Artist, architect, curator, is the most prominent figure in Chinese contemporary culture.
Who is Ai Weiwei?
I was born in 1957; my father was the most important poet in China. At the time of my birth he was punished because of his writings against the Communist party. So we were banished and I grew up in a remote desert in China; known as “little Siberia.” My father worked very hard just to survive, cleaning public toilets for years, and was forbidden to write anything. We had no light, we were enemies of everybody because we were enemies of society. No meat for years, every meal was only vegetables for months. We ate a type of corn. So that helped me to understand what humanity can be at its lowest point. To survive you had to change, although not intellectually. I came back to Beijing in 1978, and I founded the group Stars. It was composed of young film directors who later became really famous. After 2 years I went to the USA. I wanted to be an artist and didn’t want to be part of this society any more, thinking it was hopeless. Chinese people at the end of the ‘70s only wore one kind of clothes, nobody smiled. Women had only one kind of haircut. So I went to the US in 1981 to try and make a living and survive. I lived in the Lower East Side, in New York City. I did nothing, but earn money for food and rent, and gave up everything. So 12 years passed. I didn’t go to school and I had no property. I came back in 1993 because my father was still here, otherwise I would never have come back. Three years later he passed away. I had nothing to do, absolutely nothing. After a while I realized that it was important to publish some books about visual arts, poetry, music etc., because it was illegal in China. So I published this kind of books for 3 years. They have had a great influence on a whole generation of artists. At the time there were no art galleries, or newspapers, nothing. So in 1997, I gave up publishing books. Some years later I organized a show in Shanghai, called “Fuck Off,” which became a very remarkable show. It was a very pure statement about Chinese art. In 1999, I built my own studio, because my mother was really tired of me. I came back from the USA with no money, a big boy still at home. It was a shame… I used to play cards all day with my brother, doing absolutely nothing, for six years. So I realized she wasn’t comfortable. I wanted to build something, I found this place and the owner told me it was illegal to build here, but if I wanted to, it was at my own risk. So I designed this place in one afternoon, I wasn’t an architect but 60 days later it was ready. In a really strange way I became Mr. Architect in China. Western architects came here and they said: we don’t see any beauty here but the way it isn’t beautiful is really special. So I became quite known and a lot of people asked me for projects. In 2004 I had my first solo show as an artist at the Kunsthalle in Bern, and the same year I did 3 shows, with Robert Miller in New York, etc. That’s my story.
We were both at this conference organized by Art Basel here in Beijing. Panelists and audience members were supposed to talk about the Chinese art system and about the role that museums of contemporary art could play in this context. You seemed a bit upset, and when you spoke it became clear that you were bored and angry. Why?
Well, it seems Western countries have discovered a new land, China, that didn’t exist before. The Art Basel people come here, in a Communist country like this, to talk about museums, white spaces, etc. That’s simply funny and boring to me. They are not aware of the here and now. As an intellectual and as an artist I’m more interested in what is going on now in China.
So what’s going on?
We have a very long and specific history. After the Second World War the Communists took over. Their political system soon became very brutal. They made a big mistake but they didn’t want to accept this and they went ahead, it’s so naïve, stupid. Now China is a Communist country with a strong capitalist system! What the government does is really against the constitution (the constitution they wrote!), it’s the biggest crime that ever happened. This is a Mafia, or maybe something more complicated and more sophisticated than a Mafia. Unfortunately nobody questions it; of course nobody does. Who could? We don’t have intellectuals; we don’t have anybody that has an independent mind. But you know it’s really difficult to say what’s going to happen in China. This is a mysterious society because it never believed in science, it never believed in democracy. We believe in emotions, in this strange feeling of nature, our culture is based on that. China offers completely different sets of conditions from those of the West. That’s why animists feel so happy here.
I heard that two artists were arrested in Shanghai in May. Is that true?
Yes of course. Shanghai produces lots of things but it’s the most restricted city, censorship is heavy there. It’s funny because everything seems very smooth, very civilized in China.
What’s possible now in China and what’s desirable?
What is possible is the struggle; we can study a new model. I think there are still models that would represent an opportunity for the world. What is desirable, I don’t know [laughs].
Freedom, of course, but in a much deeper sense. Do we have freedom in the West? What’s happiness? We should start thinking about these things. I think China could offer other possibilities.
What kind of role do you think you could have in China?
I do have to make my life, I appreciate the fact that I’m here. My body has been functioning for almost 50 years; every day is like a gift. I think I have the responsibility (it’s the first time I use that word) to proclaim life, to be fully aware of what it means. That’s a lot to do. To open up possibilities, to face the consequences.
So what is going to happen tomorrow?
I don’t know. Maybe we don’t have a ‘tomorrow.’ Maybe there are no other moments. I just feel I must be responsible, today. Tomorrow could be different. (AB)
Director and founder of BizArt, Shanghai.
Davide where are you from and what’s your background?
I come from Casorate Sempione, Varese Province (Italy). I studied Oriental and Chinese History of Art in Venice, then I studied Chinese, Indian and Tibetan architecture with a final thesis on the Labrang Monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries. In 1991, I spent one year in Shanghai, then I went back to Italy to perform my year of civil service. During the beginning of the ’90s I took many trips to China, until 1997 when I settled down in Shanghai as a researcher for the Department of Economy and Sociology at Trento University. In 1998, a gallery owner asked me to organize an exhibition of prints and serigraphy pieces. I went to the China Institute of Fine Arts in Hangzhou to look for students. Among them I found Tang Maohong, one of the most interesting artists of the moment. I showed his work in Shanghai in 2000 in the exhibition “Developing Time.” Today, he works with ShangArt.
That was also when I started to spend time with a group of young artists: Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong, Song Tao, Liang Yue, Kan Xuan, Jin Feng, Alexander Brandt, and others. All of them are now working with international curators and galleries. The group was and is very united and strong. At the beginning we worked totally alone, nobody was interested in our activities. The international jet set’s passion for China started years later…
What was your first important show as a group?
Our first public exhibition was in 1999, “Art for Sale” on the 4th floor of a department store in Shanghai. This exhibition was linked conceptually to the economic boom in China. We organized it inside a supermarket with the group of artists that is now BizArt. The ‘leaders’ were Yang Zhenzhong, Alexander Brandt, and Xu Zhen, who for the last eight years has been the BizArt artistic director. The idea was to bring contemporary art to the public, something that until 1999 had never happened in Shanghai. Seven years ago, there was not even the embryo of an art system in China. By contemporary art we meant installations, videos, performances and not the usual figurative or abstract paintings exhibitions. In the first section of the exhibition space, we installed a kind of supermarket. On the shelves there were editions by Yang Fudong, Shi Yong, Zhao Bandi, Song Dong, Yang Zhenzhong, Gu Lei, Liang Yue, Wu Ershan, Alexander Brandt, Zheng Guogu, a total of 30 artists. In the internal section of the space there were performances. Song Dong’s performance was to navigate the public through contemporary art like a tour guide. There was also Hu Jieming, whose work was exhibited at the San Francisco MOMA. Works of art and editions for sale were very cheap and only cost around 20 RMB (2 euros) or 50 RMB (5 euros) or so. All the artists who became famous a few years later were there. I also exhibited one of my pieces, some wall-paper…
So you organized this exhibition two years before “Fuck Off,” the seminal group show organized in Shanghai 1999 by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi at Eastlink Gallery.
Yes. We had all kinds of difficulties. The whole exhibition was self- produced. Nothing was available in China, not even video projectors, or DVDs. After one year, we organized Zheng Guogu’s exhibition. After that I suggested to Yang Zhenzhong and Xu Zhen that we work together in a permanent way. I could speak a few European languages and Chinese, I knew something about economics and fund raising. They could take care of the creative part, of relationships with Chinese artists, etc. They liked the idea and it was obvious from the beginning that we did not want to just ‘sell some paintings.’ From the beginning the direction was very clear. With Xu Zhen we decided to concentrate on micro-educational projects for us and for the artists such as a series of small personal exhibitions. We had to handle everything: educate the workers about this kind of activity, help the artists (and ourselves) to understand the dynamics of the art system, to find the critical support, etc.
In a few words you were trying to create a basic structure.
That’s right. The art system simply did not exist back then. Nobody knew how to do these things.
Then you created the association and the space. Why did you choose the name BizArt?
It was kind of ironic, we were doing a very bizarre thing, first of all because it was illegal. During this phase we planned to sell a few works to finance projects, exhibitions, services for the artists.
How did you finance it?
A nightmare! I raised all the funds during those years. We financed BizArt also with our personal money, reinvesting here what we earned there.
Today don’t you sell works when you can?
No. Initially, as I told you, we tried but no one at that time bothered to purchase Yang Fudong’s works for example. Today, those artists work with very rich and powerful international galleries such as ShangART. We decided to become a nonprofit. But it is still very hard. We have a 1500 square-meter space to manage, two residencies (open only to Chinese and Asian artists, by invitation), three to four events a month and all the rest. Everyone says we are stupid because we would be billionaires today if we had kept all the artworks we produced and exhibited. In the end this is not what matters to us. I think that our role now in China is to propose a cultural project, a cultural vision.
It’s now been ten years since you moved to China. How do you see the Chinese art system?
It’s disastrous! Maybe this expression is a little bit strong, but in a way it is true. We talk a lot about it with artists and gallery friends. The problem is that it lacks a real critical platform, people who are able to analyse in a serious and timely way what is happening. To those who come to China with the Chinese art myth, everything seems so hip and extraordinary, as if Shanghai was New York. Nothing could be more wrong. We still face enormous problems: the relationships between cultural institutions/government and independent places, censorship, artists who are regularly arrested, economic instability, hyper-commercialization of Chinese contemporary art. People forget that we are not in a free country. At the same time, we have always tried to use these obstacles creatively and it’s been ten years already: a lifetime!
How do foreign galleries and curators behave in China?
China is seen as land to be conquered, a place for speculation. Actually, it’s easy to come shopping, to put one’s name under a list of cool artists and pretend to have discovered them. While the basic work of selection and promotion has been done by others. This was very common until now, but it doesn’t work anymore.
What happens in China now?
There is a kind of saturation because everyone works with the same artists but no one really takes care of what is happening in China today. We cannot continue with this erroneous image of a creative exotic land, always a stereotypical image. Just have a look at the constant arrival of new Chinese talent, as if it is possible to find a genius every two years. (AB)
Writer, independent curator.
How long have you been living in China?
Since the end of 1992.
You wrote a book about some Chinese artists. Can you please tell us something about it?
To write a book was the reason I came to China — because in 1992 there was a complete dearth of information about contemporary Chinese art in English. This was before Johnson Chang published the first ‘bible’, the catalogue to the Post-89, China’s New Art exhibition in February 1993. Since then, many books have appeared. Yet, I always felt that what was missing was a really authentic context for how the art came into being, the impulses that set its forms in motion, and how the ‘local’ experience fed into the working practice of the artists themselves. Analysis of Chinese art within the Western post-modern construct never quite feels right. I felt the art scene should be portrayed — and given credit for — working to its own rhythms and concerns, relative to the immediate framework, and not an external one to which the individuals still have very little direct relation. Having thought about it long and hard, I decided to block in the beginnings in very broad strokes: through the stories of how nine of the most pivotal artists came to be, and how the visualisation of each individual’s ideas broke the ground upon which the art scene sits today. In basic terms, the nine individual aesthetics reflect the styles, forms and range of materials and concepts that sit at the core of contemporary art practice in China.
What kind of problems do you encounter working as a writer and curator today in China?
Very few actually. Living here is crucial to my writing, to get both information and impressions first-hand. I took a break from curating to write the book. I felt the critical distance was important. If there is one problem facing all writers and curators in China today it is adhering to an objective perspective whilst maintaining strong relations and communication with the artists.
I am currently part of a three-man team curating a show for Tate Liverpool which opens in March 2007. The approach is almost anti-curating for we have no theme to illustrate, no preconceived concept for what fits and what doesn’t. This approach was prompted by a desire to depart from the growing trend towards thematically-led exhibitions of Chinese art, where works are selected to illustrate an imposed curatorial construct. This situation encourages artists to anticipate certain expectations in their work. We elected to focus on work that deals with the aesthetic, social concerns that matter most to those artists who consistently challenge the status quo.
Do you think Chinese contemporary art has been shaped by the power and the sovereignty of Western discourse?
Intellectually, Chinese artists took their cue from Western art. In the early 1980s, within a society just beginning to have access to information from the outside world (following the end of the isolationism of the Mao era and the instigation of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic reform), for the emerging art scene art books, magazines, and exhibition catalogues provided the only ‘models’ available to would-be contemporary artists. There was no other ‘manual’ to explain what contemporary in art meant. In the 1980s (and in fact through to the early 2000s) China had no art museums — none that contained or displayed anything other than officially sanctioned Socialist Realism. There were no examples of Western art in China, which is the reason Rauschenberg’s 1985 show at the National Gallery in Beijing was such a hit: as were similar events featuring a handful of other western artists. The momentum of the era was also the national drive to modernize. From the 1940s onwards, artists had almost no access to information about developments in art anywhere abroad. There was a huge gap to close — at least that’s how it was perceived. Taking established Western concepts as their point of departure was a way of limbering up before embarking on their own work. This is the most reasonable way of looking at it: not dissimilar to the type of experimentation with appropriation with which every art student is familiar.
However, what happened next, through the 1990s, does owe something to the power of western influence: the power to include a Chinese artist in an international exhibition such as Venice, or as part of the flurry of China art surveys that were being orchestrated by European museums. Being selected was for many artists the most meaningful affirmation of their art. It was not clear then the degree to which some of these selections represented the subjective preconceptions of the Western curators, and not objective overviews of what was actually happening in Chinese art. Ironically, some very distinctive artists found themselves marginalized because their work did not lend itself to an easy, instant reading by eyes unfamiliar with the cultural framework.
I recently heard Hans Ulrich Obrist comment that in auctions of Western art he sees a fair number of the artists he works with represented, whilst those artists he works with from China are completely absent from auctions of contemporary Chinese art. I think this is a reflection of the very particular Western vision of China and what Chinese art should look like that prevailed in the 1990s, and which has done so much to shape impressions of Chinese art abroad today.
Now artists from China travel more and more, and are afforded increasing opportunities to see work at first hand. So there are influences at work. But to give prominence to the influence of Western discourse is misguided. Any discourse is characteristically tied to the language in which it is originally framed. You only have to compare the nature of expressions and references in Chinese and German philosophical texts to see that one could not have been conceived of by their counterparts in the other culture. Even in English the specificity of linguistic terms deployed by Hegel/Heidegger is diluted, their resonance diminished. The language barrier sets up a tangible hurdle for Chinese artists attempting to absorb, or respond to, Western discourse. Which also implies that there’s a greater degree of intuitive creativity linked to a thought process framed in and determined by the structure of Mandarin, than is commonly perceived.
The Internet has been a huge force in providing a platform for discussion. Today, in China, this is the discourse that counts, certainly that has the most immediate impact, but that remains invisible to western observers, and therefore largely unacknowledged. (AB)
Ludovic Bois and Julia Colman
Directors, Chinese Contemporary, Beijing.
Ludovic, what’s your background?
I’m French but I ended up in London because my parents lived there, then they came back to France and I decided to stay in London. I did financial studies, then I worked in the USA for twelve years. During that period I started thinking about opening a gallery. I met Julia, my partner, who wanted a gallery too and had the background, being an art historian. So she told me something was happening in China, let’s go and see. Finally we came here in 1996 with two or three telephone numbers, one was the right one. We stayed 3 weeks and we went back to England with the idea we wanted to open a gallery in London and we opened it soon thereafter. We started with a solo show and since then we’ve done seventy shows. We opened here in Beijing two years ago, and now we are planning to open in another part of the world but it’s still a secret. We were the first ones in Europe to show Chinese contemporary art.
Some people think Chinese art is going through a crisis, a breakdown. What do you think about that?
I don’t agree with the bubble theory. Yes there’s a bubble but it is inside this system. The bubble is young artists who made half a show and want to sell their works for 50,000 dollars, that’s a bubble. In China, as everywhere, you have to be careful because there’s a lot of rubbish. But when you buy one of the top ten names for 200,000 dollars, for sure in ten years the same work will cost more money.
What kind of problems did you find working here in China?
Not many. We are completely legal. Some of the artists don’t really respect their work and our work, but in general they are very loyal and very honest. We had a big problem two months ago because a show was banned, we had the Minister of Culture come down, ask for papers, they banned a couple of pieces. They banned the catalogue too. We have to be careful about these kinds of things; this is a Communist country, a country with heavy restrictions. You can’t forget where you are. But the country is opening up; it’s more and more easy to do things.
How do you find your artists?
We like to show everything, not just young artists or famous ones; we have a mix of things. We usually find them through other artists, in some underground shows. You don’t go to the University to find them, because they are still young, they need to get out of the University system, they need three or four years to experiment in order to do the right thing.
Art schools here are in a certain sense still very traditional.
Yes but this is not necessarily a bad thing. When they get out they know how to do things, they know what a good work is. They have tools, a value.
Who are the most important collectors of Chinese art?
The biggest collectors are Americans. They buy art that is duty-free. There are also a lot of big European collectors, not English to tell you the truth. The first collectors of Chinese art in Europe were German and Dutch.
Why do you think American collectors started buying Chinese art? This is really a big phenomenon, isn’t it?
Yes it’s huge. I think big collectors just realized something was going on in China. Everyone is just crazy about Chinese art. In China this phenomenon of contemporary art tourism is simply unbelievable.
What do you remember of the ’90s in China? Did you have the feeling right away that Chinese art was going to become something so successful?
Oh Yes. The first time we came to Beijing for three weeks we met lot of artists, and we had no idea it was as fantastic as it was. It was the most incredible art scene. So creative, so full of potential, and these artists were so enthusiastic, so genuine. It was a great time.
What’s the situation now?
It’s still great but there’s more competition; it has become more difficult to get good works. (AB)
Director of Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai.
It would be interesting to know something about the history of the gallery. How did you get started?
I opened the gallery in 1999, before that I was an artist. At that time there were only two contemporary art galleries in Shanghai, so I thought it would be good to open another space. At the beginning I didn’t know I would run the gallery for such a long time. When we opened Eastlink we tried to do a good job, but of course we made some mistakes. But I think it’s fine to make some mistakes, you learn from them. We organized some shows; some of them are still well known, for example “Fuck Off.” It’s not easy to run a gallery in China now, for a lot of reasons, especially the day-to-day, because of the business and political situation. In any case time passed, it’s already 7 years that I’ve been working as a gallerist, and I feel I have been lucky. Things are going well for Chinese art. At the moment we have this show “Extension Term,” it is a big exhibition; we try to concentrate on the international scene, it’s not only about Chinese art. It has become something boring this issue of Chinese art. We are now ready to work with an international group of artists.
Tell me something about “Fuck Off,” a seminal show for Chinese contemporary art.
Before the “Fuck Off” show there weren’t these kinds of shows in China, I mean so big, so well organized, etc. So we thought it was important to organize a show like this about Chinese art with a Chinese curator. It was really successful. We wanted to show our works, and our vision about what was going on here.
How did you find that group of artists?
With the curator, Ai Weiwei, we discussed this show for 4 years.
Why did you choose this title “Fuck Off”?
We felt a lot of pressure in that period. The Western curators and galleries were telling us: this is good and this is bad, this is Chinese and this is not, this is too political, etc. So we organized this show, and we said “Fuck Off.”
What kind of collectors do you have?
Our group of collectors is growing, locally and internationally. We try to find good artists and good collectors. We don’t want to work with something that is easy to sell.
Is it true that Chinese collectors are kind of conservative? I mean they usually buy only Chinese art.
I think it takes time. The Chinese are buying Mercedes now, so I’m sure they will soon also buy Western art. It takes time because it’s not easy for them to understand it.
How many Chinese collectors do you have?
I would say that 10 percent of my collectors are Chinese, but they spend a lot of money. Of course they buy paintings and more traditional formats, but things — as I said — are changing everyday.
Have you ever had trouble with the government?
Yes “Fuck Off” for example was closed down. That’s why we are here. We want to help the government and the public to understand what we do. (AB)
Founder, Beijing Commune.
Mr. Lin, what’s your background?
I was born in 1965 in Beijing. During the ’80s I studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, together with the generation of artists who is now dominating and influencing Chinese contemporary art. I first graduated in Chinese Art History; later on I studied and graduated in Art Theory (1993). At the beginning of the ’90s I worked as an art editor for a magazine. I organized the first two auctions of Chinese Contemporary Art in 1996 and 1997. During the ’90s I also started working as a curator and critic. Up to now I have published two books on Chinese contemporary art. I opened my gallery Beijing Commune in 2004.
As a gallery owner and a curator working in China have you ever felt the pressure of censorship?
What I feel is that this pressure has been transformed into a content which has become an element of art itself.
Which are — in your opinion — the most interesting shows you have curated?
I Think my most interesting shows have been: “It’s Me! A profile of Chinese contemporary art in the 90s” (1998), “The Game of Realism” (2005), “News” (2006) and “Home” (2006). (AB)
Director of Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.
At the beginning Vitamin Creative was a nonprofit. Is that true? Why did you turn it into a for-profit gallery?
In China, it is impossible to be nonprofit because of the Chinese context. In China, in order to be an independent space, there is no support policy. There is no government funding or private funding for it. There is no tax policy to support art organizations. Even Vitamin Creative could not register as an art organization. We are registered as a company, so Vitamin has been functioning as a gallery in order to bring in funding from the time it was established.
Due to the context, we have to find a unique model and a way to deal with the situation as an independent space in a way which has not existed elsewhere. In the West, because of different culture policies, an independent space operates differently. But in China, we are on the way to finding out what independent means and how to cope with the Chinese situation in order to survive.
The essential purpose is to research what contemporary art means in China; these are the driving points for us to decide what projects or exhibitions we do. We have worked with some artists and looked at their art practices and considered what kind of contribution they have made in China. We are also doing some projects, for instance “Fools Move Mountain” located on a mountain, and organizing a few workshops for which we have invited people from different fields: artists, philosophers, architects, designers, etc. We would like to know more about Chinese contexts through these workshops in a more comprehensive way.
But now the gallery has become an important part of Vitamin. In my understanding, a gallery is not only a commercial place, it also plays a very important social role. A gallery is also a platform for communication between artists, curators and collectors. The purpose of the gallery is not to make money, but money is part of the operation of the gallery.
Is it difficult to work in a city like Guangzhou?
No, we really like working in Guangzhou. Guangzhou is a relaxed city and there is time for us to do research and really work with the artists. Even though there is no art circle, we have more and more of an audience. In Guangzhou, there is much less pressure from the crazy Chinese art situation and we can concentrate more on what we are doing.
What kind of problems does one find in China working as a gallery owner?
The Chinese contemporary art market is crazy at this moment and the whole market is a big mess. There are not many good galleries and many galleries have the short-sighted vision of making quick money. For the artists, suddenly there are so many opportunities in the market, so there are fewer and fewer interesting art works. There is no art market system or trust at the moment. For us, we are in between China and the West, so we are involved in two totally different situations. The art market situation is quite different here from the rest of the world. We are struggling and trying to find a balance between the two.
Have you ever had trouble with the censorship?
What is specifically Chinese? What is quintessentially Chinese?
For me, what is interesting is contemporary art in China rather than Chinese contemporary art. It’s interesting to see how the artist as an individual deals with the issues around him in the Chinese context through his or her art practice. (AB)
Curator, MoCA, Shanghai.
How do you see the Chinese art system? What kind of problems is it experiencing at the moment?
There are too few museums or institutes housing good collections. There is virtually no primary market of reputable galleries and dealers. The current heat generated by the secondary market is a mess. There are too many auction houses that are not up to standards. So a healthy art system in China is still waiting to be established.
Tell us something about the show at the MoCA “Entry gate: Chinese Aesthetics of Heterogeneity.” What was your curatorial goal?
“Entry Gate: Chinese Aesthetics of Heterogeneity,” is an expanding exploration of the pluralistic directions of Chinese contemporary art today. The revival of the Literati attitude in art and attention to the traces of the artists’ hand are the two main concerns in the selection of the artworks. The last group of artists is made up of those who choose to make their art on an extreme scale-either very large or very small.
What is the biennial MoCA “Envisage?”
Our MoCA “Envisage” exhibition focuses on the issue of the development of Chinese contemporary art. We will conduct two research projects alternating every year. Exhibitions are the result or final presentation of our projects. MoCA “Envisage” will focus on Chinese contemporary art on even years, and the MoCA International Biennial will focus on the Animamix Art on odd years. Animamix is a word that I created to describe the new aesthetics in animation and comic art which will become mainstream. Animamix aesthetics for the 21st century are like the abstract aesthetic in the 20th century. It will affect all visual forms in our life from fine art to design. So we will have two biennial exhibitions.
What kind of audience does the Museum have?
Local people of all ages but more younger people. We also have many international visitors.
What’s your next show?
It will be an exhibition on the historical perspective of Chinese contemporary art with 30+ internationally well-known artists. (AB)
Director, offiCina Ltd., Beijing.
When did you arrive in China?
Rosario Scarpato and I first arrived in Beijing in September 1988 from different directions (we met on the same Interflug flight — an East German airline, now defunct) and realized that we were both going to attend Chinese language classes in the same University. It was a very different China, no skyscrapers or kissing in public, no shopping centers, no Italian parmesan or wine! But there were already some pioneers boldly supporting the underground artistic scene (curator Li Xianting for example, around whom gathered the first big community of artists).
Is offiCina a nonprofit?
offiCina is a ltd. company registered in Hong Kong with a representative office in Beijing; we act as a cultural exchange center and organize/curate art events involving Italy, Europe and China. That’s to say we usually ask our clients — either public or private organizations — to pay a fee for our work. This allows us to run the company and our studio, which is also an exhibiting space inside Factory 798. This also allows us to invest every year in cultural events we personally curate or for which we cooperate with Chinese and international artists and curators. Naturally, when we have bigger art projects or long-term cooperation and need more funds, we also engage in fundraising and work with sponsors.
What are you working on at the moment?
We are working on a video art exhibition curated by Gigiotto Del Vecchio featuring the work of ten artists from Naples. In October we will bring a retrospective of thirty years of Italian video “Elettroshock” (1973-2006) to the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou. The exhibit will include eithy artists, with more than ninety works. One main visual art project we are co-curating, in cooperation with Russian artist Varvara Shavrova and Chinese independent curator Feng Boyi, is “Map Games: Dynamics of Change.” The project is based on the Beijing city map and explores the dynamic and rapid changes that are dramatically re-shaping the geography and infrastructure of the city and its map in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. We have invited about forty artists and architects (see attached project list), from China and around the world, to create new works, and the project will culminate in a group exhibition in 2008 in Beijing, Guangzhou, Birmingham, and Italy. (AB)
Director, Marella Gallery, Beijing.
How do you judge and what conclusions have you arrived at after your gallery’s two year presence in China.
I am very happy to have opened in China because, even in the face of great difficulty, especially at the beginning, we are having an extraordinary experience.
Do you believe that the great interest in the Chinese artistic and cultural panorama can still expand or take on new dimensions?
I believe it must continue to expand while, in a successive phase, we Westerners will co-exist more normally in this reality
Do you think that China (as it does with its products of every genre) is more willing to export artistic products rather than import them?
China is quite compelled to import Chinese artists at the moment (because many works left China in the last ten years) and to support them more in the following years, in both the internal and international markets. Gradually and cautiously, they will develop an interest in and then begin to acquire Western artists who, according to their own opinions, are fundamental, but for some time to come the priority will remain on their [Chinese] art.
In your Chinese gallery, you presented Italian and Western artists as well. How were they received?
The exhibitions that we present are generally well organized and the gallery has a strong reputation in China, therefore [our] exhibitions are always well received by the public and the press. Beneath the commercial profile however, the results are minimal. We like to present our artists or important international artists and will continue this presentation. We feel, in part, an obligation to do so, as was the case in “Il Bel Paese” (The Beautiful Country), curated by Giacinto di Pietrantonio, which considered the difficulty of Italian art on the international front. But for the moment, we have had only economic losses. Nonetheless, we’re not giving up.
Everyone applauds you for your initiative. Undoubtedly the visibility and attention are noteworthy. But from a business point of view, how have you done?
The very slim business in the initial years, which was compensated by a strong international demand that emerged in the last two years, improved after the push of international auction results, especially those from this last year. The fact of being here, where a lot of international attention is moving, is helping us a great deal and certain exhibitions like the one inaugurated in October with Cui Xiuwen, are providing astonishing results. There are however a lot of problems with, for example, the bureaucracy, or with transportation and with the increasing costs in China that generate problematic moments, or complex exhibitions (and thus costly) with results that are much more negative than in Italy. In general however, we are satisfied, above all because we are witnessing a situation in constant and positive evolution. (GP)
Director, Galleria Continua, Beijing.
Could you draw a balance of your experience as a gallerist in China? What have you given and what have you received?
Working in China is, in itself, a ‘particular’ experience and working as a gallerist is an absolutely singular and interesting experience. China is a territory in many respects still unknown and it does not lend itself to an easy reading. The country is absorbing with infinite voracity input from all directions and to be able to help with this process is stimulating and fascinating. Thanks to this experience, Galleria Continua still has the honor of presenting international artists in an area where they are not yet known and where visibility is not easy. Through the opening of this new communication channel, our gallery has proposed an artistic dialogue between the East and the West, in search of a profitable exchange born from the encounter of two diverse cultural and operative models. Up until now, the verification of a generous quotidian influx of visitors at our exhibitions and their deep and growing interest in knowing about the exhibited work provides us with a sense of satisfaction and enthusiasm.
Do you believe that the boom of interest in new Chinese art will continue or will it experience a re-dimensioning?
I believe that the interest in Asian art, not just Chinese, will continue, in fact it will augment. I also believe that the economic environment will experience a natural re-dimensioning. The current economic value of these works makes the art market scream, our hope is that sooner or later the artistic essence will prevail.
Do you believe that China is ready and willing to accept western proposals?
It was with this doubt that we moved closer to China as a pioneering figure; now we can respond positively and recognize that in China the interest in international art is increasing.
In China you also presented western artists. What was the reaction? How were they received? Was there only a cultural interest or a real market interest as well?
As I have already explained, the reaction was extremely positive, at times total amazement, curious disorientation, while other reactions were of profound interest both on a cultural and market level.
In your opinion, is China able to foster the production of new viable artists every two years?
Currently China is producing artists every two days. Personally, I believe that this ‘new Chinese art’ is frequently not reliable, but the artists that we consider to be valid are indisputably of enormous talent and versatility.
Lorenzo Fiaschi (co-founder with Mario Cristiani and Maurizio Rigillo of Continua Gallery in San Gimignano, Italy, and Beijing): It took one year in order to be able to sell work by a Western artist to a Chinese collector, but the first sale, Daniel Buren, with a 10 x 10 m, 20 m high installation, and the second a large installation on a tree by Loris Cecchini, was really amazing. We have just confirmed a permanent installation by Cecchini for a square in Shanghai. (GP)
Owner, Contrast Gallery, Shanghai
What is your background? How does it influence your activities as a dealer?
As a collector, a dealer and a patron, I’ve always been a ‘shopaholic.’ I have always been attracted to objects, wanting to own them but not realizing that I was collecting. When I started a gallery in 1993, it was a difficult time for many artists and designers. There was an economic downturn in the UK, and hardly anyone was collecting contemporary work, especially design. This was the same period during which I first encountered Chinese contemporary art, after being introduced to it by the HO gallery, and that I developed a fierce curiosity in Chinese culture.
My chief interest was in creating exhibitions where design pieces would be juxtaposed with Chinese contemporary art to create living spaces. I then began to realize the importance of placing their works in private homes or museums as opposed to acquiring them for my own collection. I hoped that by creating a gallery, I would not only expose people to these works but could also provide a place where they could purchase them. This applied especially to China.
How would you define Contrast? What kind of gallery is Contrast? In what is it different than what most other dealers do?
Contrasts Gallery serves as a cross-cultural platform — we bring China to the West and we bring the West to China and also show how the traditional Chinese culture has influenced the contemporary. We encourage Western and the Chinese artists to create together. We are very different from other galleries in that we are not driven strictly by commercial factors. We support our artists and their endeavors, and showing their work in the galleries is one way of exposing them to a larger audience, both collectors and general public. We also aim to encourage the idea that art can be communicative and accessible, while at the same time push all the boundaries that define creativity.
What are the current plans for your next shows and programs?
Our next big show is on the young generation of artists and our current “Crossovers” show will travel to London in November.
What kind of problems do you find working as a gallerist today in China?
In China, all art works today are more like 3rd grade ‘stocks’ in the stock market. The market is very volatile and evolves incredibly quickly, with collectors from different countries purchasing differently. It’s also very speculative; before a painting arrives at the gallery it has often been re-directed to the auctions. In this environment, serving the interests of our artists is quite a challenge. (AB)
Giancarlo Politi is the Publisher and Editor of Flash Art.
Andrea Bellini is US Editor for Flash Art.