The more perceptive of you, faithful readers of our blog on chineseart.co.uk, will have noted a certain connection between this blog and the Chinese sculptor Chen Dapeng, who last week exhibited more than 40 examples of his work at the Olympia Winter Art & Antiques Fair on his 200 sq m stand, the largest stand at the Fair.
We have, in fact, known Chen Dapeng for some 14 years and have long been admirers of his work which distils traditional elements of Chinese art with a modern twist. Essentially realist in approach, his work reflects a well practised craftsmanship and fascinated visitors to the Fair with its exploration of the Eastern mysteries of Kung-fu and the spirit of China.
Little is known about Chinese sculpture in the West. It is not exactly a sexy subject and spreading the news of Chen Dapeng to the British public presented enormous challenges. Having decided to mount his first exhibition in the UK, the problem was very much how to bring him to the attention of the British public. Generally speaking, the UK media is uninterested in the specifics of art although it will carry news and features based around figures renowned for their activities outside the art arena: a case in point being dissident protester Ai Weiwei, who took on the government of China using his art as a blunt instrument.
Pursuing this train of thought, we suggested to Chen Dapeng that he might think about executing a very British piece of sculpture. And what could be more British than the rightly revered figure of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? The Chinese sculptor enthusiastically took up the challenge, spending almost five months moulding Her Majesty in clay and then firing her in white porcelain, an enormously difficult medium to fire successfully. On the 13th attempt at firing, a successful version was achieved. We were all hopeful that this might be cause for some useful publicity in the UK . . .
The unveiling by Chen Dapeng at Olympia on November 2 Photo by Paul Harris
On November 2, when the Olympia Fair opened, Chen Dapeng was totally unknown to the British public. He had half a dozen entries if you had looked him up on Google. Not a single newspaper or magazine in the UK had featured him after sending out hundreds of press releases in advance of his arrival at Heathrow . . . dragging a red draped trolley with what was to become, for the week ahead, the most famous sculpture in the world.
At 10am on Monday November 2, the sculpture was unveiled at an Olympia photocall and press releases were distributed to photographers and journalists. There wasn’t much news around that morning . . . It was what is known in the business as ‘a slow news day’.
By midday, The Daily Telegraph Online had posted a story in which their art critic Mark Hudson likened the appearance of the bust to Tom Hanks. This was the catch line that would propel the story all around the world. Within minutes, the telephone ran red hot: What was our reaction to Mark Hudson’s judgement – on a sculpture he had never seen ? First on the line was The Daily Mail Online, followed by The Independent. By lunchtime, the story hit New York, as the city woke up, and Vanity Fair and The New York Times came on the line.
Whether or not you agreed with Hudson, this became the hottest story online and in the media worldwide: a quarter of a million Tweets, more than 200 articles and features online (that we have tracked) in more than 25 countries from Greece, Poland, Sweden and Spain to The Philippines, Indonesia and, of course, Dapeng’s native China.
On Tuesday morning, the bust was ceremoniously ferried to ITV’s This Morning for Philip and Holly to open the programme seated beside it. Philip adjudged it ‘impressive’. He was, of course, unlike Mr Hudson, seated right beside it. This Morning would be followed with interviews on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, pieces on NBC and Fox News, and, last Friday, with a segment on Have I Got News for You?
People flocked to our stand at Olympia to see the bust. Twelve pages of our Visitors’ Book were filled with comments: 80% positive from those who had actually seen it. Meantime, on social media and on showbiz sites in the US people were posting from offices, attics and basements their own particular view of who it looked like to them: Mrs Doubtfire, Liberace, Martin Sheen, David Walliams and, even, The Duke of Edinburgh, Her Majesty’s husband. Despite all these suggestions, the Tom Hanks label stuck.
Also, many patently untrue suggestions made it once into online print and were relentlessly repeated worldwide without any further research: a particularly unappealing facet of the online world. The Daily Express (to quote the aforementioned Duke of Edinburgh speaking many years ago, ‘A bloody awful newspaper’) told its readers (both of them) that Buckingham Palace had declared it had no knowledge of the sculpture being offered to HM. Well, chaps, I could offer to share with you my five months of correspondence with The Keeper of The Royal Collection. On second thoughts, I won’t!
By the end of the week, Chen Dapeng was the most famous sculptor in the world. More famous, even, than Ai Weiwei. But he was getting a bit doubtful about all the publicity. ‘What about my other sculptures?’ he asked. Of course, the bust of HM was the least important on the stand in strictly artistic terms. His vastly impressive and challenging other works had merited scarcely a mention. But he had become famous worldwide.
It is probably a parable of our times: of a world dominated by the power of an all pervasive digital media. Of a world where real appreciation of anything other than the immediate, the sensational and the easily digested must be regarded as a prized rarity. However, it could be said Chen Dapeng is now a name to be reckoned with. After all, he now dominates almost twenty pages of entries on Google. Is that success, or is it not?