Saatchi showcases Chinese art students
Let 10,000 Young Artists Bloom -- by CAROL VOGEL/NY Times
PERUSING the student art on his Web site recently, as he does somewhat obsessively throughout the day, the British collector Charles Saatchi happened upon an entry from a painter named Liu Yang. This artist had posted images of seven of his works, including a painting of a factory set against a haunting gray background and a work on paper depicting a woman’s elongated torso.
But unlike European, American or Australian users of the site, who use their Web pages there to tell the world everything about themselves — their favorite artists, what movies and books inspired them, their convictions about art or politics — Mr. Liu, a student at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, simply wrote: “I can’t speak a lot English. Sorry. But love. ...” His message trailed off in a few lines of Chinese that read in part: “I admit that my knowledge of art is limited at present. However, I am sure I can learn quite a bit from your Web site.”
Soon Mr. Saatchi began to notice that Mr. Liu was not alone. Every day more art students from China were posting their work at Stuart (short for Student Art), a popular nook of Mr. Saatchi’s recently reinvented Web site, saatchi-gallery.co.uk).
Known a decade ago for spotting talent and turning his discoveries into superstars, as he did with so-called Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, Mr. Saatchi is fixated these days on Chinese artists, the hottest sector of the global market. And when he saw these shyly tentative Web postings, something clicked.
“There are so many artists in China who want their work to be seen,” he said in a recent interview at his London home, pausing every now and then to scan the large computer screen on his desk. “These students, like all the others, want to know what’s going on around the world.”
So in January he decided to create a Chinese version of his Web site to cater to that audience. Working in a warren of makeshift offices in the basement of his Eaton Square home, 16 experts now oversee both the popular Saatchi Gallery site, which is getting more than six million hits a day, and a site in Mandarin, accessible from the home page, that went online two weeks ago.
“Our goal is to break down language and cultural barriers,” said Neeraj Rattu, who is leading the site’s technology team. Having compiled a considerable amount of data, the team estimates that 20 to 30 art schools operate in China; that about 10,000 students will graduate from such schools this year; and that some 14,000 artists in China are represented by galleries.
“That leaves roughly 10,000 unrepresented artists,” said Kieran McCann, who is in charge of the site’s content and creative development.
About 300 art galleries operate in Beijing and about 300 in Shanghai: a relatively small number, Mr. Saatchi said, considering the surge in interest in Chinese work. China also has 100 to 200 auction houses, many of which sell contemporary works.
Like Stuart, the Chinese site is designed to be as navigable as possible, so that posting work will be as easy as opening an e-mail account. So far 23 Chinese students have posted work on the site.
Each has a distinct personality. Kang Can, a serious-looking young man photographed in sunglasses, writes, in perfect English, that he was born in 1982 in Chongqing and graduated from the Sichuan Fine Art Institute, and that he has already shown his work at Art Basel Miami. Among the 15 images he has posted are a series of paintings in which a sleeping infant is variously depicted in a chewing-gum wrapper, on top of a gun, on the rim of a KFC plastic cup and in other poses.
“Babies as a symbol of human purity came to this world simple and unadulterated,” Mr. Kang writes.
Some of the pages are more cosmopolitan than others. Stephanie Hueon Tung, a student at Peking University, writes that she recently graduated from Harvard. “Now living and working in the wonderful city of Beijing,” her posting says. “Fan of adrenaline and adventure. Olé!”
Ms. Tung shows six images from her “light writing” series, in which she scrawled in light on photographs ranging from a still life of a park bench to an image of a closed-up shop that she embellished with a heart-shaped graffito. Another student, Huiyuan Sun, has posted a work called “A Little Matter and My Face,” a series of 10 photographic self-portraits in which he depicts himself in many guises.
In a few weeks the Saatchi team hopes the new site will be as interactive as the English-language one, with a chat room in Mandarin and a forum encouraging artists to debate current issues. The team’s eventual goal is to make its chat rooms seamlessly international, so that students from all over the world can talk to one another in many languages.
As it did for Stuart, the Saatchi team is reaching out to art schools in China to let them know that their students can post pages at the site. “It’s all been word of mouth,” Mr. Rattu said.
One looming concern is potential censorship by the Chinese government. In recent months China has aggressively brokered controversial accords with Google and Yahoo to filter the search-engine services they offer in China and blocked access to some material offered by the Chinese version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Mr. Saatchi’s team knows it may encounter problems if work posted on the site is overtly political or directly critical of the Chinese leadership. Its pioneering effort is likely to be closely monitored by Western dealers and auction houses in the months ahead.
Pressed on that possibility Annabel Fallon, a spokeswoman for the Saatchi Gallery, played down the potential for conflict. “After discussions with the Chinese Embassy here we don’t believe censorship will be too much of a problem,” she said in a written statement. “According to the dealers and artists in China we are in contact with, government interference in the arts seems to be at a very low level in the last 10 years.”
She added, “We don’t foresee our site becoming a platform for anti-government propaganda, but we do of course aim to be respectful to the wishes of our host nation if our site starts being abused.”
In remaking his Web site nine months ago to appeal to artists and students and to be more interactive, Mr. Saatchi says, he resolved to buy nothing posted there for the site’s first year. Nonetheless he has already bought works elsewhere by popular Chinese artists like Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang. And when his new gallery, a 50,000-square-foot space on Kings Road in the Chelsea section of London, opens in the fall, its first show will be devoted to contemporary Chinese artists.
In the meantime he and his Internet team spend their days pondering ways of attracting more artists to the site. In addition to Stuart, for art students, and Your Gallery, a separate area where artists of all ages can post their work and sell it directly without relying on a dealer or other middleman, the site offers links to museums around the world and a magazine with art world news and feature articles.
It is also sponsoring a six-month competition called Showdown, the art Web equivalent of “Pop Idol” in Britain or “American Idol” in the United States. Artists registered at the site can enter works on which the Internet public will vote; the winner will get £1,000 (about $1,930) and a chance to show his or her work at the Saatchi Gallery when it opens. The runner-up will get £750, or about $1,450.
After posting its first call for submissions last week, the site reported nine million hits over a 24-hour period. The team will soon post the contest instructions in Mandarin so that Chinese artists can compete.
But Mr. Saatchi says he won’t stop with China. Over the next six months his team hopes to draw in artists from India, Russia, Spain and South America.