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The queen of eastern art

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  • Pearl Lam is committed to Chinese art and is part of the contemporary boom
  • She says western conceptions of Chinese art are of "political painting"
  • In China art and art buyers are being influenced by western trends
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By Mairi Mackay
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(CNN) -- "What is Chinese contemporary art?" muses Pearl Lam tousling her streaked hair, jangling industrial looking bangles.

Pearl Lam attends the after show party following the FENDI Great Wall of China Fashion Show

Pearl Lam attends the after show party following the FENDI Great Wall of China Fashion Show

She is sitting on a zebra print sofa in her Beijing home surrounded by an eccentric mish-mash of contemporary art and furniture, some of which is by Chinese artists she has helped to install on the scene. Antique Chinese chairs sit side-by-side with modern pieces by one of her protégés, contemporary artist Shao Fan.

"I like integration and I like mixture. I don't like a total look. I don't like the minimalist. I like the "Pearl" look," Lam explains.

Like her decorating tastes, Lam is a woman of contradictions. You could say she is the perfect embodiment of the many paradoxes of a newly emerging Chinese culture.

She steps out to the best parties in the latest fashions, but her socialite lifestyle belies a strong intellectual streak and commitment to Chinese art, which has placed her at the heart of the country's booming contemporary scene.

Which is why when she founded her first art gallery in 1992 she decided to call it "Contrasts."

"I am very eclectic and I like differences, and differences for me [are] very important," says Lam.

She extended her personal outlook into the gallery and its overarching themes are the relationship between art, architecture and design, and celebrating difference.

Since the mid-90s she has organized numerous exhibitions notable for shaking up people's perceptions.

She has hitched a ride on the tails of the zeitgeist and as Chinese art exploded internationally, Lam's empire expanded. She now has galleries in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Hong Kong and London and plans for another in Los Angeles.

Lam has borne witness to the growing popularity of her country's art for the best part of 20 years: "Since the late 80s and early 90s western connoisseurs have been collecting [Chinese art]. The Swiss, the Germans and the French, and then the last three years it has just exploded. The market really exploded because of investment," she observes.

But back to the question of what Chinese contemporary art is.

Historically, there have always been two different but parallel kinds of Chinese art, according to Lam.

"Traditionally we have export art, export porcelain, export painting and then we have what we like, what the Chinese like. Today it's the same thing," she said.

"The western definition of Chinese contemporary art is really about political painting," Lam explains.

Andy Warhol's iconic screen prints of erstwhile leader Mao and media portrayals of China's Communist ideology set the scene for a politicized western view of Chinese contemporary art.

This view was further strengthened by a new branch of contemporary opposition art: "In the early 90s, end of the 80s, artists were creating art to challenge the government as a silent challenge. The might have a laughing face but the undercurrent of those paintings is about sneering at the government. I think the West is taking that and framing Chinese contemporary art as political painting," Lam continues.

Usually the Chinese approach art in terms of how it fits into the development of their 5,000-year-old tradition. Calligraphy, ink brush and realism are still highly prized. As a result there is a striking difference between the work in local Chinese art auctions and what is found in the international ones.

But the immense popularity of a certain kind of Chinese art in international markets is now affecting the purchases Chinese will make, and even the kind of art being made by young artists.

"A lot of Chinese are now buying from the western point of view because of investment," says Lam.

In fact, western values prevail across the globe when it comes to evaluating art.

In China's case, this is because there is not yet a good structure -- museums and other institutions that can act as opinion formers -- so standards currently come from outside.

The prevalence of western values means Chinese artists who want an international career need endorsement from the international markets and bend themselves to create the kind of art that will get it.

"They bend themselves to something like conceptualism when we have no conceptualism," she said.

Lam and a group of academics and artists want to change that. They have been discussing what contemporary Chinese art really is for some time.

"I hope the west would give some time to understanding what is our sensibility. Why we would not have conceptualism, why we are still appreciating realism," said Lam.

Contrasts Gallery's current exhibition, "Rewind," is all about establishing the evolution from Chinese traditions to contemporary art, and is a result of these debates.

The artists showcased in the exhibition are all creating Chinese landscape painting within the evolution of Chinese landscape painting using western media.

"It is about reinvention of tradition, creating a synthesis using western expression, western media but behind that is all about Chinese traditional art philosophy," said Lam.


Lam sees her role in this project as something of an ambassador, going to museums in Europe and the U.S. and explaining Chinese sensibilities and the project to create a strong, independent contemporary Chinese art scene.

On this subject, Lam is typically frank: "As long as they are willing to listen, we are willing to speak," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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