Alistair Hicks: The Changing World of International Contemporary Art Today

Image Courtesy of Barnard College 

Image Courtesy of Barnard College 


Last night, I found a video of college lecture on the topic of international contemporary art on Youtube. 

The lecture comes from the International Artists Series at Barnard College in the New York City and the full video was uploaded on the Barnard's Youtube a while ago. The guest speaker for the event was Mr. Alistair Hicks, a respected writer and curator to Deutsche Bank, which owns the world's largest corporate art collection in the world. He currently works as the Art Advisor for the Deutsche Bank and has served as an art critic for major publications such as the Spectator, The Times, and Vogue. The video was almost two hours long, so I downloaded the video and watched it on the school bus this morning. I didn’t realize until today how nice it is to watch a film or a video on the morning bus. It makes me feel ultra productive and activates me for the day.


During the first half of the lecture, Ms. Hicks introduces many international artists that he personally finds interesting. Many of the artists were from Asia, but I wasn’t familiar with any of the names except Xu Bing. But simply showing the works of Western and Eastern artists one after another made very noticeable the trend that Asian artists, Chinese and Singaporean in particular, tend to be much more political in their works. The topic of the comparison between the West and the East is a very timely one to me, because I have been taking an online course called Eastern and Western Thoughts this semester. It’s a course focused on the difference between Eastern and Western philosophies and religions, and how many of the modern leaders/icons have classical Eastern and/or Western perspectives. Taking the course, I noticed that Asian religions, such as Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism tend to focus more about how an individual can improve so he can contribute to the society and become a better person, while Western philosophers, such as Plato, Machiavelli and Aristotle focused more on an ideal form of government, and how governments can contribute to the wellness of the society. So seeing that Eastern art by far is more political is somewhat surprising when I consider Eastern religions that centers on moral goodness. It’s probably the extreme modernization and political change that China and many other Asian countries went through that makes Asian artists become so sensitive to and intrigued by the politics.


One of the many works he introduced, Yang Fudong’s The First Intellectual, struck me the most because it’s such an accurate portrayal of wealthy Chinese people right now. Because China has developed so rapidly in the last few years, so many people who are wealthy right now in China are the people who didn’t not receive proper education few years back. They have the money to take a bath in, but not much sense of moral or manners. (The worst are the Chinese billionaires who are in their early 20’s. Because of the one-child policy, not only are they rich, they are also spoiled.) So Yang Fudong’s painting depicting a businessman holding a brick in his hand, seemingly lost in the middle of an urban city seems to me symbolize people getting lost in the rapid change.


One of the arguments made by Mr. Hicks in the debate later in the video was that the art world, or the art market has become too defined in the sense that people tell each other what to buy and there is not much freedom for people to freely explore. He said that buyers purchase because they know they should, not necessarily because they fully appreciate and enjoy the art. I believe to an extent, this is very true. I really don’t know much about the art world, but from reading auction catalogs and reading some articles on my own, I’ve noticed that the market is moved by the buyers chasing for art pieces that the media tells them to purchase because they are of good value. However, at the same time, I don’t really think this statement is true on every level of the market. For example, my father worked an art dealer. He often comes into my room with catalogs, books, sometimes just brochures with paintings on them, crying, “don’t you think this looks amazing? I should watch out for this new artist.” Because his job is to dig out new artists and buy their art before the market wakes up to the value of their art, so I had never thought that modern art market is “too defined.” Maybe it’s just that I’m used to seeing an art dealer working, who works in the “primary market” (Is that the correct way to use this term?) and Mr. Hicks mainly talks about the “secondary market” in the lecture. Anyway- I still think Mr. Hicks makes a solid point.


I also enjoyed listening to the conversation between the moderator and Mr. Hicks heat up, as the moderator began challenging Mr. Hicks view that art should not need any explanation to be appreciated. The moderator stated that a lot of modern art is so conceptual and abstract that the audience expects some kind of explanation to follow the art. On the other hand, Mr. Hicks stressed that conceptual art is not always about the backstory. I wonder what he thinks about the works of Taryn Simon. Her works are all about the telling of the stories and sharing with the audience how external forces such as power and religion can interfere with psychological inheritance. Because her works itself are simple photographs pasted on a thick piece of paper, there is no other way for the audience to figure out her intent behind the work but to read the thick booklets provided to them by the museum or the gallery.


Lastly- It was funny when the moderator asked, “Why is Deutche Bank [involved with art?],” continuing, “a bank can’t just buy art…” And Mr. Hicks seemed honestly confused by his statement that a “bank can’t just collect art solely for the sake of collecting art.” Like Mr. Hicks, I think it’s great that banks are involved with the art world because it creates a intersection between creative art with finances and brings in culture into the financial world. My two favorite subjects are art and economy, so it’s exciting to see an real world example on the intersection between the two worlds.

I really enjoyed watching the lecture. I hope next year, I will be able to participate in real lectures at college! It's so great that I get to watch these amazing lectures on youtube for free though. That's what I love about the internet.

Click here for the video.


Islamic Art Week (postcard)

The internet in China is so bad... so, so bad.

For some reason, the "log in" button to my blog stopped loading, prohibiting me to log in to my own blog for the longest time. Sigh. It makes me so happy to be able to have the time to write and the access to my blog again. 

It's almost the end of the semester a.k.a cram season. I hope that I will have a lot of opportunity this winter to go visit museums and hopefully go to some museums in Japan, what I have been dreaming of doing since last April... It must be so nice in Japan at this time of the year. I miss seeing the illumination lights around Roppongi hills! 

Anyways, I found a postcard from Christie's in the mailbox and I found it absolutely beautiful. It was a notice for Islamic Art Week for the Spring 2014 Auctions in London. It's very outdated, I know. But the patterns on the back of the postcard looks absolutely stunning. I really liked the light salmon pink on the second row and the one with a guy day dreaming (?) on the upper left corner. I feel so inspired now- I want to make something with Islamic patterns for my next IB project. Hmm..

Christie's postcard ft. my supplement essay

Christie's postcard ft. my supplement essay

I'm getting sleepy now. Ciao! 

Christie's LIVE: Asian 20th Century Art

Some Sunday afternoons, an elegant and determined voice of a woman echoes throughout our apartment going: 260 thousand... 280.. 280, 280... thank you sir, 300 would you like to do another step, madam? I love listening to this lovely auctioneer's voice, full of confidence and joy. 

Today is one of those Sundays. 

The Christies' Asian 20th Century Art auction is going on right now, and my dad and I are watching the Hong Kong auction online on 


I always used to just watch online auctions whenever they are played on my dad's computer, so I didn't know that anyone can access these auctions without any passwords or membership. I'm currently watching the auction on my own computer, and it's somehow comforting to hear people bidding for artworks in the background. I think it brings just the right amount of tension and speed to motivate me to work on this slow, lazy Sunday afternoon. 

I like it when an online bidder bids, because the auctioneer looks and talks right at the camera. "Thank you sir, online from Hanoi! 250 thousand!" I'm just a viewer using the same platform as the bidder to watch the auction (whilst doing homework), but it makes me feel like I'm part of the whole sale. I wonder how nervewracking bidding is for online bidders, though. What if the computer lags or freezes right before an important piece? Even worse, what if the page lags right before the auctioneer bangs the gavel on the table? 

It seems like the auctioneer changed to a Chinese lady. Wow, she speaks using three languages- Cantonese, Chinese and English. And I thought announcing price and keeping track of all the bidders was hard enough.. I want to be like these female auctioneers, though. They are so powerful, convincing, and elegant!

These auctions are also a great way for me to find new artists. I might find my inspiration for the next project here!


A visitor from the National Day School

During art class today, we had a visiting art teacher from the National Day School, 北京十一学校, in Beijing. The National Day School is a respected bilingual school in Beijing, and although it is not technically an international school, it has both local Chinese students and international students from abroad. 

The visiting art teacher is going to be visiting ISB for the entire week this week, so I am looking forward to talking to her and asking her about her experiences teaching art. It would be interesting to hear about the differences she has noticed between the ways art is taught in Chinese schools and International schools like my school. 

Today, she seemed fascinated by how we have the freedom to explore what we want to create through our projects and sketchbooks. I was really interested in how she teaches the students at the National Day School, so I decided to show her my sketchbook and ask her about some things she's noticed being at ISB.

"When I teach the class, I just tell the class what the assignment is, and when I receive the works from all my students, they often look very similar- almost identical to each other," she said. "Oh, so do you give your students examples of what the work should look like?" "Yes, and often times, the works that I get back look very similar to my work that I showed them."

Walking around to each IB students' desks around the art room, she was seemed so impressed and even inspired by our studio works! She was taking notes on her notebook and taking pictures with her Ipad, saying how she should consider giving more freedom to her students in art class. 

What was the most interested was, though, that she was also saying how "too much freedom can be dangerous for art students," that students need some guidance or limits to what they can do in order to be successful. I think this is an intriguing and a very "Chinese" idea. Personally and ideally, I think art should be something that everyone should freely be able to create and express themselves through. But I know that especially in China, sometimes freedom can be "too much," too much that it would give a wrong kind of message to the government.

Maybe what she meant by freedom being dangerous was that students need to learn about the techniques and have certain limits to what they can do, in order to be truly creative. In art class, If the students are given certain materials to create something out of, or a topic they have to follow, they are motivated to produce something that is extraordinary and creative. Introductory art teaches the students the very basic skills first, so it would build the foundation on which the aspiring artists can build later on in life. 

Either way- I think she gives me a perspective on arts education that I can't gain being in ISB. If have the opportunity to, I want to maybe interview her and talk to her more- It's a great chance for me to practice my Chinese, as well.