The award ceremony for the fourth, biennial Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA) took place on May 25, 2004.
Shanghai-born artist Xu Zhen, 27, won the top prize of US$3,000. Xu first gained recognition in the late 1990s for his body art. In 2001 he was invited to the 49th Venice Biennale with his video work "Rainbow."
Beijing artist, Gu Dexin, 42, received the Contribution Prize, newly introduced this year. Gu has devoted himself to exploring new techniques of artistic expression.
Song Tao, 25, a rising star in Shanghai's art circles, won the Young Artist's Prize. He is known for creatively depicting life in a busy metropolis in his cartoons and video games.
For many years, the best of China's conventional artists have had the semi-official Chinese Artists Association (CAA) to help them showcase and market their work. Every five years the CAA sponsors the Chinese National Fine Arts Exhibition. This attracts the attention of painters from local artists associations and schools of fine arts throughout the country. However, China's contemporary artists are not really catered for within the CAA. Mostly full-time professional artists, they must work under the pressure of commercial considerations.
And so in 1998 former Swiss Ambassador to China Uli Sigg founded the CCAA as a biennial award. It may only have a top prize of US$3,000 but it serves an important role in providing a platform for Chinese contemporary artists to show what they can do.
Sigg is an enthusiastic art collector. Starting in the 1990s he has already collected no fewer than 1,000 pieces of artwork by over 100 Chinese contemporary artists. According to him, China has many excellent artists actively engaged in contemporary art. Unfortunately they don't get enough support and encouragement. He hoped that by establishing this award, he could help create opportunities for Chinese artists' work to get noticed by the international art world.
Contemporary art is still at an early stage in China so heavy commercialization and marketing are not an immediate priority, Sigg noted. Art galleries and artistic foundations are not yet well established and the nation needs to further develop the infrastructure it needs to support its artists. Only once such matters have been successfully addressed can the world of Chinese contemporary art fully engage in dialogue first with the interested Chinese public and then with the wider international art community, he said.
Art is becoming globalized and sometimes it's hard to judge if an artist is from New York, London or Beijing. What cannot be denied is that at the global level, the influence of Chinese contemporary art is beginning to make its presence felt. Beijing and Shanghai are fast becoming major international metropolises injecting a new creative vigor into their artists. Chinese contemporary art is now poised on the eve of its integration into the mainstream international art world, Sigg observed.
Sigg points out that the influences of earlier artists and styles can be recognized in the work of Chinese artists just like it can be seen in the work of artists throughout the world. He sees this as an inevitable component of the process of artistic creativity and a matter of judgment for both collectors and critics. For instance, certain artistic styles currently seen in China are reminiscent of those popular in Western art some three or four decades ago. This doesn't necessarily mean that the artist is simply copying his or her predecessors' work. Very possibly similar social conditions have predetermined similar modes of expression irrespective of differences in time.
If a Western collector touring China for the first time jumps to the conclusion that Chinese artists are merely imitating the styles of Western art, that judgment is nothing but subjective conjecture, Sigg said.
Right from the start, Sigg intended that the CCAA should be an influential award capable of winning the artists' confidence. To this end he invited world-renowned collectors and exhibition-organizers to participate in reviewing the artwork. In 1998 Harald Szeemann was invited to take part in the review committee for the very first CCAA and ever since he has taken a deep interest in Chinese contemporary art. When Szeemann directed the Venice Biennale the following year he invited as many as 20 Chinese artists to participate in that exhibition.
The revolutionary spirit shown by young Chinese artists can probably best explain Harald Szeemann's interest in Chinese contemporary art. That spirit has not been seen in the West since the art revolution back in the 1960s. "Nowadays, the most serious, talented, modest and exciting painters come from China," said Szeemann.
"Besides commending promising artists, the CCAA opens a window for foreigners to take a look at Chinese contemporary art," said Gu Zhenqing, CAO of the CCAA.
Most CCAA winners have been well recognized by the international art world. As a result, Chinese contemporary artists have come to value the award greatly. However, the CCAA is not yet well known to the general public.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, June 14, 2004)