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Sotheby's Hong Kong To Hold Contemporary Chinese Art Spring Sale
Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats by Liu Xiaodong (est. HK$45-55 million). © Sotheby's Images.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s forthcoming Spring sale of Contemporary Chinese Art will be held on Wednesday, 9th April 2008 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The sale will bring to the market important works by numerous renowned Chinese contemporary artists alongside innovative pieces by emerging artists. The total pre-sale estimate for the series of over 270 total lots stands at HK$250 million.

Evelyn Lin, Head of Contemporary Chinese Art Department, Sotheby's China and Southeast Asia, said, “With the Beijing Olympics approaching in 2008, the focus of the world is on China. We have full confidence in the vibrant art market in the region and Sotheby's has, therefore, selected a number of extremely rare and relevant masterpieces to respond to this increased interest. These pieces include Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats by Liu Xiaodong and The Forbidden City by Guo Bochuan. These works are relevant to many generations of the Chinese community.”

The sale will be highlighted by the exceptional Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats by Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963) (est. HK$45-55 million), one of the most prominent neo-realist Chinese contemporary artists. This large-scale work consists of nine pairs of 200 by 100cm paintings, each juxtaposing a Taiwanese soldier with a soldier from mainland China. This monumental group of paintings represents the artist’s profound response to a sensitive issue: China’s relations across the Taiwan Strait. Within Liu’s entire oeuvre, this is the only work that directly addresses political issues.

Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats is a bold statement by the artist, standing in contrast to his usual non-judgmental and even impersonal approach. It is a powerful indictment of the present nationalistic controversy raging across the Taiwan Strait. “In art, it is easier to put them (the soldiers from Taiwan and Mainland China) together, to have them collaborate. I was also trying to show that they are not so different, they are like brothers.”

The piece was executed in 2004 for the “Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art – 18 Solo Exhibitions” curated by Cai Guo-Qiang, another notable Chinese contemporary artist. The museum is located on Kinmen (Quemoy), a small archipelago in the Taiwan Strait controlled by Taiwan, once the location of fierce fighting between Taiwan and the mainland. Cai invited 18 Chinese artists from Taiwan and mainland China to exhibit their works of art in one of the bunkers, one of which was this present work. Liu spent three weeks in the soldiers’ barracks on Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats (detail) both sides of the Strait, portraying nine soldiers from each side, and establishing their names and nationalities despite the fact that it was difficult to distinguish one from another. Liu thus successfully transgresses and blurs the border between mainland China and Taiwan, with the clear message: beyond nationality and politics, all humans are the same. Liu affirms the essential universality of humanity.

The sale will also feature another remarkable painting The Forbidden City by Guo Bochuan (Kuo Po-ch’uan; 1901-1974) (est. HK$30-40 million), an important Chinese artist from Taiwan. Executed in 1946 during the artist’s stay in Beijing well before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when Western aesthetics and philosophy were more prominent, the present lot is a true rarity, a gem: one of the few paintings dealing with this subject matter that survived the Cultural Revolution and the biggest of its kind in Guo’s oeuvre.

Guo’s twelve years in Beijing were the most significant phase of his artistic career. Here he combined the spirit of Chinese painting with Western painting techniques, and was greatly influenced by his close friend from Beijing, Ryuzaburo Umehara, a student of Renoir. They often went sketching together, captivated by the beauty of Chinese architecture and the magnificence of the Forbidden City. This gradually became the inspiration behind a series of important works featuring Beijing. The painting is a vista from a vantage point in the renowned Jingshan Park while the strikingly coloured roof tiles of the palace are rendered in shades of flaming red, textured by Guo’s unique calligraphic brushstrokes. The Forbidden City is resplendent in light hues, as in an opaque watercolour, offering a strikingly refreshing and yet traditionally majestic view of the palace. The rhythm of the short brushstrokes is a vivid testament to the influence of Chinese calligraphy, the distinctive Chinese spirit so redolent in Guo’s art.

Another highlight of the sale will be the leading Cynical Realist artist Yue Minjun’s (b. 1962) Take The Plunge (est. HK$12-20 million) executed in 2002 which, following his The Massacre at Chios and Execution achieving the highest value at the Autumn sales in Sotheby’s Hong Kong and London respectively in 2007, is expected to generate intense competition at the auction. Measuring an enormous 300cm by 220cm, this painting is without doubt one of the most important works drawn from the series of laughing self-images, in maniacal grins and cynical grimace, that are so instantly recognizable. In a similar vein to The Splash by David Hockney (b. 1937), previously been sold at a world record price at Sotheby’s, London in 2006, Take The Plunge draws its inspiration from this renowned Bristish artist’s figurative Californian swimming pools. Seven figures, each bearing the grinning, inane beaming smile representing Yue Minjun’s distaste towards the materialism and spiritual emptiness of contemporary Chinese culture stand at the edge of a swimming pool, the rays of the sun reflecting against the water. It is nevertheless a forceful piece of a taunt at Mao’s typical image and Communist propaganda and posters.

This painting is similar to his important series since 1998 in which Yue alters well-known compositions, substituting the figures with his own self-image. Taking iconic works, he throws them into discordance either by substituting the figures into a painting with images of himself or of others or by eliminating human presence altogether, which convey irreverent ambivalence as the only remaining defense against political oppression in the 1990s.

The acrylic on canvas by Liu Ye (b.1964) stands out from his other works which are normally free of political overtones. In this instance, Love Is Romantic (est. HK7-8 million), executed in 2001, bears a striking red sun in the background with its perceptible association with Communism. It is also his only work inspired by ballet.

In a sophisticated composition of a circle over a square canvas, the vivid red colour of the sun and the two main protagonists in Love Is Romantic are rendered into cartoon-like images which distinguish his meticulous techniques and unique humorous style. The male and female ballerina, both en pointe, could easily have come straight from the classic Russian ballet The Nutcracker, also an unforgettable childhood memory of Liu. Ballet appeared in China during the Cultural Revolution in the form of “model plays” and quite distinct from the Western form of the art, it is composed of rigid postures and movements. The elegance and beauty of The Nutcracker captivated Liu and inspired him to create this work.

However, the innocent guise is betrayed by the primary colour in use and it is not a matter of chance that red was chosen as the dominant shade on the canvas. Red has long been symbolic of Communism per Liu’s comment, “I was born in the revolution decade. In my childhood, I often drew aeroplanes, cannons, war vessels, sometimes red suns and sunflowers.” As such, Love Is Romantic is loaded with political connotations and yet, it is for the viewer to decide for himself what the artist wi

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