The new cultural revolution

Artworks from China and its neighbours are among the most sought-after by the world's collectors. Britain has been slow to pick up on the trend, but that's about to change, reports Louise Jury
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The Independent Online

It has invented gunpowder, paper and credit banking. It is the most populous country in the world and has the fastest-growing economy. And now it is set to take global art by storm. At least that is the prediction of Philip Dodd, the retiring director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who has named China - and its Asian neighbours - as the future.

It has invented gunpowder, paper and credit banking. It is the most populous country in the world and has the fastest-growing economy. And now it is set to take global art by storm. At least that is the prediction of Philip Dodd, the retiring director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who has named China - and its Asian neighbours - as the future.

"The 19th century belonged to Britain, the 20th century belonged to America. Everybody in the 20th century wanted to be American, they wanted Levi jeans and to be Elvis Presley," Mr Dodd said in an interview yesterday. "And the 21st century will belong to China. I see no evidence but that China is going to get more and more important." By the time China hosts the Olympic games in Beijing in 2008, Mr Dodd said, "almost everything in this room will have 'Made in China' stamped on it."

For those with their fingers on the cultural zeitgeist, the signs are already manifest. Philip Dodd has a reason for promoting Chinese arts. He has handed in his notice at the ICA to launch his own consultancy, Made in China, which will forge cultural projects between China and the UK. But he is not alone in embracing the arts from the East.

The Chinese artist Zhao Bandi is being fêted in Britain this summer with a series of shows in Manchester, Birmingham and Portsmouth. An exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography is being planned for the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester is hosting a show for September featuring the two performance artists who created a scandal when they jumped on Tracey Emin's bed at the Tate. And the Burrell Collection in Glasgow has opened its first major exhibition of ancient Chinese treasures this week.

But compared with countries such as America and France, Britain has been slow to pick up on the new cultural revolution that is exporting a vibrant generation of new artists and designers to the West while absorbing the best the West has to offer into its classical traditions at home.

The acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid is yet to have her first building in the UK, but she is creating an opera house in China. After a successful trip with the British Council last year, the artist Antony Gormley is back in China this week for the opening of an exhibition of his work which has been bought by the Guangdong museum. The magazines Time Out and Vogue are opening offices there. "They are building museums on a daily basis in China," Mr Dodd told Sky News.

Charlotte Edwards, deputy editor of Art Review magazine, which is dedicating an issue to China in November, stressed that it was not only China that was booming, but artists in countries such as Taiwan and Korea. Until now these countries had not enjoyed the commercial infrastructure of galleries that drove art trends in the West. But that was changing with the emergence of influential venues such as Shang-Art in Shanghai and curators such as Hou Hanru who were proving incredible ambassadors.

She said: "It's not so easy to get out there, so the money isn't there yet but it's where a lot of the big-name collectors are looking. The art world likes nothing better than to have their place of the moment and China is certainly that place."

She hopes Britain will make some effort to understand what is happening. "In Australia, they're really brilliant at looking at art from South-east Asia and Asia in general," she said, explaining that Britain had traditionally proved less receptive because a lot of the art is very political. "It's not necessarily common currency."

Amelie von Wedel, of the Red Mansion Foundation which has been forging cultural exchanges between Britain and China since 2001, said contemporary Chinese art began to flourish in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but Britain had been slower than some other countries to notice.

It is their sense of history that makes China's contemporary artists particularly strong, she believes. In contrast with the introversion of most Western artists, the best-known Chinese practitioners have survived a series of major events from Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution onwards which gives a social context to their work.

She said: "Now suddenly everyone wants to do business with the Chinese. For me, it's a bit like a gold rush. Chinese art is also very original, incredibly fresh, and they are making use of new technologies. It is the creativity of a country moving forward incredibly fast. It is very interesting and very powerful."

Meredith Etherington-Smith, a cultural commentator who is working on an exhibition on the French influence on Chinese arts and crafts that opens in Shanghai in November, pointed out that the East and West had influenced each other for centuries. "The whole of 18th-century Europe was mad about chinoiserie," she said.

Philip Dodd believes that Britain has much to learn from the East. "The culture there has an optimism and a riskiness. They are ambitious and confident and they are willing to experiment. We need an infusion of that here."

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO CONTEMPORARY ASIAN ART

TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Born in Tokyo in 1963, the Japanese artist and designer is famous for his work for the French fashion house Louis Vuitton - the "Murakami bag" launched last spring, featuring the LV logo in colourful cartoon iconography, was an immediate hit.

Rated seventh in Art Review's Art Power 100 in October - one behind Charles Saatchi - he is considered one of the hottest pop artists of the 1990s.

Classically trained at Tokyo's University of Fine Arts, he fuses historic Japanese painting with contemporary cartoons and his work has been exhibited in Asia, America and Europe.

His New York show last October featured two 30ft-wide floating eyeballs, a 30ft-high Buddha and a forest of mushroom-shaped seating for visitors. His recurring character, Mr DOB, appears on factory-produced T-shirts, key-rings and mugs worldwide.

Murakami says his work deals with bravery and power: lurking within the cartoon world of mushrooms and smiling daisies are influences as diverse as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Hiroshima. Some critics, however, dismiss his work as commercial eye candy and "over-the-top cuteness".

He is also a curator in his own right, following his staging of Super Flat, an exhibition that showcased contemporary Japanese artists.

TOMOKO TAKAHASHI

The Tokyo-born installation artist, 38, made the 2000 Turner Prize shortlist for a room full of junk designed to suggest the aftermath of an earthquake. Learning How To Drive featured twisted steering wheels, bollards, traffic signs, discarded tyres and hubcaps, and was displayed at Tate Britain. It was inspired by the artist learning to drive.

YANG FUDONG

Born in Beijing in 1971, Yang Fudong is among several Chinese film makers recording the whirlwind changes in China. His experimental films often show alienated youth. In Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part I, Yang films his well-dressed friends as they ascend Huangshan Mountain, talking with one another about life.

ZHAO BANDI

Born in Beijing in 1963, Bandi trained as a painter but is famous for his photographs of himself in various situations with his toy panda, reaching mass audiences with giant posters in city centres. The panda symbolises China's "one-child" policy and Bandi's work often parodiesstate propaganda. Currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery, and on poster sites around the city.

CAI GUO-QIANG

Initially trained in stage design, this 46-year-old Chinese artist began working with gunpowder to "confront the suppression from the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China". In a work at the Tate Modern in January 2003, 2km of fuse, 25kg of powder and 200 shells combined to form a dragon of fire shooting across the Thames.

DAYANITA SINGH

After years of documenting poverty, this Delhi-born 43-year-old photographer has challenged the stereotypical image of India as a teeming crowd of humanity. She has become known for her portraits of India's urban middle and upper class family and work life and documentation of the socio-economic changes transforming the Indian family.

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