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Inside the Outsiders:The Foreigners in the Chinese Art World

陈溪 Cecilia Chan 2016-09-30 14:02

Mathieu Borysevicz 

Mathieu Borysevicz was determined to go to a place that was "far away from New York," which brought him to China for the first time.

In 1993, Borysevicz had just finished his Fine Arts studies in New York. Due to New York's high-cost of living and a unceasing travel bug, he decided to go somewhere where he would have no reference at all for a while to complete the art project he had planned. "I was very interested in Postmodern theory and cultural criticism, and China was, from this point of view, a huge attraction for me; for instance, the evolution of the Chinese society, urbanization, the culture of the fake, was entirely 'postmodern." So Borysevicz decided to travel to China for six months for adventure and research. Coincidently, just before Borysevicz left for China, he read an article written by Andrew Solomon in the New York Times magazine, titled "Their Irony, Humour (and Art) Can Save China". The article described the renegade lives of Chinese contemporary artists, and contained photos of the Chinese critic, Li Xianting and art works. "I contacted Andrew, he generously gave me some contacts of artists in China." Just like that, Borysevicz came to Beijing in the 1990s. 


Borysevicz enrolled himself in a Chinese language program, which took care of his visa and living issues. "I went to school from 8am to 12pm, then I spent the rest of the day biking around the city with my camera and sniffing out artists. I visited messy construction sites, collected information and made a variety of documentaries." While Solomon from the New York Times gave Borysevicz his initial point of contact in China, he eventually built up his own artistic black book after arriving in Beijing; during his stay, he was able to meet and befriend many different artists. In the fresh and strange environment that was China, Borysevicz had found his postmodern wonderland. 

It wasn't long before Borysevicz discovered that as a foreign artist in China, there was little room for him to grow. Fortunately, his interests in art theory led him to curate projects and write about art. He curated several exhibitions and published several essays, and eventually exhibited his art in Beijing. In 1998 Borysevicz returned to NY where he met many Chinese artists that had relocated there. He also made annual visits to China for different projects in both film and art. In 2004, Shanghai Gallery of Art located near the historic Bund area of Shanghai was opened by old friends Weng Lin with Cao Weijun and Zhang Li. Soon after moving to Shanghai in 2007 Borysevicz started his long-term collaboration with the gallery curating content, producing video works, and organizing exhibits. In 2010 Borysevicz took on the role of the gallery's full-time art director. 


Years of research led Borysevicz to become very interested in artists whose work demonstrated societal introspection and criticism. Over the years he had also built a strong network in China's art world. It seemed everything he was building was waiting for a special moment. In 2013, coincidently, Borysevicz was taken by his friends to an old bank building near Shanghai's historic Bund area. "When we knocked on the large wooden doors it was already after midnight and the weary night guard groaned before reluctantly letting us in. He still groans at me today. The space we saw was a dark, dirty cavern with a stage." Yet, perhaps driven by his inner voice or by what he calls the Bohemian Love, Borysevicz was deeply drawn to the place; the next morning he ran to the site and signed a lease. 

The unlikely space was Borysevicz's art gallery: BANK. It is not difficult to see that BANK is different from its peers. It is more like a project or artwork of Borysevicz's than a commercial gallery. Even its name stands out: it is special, it freshens one's mind - yet together, everything seems to coexist in a cohesive system. BANK, unique in its style, has hosted a series of solo shows for both Chinese and international artists. In ways unprecedented, bold, and unique, the gallery has also staged exhibitions of local Chinese artists with strong personalities. In less than three years, BANK has hosted solo shows for more than 91 artists, among them are internationally acclaimed contemporary artists Paul McCarthy, Isaac Julien, and Hito Steyerl. 


Despite its growing influence, BANK faced the same problems as many other establishments in Shanghai - the lease. Because of its The Bund location, renewing the lease became increasingly difficult. Though Borysevicz has signed more than 25 leasing agreements over two and half years the BANK building was eventually closed due to a government edict that prevented State owned buildings to be privately leased. Borysevicz and his team were forced to move out of the building. "We were so seduced by the space that we were willing to take the risk. We weren't intending to open a gallery but the space dictated that we must. This was indeed a space for art and for us." Borysevicz wrote the words in his announcement to temporarily close BANK. From what we learned, Borysevicz is looking for a new home for BANK. "BANK will continue its stories in its to-be-found new home, we will not disappoint you in our new digs and ask for your continued support and love!" Of course, we have no doubt that Borysevicz's stories are far from ending; rather, it has just begun. 

Sylvain and Dominique Levy 

Sylvain and Dominique Levy founded DSL Collection Agency 10 years ago in 2006. Prior to founding DSL, the Levys had been active in art collection for more than 20 years; their earlier interests range from classicism painting to modernist design. In the corners of their Parisian home, one can easily spot the art pieces of famous designers such as Ron Arad, Marc Newson, and Erwan Bouroullec brothers. 

Along their collection journey, it became clear to the Levys that their focus should be shifted to a more fixed theme: Chinese contemporary art, and in the meantime to take advantage of technologies like the Internet to showcase their collections; back then, such idea was unheard of. "Art is a mirror of our society, and Chinese art has fully demonstrated Chinese society. China is undergoing rapid changes, which have brought us abundant construction and destruction energies that would inspire tremendous creativity." Dominique Levy says passionately. 


Under the influence of their "Mirror Theory", the Levys started to discover Chinese contemporary artists. "I believe, what is important, is to give visibility to art and the artists, in particular those who are not necessarily the darlings of the auction market," says Sylvain Levys. But DSL Collection does not accept everything that comes to them, rather all art pieces must meet three standards: "First, we must ask ourselves whether the work presents strong visuals and if it has a deeply-embedded concept?" says Dominique, "Second, we would look at the background of the artists; third, we evaluate if the piece presented can coexist and have interactions with our existing collections." Following the standards, they decided to limit their collections to about 150 pieces. "In this way, for any new pieces, we can then consider if it can truly be part of the larger collection, and will it bring something unique to the overall visual of our entire collection." The Levys put their collections into a virtual museum, which allows visitors to view, appreciate the art pieces and their authors by themes. Visitors can study the collections freely; for instance, the works of artists Zeng Fanzhi, Yang Jiecang, Xu Zhen, Zhang Huan, and Qiu Shihua. This collection method allowed DSL to quickly grow its influence within the field; it has allowed open discussions on the once locked-behind-walls and hard-to-reach art pieces. Though DSL's collections are limited to only 150 pieces from 110 elite artists, its virtual museum has established an industry trend as well as a platform through which private-observations and publicity coexist. 

Lorenz Helbling 

Many Chinese, when they first meet Lorenz Helbling, were all shocked by his fluent Mandarin. Yet he would humbly thank you and carry on the conversation leisurely and slowly. For many people they see traits of a "Jun Zi (gentle man)" in Helbling, as described by Chinese Confucianism. 


Helbling's ShanghART, one of the most influential contemporary art galleries in China, is a popular place where young Chinese artists would sign up for solo shows. To them, recognition by ShanghART is a stamp of approval by the West. Nonetheless, Helbling warns them: Don't put business before art. "Many artists think that all problems are solved once they have signed with ShanghART; it is wrong to think so. Artists still need to solve their own problems, think independently, and plan what they might be creating at age 80." Helbing often views problems as an artist instead of as an owner of an art gallery, which might have been the real reason why ShanghART is still in business after 21 years. 

Helbing studied Art History and Chinese at the University of Zurich. In 1985, out of curiosity, he came to China and started his studies of Chinese and China's modern history at Fudan University. Upon graduation, he found a job at an art gallery in Hong Kong. But the market condition of contemporary art there left him dissatisfied. At the time, there were no real art galleries in Shanghai, up to this day; he is still brooding about it. In 1995, with a dream of "How can a city not have a gallery?" Helbing returned to Shanghai. He found the then-general manager of the local Portman Hotel and convinced him to lend him a small corridor of the hotel where he could sell his Chinese contemporary oil paintings. Helbing turned a white wall on the second floor of the hotel into his own "show room." Additionally, the hotel provided Helbing with a chair and a phone line, and that was everything he had for ShanghART. Helbing recalls that at the time, many Chinese had no clue of what an "art gallery" was, which led to ShanghART's initial registration as a "gift shop". Even so, Helbing, a thin, determined foreigner, under people's strange stares, was riding his old-fashioned Chinese bike and going through the alleys of Shanghai to collect arts and host art shows. 


Helbing said that in the beginning months, ShanghART sold nothing. Though it was tough, he insisted on continuing. The first piece ShanghART sold - for just a couple hundred US dollars, was by now-renowned artist Ding Yi. At the time, life was tough for Chinese contemporary artists and to sell a painting for some big dollar bills was an important event. "Back then, the artists would not think of selling their art after making one, they were just making art," it was an impression that deeply touched Helbing. In the same year, galleries started to open in all big cities in China, but very few survived. Based on his sharp instincts for the emerging stars of Chinese contemporary art, Helbing started promoting Chinese contemporary art with a huge passion. With a list that had hundreds of large art associations, galleries, curators, and collectors, Helbing sent hundreds of letters to the people on the list introducing ShanghART and Chinese contemporary art. Though he received no response at the time; soon after, curators like Harald Szeeman and collectors like Ullens all came to visit his gallery. Without exaggeration, Helbing became the Bo Le [a person who is good at discovering talents] of Chinese contemporary art. 


Today, at ShanghART, we can see a big list of art stars with international fame who have or are collaborating with ShanghART - Wang Guangyi, Zhou Tiehai, Yue Minjun, Ding Yi, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Jianhua, Yang Fudong, Yang Zhenzhong, Xu Zhen, Liu Weijian, and more. One could not have foreseen that pieces, from artists like Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun that were sold for only $2,000 at the time, are now worth a fortune. 

Helbing remains humble. Truth is there are not many curators in China who have a better understanding and speaking authority over Chinese contemporary art. Helbing said he does not like the "potential" label. "If you can predict that an artist's work will be worth millions, then it is no longer contemporary art. I myself never worry about whether the market is paying enough attention to certain art forms; the majority of my time is spent with artists. I will see where they are going next and what kind of art pieces they might create. It is a dangerous thing to work in the world of Chinese contemporary art. Because you do not know what it is; I don't, all we know is the past. If it is something you like, then it has something to do with your heart and your life." says Helbing. 

Larys Frogier 

Many of the billboards in the Shanghai metro stations have beautiful posters on art exhibitions that stand in sharp contrast to their commercially driven neighbours. The former is designed by Rockbund Art Museum. From Paola Pivi, Bharti Kher, and the popular, citywide art show for Zhen Chen, to the exhibits of Mark Bradford and Hugo Rodina who specialize in making arts for stadiums, the museum has demonstrated its uniqueness by showing its academic depth and social impact. 

"For me, content and promotion, academics and marketing aren't the opposite of each other. I believe, contemporary art can bring fresh and critical perspectives to Chinese people's city life." Larys Frogier says confidently. "Though in recent years, private art galleries are forming at an increasing speed, it is easy to open but hard to maintain." In fact, after Rockbund was open to the public, prior to Frogier, the director position was vacant for more than half year. After hosting two academic forums, dozens of art lectures and educational activities, the museum was closed for remodeling. It was not until 2012 after Frogier took the role that the museum reopened for business. 


For a long time, Frogier was engaged in research on challenges that art and society face in a globalized world. He also has rich experiences in management and contemporary art curation - once director of La Criée Centre of Contemporary Art in France and assistant professor at University Rennes. He also conducted research at Archives for Art Criticism in France. Frogier likes to focus his discoveries on the desires and complaints caused by evolutions of our society, economics, aesthetic views, and environment; he is the exactly the "organizing-type" talent that Chinese contemporary art world needs. Compared to the art environment in the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese contemporary art has marched onto the international stage from the then preparation era. For someone who became involved in the field at a later stage, Frogier rather has a very sharp observation on the current growth environment of Chinese contemporary art: "It is very clear to me that we cannot copy the European model; our biggest challenge is to engage in building a strong and vibrant museum culture. It not only entails aspects of art curation strategies but also finance, marketing, sponsorship, and partnership." 


Differing from many private museums, Shanghai Rockbund Art Museum was founded by a board of directors, and an Art Association that consists of six contemporary artists. To ensure the museum's sustainable growth, together with the museum, collectors, businesses, and art associations, Frogier founded the "Art Sponsorship Program." It is supported by a group of enthusiasts who agree with the Rockbund's mission and are passionate about art. The "sponsors have given the museum huge financial support." according to Frogier. For exhibits, he boldly budgeted nearly 80% of the funding that allows artists to create new pieces. "Together with the artists and curators, we designed a solution tailored for art museums, and we will do our best to carry it out. To introduce international artists to China is significant; during the process, quality of an artist's works is equally important. From a global viewpoint, the challenge is how to better understand Chinese contemporary art from within and without." 


Misdemeanours Bharti Kher Solo Exhibition 

Grazia Quaroni 


In 2012, the L'Ombre du fou rire Show organized by Foundation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain of France brought Chinese artist Yue Minjun to Europe. The show's curator Grazia Quaroni, during a recent interview, talked about her impressions of Yue's works. "Thirty years later, Yue's work exudes a sense of melancholy rather than cynicism." Quaroni commented, which sharply pointed out the current phenomenon that Chinese art is experiencing. 


The new generation of Chinese artists has less desire for political expressions; rather, they are eager to establish their own status on the international stage. "In Europe where art centres are everywhere, an artist that wishes to excel must have very strong vision and bravery." Quaroni added. In fact, this is what she has been working on in recent years; she is committed to promote contemporary art's diverse growth. The Foundation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain has also initiated some collaboration among many pioneer artists, and "creativity" was chosen as their number one focus. Now serving as a senior curator of the Foundation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Quaroni and the Foundation have hosted more than 40 art shows. Recently, Quaroni curated the solo shows for Patti Smith, Bu Li, Tabaimo, and Gary Hill. She is also a frequent participant and adviser for different art organizations in France. For instance, the French Music Museum; in 2005, the museum hosted a solo show for John Lennon. 

"We shall pay more attention to and cultivate artists with potential to become the stars of tomorrow, and introduce more authentically-good art pieces to the public." Quaternion says they are planning to bring more Western artists' works to China and will help to develop China's art education as well as collaborations for art between China and the West. 

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