As an artrepreneur sparked by wanderlust and beauty, I welcome the opportunity to travel within my own city and beyond. During spring of 2012, I journeyed to China with renowned journalist and art critic Barbara Pollack to evaluate the Chinese art market. My trip to Asia not only underscored the strong foothold of Chinese contemporary art in the market, but also provided invaluable experiences which entailed comprehensive studio visits with preeminent artists like Ai Weiwei, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, exploring galleries and art institutions in the 798 District, French Concession and Taopu, and a chance to survey the widespread globalization of Beijing and Shanghai firsthand.
The 798 District in Beijing is a thriving arts district that was built out of 50-year old decommissioned military factories. In 1995 Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts relocated to the 798 District which caused a sea change in the Chinese contemporary art scene. Established artists and galleries began to trickle into the area and by the turn of the millennium, the art zone had flourished into a bustling commercial enterprise, not unlike Soho during its pinnacle or the current stream of NYC gallery districts in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. Some notable galleries and museum centers in 798 are Pace Beijing, Beijing Commune, Star Gallery and The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.
CAOCHANGDI ART DISTRICT
Caochangdi is about 45 minutes away from downtown Beijing. What was once an agrarian village, is now an international center for contemporary art in China. As the 798 District grew and became increasingly commercial and subsequently expensive (like Chelsea in NYC), many artists relocated their studios to Caochangdi (an area similar to Bushwick or Williamsburg in Brooklyn).
We enjoyed a visit at Pekin Fine Arts, which was established by Meg Maggio in 2005.
From there we went to visit Chinese contemporary painter Huang Zhi Yang’s studio:
We also visited with satirical photographer Wing Qingsong. In addition to admiring his candy-coated and deeply coded photographs, his hair had me captivated during our entire visit…
The Red Brick Art Galleries is a labyrinth-like art arena that was constructed by Ai Weiwei. It was a great experience to walk within this adobe colored maze.
One of our gallery visits was with Chambers Fine Art, which is located in the heart of the Red Brick Art District. At Chambers we witnessed a show being installed and then went to have tea with conceptual artist Zhao Zhao and his pet cricket.
We left Caochangdi and drove out to the edge of Beijing to visit with surrealist photographer Chen Wei.
We concluded our time in Beijing with an amazing studio visit with Chinese contemporary artists Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen. They are true artists in the sense that their studio space transcends their living space, and I found myself couched between countless art objects and installations as we feasted on a delectable hot pot dinner which they prepared for us. The entire experience felt like I was part of an incredible contemporary performance piece.
I became smitten with Shanghai from the moment I first rested my eyes upon the city. Having lived abroad in Paris, my mind instantly drew many parallels between the Western European architecture, the sophistication of the city and the feminine softness of the Bund that gently winds her way between the past (old city) and the future (new city).
Naturally, I enjoyed visiting galleries in the French Concession, an area of Shanghai that was once a foreign concession from 1849 -1946. During most of the 20th century, the area covered by the former French Concession was the premier residential and retail districts in Shanghai. Despite rampant re-development over the last few decades, the area retains a distinct character, and is a popular tourist destination. In 1902, the Concession imported a wonderfully dramatic tree to line streets in China called platanes, which was ubiquitous in Paris. Because this tree, which is now popular as a roadside tree throughout China, was first introduced in the French Concession in Shanghai, it roughly translates in Chinese as the “French Plane”.
We visited James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai, and met with James’ cousin and gallery director Arthur Solway. On view was a gorgeous solo exhibition by internationally acclaimed American artist Bill Viola, entitled Unspoken.
The gallery took us to an arts district called the ShanghART Taopu complex. It hosts a number of studio spaces as well as the very large ShanghART Taopu Warehouse, which houses perhaps the most impressive collection of Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai. Below are some images from the cavernous warehouse space at ShanghART:
Amongst the galleries in Taopu, we stopped in to visit MadeIn Company. MadeIn was established by Chinese contemporary conceptual artist Xu Zhen in 2009. MadeIn is a contemporary art project which focuses upon the malleability of contemporary culture through various forms of identity. The mission statement reads: “MadeIn Company is a contemporary art creation company, focused upon the production of creativity, and devoted to the research of contemporary culture’s infinite possibilities.” The curatorial strategy behind this project rests upon the notion of art being “produced” in the company rather than the converse, whereby the art that hails from a particular era informs the curatorial practice. Belgian curator Phillipe Pirotte offers insight on MadeIn’s vision in his catalogue essay, Belief of Consciousness-Consciousness of Belief, Xu Zhen set up MadeIn after deciding he had taken his individual identity as far as it would go. The company likes to upset the assumptions of the art establishment in ways both theatrical and humorous. In 2009 they curated and produced an exhibition that purported to show works by unnamed Middle Eastern artists, with the goal of exposing the filters of prejudice through which one culture views another. As Xu Zhen notes, “The West mainly associates the Middle East with death and violence, human suffering and a continuing political and religious deadlock.” Contemporary art of the Middle East “made in China,” for MadeIn, of course becomes a play with the fashionable interest that is now connected to the development of a variety of contemporary art structures that are built in the region, just as it was the case with China since some time earlier. It is also MadeIn’s reaction to a play with expectations to be fulfilled, fulled by a delerious art market that is constantly searching for new tokens of exoticism, and this not out of primitivist fantasies, but rather in order to have a visual counterpart for the phenomenon “emerging economy.”
During our visit in Shanghai, Barbara introduced me to three emerging contemporary artists, Jin Shan, Maya Kramer and Girolamo Marri. Their studio space is located in an old pen factory in Shanghai. Jin and Maya led us on a studio tour where we got to see many realized works as well as works in progress. Humor greeted us upon entering the studio, where we were met with a life size sculpture of Jin Shan with his trousers down. He originally made this piece for the Venice Biennale.
We also visited with Steven Harris, the director of M97 Gallery. M97 represents an eclectic range of important emerginging and established artists working with photography. Located at No. 97 Moganshan Road along the Suzhou River in Shanghai, the area is home to dozens of galleries and artist studios. M97 is a 300-square-meter space with a 200-square-meter main exhibition room and has an active program of solo and group exhibitions, as well as regularly participating in Asian and international art fairs. during our visit I became captivated with a photographic series called Love Letters by Jiang Zhi. The artist photographs beautiful flowers that he lights on fire in real time. The overall effect of the photographs possess a melancholy beauty. Jiang’s statement on the series is as follows: “Beautiful things and objects themselves will ultimately disappear, but the beauty itself will live on, as well as love. Perhaps this is what I am trying to express. This series of works is actually just that, a series of “Love Letters”. Beauty, pain, transience and eternity, blossoming and wilting, passion and grace, dedication, giving and sacrifice ……These are all about love.” – Jiang Zhi
And some final shots from our visit in Shanghai…