Thursday, May 2, 2013


“What price art?” my wife kept saying, as we went through the art sale.

This kept annoying me.

“It says right there!” I’d say.

“But I mean, what price beauty? Who can put a price on art?” she went on. “Who can put a value on what you’ll pay to have something that makes you feel good?”

“I’ll have a go,” I said. “I reckon It’s a fair bit less than what is says right there.”

We were perusing Beijing’s Affordable Art Fair, an annual exhibition to showcase, and hopefully exchange for legal currency, the paintings and sculptures of some of China’s leading young artists.

No, wait. It used to be called the Affordable Art Fair. Now, tellingly, it is not. The first year we went it boasted of being something of a “10,000 yuan bin d’art". Nothing over 10,000 RMB, they said. This also meant there was very little under 9,999. But one of the many, varied, yet still single digit "good things about Beijing" is that you can acquire original, innovative art for relatively not much by western standards. So we picked up a few.

As with everything in Beijing, by last year things had changed. I’m talking about inflation. Last year they said there was nothing over 20,000 yuan. So if you want to go all philistine, smart-arsey and missing-the-point, like me, you’d use 19,999 as that minimum mark here. Still we got a couple, and they look good. Suddenly it feels cool to have something original on the walls. And not a print. Like "Dogs Playing Pool".

At the art fair on Monday.
This is the type of person I
hang with now. Not bad for
a boy from rural Australia,

This is my posse. These are my people. Except the
woman second from left, who's just someone vaguely
disturbed that I should be taking a photo with her
in it. But then, we go to art shows to be disturbed,
don't we? Nice that they're flanked by paintings of
a headless child and a drowned woman. Nice.

This woman is from last year. She's so last year.

Things are happening in art in China, as part of the country’s reformation, or Renaissance. Chinese artists are hot property in the west. Before the country opened up, noone had previously heard of them, or quite often the type of things they were doing.

Greg, an American friend more canny and, shall we say, rich, than me, saw the potential early on. He bought a painting from a much vaunted young artist in 1998 for $US20,000. How we all laughed and pitied the fool. He sold it a few years later in the US for $US450,000. Then it sold at auction a few years after that for $US1.8 million.

But we not in it for the money, as my wife, depressingly, kept reminding me. This was a bad thing to hear. For this year, the art fair dropped any pretensions to being affordable, to me anyway, and just changed it’s name to Surge Art Beijing. (It closes at the San Li Tun Village at 6pm tonight if you’re quick, Beijingers).

If we were into it for the gambling value I might have been more enthused. But we were into it for aesthetics, for art’s sake. This of course throws up relationship issues. Are we into the same art? And if not, what does it say about us? Should one of us suffer for our art - i.e. foregoing the art we really want because our spouse thinks it is bollocks? That sort of thing.

My preferred branches of the arts, those I know something about and which move me, are music and football.  When it comes to wall hangings, I’m usually fairly malleable, if not blasé and ignorant.

My wife, Stef, is the opposite. She knows about art. The great pity is that whilst she likes fairly harmless, “easy”, non-provocative music and films – things that last three minutes or two hours – she’s quite happy to have something very bloody provocative and disturbing hanging on our wall to see many times a day for the rest of our lives.

Like dead fish.

I’d prefer a good train, sailing ship or landscape. Stef, who holds up Pretty Woman as a tour de force of the film genre, conversely thinks it’s perfectly fine if a wall hanging in our own home makes us feel somewhat uncomfortable, disturbed, weirded out, or just sick.

I could get up in the morning and say “Ugh that horrible thing on the wall again”. And then again a minute later on the way back. And many more times that day, to be repeated every day. And that would be fine. For art is supposed to get a reaction.

Like dead fish.

As in any marriage, dead fish left hanging up around the house was the source of most consternation during this art fair. Stef the art buff loved it. She really really loved it, I think a lot more than me. And no, I don’t mean she loved it a lot more than I did.
Let’s look at it.


It's not an enticing advert for the fish markets. It's a painting. Of fish. Fish who, quite clearly, and by virtue of the fact that they are not in water, are dead.

I said if it was a smallish sized thing which we could hang somewhere appropriate, like the kitchen, then maybe.

But Stef was thinking more lounge room. And this was not just any painting of a selection of creatures departed to fish heaven. It's freakin huge!

A portrait of the wife as a young woman, next to, and
worryingly transfixed by, those big dead fish.

Stef maintains art doesn't have to look particularly 'nice'. It could be whimsy, unfathomable, esoteric, provocative, etc. Which was why she also wanted this ...

A giant four-foot high raw egg in motion.
Skillful? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Icky? Yes.
Especially since it could be called
Raw Egg In A Time of Bird Flu.
But is it art? Or is it an egg? Call me old
fashioned, but I was brought up to
believe that eggs were eggs!

This, from last year, was done by the same
artist, Li "I Am The Egg Man" Jin Guo.

And so was this. I like it, because it evoked for me the twin
factors of eggs and "Dogs Playing Pool".
 Yes, but is it art?

And is this art?
No, it's just giant boobs.
 But what price giant boobs?

Stef fell in love with the fish. Luckily, we each went to the art fair in possession of a veto card. As in jury selection, where a lawyer can reject a potential juror just because, one of us could block the purchase of a painting with little or no explanation required.

But come on? What did I need to say?

You could hang them sideways and
they'd still be dead fish.

I accepted all the things that made this a painting well done. It's an oil so well painted it looks like a photo - hyper realism if you want to get funky about it. Better still, toss in the word 'neo' before it. Or in the middle is OK too.

The colours are beautiful, the depth, etc. Yet I had a sticking point. Or maybe a sticky point. I could imagine the smell of the fish. Stef argued that whilst the subject matter may, at first glance, appear to be something, this should instead be viewed as an artwork most peaceful.

"Yes," I conceded. "They are peaceful because they are dead." It's why cemeteries are quiet places.

Plus, they weren't just dead somethings, but dead fish. There are many sayings pertaining to dead fish. Whichever way you looked at it, I was staring down the barrel of have a large cadaverous aquatic still-death on my wall forever more.

We bumped into a female friend who said not only should we buy them, we should hang them on our bedroom wall. Either she was joking or sex is no longer an important part of her marriage. 

As the debate raged, I was getting desperate. I considered putting in an ambit claim, insisting that I loved something which equally spoke to me, and saying, while crossing my arms, that Stef couldn't have her fish if I couldn't have this thing I loved so much.

Like one of those zebra-on-the-toilet type of things ...

I'm not too sure what the artist is trying to
say here. But I think it's something like
"I am a nutjob".

Or this ...

Or this ...

Or this ...

"Mousey Dong"

Or perhaps something creepy ...

Or a clearly pissed-off Chinese clown.

Or canefield spoon murderer ...

Or his victim?

This last one was the clincher. I was going to insist I loved it, and that if Stef just didn't "get it", or if it was too real for her, it showed conclusively I knew more about art than she did.

Instead, I played fair and truthful. After what became three days of angsting - in which I was sure my fair-minded and accepting wife was about to say "OH JUST LIKE THE BOODY PAINTING WILL YOU?" - I finally had to insist my veto card was going to be used. The defences were going to hold in the Battle of Dead Fish.

Thankfully, this being China, noone was bothered by the fact everyone was taking photos all over the place. So today I was able to present my darling Stef with a gift.

The fish, printed out on plain A4 paper, and blue-tacked
up in the kitchen, where they are most appropriate. Plus
they cost 30,000 RMB less than the version Stef wanted.

*  *  *

PS: We did find something we both liked.

An out-of-focus photo of some people in a park. We could
easily have bought it. But then, quoting an oft-said phrase
among art cynics, I thought "I could do that". I know this
to be true, for I have taken many out of focus photos before.

So, while Stef stayed musing in the gallery and the kids and I waited outside for what seemed like hours but was actually an eternity, I tried to make one of my own, using our own soft and fuzzy kids.

See it's easy. The pole in the middle illustrates "the yawning
chasm which can exist between two siblings hatched of the
same womb". It also keeps the camera focused on the

Then I really got into it.

There's lots happening in this shot. Most importantly,
there's a bit of Chinese writing, which always looks edgy.

Then I took this shot, a flight
of whimsy, if you will.

Then when I look down to see the piece we'd already bought, I was inspired to create this ...

It's from my Bubble Wrap Period.

No comments:

Post a Comment