Last year when I went to Beijing to get a taste of its exploding contemporary art scene, I was especially taken by the monumental and rather dramatic art installation by Qiu Anxiong in the cavernous space of the Universal Studios Gallery. In my Art Talk about the Chinese art scene, I described the dimly lit room dominated by a railroad car – not a full-scale replica, but the real thing, which I recognized immediately. I rode similar trains as a child in Soviet Russia in the 50's and 60's. At the gallery, one was invited to climb into this no-frills railroad car where every window was used as a screen for projecting black and white documentary footage of 20th century Chinese history, with special emphasis on the brutality experienced by Chinese people during WWII and the Cultural Revolution. I responded to this installation both as a monumental sculpture and as a theater performance, where one finds oneself thrust unexpectedly onto the stage. The title of the installation, "Staring Into Amnesia," refers to a painful chapter in Chinese history that many people would rather forget.
Now, more than six months later, I read in the New York Times that during last week's Art Basel, the world's most prestigious contemporary art fair, long lines of spectators formed to climb aboard the railroad car of Qiu Anxiong's "Staring Into Amnesia." It was an instant hit with the international audience. I hope it's only a matter of time before we will have a chance to see this important artwork here in the United States. I start to salivate at the very thought of this railroad car on display, let's say in the cavernous space of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary.
Here on the home front, with the price of gasoline quickly approaching $5 per gallon, I am becoming more judicious about seeing art exhibitions outside of LA. Going to museums in San Diego or Santa Barbara, Long Beach or La Jolla used to cost me roughly half a tank of gas, or about $15. Now, with price almost doubled, I think twice before embarking on an out-of-town trip. While we in America have the blues about our stumbling economy, Russians cash in on soaring oil prices. Not all Russians, for sure, but a lucky few billionaires and a number of multimillionaires, whose appetite for art – especially contemporary art – creates headlines. That definitely was the case with last month's record sale prices at Sotheby's and Christie's, where Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid $86 million for a large painting of a sleeping nude by Lucian Freud and $33 million for a triptych by Francis Bacon.
It feels like it was just yesterday that, in the search for status, newly wealthy Russians were eager to acquire expensive Faberge Easter eggs. Today, the stakes are much higher, and there is growing demand for the best, or at least the most fashionable of contemporary art. It's been about a hundred years since two Moscow collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, would repeatedly travel to Paris, buying dozens of the best and the edgiest works by Matisse and Picasso. Today, the pendulum has swung back. Another eastern European collector, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, established a private museum in Kiev with works by Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky, and Takashi Murakami, among others. His latest acquisition was a $20 million-plus shiny bauble by Jeff Koons, a gigantic metal sculpture in the shape of a heart. As they say, money cannot buy you love, but it can definitely put you in the limelight.
Banner image: Qiu Anxiong, Installation view, Staring into Amnesia; Universal Studio, Beijing