What do a giant polyurethane mushroom, a taxidermy camel stuffed inside a suitcase, and a room that simulates rainfall have in common? They are all recent works of art by up-and-coming contemporary artists who are challenging the traditional tenets of fine art by exploring new mediums and ways of engaging with the viewer outside of the conventional gallery setting.
Alongside the conventional disciplines of drawing, painting and sculpture, today’s art encompasses a range of mediums such as graffiti, video projections, interactive installations, performance, street art and sculpture and open-source online art- works. With the internet enabling artists to promote their work to a global audience and new markets emerging to challenge established cultural centres, conditions have apparently never been better for anyone wanting to create and distribute art, and the result is a boom in original and innovative work.
At the elite end of the contemporary art market, venerable auction houses routinely achieve eye-watering prices for artworks by famous names such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, but the 21st century has seen a shift in focus away from the traditional strongholds of the United States and Western Europe, and towards emerging markets, including Asia, South America and the Middle East.
Opportunities for viewing and buying art in new markets such as China and India are increasing in response to greater demand from an expanding middle class. Contemporary art in China is enjoying a boom prompted by the introduction of the ‘reform and opening up’ policy, initiated in 1978, and by the emergence of a new generation of prospective buyers. Young, newly wealthy urban Chinese are consuming art alongside fashion and electronics as a symbol of status and taste.
More than 80,000 people attended the fifth edition of the India Art Fair in New Delhi in February, where contemporary art from across Asia was exhibited by more than 100 galleries. Neha Kirpal, the fair’s founding director, explained in a statement that its direction is influenced by prevailing conditions in the art sector, with the focus “on developing new audiences, and initiating new energy in the Indian art market”. These events mark a significant shift in the value structure of the global art market, promoting local artists over established Western names.
Across the world, cities are investing heavily in new galleries and museums in a bid to raise their profile on the international creative scene. In Hong Kong, China, the development of the new West Kowloon Cultural District in the city’s Victoria Harbour will create a designated area for art venues, as well as an opera house and several theatres. Elsewhere, work is also continuing on the Saadiyat Cultural District of Abu Dhabi, which will host the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a performing arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Alongside a boom in the construction of permanent cultural venues, an increasingly packed calendar of international art fairs is providing a platform for the best global talent to show their work. Established events such as Miami’s Art Basel, Frieze London, the Venice Biennale and FIAC in Paris have been joined by art fairs in Moscow, Marrakech, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and many more. The emergence of these new fairs can be attributed to the ease with which art lovers, collectors and gallerists can now navigate the globe, and Antonia Carver, Director of Art Dubai believes the emirate’s reputation as a global transport hub is key to the success of her event.
“Increasingly, we see Art Dubai becoming a place to explore the connections between East-East and South-South, and this is something that’s very exciting, not only for us here in the region, but also for institutions and museums in Europe and the US looking to position themselves within the art world of today – a world that is globalised and complex, and that demands direct flight connections as much as it does great art and scintillating conversations,” adds Carver.
While galleries, fairs and auctions remain the mainstay of the contemporary art scene, some sub-genres that have predominantly – and often wilfully – remained outside of the traditional art establishment are rapidly gaining greater acceptance and credibility. Street art, for example, has been propelled into the public consciousness, thanks largely to the success of British artist Banksy, who has achieved an unprecedented crossover from graffiti to gallery exhibitions and record-breaking auction sales.
The respect and recognition afforded to Banksy and an increasing number of his contemporaries has helped bring the work of current street artists to new audiences, as Richard Howard-Griffin, Director of the Street Art London organisation, explains: “Street art is becoming more accepted by the mainstream art world and is now seen as a viable route for artists. I believe that some of the top street artists working today can hold their own among the world’s best living artists.”
In July, Howard-Griffin curated an exhibition of work by leading street artists and graffiti writers at the five-star ME London hotel, featuring paintings projected on to the walls of a marble atrium, colourful canvases hung in the corridors and sculptural mushrooms by South African artist Christiaan Nagel popped up in unexpected places. “The fact that we’re exhibiting this sort of work in such a prestigious venue will raise eyebrows, but ME London wants to promote culture on its doorstep, so the collaboration makes sense, and is indicative that street art is now being taken more seriously,” suggests Howard-Griffin.
The use of digital media represents the latest phase in the art’s unceasing evolution, which constantly adapts to mirror social, political and technological contexts. Technology, globalisation and urbanisation provide inspiration to the current generation of contemporary artists, as well as an unprecedented choice of mediums with which to work and new ways to present and publicise their art. Add to that a healthy auction market and an array of emerging events and exhibition spaces, and it would appear that we’re entering a golden age for art.