The creative side of an industrial powerhouse

Ian CollinsWith China now the third largest economy on the planet, and fast accelerating to lead the field, the land of 1,330,044,544 people (as estimated last July) is also a powerhouse in the world of art. Ian Collins looks at a new blockbuster show in Norfolk and wonders whether acclaimed creativity may be rather too artful.Ian Collins

For more than a decade I've been amazed by a moving Chinese exhibition in East Anglia best observed from the waterfront at Harwich.

Looking across to where the merged estuaries of the Stour and Orwell meet the North Sea, the long docks at Felixstowe are all but lost behind an endless procession of barges so big as to mimic floating cities. Each boat boasts skyscrapers of stacked containers.

These towering towns are then dismantled by huge preying mantis-like cranes in Britain's biggest container port before empty vessels are despatched back across the planet for the carriage of another Far Eastern construction. And then another, and another and another...

These building blocks contain every imaginable export - clothes, plastics, gadgets, even paving slabs - from the world's most explosive economy and a society in astonishing transformation. The genius of China is to give us what we want.

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Recently, China overtook Germany to become the world's third largest economic dynamo, and perhaps the most significant consequence of the current recession is the spurring of that epoch-altering moment when America is overtaken.

The statistics charting China's growth in recent decades are awesome - 65 million people sacked from the old state industries (that's the entire population of the UK and then some), and a drift from farms to factories which will see 400 new cities, each with millions of inhabitants, built by 2020.

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And you don't need 2020 vision to see the enormous tensions - environmental, social, cultural and, surely, political - that this rapid and sweeping revolution must bring.

But in tension there is also creativity and Chinese artists have taken the world by storm in the past decade, no less than the makers of all other forms of consumer goods.

Very significantly, Charles Saatchi chose to open his new London gallery in the old Duke of York HQ off Kings Road with a show of contemporary art from China which, just closed, attracted more than 500,000 visitors.

Reviewers raved over what was rightly hailed as the most beautiful exhibition space in London - a great gift in every sense seeing that admission is free - while reaction to the artworks was rather more mixed.

The key question is how far are Chinese artists contributing something that is genuinely new, let alone true to their national and cultural traditions, and how far are they exploiting another economic market by producing pastiche works designed to appeal to buyers in the West (not least to the Westernised Chinese market from Singapore to San Francisco, but also to the all-powerful Mr Saatchi).

Well, now we can judge for ourselves. Welcome to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts' new blockbuster show China China China!!! Chinese Contemporary Art Beyond the Global Market.

Ten years in the making, this far-out Far Eastern display - mostly fresh from a showing in Florence - incorporates the work of 18 contemporary artists chosen by three independent Chinese curators. Hence the first part of the title; though, for me, the second part is far from proven.

And actually there is now another spin to that end title given that the past three months have seen a severe downturn in the global art market. Buyers have stopped buying. Who and what will survive and thrive?

The Saatchi contribution to the Sainsbury party is The Angel - a work by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, whose joint contribution to the Duke of York opener caused a great stir.

This life-size and eerily lifelike sculpture appears to show a corpse dressed as a pantomime angel sprawled on the floor, with only large and feathery wings still aloft (a trick of engineering if not of rigor mortis).

If you think that's shocking, then be glad we're not getting this controversial duo's Old Persons Home - a sort of dodgem car ride featuring 13 gaga and vaguely familiar elder statesmen in wheelchairs blindly careering and colliding like the 'U.N.dead'.

Like so much apparently cutting edge Chinese art patronised by Mr Saatchi - including those famous laughing figures by Yue Minjun which may yet outnumber the terracotta army - it is all a rather clever and very macabre joke.

But is the joke also on us? I mean, why are we buying into this? Is it saying more about us than the artists? And what are we really learning about today's China? The Sainsbury display is presented as looking beyond market hype, but I wonder.

The Norwich selection also includes a Davide Quadrio documentary featuring interviews with 40 leading Shanghai artists with questions grouped by theme on a deck of cards.

Since one of those questions concerns the impact of the international art market on artistic production in the city, this exhibit may bring us to the nub of the matter.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have also worked in media ranging from human fat tissue to live animals and baby cadavers and they're not alone. Note Ren Qinga's (mercifully fake) suspended legless wolves.

At least Duan Jian Yu's Art Chickens are merely arrayed in various untortured and unpickled positions before a series of traditional Chinese watercolour landscapes.

But the impact of Damien Hirst and the world of taxidermy surely loom large over this supposedly non-commercial assembly.

Self-obsession goes virtual in the exhibits by Cao Fei - also known as China Tracey who, in place of Her Emin-ence's embroidering the names of past lovers on a tent, gives us her bogus love experiences from a year spent 'interacting with the online digital world'.

Since a virtual affair in a computer game was recently taken as sufficient grounds for a real divorce, doubtless some computer obsessed visitors will find this playful kind of project engaging. After years of blinking blankly at boring/baffling 'video installations' I still wonder, despite new ventures in the favourite contemporary art form here, whether this is just a vehicle for people with insufficient time, resources or talent to make a proper movie - unlike painter turned director Julian Schnabel who recently gave us a sublime film in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and now the Turner Prize-winning Steve McQueen with his Bafta-nominated Hunger drama about IRA self-killer Bobby Sands.

And what about beauty? Well, that seems to be faring little better in 21st century China than it did in the Cultural Revolution.

At least Wang Yu Yang's vast Artificial Moon - a steel globe studded with many kinds of low-energy light bulb - has a shimmering appeal. And, for me, it's the nearest we get to a show stopper.

Low-energy bulbs are of course low-light bulbs - impossible to read by, as they gradually become compulsory they will cast us all into an unfathomable fug of gloom.

And this may be the saddest of metaphors for today's China. For all that energy generating the most incredible technological revolution is also creating vast clouds of yellow-grey smog which are blotting out the stars and obscuring the sun and the moon.

Low light, low life. Less quicksilver, more carbon. Given the losing battle for planetary preservation I suppose we should have a good laugh (and even a cheap laugh) while we can.

t China China China!!! Chinese Contemporary Art Beyond the Global Market is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (01603 593199; from February 10 until May 3. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5pm (8pm on Wednesday). Adult admission �4, concessions �2 - but entry to the permanent collection is free.

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