As China's art revolution sends a wake up call to the world, Lorenz Helbling recalls the trials of establishing Shanghai's foremost contemporary art gallery.
Rising to the challenge of reawakening China's once-floundering modern art market, Lorenz Helbling, Director of Shanghai's foremost contemporary gallery, ShanghART, brings China's art scene out of the Ming and into the modern day.
Over the past two decades, China has achieved astonishing progress as one of the fastest growing superpowers of the modern age. The lifting of trade embargoes has not only sparked an industrial revolution, but also a new wealthy class and a booming arts market which, as savvy collectors are discovering, is ripe for the picking.
Although traditional art harking back to Imperial times has been a flourishing market outside China since the 19th century, until recently contemporary artists have suffered, due to heavy censorship during Communist rule, which lasted until the late 1970s.
Today, art communities are springing up around the country, giving rise to a new generation of galleries specialising in contemporary work from China's burgeoning talent. An early instigator of the contemporary Chinese art scene is Lorenz Helbling, founder of Shanghai's most successful modern art gallery, ShanghART. Forsaking the established market of his native Switzerland – home of world renowned events such as Art Basel – the former graduate of Chinese and Art History headed for Hong Kong and joined Plum Blossoms Gallery (www.plumblossoms.com), which promotes both ancient textiles and well contemporary art. In 1995 he returned to Shanghai where he had once studied, to launch ShanghART a year later. Today Helbling ranks as one of the top movers and shakers in contemporary art.
Why did you choose to open a gallery in Shanghai ?
There were a lot of great artists working here ; also the city is very open and cosmopolitan. It is a Chinese city, but also a world city.
When you began ShanghART what was your vision ?
Shanghai was a city of 15 million people, with great artists and no gallery (of course, back then the people didn't care much about art and the artists were not well known). I needed something to do, and Shanghai began to develop in the 1990s.
What was the biggest challenge?
To actually do it, and to survive having the greatest works on the wall but nobody reacting to them.
How did you overcome it?
Through naivety, work and a lot of help from friends.
Are Chinese collectors becoming more open to buying contemporary Chinese art, or are buyers still predominantly foreign?
Collectors were and are from all over the world. The Chinese buyer market is getting strong, but often only when the artists are already known and rather expensive. It is more difficult to find people interested in new ideas and experiments.
What are the biggest challenges that contemporary Chinese artists face?
Things began to change recently, but I think the problems are still the same as a few years ago: they have no support system; not many people understand what they are doing and there is a lot of misunderstanding everywhere. The artists have to rely on themselves and their friends to get on. However, through links and discussions with other artists they are overcoming these challenges.
What have been the landmarks in ShanghART's 10-year history?
We're still waiting, but some steps so far include: being selected to participate in Art Basel as the first gallery from China (including Hong Kong, Taiwan) in 2000. Art Basel is the most prestigious and competitive contemporary art fair worldwide; in 2005 we were selected among the 75 most influential galleries worldwide since 1945 in the publication International Art Galleries, Post-War to Post-Millennium, a narrative chronology of the dealers, artists and spaces that have defined modern art; and this year as founder of ShanghART, I was included in the British art magazine ArtReview's 'Power100' list.
What has been its most significant achievement?
Working with great artists and maintaining long-term relationships with them.
What is ShanghART's selection criteria?
We select our artists from a big pool that we have observed over many years, then we decide to work with them because we believe they have staying power, their works will develop, that they can overcome problems and have something to say. Today we work with around 30 artists, and, of course, we constantly work with new artists.
Which artists have been your most successful discoveries?
I think the idea of 'discovering' an artist is wrong, artists are not discovered by anybody; as a gallery you can only develop together with good artists. However, if you look at the artists we started to work with very early on, who developed and are now gaining recognition... there is a very long list, including Zhou Tiehai, Zeng Fanzhi, Yang Fudong, Zhang Enli, Xu Zhen, Yang Zhenzhong and Zhao Bandi. The names of some other artists may not be familiar to many, but they each have a good reputation in art circles.
Who are your favorite artists?
The ones that I have selected to work with over the years.
What does ShanghART's future hold?
Surviving, and obtaining more space to do great exhibitions.
Could you recommend any other galleries in China?
The ones that I find interesting are: Bizart (www.biz-art.com), it's an artist-run space rather than a gallery, but it is a great place for innovative art and encounters; SGA (www.shanghaigalleryofart.com), after a start with 'big name artists' they now also show younger, more experimental art; Vanguard Gallery in Shanghai (www.vanguardgallery.com), it's a small place, but it has ambitious projects.
My definition of luxury.
"Being totally absorbed in reading a book in the morning sun on the balcony."
If luxury were ...
It's a secret.
I wouldn't wish a person to be luxury.
An endless no-moment.
A Gauguin painting.
50 Moganshan Road
Building 16 & 18
T: +86 21 6359 3923