April 17, 2024

In China, Art Is Making a Commercial Statement

The tricked-out design for new T-shirts in China was created by Chen Leiying, a 27-year-old artist known as Shadow Chen who lives in the coastal city of Ningbo. She is not even an employee of the company, but multinationals like Adidas are beginning to turn to young creative types like her to dream up images and logos for the under-30 set in China, a group that is 500 million strong.

Call them China’s youth whisperers. From Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south, young artists, musicians and designers are being tapped to make companies’ brands cool.

Like its counterparts elsewhere, this arty crowd sometimes looks and acts unconventional — but it’s not with political ends in mind. These young artists tend to set aside politics for commerce, and the promise of attractive paydays from foreign businesses.

At the center of this experiment is NeochaEdge, the first and only creative agency of its type in China. It was started in 2008 by two Americans, Sean Leow and Adam Schokora, to showcase the work of illustrators, graphic designers, animators, sound designers and musicians from across China. It now has 200 member-artists; NeochaEdge pays them per project to work on campaigns and product designs for brands like Nike, Absolut vodka and Sprite.

Adidas wants to be cool, “and the only way to be cool is to appeal to young people,” says Jean-Pierre Roy, who until recently helped oversee product development in China for Adidas. To help enhance that image, Adidas selected four Chinese artists, including Ms. Chen, to design 20 graphics for its new T-shirts.

Over the last year, members of the agency have also produced a soundtrack and a streetlight graffiti show for Absolut, designed sneakers for the Jimmy Kicks shoe company and created content for an e-magazine for Nike about basketball culture in China. And by the end of this year, NeochaEdge will also become a virtual art gallery, selling artwork from its artists through its Web site.

“You can’t just stroll into China and see who is a hot artist,” says Mr. Roy (who now works for Oakley, the eyewear company, in Shanghai). “It’s all still a little underground.” So Mr. Schokora, 30, and Mr. Leow, 29, have become trusted guides.

“There are not many young Americans who speak fluent Mandarin and are as much at home talking to chief marketing officers as they are talking to graffiti artists in Guangzhou,” says Paul Ward, head of operations for Asia at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Shanghai, which has collaborated with NeochaEdge on projects over the last year.

Members of NeochaEdge are a far cry from Ai Weiwei, the 53-year-old Chinese artist and dissident who was recently detained by the government. These graphic designers, sound artists and animators have other motivations.

“They want to advance their careers, not challenge the political establishment,” Mr. Leow says. “Commercial art has rarely, if ever, contained dissent.”

Defne Ayas, an art history instructor at New York University in Shanghai, put it this way in an e-mail: “For some artists in this younger generation, the new political has become the ‘market.’ They tend to be curious and friendly to the market; they don’t want to miss out on its opportunities.”

In fact, the government is putting its muscle behind companies like NeochaEdge. In Shanghai alone, the government has created more than 80 creative industry zones for 6,000 businesses. In 2008, the Shanghai municipal government named NeochaEdge as “one of the top representatives of the creative industry.”

SO how did two young guys from the United States — Mr. Schokora grew up in Detroit and Mr. Leow in Silicon Valley — end up becoming conduits to the young, creative community in China?

Before founding the company, Mr. Leow, who studied Chinese as an undergraduate at Duke, was living and working in Shanghai as a business consultant and consuming large quantities of Chinese culture.

“I was going to a lot of art exhibitions and indie rock shows, and I always thought that China was all about imitation and nothing creative, but I was wrong,” Mr. Leow says. That prompted the idea to develop a social networking site for creative types in China called neocha.com. (“Cha” is Chinese for tea.) There was just one problem: revenue from advertisers was not coming in.

At the same time, Mr. Schokora, who has been living in China since 2003, was working as a manager of digital and social media for Edelman, the global communications firm.

“I knew about neocha.com even before I met Sean,” Mr. Schokora recalls. “It was pretty much the only site out there aggregating what young, creative kids in China were doing online.” In 2007, Mr. Schokora and Mr. Leow met at a music festival in Shanghai, and the meeting quickly evolved into a partnership.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=da2a805847a94dace7b8300b97302791

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