­i­tal sure to change hands, it re­mains to be seen whether this re­nais­sance in Chi­nese art will al­low the East and West to es­tab­lish a com­mon ground through shared cul­tural un­der­stand­ing.

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