In 1996, two academics from the school of Art & Design at the U.K.'s University of Wolverhampton went to China to forge links with educational institutions. While they were there, they fell into a discussion with Shanghai University Professor Wang Dawei about glass art one of the key subjects offered at Wolverhampton. It quickly emerged that the subject was not taught at all in China's fine-art institutions, even though the country produced a staggering 80% of the world's processed glass. Wang resolved to do something about it, and in 2000 Shanghai University's glass studio was launched. It was headed by Zhuang Xiaowei, who had just returned from a two-year M.A. at Wolverhampton. That same year, another professor, Wang Jianzhong, set up undergraduate and graduate glass programs at Beijing's Tsinghua University, with Wolverhampton's assistance. Together, these two courses and their graduates formed the roots of Chinese contemporary glass art. It is starting to flower today as one of the most exciting genres in the world's fastest-growing arts scene.
Admittedly, China's new wave of glass artists toil far below the stratospheric heights attained by the country's painters, who have witnessed an estimated eightfold increase in the market for their works during the past two years. But the glass artists are every bit as bold and experimental, and equally capable of referencing international trends while retaining distinctly Chinese characteristics. "Our traditions are different from those in other parts of the world," says Beijing-based artist Guan Donghai, referring to the Chinese preference for casting glass instead of blowing it. "They give our glass a typical Chinese style." This is visible in Guan's own work, where elegant kiln-cast sculptures recall the primal forms of William Morris but represent specifically Chinese objects such as swords and ancient city gates. The meditative works of Zhuang Xiaowei the Shanghai pioneer explore space and form in the manner of Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore, but they are invariably infused with Chinese symbolism: a transparent cast-glass flute imbued with royal-blue pâte de verre forms a beautiful allusion to China's traditions in ink, for instance. Zhuang's former student Wang Qin also draws on calligraphy, creating three-dimensional "brush strokes" in glass.
While almost every Chinese dynasty has produced glass work usually vases or bowls the creations of today's glass artists bear little relation to either the functional or the merely ornamental pieces of yore. "People often confuse glass with craft, but you just have to look at a work to realize the difference," says Vanessa Taub, a Hong Kongbased art dealer and proponent of Chinese glass sculpture. She points to a piece by Zhuang a sensual, almost abstract female nude emerging from the luminous, semitranslucent matter. "You can't confuse that with a glass or a bottle." There's no mistaking a bargain, either. Chinese glass art is still eminently affordable. A major piece by an up-and-coming glass artist goes for as little as $2,500. Zhuang sells his smaller pieces from about $10,000, while Guan's sculptures start from $5,000.
Zhuang reckons it's only a matter of a few years before China becomes a leading player in the field. Toward that end, a major expansion is taking place in the subject's teaching, with existing undergraduate and graduate studio-glass programs being supplemented by new courses in cities including Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xi'an and Guangzhou. An ambitious new glass-art museum is also being planned for Shanghai, in time for the city's 2010 World Expo.
All the more reason for would-be collectors to get acquainted with the art form, and quickly. "To collect a piece, one must first enjoy it," says Zhuang. "The appreciation is only a question of time." But not much time. If previous experience of contemporary Chinese art has taught anything about these new works in glass, it's this: buy now.