For someone who cites his “oriental identity” as a source of inspiration, China-based artist Tao Hongjing is remarkably white.
According to the biography distributed at his exhibitions, Tao is a stereotypically Chinese man.
“The big change came when his father bought a TV, the first one ever in the neighbourhood. From then on, Tao could see the world and understand his country,” it read.
Except that China was not his country. Tao Hongjing was the fictional creation of French artist Alexandre Ouairy, born in Nantes, who assumed the pseudonym a decade ago to sell more art as an unknown foreign name in China.
He lays his conception to rest with an exhibition opening at Beijing's Red Gate Gallery this weekend titled “Death is Going Home”.
Ouairy's art trades on digestible Chinese symbolism familiar to foreign audiences: gold-plated Buddha statues, prints of bowdlerised funeral currency, Chinese characters in neon lights, and scenes of heavy industry stamped in red ink with signature chops on rice paper.
The “Tao Hongjing” idea was based on a suggestion by his gallerist in Shanghai a decade ago, when the country's contemporary art market was soaring but the Frenchman's early exhibitions proved flops.
“Public interest was limited, zero even,” he recalled, offering a simple explanation: “It was because I was a foreigner.
“The collectors were primarily foreigners and they wanted to buy Chinese work, because for them it was a good investment.
“In Shanghai, I saw all that counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Prada, and I said to myself: If they make fake bags, why don't I make a fake Chinese
The name was taken from a fifth-century Chinese philosopher “who was a bit of a jokester”, he said.
Humour aside, it worked. He began to sell one or two works a month, rather than one or two per exhibition.
“Presenting myself as Chinese, it made a difference,” he said. “There's a whole economy and financial interests that aren't the same.”
But attention and press interest have had to be handled carefully. He avoided the openings of his own exhibitions, or described himself as “Tao Hongjing's assistant”, while media interviews were carried out by phone, said Ouairy, “and my Chinese gallerist pretended to be me”.
Chinese contemporary artists have risen to global prominence in recent years, their auction prices driven up by newly wealthy compatriots.
According to the Artprice databank, 17 of the 50 top-selling artists in the year to June were Chinese, and Chinese artists accounted for 21 percent of total global turnover in contemporary art, second only to Americans.
Yang Yang, founder of Beijing's Gallery Yang, which exhibits both local and foreign work, said: “Contemporary art is tied to a territory, and the so-called 'internationalization' of art doesn't really exist.”
“Nationality is obviously very important.”
Ouairy's exhibition comes after white US poet Michael Derrick Hudson triggered heated debate when he admitted a poem of his, rejected for publication 40 times under his own name, was only accepted for this year's edition of “Best American Poetry” after he submitted it under the pseudonym of a Chinese woman, Yi-Fen Chou. A New Yorker contributor termed it “Orientalist profiteering”.
The prices at the Beijing show range as high as 200,000 yuan (more than $30,000), a far cry from the 1,500 yuan that works signed in Ouairy's own name used to sell for.
He said he was going public with his Tao Hongjing identity because he felt he had exhausted its potential. Having intended at first to “play on the market and stereotypes”, he said, he did not need Tao any more to open up a dialogue.
“Cultural differences between Chinese and foreigners are smaller now,” he said. “And I'm sufficiently well known.”
Critic Luo Fei, curator of the TCG Nordica gallery in Kunming, said that Ouairy was “playing a very interesting game with identity”.
“His sensibility towards China is different from that of a Chinese person; his mode of expression is one that's looking in from the outside.
“If it were a Chinese artist, they'd avoid making art like this, because if they did, people would say that they're copying others.
“But if you're a foreigner, then people will know that you're looking at things from a different perspective.”
In a 2009 blog post, Evan Osnos, author of the critically-acclaimed Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, praised a Tao Hongjing work in neon lights called “To Get Rich is Glorious”, a reference to comments by Deng Xiaoping as he began to reform China's economy.
“I'm not really shocked that the artist was not as advertised,” Osnos told AFP. “It seems like this French artist truly absorbed the determination to get rich. We can call it performance art — but not Chinese art.”
By Ludovic Ehret