Expert Eye

Ullens Center Director Philip Tinari on China's Evolving Art Scene

Ullens Center Director Philip Tinari on China's Evolving Art Scene
Ullens Center of Contemporary Art director Phil Tinari

As the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Philip Tinari has what may be the ideal vantage point for identifying new currents developing in China's art scene—a position he has risen to after years establishing himself as arguably the preeminent Western expert on Chinese contemporary art, first through his magazine Leap, widely viewed as the country's answer to Artforum. This week, Tinari, who speaks fluent Mandarin, was a Fullbright fellow, and holds degress from Duke and Harvard, will be presenting a snapshot of the diverse and highly energetic contemporary art being made across China with a survey of new artists at the Armory Show. To hear his insights into the vanguard of Chinese art, the state of the country's art market, and the madcap work of Armory Show commissioned artist Xu Zhen, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Tinari.

For this year's highly anticipated "Focus: China" show, you have curated a selection of about 20 artists from across China, representing both the generation of artists who emerged during the period of transition following Mao's death in 1976 and the younger generation of artists who grew up in the comparative openness of post-Mao China. What is the theme, or the viewpoint, that you used to tie them all together?

The first thing to note is that this show is obviously different from a typical museum show or even a biennale in that this is, of course, in the fair format. So that means booths where galleries are bringing things make sense within the basic parameters of the fair context—which I think is actually one of the most interesting things about it, because we're all becoming accustomed to art fairs as an important way of communicating and exchanging ideas about art, even those of us who aren’t buying or selling. But I guess I was most interested in the newer generation, the sort of "on/off" generation, if you will, of artists who have come of age since around 2000.

One exciting thing about the show is that because the timetable for this kind of presentation is so tight—I started putting it together in June—we are really getting something that is very current, with new works from very important practitioners that are more of a real-time reflection of what’s going on on the ground than you generally see in a museum show that takes three or four years to come to fruition. But I also wanted to gesture back towards interesting positions that have come about since the whole thing began in the late '70s, including a few punctuations that point to the larger narrative and give a sense of the scope and depth of what has been happening and continues to happen.

So, this is all to say that there's no single overarching theme, per se, other than to express that there is more to contemporary art in China than one may have been led to believe from looking at auction catalogs and certain limited group shows from over the last few years.  

How did you go about selecting the artists in the show? 

I gravitated toward artists that I’ve been interested in and have been in contact with through my work at UCCA over the last couple of years, so a number of those were artists who were included in our show last year surveying the younger generation ["ON/OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice"]. Others are artists with whom I've done solo shows. For instance, I looked to somebody like Wang Keping as representing a slightly older generation. But then, to go back to this again, it's a fair, so you're not only putting artists on view but also galleries, so part of the goal is to show that there is actually a really interesting and complex gallery ecology on the ground in China—and, again, not just the sort of auction market that one might be lead to believe. 

How recent is the development this kind of dynamic gallery infrastructure? 

It’s been about eight or nine years in the making, but it really just started gaining critical mass in the last three years or so. The old cliché was always that Chinese artists weren’t faithful and jumped between galleries, and that’s changed quite drastically in the last couple of years. I think that has less to do with the artists than with the maturation of the ecosystem, and the fact that now there are galleries that can actually serve artists' interests, as well as collectors who are willing to play by a more formal set of rules.  

How many of the artists that you have chosen for this show have reputations in the West already? What is the balance between those and the ones who are going to be completely new and revelatory?

It’s a little hard to say just because you never know what's stuck from everything that's been done over the past few years. None of the artists are complete first-timers. And yet I did also purposely steer clear of the, let's say, five to ten names that would be immediately recognizable in New York. And while many of these artists have shown outside of China before in one form or another, I hope there will still be something fresh from everyone. 

Can you talk a bit about the artists who will be on view?

We decided on Xu Zhen as the commissioned artist for the fair, because he marks a break from the underground scene of the '90s into the generation that’s come of age with the consciousness of a global art world and art system. Over half of the presentations in this section, which includes 16 booths, are actually solo presentations of artists from this post-'80s generation, the "on/off" generation, which is more or less notable for its lack of a single unifying visual style—it reflects the multiplicity that is possible in China today that wasn’t possible a number of years ago. For example, you know, there is one booth from 10 Chancery Lane, a gallery in Hong Kong, that includes work by Wang Keping, Huang Rui, and Ma Desheng, who were the three key protagonists of the Stars Group, which was really the first contemporary art movement in China in the late '70s.

Or like, if you look at what the Beijing gallery Peking Fine Arts is bringing, Wang Luyan is a member of the New Measurement Group, which was another important collective from the early 1990s. Then White Space is bringing He Xiangyu, who just had a solo show at White Cube in London earlier this year, and Aike Dellarco from Shanghai is bringing Li Shurui, a painter and artist who works in different media. And you've got Gallery EXIT from Hong Kong bringing Nadim Abbas, who has an Arab-sounding name but who's actually Hong Kong-born and bred, and who is doing the Absolut Art Bar at Art Basal Hong Kong this coming year. He is one of the most interesting voices coming out of Hong Kong. So, you can see I've been trying to strike a balance between the more historic figures and newer ones.

When most Western viewers think of contemporary Chinese art, they think of the flurry of so-called "China shows" that brought work by stars like Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Huan to museums in Europe and the United States. Many of those shows, you have noted, left "an aftertaste of gaudy, symbolic, often derivative work"—much of the painting from that time, in particular, looks rather stale now. How does your show relate to the "China shows" and the art of that period?

Hopefully not that much. I mean, in one sense, people may come through this section and find it strikingly similar to certain things they see elsewhere in the fair, and that’s part of the point. In other words, it's not going to be red lanterns and images of Chairman Mao and panda bears, you know—it’s work that speaks to the global situation from a Chinese perspective but that’s not necessarily immediately recognizable as Chinese. But I don’t know if that's necessarily a difference in my show as much as it is in the kind of art that’s being produced in China now versus 10 or 15 years ago. 

How would you say Chinese art has changed since then? 

I think that the world's gotten a lot smaller, and that’s a total cliché, but even in China, where there is this persistent idea of difference and where there are some very real factors on the ground that influence how people are educated and the proliferation of information about things happening elsewhere. The easing of restrictions on travel has hugely enhanced the flow of ideas into the country. The art scene in China used to be defined by this kind of jet lag from the Western center, where ideas would trickle down over the course of many years. Now everything is completely instantaneous, and one can influence as much as they can be influenced, and there isn't a necessarily overarching directional narrative about where it’s all headed. So the situation in China right now is very much in keeping with the broader confusion of the wider world in this sort of Internet moment, in the sense of being more connected, more online, and more fickle in terms of brand loyalty. All of which makes this a very nice time to revisit what's happening there in a show.

In terms of what's happening in China, I thought it was very interesting to see what the government decided to present in the China pavilion during the last Venice Biennale. It was a baldly statist expression of the insurgence of Chinese art on the world stage, presenting it from a very specific and highly technocratic standpoint, with a major focus on computer-generated animations and artworks. What did you make of that pavilion, and did you find it to be an accurate description of the direction of Chinese art?

That pavilion was a very good encapsulation of a certain impulse in the last couple of years. Technology is viewed in China as always positive and ideologically neutral, and when you combine that with other elements that are sanctioned and promoted by the highest levels of the state cultural system, then that pavilion is sort of what you'll get. It's good to bring that up as an expression of something going on, because it very much is. But at the same time it's quite weak as a voice in the overall landscape, and it's just one of many voices. No one who actually knows the situation in China—like the artists, critics, or collectors—thought very much of that pavilion, so it exerted about as much influence in China as it did at the Biennale more generally, where it was barely a blip. 

So, to move on to Xu Zhen, he's a fairly radical embodiment of the changed character and possibilities of Chinese contemporary art. What was the thinking behind choosing him?

Well, I really do see him as essentially a watershed figure in terms of laying out a sensibility that speaks to how people feel right now, and doing it at a time when these new directions were still kind of on the tips of peoples' tongues. In 2009, he founded this company MadeIn and began producing art under its name, and his intelligence about the overall art system and how it operates, his willingness to put the elements of capital and production out there for everyone to see, and his willingness to kind of think and talk about the ways that that’s tied up in the much bigger social articulation is quite refreshing. Content-wise, so much of his work is about engaging with a kind of international language of contemporary art from his very alternately local perspective, and the multiplicity of the role that he inhabits is now true of a number of very important artists in China, but the way he treats the broader system is quite unique. 

You mentioned his local character, and Xu Zhen is from Shanghai. How does that inform his approach to art?

I think that if you look at the art that has come out of Shanghai and artists like Yang Fudong from over the past couple of years, there's a more international approach, just given the city's history and position, that has an easier and more natural relation to that which lies beyond China. 

While he is probably best known in the West to date for his crowd-pleasing sculptures of live performers who stand at physically impossible angles thanks to metal supports concealed in their clothes, Xu Zhen is so prolific, and his art so multivalent, that it can be hard to keep all strands of his work in one's mind at the same time. How would you describe his overall project?

Yeah, it's funny—I just gave a talk about him at this conference in Hong Kong that was about the idea of "Chineseness" in Chinese art and was looking back at this moment in 2005 when Uli Sigg did a collection show called "Mahjong." Uli circulated this questionnaire to all the participating artists that asked five or six questions about how being Chinese influenced their work, and Xu Zhen just replied by restating the questions basically word for word and sending them back to Uli, only changing "Chinese" to "Swiss" in every instance. He was 28 at the time and not all that well known, and it was just a very ballsy and smart way to look at how the whole thing was being articulated.

The first thing he did when he established MadeIn was create a group show of Middle Eastern artists, which was, of course, entirely fake, with everything produced by his studio. The works incorporated basic symbols and ideas that you might associate with the Middle East, like camels and burkas and an oil rig made out of razor wire and piles of rubble that looked like they had been a bulldozed Palestinian settlement. To have that kind of acuity to read an international discourse from a Chinese perspective, which we would always assume to somehow be a step behind or removed from the Western perspective, was amazing—it was the kind of thing you might have expected from someone who reads the New York Times every morning, and yet it was over there in China, which is ultimately still a really fraught situation, even if it’s become glossed over with all kinds of high-end consumerism and other nice things now.  

It seems he has a very sharp sense of humor. 

Absolutely. We have a piece in our show that’s comes from a show he curated at the UCCA in 2002 with a number of artists that are all very much in the limelight now. Where you entered the exhibition, there were these people dressed in pajamas as if from a mental hospital who followed you around and observed you as you looked at the art. Then we have paintings from his Under Heaven series, which for me is one of his great jokes because "Under Heaven" is a very literal translation of a word in Chinese that means "the whole world" and goes all the way back the revolutionary discourse of people like Sun Yat-sen, who had this idea of everything under heaven is the public realm. But when you translate it into English in this very awkward way, the immediate reference is Jeff Koons's Made in Heaven series. So you get these paintings that have very thick impasto done with a frosting applicator for birthday cakes, so it’s a joke about abstract paintings but also about how art functions as this sweet commodity that people sort of just want to ingest. And they're beautiful paintings, and look great as the background for VIP cards. So that kind of intelligence that works on an odd number of levels is unique.  

How did you first become aware of his work?

I moved to China in 2001 and was working on the catalogue for an exhibition that had included his Shouting piece, a video he made right out of art school where he stood up in the crowded streets and subways of Shanghai and let out these deathly screams and then filmed people's reactions, when the whole crowd would turn around for about half a second and then go right back to what they were doing. That piece had been included in the Venice Biennale in 2001, and he was by far the youngest Chinese artist ever to be shown at Venice. So that was the first time I saw his work, and I got to know him a bit that spring of 2003 and went to some exhibitions he had curated, and I've followed the work since then. 

You mentioned how in 2009 Xu Zhen followed in the footsteps of both Warhol and Murakami by creating a factory-style art company called MadeIn, the name of which evokes both the "Made in China" product label and is also a homophonic transliteration of the Chinese term for "without limits." Some 30 young artists are reputed to work for the company. In 2013, the company puckishly debuted a product brand called “Xu Zhen,” confusing the distinction between the artist and his creation. What exactly is MadeIn?

It’s exactly that. It is to Xu Zhen what Science is to Damien Hirst or what Kaikai Kiki is to Murakami. I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge invention for artists to call their operations a company, but for him it was a really important move in that he's working in a context where the overall system is not 100 percent mature, so he was taking on all kinds of other roles. For example, there's a really important art website called Art-Ba-Ba that had been running out of his studio for a few years already at that point, and at the time there weren't a lot of alternative spaces in Shanghai and only one main gallery, so he also exhibited other artists' work.

MadeIn was important to him for establishing this larger structure and getting out from under the pigeonhole of just being an artist who produces works that are branded with his individual name and then go into an art market. Though, in the end, he actually realized that artworks circulate better in the market under the name of an individual artist, so he has gone back to making work under his own name, with "Xu Zhen" now defined as a brand that is controlled and produce by MadeIn. But today the structure of MadeIn is still completely intact, and it runs on the same DNA, let’s say, as any other Chinese company. They have an annual company party and all of the other sorts of structures that you'd find at a company that does any number of other things. 

Some of the Xu Zhen's work is extremely provocative. One of his earliest works was a video showing him beating a dead cat against the wall for 45 minutes. In 2008, he staged a tableaux vivant at Long March Space of Kevin Carter's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a starving child in the Sudan—a war-torn region that today supplies much of China's oil—being hungrily watched by a vulture, with a live African baby placed in a gallery space near an animatronic version of the bird of prey. Carter famously killed himself after becoming vilified for choosing to take the photo rather than save the child. Xu Zhen has also created sculptures of African women dangling in s&m harnesses. What themes is he exploring in these works?

Spectatorship is really important idea for him, specifically in the Sudan piece but in a lot of other works as well. So what he was doing with the Sudan piece was working on a number of levels at once, and one of them was to reveal the developmental gap between China and Africa. That piece was made a year after a major summit in Beijing with about 25 African heads of state, and at a time when China was really cuddling up to Africa politically and economically, even kind of colonizing Africa in a way. But the crux of it was that the kid who was hired to be in the piece was a three-year-old African baby, and while his mother was around the corner, it really showed, on the one hand, how developed China was, in the sense that you had a sophisticated art gallery that was doing this kind of project, and yet, on the other hand, how strangely far behind China is, in that where else in the world could you do something like that legally?

There aren't many places where you'd have that combination of both the infrastructure to create a scenario like that and the lack of legal protections that would allow you to do it. So it was about the scene, but also about the conditions that made the scene possible. Then, the other piece in that show was a model of a spaceship that hung from the gallery ceiling, in which he actually sealed a few members of his team for a month as if they were really on a space mission, with all their food and stuff in there. So it was every bit as harsh in its own way, and a great counterpoint to the Sudan piece. 

In light of Ai Weiwei's ordeals with the Chinese government, one often hears about Chinese artists censoring themselves and steering clear of controversial political themes. Xu Zhen, however, seems to play loosely with those constraints, as with last year's Movement Field, an installation he created at Long March Gallery in Beijing that filled the space with an ersatz garden dotted with monuments to various political protests. How does censorship play into Xu's work, and into the work of the artists in the show in general?

That piece in particular was a giant garden with paths running through it, and all of the paths were taken from Google maps of protests routes through various cities around the world. So there was a layer of abstraction where the political content wasn't visible enough to create an issue, and that kind of precise calibration was totally a part of the work—understanding exactly where the surface lies and working just one level below it, so that you're completely safe but you're also making a point.  

Is that kind of approach unique to Xu Zhen, or do other Chinese artist share it?

There are a number of artists who understand that—and, you know, it’s not every artist who needs to fly right in the face of the system and confront it directly. I don’t think direct confrontation is the only way of reacting to the limitations on freedoms in China. There are other ways. So quite a number of other artists in this presentation are using similar strategies.

As the emblematic artist confronting the Chinese government head on, Ai Weiwei is incredibly polarizing in China, and viewed by many in the art community as a kind of dangerous figure. Could you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

Well, first of all, there are many art communities in China, and in the realm of the people who are in the show everybody’s still appalled that something like what happened to Ai Weiwei could happen. At the same time, Weiwei’s method is one of many, and I think that while everyone has some kind of respect for him artistically and politically,  it’s also not a model that’s very easily adoptable because people do not have his kind of background. He can do what he does, and live the drama that he does because of who he was born as, the son of one of China's most famous poets. If you’re an ordinary kid from Shanghai or someone who just worked their way up through the art academy system, that’s not how you’re going to make it as an artist.

How does the younger generation view him today?

I mean, Weiwei himself actively doesn’t want to engage the younger generation, or he wants to engage the younger generation completely on his own terms. If you look at something like the piece that Weiwei wrote in The Guardian, he said that there were really no other artists in China except for him. It really does reveal the limits of his viewpoint, which is to say that I will stand by his work to the very end and I have an insane amount of respect for what he is doing, but I also think it’s very dangerous to think that there is only one artist in China, and that's kind of been the upshot of his drama playing out and re-playing and re-playing in the international media while at the same time his complete absence in the Chinese media, because he can’t really be covered much there. So the second that we think his path is the only one becomes a situation that’s every bit as totalitarian as the one that he is trying to overturn. 

To go back to Xu Zhen, what else is he going to be showing at the fair?

The key thing onsite is this instillation called Action of Consciousness, which is a large empty white box from which these sculptures that are very obvious symbols are constantly thrown up in the air, so they are visible only for a second but they can kind of be apprehended and understood in some sense or another in the span of that second. It’s a piece that he created very shortly after Maurizio Cattelan decided to hang all of his works from the ceiling of the Guggenheim, and it’s sort of the opposite in a way. Xu Zhen has a huge affinity with Cattelan. So, again, it's a piece about spectatorship and perception, and it will be at the center of the "Focus" area, and he's produced a sculptural edition for the fair to benefit MoMA that is a three-dimensional object similar to the ones thrown up in Action of Consciousness

The artist is said to have a fear of flying. Will he not be coming to the fair?

No, we can’t convince him to come. I don’t think he's been on a plane for the last nine or so years. I think he had a bad experience or two, so he always takes the train. It's not a conceptual art thing or anything like that—it's much more basic.  

Early in the makings of this year's fair, Armory Show representatives met with the Chinese consulate to talk about the project. What role has the government played in your "Focus: China" show? Is there anything you felt compelled to include or exclude?

No. And I actually never had any meeting with them, though some officials from the fair did. One of the great things about the art market is that it provides cover for the art world in the Chinese context, and in the end there was no participation from the consulate or the ministry or any government organ.

Given that your show is taking place at an art fair, let's talk a bit about the market. For several years, the ascent of the Chinese art market has been phenomenal, with Chinese artists suddenly entering the top ranks of auction sales and a prominent survey declaring that, for a time at least, China had outpaced the Western art market. Late last year widespread reports emerged that the Chinese economy has begun slowing down, and the New York Times published an investigative report that showed many of the records at auction to be chimerical, since the buyers either refused to pay the sums or the works turned out to be forgeries. From your desk at the Ullens center, what do you make of the Chinese art market at this point in time?

There are so many aspects to this. I talked to Graham Bowley for that article he wrote for the Times, and he did a really good investigation, but let's just say that the auctioning, payment welshing and forgery of modern artworks doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the more organic work that’s come together at the grassroots, purely contemporary level. In this other realm where more of us work, there is definitely a system in place for determining, transferring, assigning value. And as this younger more cosmopolitan generation of artists becomes surrounded by a younger more cosmopolitan generation of collectors, there is a lot of action. It's not in the tens of millions of dollars certainly, but it's there.

Are there waiting lists for artists? Is it that strong a market?

I don’t know if it’s that strong. But, I mean, do they have waiting lists? Yes, for particular artists. But the galleries there are now like galleries anywhere else, with a stable of artists, a following of collectors, exhibitions that last for six weeks, booths at art fairs, et cetera. I’m not trying to say that they are copying any sort of model, but it’s about the art world as we know it as a global entity popping up in China. I'm talking about an intelligent, non-speculative, collector-based art ecosystem with a core of increasingly professional and dedicated galleries that work with artists on a long-term basis. Even the academies have changed their pedagogies to teach more about contemporary art. It’s a system that’s improving each year, as opposed to the idea that it’s a purely speculative market.

One thing that's interesting to note in much American journalistic coverage of the Chinese economy and the rise of the Chinese art market is that it is often depicted ominously, as a menace of some kind. Our nationalistic rivalry and economic competition tends to get framed in a good-guy-bad-guy relationship, which also has something to do with the amount of ink that has been spilled on the government's abuses of Ai Weiwei. How would you say this politicized international dynamic affects Chinese art?

Well, it’s kind of staggering because so many artists and other people in China are still thinking with the mentality of five years ago, when they were looking for approval from this Western system. There certainly is a growing and enhanced sense of cultural confidence because of the economic strides that the country has made over the last few years, but many people in that system are still looking to be part of this bigger conversation. Old ideas about catching up and joining the rest of the world still factor into the thinking of many of these people. 

Your "Focus" presentation seems to be part of a larger moment that Chinese contemporary art is having in the West, with the current Rubell Collection exhibition "28 Chinese" showing off the those collectors' recent acquisitions from the Chinese contemporary scene being another part. And clearly the Armory Show is betting that there is going to be significant market excitement for contemporary Chinese art. Do you think that that’s going to play out?

I don’t want to be cavalier, but that’s not really my interest. I think it says something that there are this many Chinese galleries, none of whom are anywhere near as well resourced as the Gagosians of the world, that are willing to take the risk to come to New York, and who believe that platform will be good for them. One of the great things about the fair format is that these galleries have to make the calculated decision that this makes sense for them now, and they are not naïve—these are people who deal with collectors all over the world, so the must have gotten enough advance support to decide to make this leap. But what I’m personally much more interested in is showing this art at a fair in New York, because there are so many super-engaged people who are in the city, and the kind of exposure this will mean for these artists and galleries to curators, journalists, and casual but super-intelligent collectors, and to people from the broader humanities field, is kind of fantastic. The potential for new connections to emerge is really huge. 

I remember the last time I was at the Armory Show was in 2006, and I just remember seeing a booth of the paintings by Zhang Enli, who is now very well known. While he was an artist who had been in China for many years, seeing this booth at the Armory was the first time he had really kind of like popped onto my radar as an interesting artist. It was a solo booth, and Hauser & Wirth took quite a risk to put it there, and it was right at the entrance of the fair. In a way, that’s been my template, the idea that one moment at a fair can really launch what has actually been a very successful international career. So if this "Focus" section can generate that kind of momentum for even a few of the people involved, it will have made some kind of contribution. 


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