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Leo Xu / Shanghai

Among the most promising art dealers in contemporary China, Leo Xu has gathered together some of the boldest figures in the country’s emerging art scene: Cheng Ran, Li Shurui, Liu Chuang, Cui Jie, Cheng Wei and Guo Hongwei, just to name a few. Xu talks with Flash Art about his early career and future projects, and shares his vision for a strong art community in China.

You opened the gallery in 2011 in Shanghai. How has your program — and your expectations — developed since then?

The reason I opened the gallery was to stimulate artists I admired and had been following for a while. I was interested in helping them throughout their careers, so I quit my job at James Cohan Gallery early in 2011 and opened my studio, both editorial and curatorial. But I found it hard to maintain. Not many people are receptive to editorial content when it comes to acquiring art. We received, on the other hand, many honors and fellowships. Through this first step I gave my artists a platform, a headquarters in which to experiment. It didn’t have to be big. I ran this space and simultaneously worked on placing the shows somewhere else. I just wanted the gallery to be accessible.

Accessible in what sense?

Geographically, not curatorially. I am focused on linking the program to theater, music, schools and even to public spaces such as shopping malls. Integrating art with peoples’ lives is what engages me the most.

When you were studying fine art, was the thought of opening a commercial gallery on your radar?

I never had such thoughts. My ex bosses from Chambers Fine Art and James Cohan always had this prophecy about me, that I would open my own gallery. I hesitated, as I always thought being a dealer involved an incredible amount of work. When I curated a couple of exhibitions at James Cohan, I felt very connected to some of the artists I selected. Their work was immediate and reflected our times. It also spoke to the media and reacted to it. But I also thought they were underappreciated, so I felt they needed someone to help them channel all those important issues.

Did your work experience at private galleries fortify your relationship with current collectors who follow the gallery?

I think it helped, but also it became difficult, because my experience with James Cohan was wonderful and I learned a lot, but that was nevertheless an old-fashioned way of art dealing that does not really apply to new Chinese standards. I had a hard time with collectors when I used similar techniques I learned at the previous gallery. It’s too Westernized. I think I attracted collectors who love the vision of our program, who enjoy working with us. I believe I am a peculiar art dealer. Some people do not really work with me because they find me hard to work with.

Many young galleries are now inclined to work with historical artists and their estates. Are you also considering this?

I think I’m not interested in many formulas or strategies. Digging out estates — that’s not my mission. Our gallery wants to challenge each of the artists we work with by taking them out of their comfort zone. I think mainly we focus on transplanting artists’ ideas onto a bigger picture. That is why we collaborate a lot with urban planners, architects, we advise them and come up with projects together. We are selling ideas rather than sculptures or objects. We are more like an agency than a gallery.

Have any of your artists ever failed with such ambitious projects? Some of them are rather young.

You know, I have a wall in the gallery called “The wall of failure.” One of my artists started a mural and then he couldn’t finish it. My assistant was about to remove it, and I asked her to keep it. It’s beautiful; it will remind us of a few failures throughout the gallery’s life.

The use of archival material as a primary subject is very common within the young generation of artists in China. Why this obsession?

I think they are obsessed with identity, not archival material. They use archives to express their confusion with identity. I think artists need partners to develop, to challenge and provoke them, not to babysit them. They need people to make them understand what is performative, not only as an expression, but also as a final outcome of each of their works.

by Gea Politi

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Abdelmonem Alserkal on the Alserkal Avenue / Dubai

Mr. Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal gets edgy when he’s called a patron of the arts. Unassuming by nature, discreet by upbringing, he has nonetheless masterminded one of Dubai’s most dynamic cultural assets — the eponymous gallery “neighborhood” set in the grimy underbelly of the city’s industrial zone like some cool art oasis.

From a cluster of galleries in 2007 dotted between garages and tire shops, Alserkal Avenue is now poised to double in size. As of Autumn 2015, some 76,000 m2 of new, Hollywood-back-lot-style spaces will welcome international heavyweights like Leila Heller Gallery, as well as some local luminaries, such as decade-old The Third Line. This ambitious construction has been mirrored by an equally exuberant programming activity, the most visible of which was the Safina Radio Project — a boat-cum-recording studio navigating Venice waterways during this year’s Biennale.

Mr. Alserkal’s snug, understated office, enlivened by Tintin paraphernalia and Paul Smith doodads, belies his position in one of the United Arab Emirates’ most enterprising families, instrumental in establishing the country’s utilities and infrastructure. Yet for all its industriousness, the Alserkal family is decidedly low-key. True to his pedigree, Mr. Alserkal does not trumpet his achievements, but rather embraces the challenges ahead.

What does an arts “neighborhood” mean today? If we look at Paris’s 13th arrondissement, the East End in London or Milan’s Lambrate, they are dwindling landscapes compared to what was planned. What sustains your belief in this format in Dubai?

The neighborhoods you mention are scattered. Here, we are all under one family, one management. The first part of Alserkal Avenue, which started in 2007, grew organically, alongside the development of Dubai’s art scene. As this scene evolved, we were approached by a lot of new talent who saw Alserkal Avenue as a place where they wanted to present their ideas. They understood the value of community support, and they wanted to be part of it. The members of the initial community wanted more space, so the new expansion stemmed from this demand. It is a curated expansion, so it provides continuity to the community that has existed since 2007. It will be more sustainable than the neighborhoods you mention.

Why are you investing so heavily in international visibility with projects like the Safina Radio Project?

I believe we are providing a platform for regional and local initiatives — artists, art galleries, creative — to be visible internationally. We have always housed homegrown talent. Now we are extending the platform for them to participate more deeply in the international art world. In this respect, we are acting more like an arts organization. We have done well in supporting the commercial side; now we want to contribute to supporting actual arts creation through our commissions, and to supporting artists internationally through our galleries. [At Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014, Alserkal Avenue supported Jacob’s Ladder — a performance work, referencing helicopter evacuation in conflict zones, by artist Shahpour Pouyan, represented by Alserkal-based gallery Lawrie Shabibi — Ed.]

Is this a new positioning? Has Alserkal Avenue outgrown its role as “neighborhood” to become a privately endowed institution?

We want to pursue a new role as an arts organization. There are still many gaps in the Dubai art scene. We want to create opportunities for the talent base here, and the possibilities are endless. We achieve this through our homegrown programs like the Safina Radio Project, our joint commissions with Art Dubai and our own commissions, our partnerships with foundations abroad, our educational projects, the upcoming artists’ residencies… It is no longer about the physical space, but about this content we are building, the substance we didn’t have before. We are no longer a neighborhood. We are becoming an arts organization. That is where we want to be.

Do you feel there is an overlap between what you intend to do and initiatives by other local players like Art Dubai, with its own agenda of residencies and commissions?

Everyone is doing their own part — Art Dubai, Dubai Culture — and there is an opportunity for us as an arts organization. In terms of commissions, for example, our mission is very clear: to support experimental media that is not at all commercially supported — experimental work, sound installations, public art, performance. But we are also building a cultural destination. Among the new initiatives will be a theater, art cinema and educational spaces. So it expands the arts.

Which is more important for you: that people engage with the cultural content in Alserkal Avenue, or that it is seen as a desirable destination?

Content is extremely important for us, but the programming is new. In the first year it will be about forming our own voice. We want to be part of the art history in this part of the world. Ten years from today, we want people to refer back to commissions we did. We want to be part of that timeline. But we are just starting.

by Kevin Jones

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The Sunday Painter / London

Harry Beer, Tom Cole and Will Jarvis talk about the past, present and future of The Sunday Painter, among London’s most lively emerging galleries.

Why did you open The Sunday Painter? Has the purpose changed over the years?

Initially it was conceived as an artists-run space whilst we were still studying fine art at the Chelsea College of Arts and the Camberwell College of Arts. We were located in a disused function room of a pub we converted. It started off with very little direction other than to try and put on good exhibitions with our peers and to allow a space for practical discourse and experimentation. I’d say this general ethos remains true; however there was a time when we realized the gallery could only continue in a meaningful way if we changed the model to a commercial one.

You named the gallery after a nickname that was given to you at school. Do you actually think you are better at finding artists than being artists?

Seeing as we are no longer practicing artists ourselves, I hope so! The transition from being an artist-run space to a gallery happened fairly naturally through being both a necessity and a conscious decision. We were also at art school with fellow students/friends who are now beginning to establish successful careers, so a lot of the relationships we have with artists are pre-existing. We’ve known them from the very beginnings of their careers, and this can be a valuable insight when it comes to finding and working with artists.

Does your background affect your program decisions?

I think having come from artistic backgrounds means we share some important sensibilities with the artists we work with, and the pace at which we do things and grow is in keeping with coming from this background. Beyond that, our own history does not influence the program too heavily — the desire to have a program that constantly challenges and questions is a stronger influence.

Can you describe the community around The Sunday Painter?

Our community is fairly broad. We’re lucky to have a good following and network of great people from our immediate community in Peckham. Because of our own beginnings, this is often in the form of artists we studied and grew up with, but the changing nature of the business, through our development to a commercial gallery, means that this now extends to collectors, patron groups, writers, curators, etc. Beyond our local community we are beginning to develop a more international outreach through participating in fairs, constantly developing relationships with fellow galleries, collectors and curators.

Who are your strongest supporters?

Artists, both those we have worked with from the early days and those who are relatively new to the gallery, have been and continue to be key supporters as the gallery constantly evolves. Their belief in us, and vice versa, is fundamental to what we are trying to achieve. We also have had great support from other more established galleries who have helped us over the years by giving us good advice on the strange business we work in. This has been invaluable I think. As well as this, we have a number of individuals who have been really key in our progression.

Are you very close to the artists you work with? Can that be a double-edged sword or does it usually work out well?

I think it is fair to say that there are some artists who we work with that we are very close to, and so far it seems to be working out well! The artist-gallery relationship requires openness, honesty and communication, so being close to the artists is important in this respect.

The gallery has been commercial for a couple of years. Are you already able to financially sustain your program?

Yes we are (just!).

Well Done! Did taking part in art fairs help finance the gallery?

Yes and no! Art fairs can be quite contradictory — they are a fundamental part of the art world and can be crucial in terms of sales, exposure and introducing artists to a new audience. They can often be the place at which a large portion of the year’s sales are made. At the same time, they come with very high overheads — the margins can be tight, particularly for a young gallery like ourselves.

Can you share a glimpse of your future program?

We have finished a major renovation of the gallery and are looking forward to working on some exciting shows in the new space, including solo shows with Hannah Lees and Neil Rumming, and a group show curated by Elinor Morgan, who is the new senior curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. We have also just been joined by Tom Cole, who has come on board as a new partner.

by Gea Politi

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Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev on the 14th Istanbul Biennial

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Istanbul Biennial, entitled “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms,” will run from September 5 to November 1, 2015. The curator spoke with Flash Art about her concept for the Biennial’s 14th edition.

The press release says the Biennial is “drafted” by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Can you address this word choice?

“To draft” suggests “to draw” or to make a proposal or plan for something to come later. Drawing is a fundamental gesture of mark making, which is not only human but also refers to the acts of other living entities and geological formations; from cave paintings by humans to rivers drawing their riverbeds to ants drawing tunnels under the earth, to draw is a gesture known in the world and it has different connotations — to “draw from” is to be inspired while to “draw the line” means that an ethical limit has been reached beyond which one is not willing to go. “To draw” can be purposeful — like when you draw plans for a building — and purposeless. The latter was one way humans during the Enlightenment defined art: a purposeless activity, as the other side of productive society. “Drafting” is a word that is not used in the art world today and doesn’t have the connotation of power that the word “curating” has, which defines a job of advising art collections, selecting, dividing the good from the less good. It serves a productive function, and when you do that you become a functionary, an academic. You assert power, and I have negative associations with this sort of activity. This fundamental gesture of drawing and mark making came to my mind after looking at the Bosporus, which looks like a line drawn by a giant, connecting two seas. Its etymology — “ox passage,” from the Greek bous, which means ox, and poros, which means passage — relates to a previous time when the Bosporus was not open, since during history, due to the moving of geological fault lines, this geographical configuration has changed many times, opening and closing. This place, where oxen and cows could pass through, made me think of “thought-forms,” which are the ancestors of commercial logos, the manifestations of what is invisible and yet visible, or invisible and apparently abstract but certainly physical. Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s Thought-Forms (1905) inspired many artists exploring abstraction in the early 20th century but also later became the commercial logo; by going to the roots of this concept, according to the theosophists, I would like to surrealistically drown out all the logos of the world in a huge bonfire and cacophony of symbols and thought-forms.

Among the individuals involved in your draft you invited Pierre Huyghe. Can you talk about his involvement in the Biennial as compared to artists who were invited “simply” to exhibit?

He is one of my alliances. “Alliance” is a word that sounds military. However, following my desire to refer to the etymology of words, the first usage of this word indicates the ring symbolizing marriage and it means to tie together, to knot. We tie this knot after a long relationship; at Castello di Rivoli, for his retrospective in 2004, we tied a lot of knots with children from the town and brought an air balloon into the sky and then up the hill from the village into the modernist white cube of Rivoli’s third floor, making this space softer, thinking about folding, about paper, about Bergson, the Baroque, Deleuze. Then in Sydney in 2008 we brought two thousand trees into the Opera House and people could wander inside wearing miner headlamps, looking like fireflies. Our intellectual lives run in parallel; we influence each other; we both think about living identities, the co-agency of materials, trees and animals. His dOCUMENTA (13) piece Untilled (2011–12), which was a microcosm of the whole exhibition, was a compost heap to go against the idea of the archive, and it was not made only for human visitors — it was also made for insects and a myriad of other visitors.

He has been making exhibitions forever. Even in Rivoli we used a show controller to activate his works according to a score. From the bus journey he organized to visit his grandmother’s house to the casting session of the remake of a Pasolini movie that ended up being the piece itself, this movement has been with him for a very long time. Even in his first exhibitions with Philippe Parreno, he shared the desire to use time in order to articulate space. The Host and the Cloud (2009–2010), filmed at the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris during a three-day apparition and experiment — Halloween, Valentine’s Day and May Day — is a milestone in the history of exhibition-making as opposed to art-making, and it comes before the recent fantastic “exhibition” at the Centre Pompidou. For Istanbul, we talk about ideas, about autopoiesis, about the world; he inspires me, and gives advice when I ask for it.

I once heard that during your time at PS1 you said you wanted to leave your work in the field of art and escape to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. What made you stay and end up organizing shows like “Faces in the Crowd: Picturing Modern Life from Manet to Today” at Castello di Rivoli, the 16th Biennale of Sydney, dOCUMENTA (13), and now the Istanbul Biennial?

I am a skeptic and an enthusiast at once, and live in an Adornian mode, always alert to a form of negative dialectic, and thus in and out of the art world. I want to live life, and yet I also want to reflect on it, through research and exhibitions. “Le contraddizioni sono ovunque” [contradictions are everywhere], Italian artist Francesco Matarrese once said.

by Nicola Trezzi

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Eric Mézil on the Collection Lambert / Avignon

On July 11th the Collection Lambert opens its new exhibition space in Avignon. Flash Art sits down with Director Eric Mézil to learn about the institution’s future programing.

What has changed at the Collection Lambert?

The size of the exhibition space is going to more than double, and over two thousand square meters will be added to the current facilities, for temporary exhibitions and permanent display. Many sectors that we have been developing over the last fifteen years — such as public and pedagogical programs — will have a proper setting. We are building an amphitheater and developing spaces devoted to the conservation of artworks. Cyrille and Laurent Berger, the two architects who were chosen to work on the Hôtel de Montfaucon, the second building, helped us structure the new spaces. The basement will be restructured too, with three exhibition rooms and a screening room. The display of the collection will change on a yearly basis, and we will host three exhibitions a year, which will encompass solo projects, thematic projects and conversations between ancient art and contemporary productions.

The Collection Lambert is primarily Yvon Lambert’s personal collection, and it seems to function like a museum. How does the fact that it’s a former dealer’s collection interact with its status as a museum?

The fact that Yvon Lambert decided to donate the collection to the state in 2012 manifested his impulse to make it permanent — to make it a museum. This is a very rare gesture, especially in France. We are not a foundation — there is no private money involved. We are a public institution, and we function thanks to public subventions from the state, from the region, from the department, from the city of Avignon. We are an international museum in the French province, and we program our exhibitions in collaboration with the world’s leading institutions.

How involved is Yvon Lambert in the collection that bears his name?

Yvon Lambert has shown us a great deal of trust and support, ever since we started working on the collection. He is involved in a very positive way. This summer, the collection will host a major exhibition devoted to the work and world of the theater and film director Patrice Chéreau. Yvon’s support — that of a major donor to the French state — has been invaluable in arranging loans from many public institutions, especially from museums of ancient art, of which he is very fond.

When there was Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris, people used to wonder — wrongly — about the relation between the gallery and the collection — a very French problem. Yvon closed his gallery in December 2014; now these views can all be dismissed, and we can look back at what we have achieved over the last fifteen years and see how productive Yvon’s contribution has been. For instance, Yvon’s collaboration and friendship with Cy Twombly was entirely disconnected from the market during the last years of Twombly’s life. But we continued this collaboration with a scientific, museum model, with two exhibitions, and soon a third one will be devoted to his work. Today, Yvon is very involved in developing new projects with artists. The collection also enables him to look at artists he had not yet been able to discover properly. However, we will of course continue the narrative of his conversation with certain artists, such as André Cadere.

At the same time that you are opening the new Collection Lambert in Avignon, you are developing new projects in Vence. What is the relation between the collection in Vence and Avignon?

Yvon Lambert was born in Vence. He has very strong ties with this town, where such prominent artists as Matisse and Dubuffet worked. It gives us considerable freedom to work and experiment with art and artists in new ways. For instance, the large exhibition we will devote to Adel Abdessemed in 2016, all over Avignon, will be preceded this year by an exhibition in Vence. The two towns are only two and a half hours driving distance. There is something very special about Vence. The Minimalist artists Yvon has always been interested in, such as Brice Marden, Robert Mangold and Richard Tuttle, look a lot at Matisse’s work in Vence. With our spaces both in Avignon and in Vence, we aim to pay tribute to the Mediterranean light, something that has been so important to Yvon Lambert himself, and to so many artists.

by Donatien Grau

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Eva Presenhuber / Zurich

In 1998 Eva Presenhuber joined Hauser & Wirth to create Hauser & Wirth & Presenhuber. A few years later, she founded Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich. Both of her Zurich-based locations are now among the art world’s top destinations, and she represents artists such as Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Valentin Carron, Michael Williams and Ugo Rondinone. Eva restlessly fights for her artists and systematically discovers new ones; rumor has it she sleeps fifteen minutes a year.

Your booth at the Armory earlier this year was mind-blowing. How to you conceptualize the space of a booth? Do you have a global vision for it or do you prefer to show the whole spectrum of the artists you represent?

The success of a great art fair booth relies on great works; a rule I do repeat is that I only place works together that support each other. The booth should always have the character of a high-quality show. I think the way Steven Shearer’s work German Helmets (2007) goes together with Matias Faldbakken’s Gas Sculpture Cap Red Blue (2015) is, besides a formal decision — because they look great together — also driven by a certain political approach that is already inherent in the works themselves. This specific way of reading might also have an effect on how you look at works by Sam Falls and Tobias Pils. Next to those you find Doug Aitken’s work 100YRS (2014) on the same wall as Oscar Tuazon’s Slipform (2015). The word-based work by Aitken, which is lit by white neon light, in context with the square plaster wall work by Oscar Tuazon, which is literally based on the idea of building, is a great match and creates a lot of philosophical and aesthetic tension.

What is your secret to discovering exciting new artists?

I get some very good advice from artists in my gallery, and I always follow my instincts.

Do you want to open a branch in the US or elsewhere in the world?

It’s an interesting idea and we are working on it.

Do you think the role of a dealer is to be open to the unknown, to challenge the definition of art, or to follow his or her own vision?

The dealer’s vision is secondary when it comes to the content of art; artists define what is art and what is just commerce. The dealer can go both ways — be sensitive to the best art and be aware of interesting trends.

What are your upcoming projects?

During Art Basel we are showing two solo shows in Zurich: one by Ugo Rondinone and one by Doug Aitken. Our upcoming projects include a huge show of new works by Martin Boyce, opening the end of August 2015, and a show by Josh Smith that opens the same day.

Do you see a change in the relative career lifespans of successful younger and older artists? Do young artists’ careers rise faster but also die more quickly? If so, why is that?

There is a difference between the artists who were born before 1975 and the younger generation after. The audience increased tremendously over the last fifteen years, and being an artist became a profession. This does not mean at all that there are more relevant artists working out there. It only means that we have a lot of short-term careers, which are fed by the huge demand of buyers and dealers.

Do you have your own particular obsessions in terms of eras, styles, schools, materials, artists, etc.?

I do not like schools or formalisms in art at all; I think I like relevant art, artists who really make a difference. Early on you can see those artists in competition with many others, but, as time goes by, usually after thirty years of artistic activity, one can finally see the difference between great art and not-so-great art!

Do you think the art world is overextended today? Are we too inundated with images and the quest for new discoveries? 

Well, I think we have a lot of everything, and yes, there is too much to digest in the art world today. But not only there: the problem is that everything is commercial now, and we do not have strong political ideals in society right now, although we have major problems worldwide due to corruption!

Do you ever feel bored of art — oversaturated maybe? What do you do then?

There has always been more boring art than exciting art!

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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