Over the last several years, Chinese contemporary art has fully established itself in the international arena. We can now see how the artists successfully transformed contemporary Chinese art and culture, fundamentally altering the ways in which the nation represented and reflected upon its own circumstances. From its nascent stages, collectors saw in this movement not just the tentative yearnings of a then-underground avant-garde, but imagery, concepts and techniques unlike anything they had seen before.
Such is the case with the twenty lots from an Important Private German Collection which Christie's proudly offers as highlights across our Evening and Day sale auctions. Born into a well-known German collecting family, long ensconced in the European art world and dating back to the salons and galleries that produced the great German Expressionists of the early 20th century, this collection of historic Chinese works served as the cap on a lifetime of living and breathing every trend in Western art, perpetually searching for new areas of inspiration.
The bulk of the collection was acquired in Hong Kong in the 1990s, and offers a range of works that highlight not only the historic changes taking place in China, but also the ways in which these works simply did not look like anything that had come before.
Across the day sale we further see experiments in the use of private, mysterious, and provocative symbolic systems in the works of Yue Minjun and Mao Xuhui; explorations of calligraphy, ink painting and traditional Chinese aesthetics from Fung Ming-chip, Qiu Zhijie, Qiu Shihua, and Gu Wenda; forays into highly conceptual approaches to representation and mediation in the works of Feng Mengbo and Yan Lei, and more. Taken together these works represented radical new approaches to subjectivity, representation, and narrative that were understood, first, as fresh and inspiring new approaches to contemporary art-making, long before the world came to see them, additionally, as harbingers of China's transformation as a nation and formidable player on the global stage. It is in collections like these that we see the double-edged value of Chinese contemporary art as it revolutionized Chinese culture itself, while simultaneously discovering unexplored new territory in contemporary art.
Widely regarded as one of the leading figures in Chinese contemporary art, Gu Wenda's work focuses on ideas of culture and identity within issues surrounding multiculturalism and globalization. Incorporating both oil and traditional ink-and wash-mediums, he uses human genetic material such as hair or powdered placenta to comment on the cultural and linguistic barriers that exists today. Gu's compositions provide a reference point for his viewers, directing their awareness to think beyond the boundaries of race, gender and cultural divides.
The three lots featured here come from an early period in the artist's career. The Mythos of Lost Dynasties - Form C (Lot 1608), Mythos of Lost Dynasties - Form C (Lot 1609) and Lost Dynasties H35 (Lot 1641), painted in the mid-1980s exhibit the artist's conceptual and philosophical inquiries in play with notions of tradition and modernity. During his youth, Gu was hired to create 'Big Character' propaganda posters for Mao's Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. In his first solo exhibition in 1986, he draws upon this experience by showcasing a series from his provocative and monumental ink paintings that employed manipulated, nonsensical Chinese characters. By negating the validity of the written word, Gu's reactionary gesture was aimed against the political language used during the Maoist era. Criticizing the works as a rejection of Chinese cultural values, the Chinese propaganda closed his exhibition before it opened to the public. The featured lots as a series painted from 1983 to 1987 demonstrates the ancient history of the Chinese written language as metaphor for what was once valued with esteem can suddenly hold no meaning, and Gu radically extracts content, language and meaning to reveal complex messages in unexpected form with these works.