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The Rising Appeal of Asian Art in London

Scholarly representations of rocks and the natural world occupy the work of the most sought-after contemporary Asian artists. Explore the market’s collectable heights and inky depths

As Asia’s wealth continues to grow, so does the region’s art market. Asian artists are achieving record prices at auction, and galleries around the world are representing a record number in response to collectors’ interests – and Mayfair is no exception.

“South Korean artists represent our five bestselling artworks at the moment,” says Jean-David Malat, director of Opera Gallery. “Sculptors like Seo Young Deok or innovative mixed media artists such as Ran Hwang have now entered collections alongside renowned international artists.”

The gallery will host a group show of Asian art next year including Hwang, who brings tiny buttons, beads and pins together to form intricate Buddhas, blossoms and birds on vast panels, inspired by natural motifs and Zen Buddhism.

Malat also holds works by Lee Ufan, perhaps one of the best known practicing South Korean artists. Ufan’s £1 million With Winds chased the hammer prices achieved by Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby’s this October, and Opera Gallery currently holds a smaller scale example from the same monochrome series.

This ever-increasing appetite for Asian art has also encouraged new spaces to flourish on the continent itself. Fifth-generation dealer Fayez Barakat has just opened a new gallery in Seoul, joining his spaces in Mayfair, Beverly Hills and Abu Dhabi. “By choosing a modern city with such a profound history and dynamic future,” says the dealer, “we are taking a step further in our vision of integrating ancient art in contemporary times.”

It’s true that at Sotheby’s October contemporary sale in Hong Kong, which totalled about £8.5 million, household names such as Kusama Yayoi, Nara Yoshitomo and Ai Weiwei continued to lead the pack. Yet another sale dedicated to contemporary ink art brought in nearly £3 million and presents a group of living artists revitalising ancient traditions.

“From calligraphy to watercolour, Daoist paintings to porcelain, ink is and always will be what defines Asia in artistic history,” says Mayfair gallerist Ben Brown. “It’s a pretty small category compared to the rest of the contemporary Asian art market, because it appeals to a very select group of collectors who are generally also interested in classical Chinese ink paintings and history,” says Mee-Seen Loong, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary ink art.

Although growing slowly, ink represents a sound market that is still in its early stages – and indeed collectible. Works might start at a few thousand pounds at auction, like Chen Chi-Kwan’s charming Autumn Colours that sold for £6,306 at Sotheby’s sale. It also boasts a broad visual spectrum.

“Many of [these] artists are very scholarly, so will choose subjects linked to the literati: landscapes, studies of rocks and flowers,” Loong describes. “There is another group that I would consider diarists, recording everyday life and some portraits. Then there’s a group that tends towards abstraction.” A common thread are those who were born in China but have lived in the United States for some years.

Among the most popular at auction is Liu Dan, whose representations of scholar’s rocks are particularly sought-after. These stones with unusual shapes have inspired Chinese literati about the wonders of nature for over a thousand years, representing a ‘microcosm of the universe’ upon which to meditate. One such piece by Dan sold for £431,852 at Sotheby’s, the second-highest price achieved at October’s ink sale, followed by the artist’s Sunflower (£163,962) that features a calligraphic inscription of a letter from Vincent van Gogh.

Other big names include C.C. Wang and Xu Bing, while works by Zao Wou-Ki continue to stun at all levels. The late Chinese-French artist’s work straddles Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, as seen in Sotheby’s beautiful evening sale headliner Paysage dans la Lune that sold for around £4.6 million, and smaller ink works for upwards of £43,000.

From 3 to 12 November, the 19th edition of Asian Art in London will bring together more than 60 dealers, auction houses and museums across the capital. Mayfair specialists will open their doors until late on 7 November and stage exhibitions to coincide with the event – and the prevailing popularity of ink art can be found here too.

Gallery Elena Shchukina will present Returning Home, an exhibition of contemporary ink wash and oil paintings by Paris-based Chinese artist Chen Jiang-Hong from 3 November. It is influenced by his time living between two cultures, and merges colourful abstraction with the practice of ancient Chinese calligraphy.

Elsewhere, Eskenazi on Clifford Street will show paintings by modern-day literati champion Zeng Xiaojun until 25 November. He has created ten pieces especially for the show – mainly bonsai trees and twisting roots – that are not only astonishingly detailed, but hauntingly realistic.

Away from the cross-capital event, Rossi & Rossi’s roster includes Ma Desheng, a self-trained woodblock craftsman from Beijing. His monochrome prints depict the human condition under Chinese Communism during the 1970s, and the gallery holds a strong collection of his large-scale nudes created in the decades after he had relocated to Europe.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based artist Nicole Wong uses ink in an altogether different manner in Until I Get It Right, made up of thousands of dates stamped – just like in library books – in uniform columns beginning with the artist’s date of birth in 1990 and ending in 2014.

Among the artists that Ben Brown Fine Arts has exhibited this year is Qin Feng, whose silk cotton and linen paper works either use ink or borrow heavily from the tradition in acrylic. At Sotheby’s, two of his ink, coffee and tea on linen paper works were estimated from £20,000.

“Collectors are gaining access to a lot of great artists as yet unheard of in the West,” says the gallerist. “With ink, contemporary artists are looking to reshape this ancient medium and transform it into something completely innovative.”