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    Competing Shows Weigh on Sales at Shanghai Contemporary Fair

    Now in its second year, the ShContemporary art fair attracted an international array of galleries, all of them installed in spacious booths in the cavernous, Soviet-designed Shanghai Exhibition Center Sept. 10–13.

    SHANGHAI—Now in its second year, the ShContemporary art fair attracted an international array of galleries, all of them installed in spacious booths in the cavernous, Soviet-designed Shanghai Exhibition Center Sept. 10–13.

    In addition to booths for more than 150 dealers, the fair included a “Best of Discovery” section featuring 32 emerging artists and 18 outdoor installations by more established names such as Wim Delvoye, Lawrence Weiner, and Zhan Wang. With an overabundance of biennials, triennials and art fairs taking place in Asia in the first two weeks of September, however, collectors had too many distractions competing for their attention, and far fewer than expected arrived in Shanghai for the fair.

    Exhibitors praised the organization of the fair, but “unfortunately business was very, very slow,” said Janine Cirincione, director of Jack Tilton Gallery. Tilton’s booth featured a mammoth sculpture of a nude woman by artist Xiang Jing, priced at $750,000, which returned to the artist’s Shanghai studio unsold after the fair.

    Another work from the fair did not stay in its booth for so long: While collectors Donald and Mera Rubell were sitting in the booth of Swiss Beijing dealer Urs Meile, censors came by and yanked Li Zhanyang’s sculpture Wu Sang Killing His Elder Brother’s Wife from its pedestal. The work is valued at €30,000 ($42,200), according to Meile, who had already sold A Piece of Tongue, an installation with two paintings by Li Dafung, for €65,000 ($91,500).

    Meile, who has worked in China since the late 1990s, seemed to accept the bare pedestal in his booth as part of doing business in China. “We will get it back, of course, after the fair,” he said.

    Max Protetch, who like Tilton has been doing business in China since the late 1990s, was more successful with moderately priced oil paintings in the $50,000 range by artist Ren Jian and photographs by Chen Qiulin and Hai Bo.

    The largest booth at the fair was occupied by Pace Beijing, which recently opened in a 22,000-square-foot former munitions plant in the 798 District with a show of portraits by such Western masters as Alex Katz, Chuck Close and Richard Prince alongside works by Chinese artists Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. Pace Beijing president Leng Lin reported the sale of a massive painting by Takashi Murakami to a mainland collector.

    At the fair, New York–based Pace director Peter Boris reported selling Yue Minjun’s Looking for Art, 2007, and Zhang Huan’s Spring Rain, 2008, as well as works by Zhang Xiaogang, Lui Jianhua, Song Dong and Tara Donovan, all priced close to $1 million.

    The gallery, which already represents Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan, announced on the eve of the fair that it would be working with Yue Minjun on a project-by-project basis.

    But despite this momentum, Pace officials admitted that the fair was still more of an exploratory mission than a major sales opportunity. “I don’t think anyone knocked it out of the park,” reported Boris, who had also brought works by Roy Lichtenstein, Michal Rovner, Tim Hawkinson and George Condo, many of which, such as Lichtenstein’s Yellow Cliffs, 1996, looked as if they were inspired by Asian landscape painting. None found takers. “I think in the two-to-five-year range, there will be a substantial group of Chinese collectors,” Boris said.

    Like Pace, many galleries who brought examples of international contemporary art were disappointed with the response. Galleria Continua, Beijing and San Gimignano, Italy, which promotes work by such artists as Anish Kapoor, Carlos Garaicoa, Mona Hatoum and Daniel Buren, found few takers. “Chinese buyers are not yet ready to buy non-Chinese art,” says Continua’s Beijing gallery manager Frederica Beltrame, noting that even though gallery officials did not expect major sales, they were disappointed by the low attendance at this year’s fair.

    Art galleries from Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia had major visibility at the fair, but even they found success mostly with Chinese artists. Gana Art Gallery, which is based in Seoul with branches in Paris and New York, reported sales of three works by Korean artists Lee Dong-Jae and Park Dae Sung, priced at $15,000 to $30,000.

    Courtney Plummer of Lehmann Maupin, New York, brought works by Lee Bul, Jennifer Steinkamp and Tracey Emin to the fair to give them more exposure in the Asian market, and took a longer view of the success of the fair. “We went in with no expectations because this is really more of a long-term commitment,” she said. She noted the sale of a hanging sculpture by Lee Bul, Sternbau, 2007, to a mainland collector for under $200,000. “This wasn’t like Basel,” she said. “This requires a lot more work.”