Speech at the opening of the Eugene Anchugov Chinese art exhibition
Parliament House, Canberra
3 December 2014
I acknowledge Philip Ruddock and other members of parliament, Eugene Anchugov, David Fang and Kevin Lui.
Thank you for bringing this extraordinary exhibition to the Great Hall.
When I was in Beijing recently I took some time to enjoy the street-life.
I found myself looking on as a bystander to an unusual calligraphy lesson.
Using water from a small plastic bucket, two men were taking turns painting characters on the pavement squares with a long handled brush.
The brush was about three feet long, so they could paint directly onto the pavement without crouching or bending.
It was in no way clear who was the master and who was the pupil.
One would carefully trace a character onto the dusty stone, they would both carefully scrutinise it, then the other would make a copy.
They moved from square to square, modifying their individual flourishes and varying the weight of the strokes, while the long trail of characters faded away behind them as the water dried off.
What struck me was their shared focus and the way they matched the care of their brushwork with a critical scrutiny of the finished form.
Perhaps they were custodians of the past, perhaps they were living links in an unbroken chain of tradition.
In many ways that depends on what comes next.
So in welcoming this exhibition I want to say a bit about what’s come next in Chinese art.
As an economist, I believe that markets have stories to tell. So here’s another vignette.
In the 21st century, the Chinese art market has erupted with the same velocity and scale as the Shanghai skyline. Like the vertiginous spires of Pudong, the auction returns are climbing towards the stratosphere.
More Chinese art is selling and it’s selling for more.
If you look at the international top 100 artists ranked by sales turnover last year, 47 are from China.
In the last financial year, more artworks were sold in China than in the United States, Britain and France combined.
The axis of the art world has shifted, and it’s happened suddenly – the emergence of the Chinese market has been robust, assertive, and self-assured.
In Beijing and Shanghai, China now boasts two of the world’s top five contemporary art cities. As a sign of the times: Shanghai has edged out Paris – or as Paris may soon be known, ‘the Shanghai of the West’.
But nothing comes from nothing – you need substantial foundations to support such an anabolic boom.
China’s arrival as a modern art destination confirms the appeal of a creative tradition that has been refined over many thousands of years.
It has influenced the world. For example, my mother Barbara Leigh – an expert in Indonesian art – has written on the influence of Chinese motifs on Indonesian textiles.
For much of that time, the technical sophistication of Chinese ivory, porcelain, pottery and textiles has challenged and inspired artisans and artists from other traditions.
This collection carries on that tradition. It shows off deftness, measured vision, and a willing subservience to the guiding limitations of a physical medium.
All of these are critical elements in the decorative arts.
But as a showcase of the subtle enchantments that can transfigure everyday objects, and of the artists’ assured responsiveness to bold inspiration, it also provides an encounter with the breathing rhythms that are now invigorating the modern Chinese art boom.
As I’m sure you know, ‘breathing rhythms’ is a technical term.
It describes one of the six qualities that make up a good work of art, as defined by the Sixth Century Chinese art critic Xie He.
Composition is there, as are technique and taste. But his most evocative (and ambiguous) criteria was ‘spirit resonance’.
This was the quality that would move a viewer.
The ‘spirit resonance’ of a work allows the viewer to take on the heart and breathing of another.
I hope you will experience it as you gaze at these works today.
Spirit resonance is a potent kind of diplomacy, and it works across language barriers, cultures and epochs.
Unlike the other public policies we pursue in this place, art is not a means to an end – it is an end in itself.
Our nation recently celebrated Gough Whitlam, who liked to modestly proclaim that he ‘opened China to the world.’
Gough also recognised how the arts are integral to civil communities. As he put it:
‘In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as something remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my Government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts, the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage.’
Our cultural and intellectual heritage is a strong hybrid – and it will continue to grow stronger through civilising encounters like these.