Did you know that the word Yankee comes from the Dutch word for pirate?” asks Philip Dodd. “China is doing what America was doing 150 years ago.” He is referring to China’s manufacturing prowess, often derided for paying little heed to concepts of intellectual property and copyright. “The world is moving East and the East is globalizing,” he says.
Dodd is the chairman of Made in China (Madeinchinauk.com), a London-based agency that, in his words, “works with city governments, cultural institutions and brands in order to help globalize China and to develop bridges between the world and China”. In New Delhi last month, Dodd spoke with Lounge. Edited excerpts:
What led to the growth of contemporary art in China in the last couple of decades?
Two things happened. After Mao (Zedong) died in 1976, reproductions of foreign works, literature and art were allowed into the country. So, in the period from 1976-89, China opened up in an enormous way. There was a big exhibition in 1989—China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, where artists from all over China showed their works. A month later, there was Tiananmen, and a lot of artists left for New York and Paris. But they have all come back and are known as Sea Turtles.
Look East: Dodd says the Chinese art market is now vulnerable. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
The rise of China in the art market began only five-six years ago. I held an exhibition on Chinese art in London in 1999. No one came. When I first went to China in 1998 there were no private galleries. Now, there are hundreds of galleries in Beijing and Shanghai. There are these well-established “creative quarters”. 798 Space is an old electronics factory in Beijing which now has 200 galleries, bookshops and design studios.
How has the economic downturn affected the art market in China?
China is more vulnerable than India (to the economic downturn) because it is the foreigners who have bought Chinese art, unlike India. With the economy in the West in crisis, the normal purchasers of Chinese art are diminishing. So, now you have to persuade the new Chinese rich to buy contemporary art.
What factors were key in the rise of Chinese art?
The Sea Turtles—among them are Ai Wei Wei and Zhang Huan, both of whom went to the US, and Chen Zhen, who went to France. They are profoundly Chinese but they understand the global culture. So you have a group of artists who can translate China to the West. Also, the visibility of China in the world—as a country rises, people become curious about its culture. The most fashionable drink in London now is Chinese green tea.
What’s happening there today?
In the last 18 months, there have been five exhibitions in China related to the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition. Chinese art has been so successful so quickly that the artists are trying to remember why it started in the first place. So they are trying to go back. The 1989 exhibition was a great moment of intellectual ferment.
Any lessons for Indian artists and those in the business of art?
Beware of friends bearing gifts! You need a strong domestic art world; you can’t afford to be a plaything of global forces. It is cheering to see the private Devi Art Foundation supporting contemporary art—art that museums may not be able to afford or may see as too risky. There is nothing like it in China. Secondly, the importance of Sea Turtles. India has an extraordinary diaspora and a relation with the diaspora is important for a global identity.
Isn’t a lot of contemporary art in Asia Western in sensibility?
When that is the case it is bad art. Chinese artists are using a global language, not a Western one, but using a Chinese voice. Zhang Huan is using temple ash from Buddhist temples and making sculptures and paintings out of it. That is profoundly global and local. Buddhist monks did that in the fourth century AD. When I took a young Chinese friend to see the works, she was disturbed by it as the ash reminded her of the recent death of her father. No one in the West would have reacted like that.