The Color Of Money

16 minute read

Yue Minjun is laughing all the way to the bank. The shaven-headed Beijing painter has turned his iconic guffawing self-portraits into one of China’s most lucrative exports. In June, a brightly hued canvas of Yue dressed as a merry Roman Catholic Pope sold for $4.28 million in London. That record was shattered last month when Execution, a work depicting maniacally grinning figures in a Tiananmen Square–like setting, netted nearly $6 million in another London sale. Riffing on Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “To get rich is glorious,” Yue’s paintings capture China’s exuberant love affair with consumerism. But even as he also satirizes his countrymen’s headlong race to make money, the native of Daqing, a grim oil town in China’s northeast, doesn’t view his shiny new millionaire status with much irony. “What’s wrong with laughing?” Yue demands with a serious face, digging into a Shanghai eatery’s rendition of braised pork shoulder, a quivering delicacy synonymous with nouveau riche fulfillment. “China isn’t all dark anymore. We should be happy.”

Throughout Asia’s developing nations, once penniless painters are getting used to this most unexpected emotion. The region’s contemporary-art market has never been so hot. Last year, a collection of dreamlike portraits and landscapes by China’s Zhang Xiaogang raked in just over $24 million — more than British enfant terrible Damien Hirst made in 2006. In March, a sale of modern Indian art in New York City raised a record $15 million, including just under $800,000 for Captives, a stark evocation of desiccated torsos by New Delhi–born Rameshwar Broota. Two months later, an auction in London elicited $1.42 million for a Tantric-inspired oil painting by India’s Syed Haider Raza. Even in Vietnam, idyllic rural scenes coated in the country’s distinctive lacquer that sold for a few hundred dollars a few years ago are now selling for 10 times that. A gouache-and-ink painting by Vietnamese post-impressionist Le Pho, whose work is part of the permanent exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in Paris, captured nearly $250,000 at a Singapore sale. Overall, leading auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctioned $190 million in contemporary Asian art last year, compared to $22 million just two years before. “This is just the beginning,” says Swiss art dealer Pierre Huber, who in September oversaw a debut contemporary Asian art fair in Shanghai. “For so long, people did not know about Asian art. But now the world is turning to Asia, and what they see is amazing.”

That’s a seismic shift for an art world that once rarely set its sights past either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Even today, for many people Asia’s developing economies still denote the world’s factories — its cheap call centers and efficient manufacturers of every gizmo imaginable. Yet that narrative coexists with another more compelling tale: that of a rising continent intent on recapturing its former glory. The Chinese dragon wakes, mother India rises. Even little tiger Vietnam is finding its roar. Outsiders looking to ride this remarkable wave have invested heavily in prosaic sectors like real estate or manufacturing, but now the region’s rich contemporary-art scene is also beckoning. “Wherever the economy booms, art booms,” says Ganieve Grewal, the Mumbai-based representative for Christie’s, which has seen its annual sales of Indian contemporary art in New York City double between 2003 and last year.

In some ways, given the frothiness of the global art market as a whole, Asia’s rise is understandable. Yet the boom in modern Asian art also serves as an important reminder that the region is not just a copier but an innovator as well. Asia’s avant-garde artists explore the clash between ancient traditions and pell-mell development, the lure of commercialism, and, most fundamentally, the struggle for individuality on the world’s most populous continent. “There’s this misconception that art from Asia is static, that it’s the same old boring stuff,” says Eloisa Haudenschild, an Argentine-born collector who with her husband owns one of the most significant private collections of Chinese contemporary photography and video art. “But this is a place going through such upheaval, and the art reflects this very vibrantly.”

The arbiters of Asian art didn’t always reward such experimentalism. In the great art academies of India, China and Vietnam, technical skill and an ability to reference the region’s rich cultural heritage outweighed social commentary or renegade brush strokes. For centuries, Chinese students spent their school years laboriously copying the ink landscapes of ancient masters. The same held true in India, where artistic merit often was equated either with an ability to reproduce themes from religious epics or mimic the miniaturist details of the Mughals. In Vietnam, the 20th century’s most promising painters attended the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine, an academy set up in Hanoi in 1925 by a classmate of Henri Matisse. There, the idiom was Western classical — with a dash of impressionism thrown in for modern élan. Even today, Vietnamese students at the Hanoi Fine Arts University, as the French-founded school is now known, spend an entire year sketching nude models, a rigorous exercise that has been abandoned at many Western art institutes. In all three countries, the emphasis on education means that even the most experimental artists tend to boast degrees from top art universities. “I don’t think they taught me anything,” says Akbar Padamsee, a leading Indian contemporary artist, of his art-school instructors in Mumbai. “But being surrounded by people who also wanted to be artists was important.”

Despite the tradition-steeped training, it was impossible for many of Asia’s artists to ignore the tremendous social changes taking place outside their classrooms. Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain, for example, marries myths with modernism in his oil canvases, one of which sold for $2 million in 2005. Fame, however, hasn’t insulated the now 92-year-old from controversy. Right-wing Hindu political parties were incensed when Husain painted a series depicting Indian deities in the nude. Although criminal complaints against him were dropped in 2004 by the New Delhi High Court, attacks against the painter were rekindled last year when an Indian newsweekly published an advertisement featuring a Husain painting in which a naked representation of mother India draped herself across a map of the country. Husain was promptly charged with “hurting the sentiments of Hindus.” In response, he withdrew the painting from auction and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.

Husain’s experience hasn’t prevented younger Indian artists from venturing into similarly treacherous political terrain. In May, a visual-arts student at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda — regarded as one of India’s top schools for art — was imprisoned for five days after his paintings of religious imagery were deemed hurtful to both Hindus and Christians. If convicted of “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion,” the student could face several years in jail.

By contrast, in Vietnam political expression is so perilous that self-censorship has become an art form among even the most daring painters. Those who do try to cross the line face swift punishment. Tran Luong is one of the country’s so-called Gang of Five contemporary artists who first gained international notice in the 1990s for his underwater abstracts. Lately, he has concentrated on performance and video art, documenting the lives of coal miners and street children left out of Vietnam’s experiments with the free market. For the past few years, Luong has also encouraged young artists to explore challenging social themes instead of pumping out bland but commercially successful landscapes. Two years ago, he tried to take a group of students to a contemporary-art festival in southern China. Vietnamese authorities stopped them at the border. “The immigration police told me I was not a real artist, so there was no way I could be allowed to go abroad for artistic purposes,” recalls Luong, who continues to be hassled by the authorities. Another artist who battles the censors is Truong Tan, who often explores homosexual themes in his Matisse-influenced paintings. Earlier this year, an installation in which Tan constructed a 2-m-high diaper out of police uniforms was promptly shut down. The threat of official interference means that many Hanoi galleries — there are dozens in the art-mad town — prefer to trade in naive village scenes that feel almost deliberately apolitical.

Still, some Vietnamese artists manage to exhibit thought-provoking works. Born in remote mountains that are home to disenfranchised ethnic minorities, Dinh Thi Tham Poong tweaks traditional folk art with contemporary touches. Her canvases capture the tensions between the natural world and the onslaught of Vietnam’s economic reforms — all without appearing overtly political. The country’s censors likely have a hard time understanding that Poong’s whimsical figures scattered across traditional handmade paper could possibly be making a social statement. But it is only in such narrow margins that Vietnam’s artists can safely operate.

Ironically, it is China, with its authoritarian government and notorious cultural police, that allows its artists the most room for self-expression. Yes, direct criticisms of the Communist Party are taboo, and the culture cops occasionally shutter avant-garde exhibitions. Nevertheless, ironic depictions of Chairman Mao and not-so-subtle critiques of official corruption or urban alienation fill Beijing and Shanghai galleries. Some artists, particularly those who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, playfully twist that era’s socialist-realist propaganda art — think heroic laborers, red-cheeked peasants and stalwart soldiers lifting banners with brand names or consumerist messages. Best known among these political popsters is Wang Guangyi, whose painting of Mao behind bars sold for $4 million last month.

Another band of Chinese artists has pushed boundaries by depicting the lost souls trying to find their place in a rapidly developing society. Surrounded by the capitalist trappings that China’s leaders hope will sate a politically repressed populace — chic clothes, cell phones, fast-food wrappers — these lonely figures wear blank or artificially cheery expressions. “As a child, my classmates and I sang revolutionary songs, and we had to write Mao’s expressions over and over,” says 43-year-old Zeng Fanzhi, whose portrait of a masked man with a cauterized visage sold for $1.63 million in London last month. “Then, suddenly we were told, ‘That’s finished, you will love money now.'” Puffing on a Cuban cigar at a five-star hotel’s café in Shanghai, Zeng gazes at the other patrons. Next to him, a man in red silk pajamas leans over to slurp coffee from a dainty cup resting on the table. Nearby, a prostitute in a leopard-print minidress has arranged herself in an armchair, presumably waiting for a customer. “People are so confused and crazy now,” Zeng says. “It’s impossible for my art not to reflect that.”

Asia’s artists aren’t immune to the rampant consumerism they like to mock in their own works. As Indian and Chinese art have boomed, smaller markets like Vietnam have benefited from a spillover effect. “People say, ‘Oh, Chinese art or Indian art is too expensive, so maybe we’ll try looking in Vietnam,'” says Suzanne Lecht, the American director of the Art Vietnam Gallery in Hanoi. “Artists who could barely afford anything a few years ago can now drive luxury cars.” But the rapid cash inflow has put commercial pressure on these artists to churn out foreigner-friendly images that don’t stretch their imaginations. Many galleries are complicit, preferring to stock interchangeable images of women in conical hats strolling past crumbling French architecture. “Art students know they can make a good living painting these themes,” says Gang of Five painter Luong. “It’s difficult to convince them to be adventurous.”

The art trade has become so frenzied in Vietnam that dozens of young painters are now employed by unscrupulous dealers to make copies of works by leading local artists. Le Thiet Cuong, for instance, paints deceptively simple rural scenes that evoke his childhood when he was evacuated to the countryside because of war. A prodigious painter, he is sometimes criticized for pumping out too much too fast. Yet part of his purported output comes courtesy of a bevy of knock-off specialists who hawk canvases adorned with his forged signature. Just down the road from a gallery that sells his real works for $5,000, another art space sells fakes for just $300. Cuong has tried to police these dishonest dealers, but it’s dispiriting. “It’s like trying to stop pirated copies of Hollywood movies,” he says. “You cannot win.”

Some Asian artists blame the consumerist hype on foreign collectors who impose their tastes — and dollars — on locals. “The foreigners already have an idea of what they expect from Chinese art, and they are more interested in works that have obvious Chinese symbols,” says Shanghai artist Ding Yi, whose Mondrian-inspired geometries hardly betray his nationality. “It’s very seductive,” acknowledges Li Liang, the owner of Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai. “You know that if you put things up that look Chinese, they will sell well.” But others worry that this impulse will only encourage soulless facsimiles with little cultural resonance. Yue Minjun’s laughing heads, for instance, have spawned dozens of smiling faces by lesser artists. “We’ve reached the point where artists have to be honest with themselves,” says Weng Ling, director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art. “Are you doing it for the foreign market or are you doing it for yourself? Chinese history is not just about the past 50 years, all that political pop that sells well. It’s about 5,000 years of culture.”

Even on a purely commercial level, endless neon Maos or identical riffs on the Ramayana will only saturate the market and, in the end, make artists’ works less valuable. So, too, will a reluctance to explore different artistic avenues; imagine if Picasso spent his entire career in his Blue Period. Art critics worry that the current buying boom will only lead to creative stagnation — and that everyone from the artists to national governments are being blinded by money. “What people call avant-garde art in China has actually been co-opted by the government and is now mainstream,” says Yang Zhenzhong, a multimedia artist from the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, who is being showcased this year at the prestigious Venice Biennale. “The government realizes art has commercial value, so it’s become just another object to sell.” The Beijing government, for instance, is hyping a factory district turned contemporary-arts enclave called Dashanzi as a must-see destination for Olympics tourists. But with so much foreign — and even some local — cash being injected into the Asian art world, it can be difficult for an artist to deviate from a successful formula. “When I started painting landscapes, people would say, ‘But those might not sell as well as your mask series,'” recalls Zeng, whose latest works, part of a recent solo exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, feature tangles of foliage painted with calligraphic precision.

Mumbai-based artist Baiju Parthan has also abandoned a financial sure bet — mystical paintings that sell for tens of thousands of dollars — for a more avant-garde series called Source Code, as the building blocks of digital material are known. Parthan uses software to unearth the underlying source code of iconic images, then creates mesmerizing diptychs and triptychs that reference the computer economy defining modern India. His digital gamble could very well pay off. “To have real staying power, contemporary art from India has to have universal appeal,” says director of Mumbai’s Bodhi Art Gallery Sharmistha Ray, who notes that most of the highest prices paid for Indian art at recent Christie’s auctions in London and Hong Kong were from foreign buyers.

But the international interest worries some guardians of Asian culture. True, a handful of newly rich Chinese businessmen have invested in contemporary art, while members of the Indian diaspora snap up artwork with local themes to decorate their overseas homes. Nevertheless, it is foreigners — particularly European, American, Japanese and Singaporean collectors — who are driving the modern Asian art boom. The result has been a massive flight of contemporary art from the region. Exacerbating the trend is a dearth of quality modern-art museums in India, China and Vietnam. In August, the central Chinese city of Dujiangyan announced it was lavishing some of the nation’s top contemporary artists with their very own museums, but the ploy likely won’t draw more than the occasional tourist to this remote part of the country. That leaves Western institutions like New York City’s MOMA or London’s Tate Modern to cherry-pick the best Asian works. “Most of the Vietnamese old masters’ works are in foreign countries now,” says Tran Phuong Mai, who runs Mai Gallery in Hanoi, referring to artists like Bui Xuan Phai, who died in 1988 and was so destitute that he would trade his moody oil canvases for a meal or two. “By the time Vietnamese realize the value of this art, it’ll all be gone abroad.”

In the meantime, some best-selling Asian artists are content to poke fun at their foreign patrons. Shanghai artist Zhou Tiehai, who has exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, gained international attention in the 1990s with his playful renditions of cigarette icon Joe Camel dressed as the Mona Lisa and other Western art figures. At the 1999 Venice Biennale, he exhibited fake magazine covers adorned with his face — a cheeky commentary on the overseas fame so many Asian artists crave. Now he produces soft-focus landscapes and chinoiserie portraits. Yet even though Zhou, 41, is a technically skilled graduate of Shanghai’s top fine-art institute, he doesn’t paint the artworks sold under his name. Instead, a bevy of assistants do the painting for him. The works sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but Zhou is unapologetic. “There’s a placebo effect in the art world today,” he says, watching one of his artistic crew spray-paint a giant canvas that he will eventually sign as his own. “Even if buyers don’t get any real feeling from the art, they still buy because they think it will make them feel good. Why shouldn’t I make money off their interest?” Not all collectors will get the joke. But with the Asian art market reaching such feverish heights, a sense of irony may be just as necessary as a fat bank account.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com