Last year, Chinese scroll artist Zhang Daqian raked in $506 million in auction sales, surpassing Andy Warhol by a good $175 million. This is significant.
Asia’s appetite for art has expanded in direct proportion with the region’s rapidly developing economy, which has been largely unfazed by the U.S. financial and European debt crises. China, which is opening museums at a rate of about 100 a year, now accounts for 41 percent of total world art revenue, up from 33 percent in 2010, and shows no signs of slowing. At this point, it is not unthinkable that New York might give way to Hong Kong as the world’s art capital.
While this market boom and the artistic excitement it has stoked is certainly thrilling, it also saddles museum curators, especially in the West, with a gigantic responsibility: to tell a story of contemporary Asian art independent of the one the market does (and media broadcasts), delving into the nooks between the numbers and exposing phenomena to which the metrics may be blind.
“Phantoms of Asia” at the Asian Art Museum is a historically significant show in this regard. With 60 contemporary works by 31 artists, it is the largest contemporary exhibition to date at the museum—one of the largest institutions devoted entirely to Asian art in the Western world. As such, the exhibition had a number of important choices to make and questions to answer: among them, how to delimit the show thematically (if at all), and how to define Asia in the first place.