“Holzwege” Chen Xiaoyun, Ding Yi, Guo Xi & Zhang Jianling, Geng Jianyi, Han Feng, Huang Kui, Jörg Immendorff, Lin Ke, Li Ming, Liang Shaoji, Li Shan, Liang Yue, Liu Yue, Liu Chengrui, Markus Lüpertz, Ouyang Chun, Shao Yi, Sun Xun, Wang Youshen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Xu Zhen – Produced by MadeIn Company, Yu Youhan, Yang Fudong, Yang Zhenzhong, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhao Yang, Zhang Qing, Robert Zhao Renhui, Zhang Enli
ShanghART (Westbund, 2555-10 Longteng Avenue, Xuhui District) 9 Sep 2016-15 Feb, 2017
For a long time, ShanghART’s home was the M50 art district on the banks of Suzhou Creek, a much smaller version of Beijing’s Dashanzi 798. Galleries at M50 would come and go, but ShanghART’s presence, along with the mostly local artists it represented—including Ding Yi, Zhang Enli and Xu Zhen—remained constant. Openings were always crowded with artists and the various collectors and critics were of only secondary importance. The best thing was to visit alone though. No one would bother you and there was endless time to look and explore.
Upon entering the exhibition, we meet a Potemkin sculpture, with two classical figures nonchalantly balancing on a Henry Moore figure (the clear Perspex vessel in the form of “Xz”, functioning as kitsch signature, filled with blue liquid being eaten by live ants). Behind it but un-missable is Geng Jianyi’s “The Second State” from 1987, a double self-portrait as laughing cavalier—the original Chinese simulacra upon which all others were based. This is the opening shot. These are artists who are engaging with Western history on their own terms (and Western assumptions and expectations will be exploited). Flanking these works is a Jörg Immendorf to the left and on the right Markus Lüpertz’s “Gelber Held” from 2013 next to a much bigger “Appearance of Crosses” work by Ding Yi. Completing the room on the fourth wall is an abstract work by Zhang Enli and another Immendorff, as well as a freestanding slim bronze tree by Zeng Fanzhi. Chinese abstraction versus German neo-expressionism. Upon first acquaintance, the concept behind ShanghART group exhibitions can sometimes appear opaque, particularly as they tend to be driven by individual works rather than overarching themes. “Holzwege” is a prime example of this—perhaps it’s very definition even—but as we meander, a line through the forest emerges.
In the second half of the room we meet Zhao Yang’s Rorschach test on the Planet of the Apes, next to Yang Zhenzhong’s physically dangerous 2001 video installation, “If You Have a Parrot, What Words Would You Teach Him (Her)?” Yang is one of China’s great video artists and humorists and long overdue wider critical attention. Here too there is an ethereal architectural-video installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. These works lead up to the First Act denouement: Liang Shaoji’s “Lonely Cloud” installation, an old tree trunk cocooned in silk and supported above rusted metal scaffolding. It is at once incubator and sarcophagus, ancient and alien, mode of transformation and dream receptacle. There is almost insufficient space to view it, forcing you to move close to it, a disturbing and awesome experience.
In summer the heat and humidity would make the old warehouse spaces stifling (in lieu of air conditioning, buckets of ice were placed in front of fans) and summer storms could be deafening on the galvanised sheet roof. On the coldest days of winter it was a challenge not to keep moving and a glass of hot water would be gratefully accepted. Writers were encouraged to use the fairly extensive library and meeting artists was easy. The gallery website is renowned for being somewhat bland, but its purpose is not to shout but to be thorough: an archive of each of the gallery’s artists, of exhibitions and articles. Lorenz Helbing, the founder of ShanghART, possesses a very dry humour (one can easily find oneself on the wrong side of it) and a certain Swiss understatement. With straggly hair and stubble-chin, you could mistake him for an academic on a study retreat. His presence can be fugitive.
The story has become part of the mythology of the Shanghai art scene. ShanghART started in 1996, with a chair, a table and a telephone in the foyer of the Portman. The first exhibition opened with 15 abstract works by Ding Yi hung on the polished marble walls next to the second-floor lift—“Appearance of Crosses”. “The newspapers were not allowed to write about it at the time because art should be understandable to the public. This work was very elitist, very strange. They thought people would not understand it and get angry.” (1) It was hard work but the hotel was the ideal place to meet people, whether US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or Elton John. It was also how Lorenz met the then Swiss Ambassador, Uli Sigg, and the curator of dOCUMENTA, Harald Szeemann. The Portman is still the most famous hotel in Shanghai. Tell any taxi driver “Port-o-man” (Boteman) and he will instantly know where you want to go. Somehow it is also a fitting description too for the man how started ShanghART.
In 1999, however, the Portman was sold to the Ritz Carlton and the gallery had to move, firstly to a 100-meter space inside the same building as the nightclub Park 97 next to Fuxing Park in the former French Concession, and then to a much larger space in the defunct heating facility of a former textile factory. Many of Lorenz’s artists soon joined him at 50 Moganshan Road, including Ding Yi, Zhou Tiehai, and eventually also Xu Zhen. I recall a particularly sweaty summer interview with Zhang Enli in his studio there.
In 2000, ShanghART became the first gallery based in China to have been accepted into Art Basel. Eight years later the gallery expanded to Caochangdi. Beijing was and remains the center of contemporary art in China and the new gallery space paid its respects to this, but its main purpose was to represent ShanghART’s artists (it nestles next to Zeng Fanzhi’s studio and home). In effect, it is now a firm part of the Beijing scene but to begin with it was something of an embassy for the Shanghai gang. In 2012, ShanghART opened a further space in Singapore’s fledgling Gillman Barracks art district.
Throughout everything there has been one guiding principle: to serve artists. In an interview, Zhou Tiehai remarked sardonically that “Certain people from the West believed they would discover the culture of the native people.” When asked whether Lorenz was also one, Tiehai replied. “Lorenz has long been one of us.” (2)
The path less travelled
It is November 2017 and ShanghART has a new flagship gallery in Shanghai’s new Government-designated cultural precinct, cited between the former aircraft-hanger used by the West Bund Art and Design Fair and Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum (numerous prominent ShanghART artists also have moved their studios to West Bund, such as Zhang Enli and Ding Yi). Inside the gallery are two floors of exhibition space, as well as a library/bookshop and enough office space for ShanghART’s team to develop exhibitions and manage the large number of art fairs in which the gallery participates. But today all attention is on the new gallery’s inaugural exhibition.
“Holzwege” is best understood in contrast to “Feldweg”. Whereas a Feldweg is a path through orderly fields, the Holzweg is the forester’s path, which is harder to navigate, can become overgrown, or peter out entirely, but affords different possibilities and unexpected discoveries. Martin Heidegger chose it as the title of his collection of essays from 1936–1949 about the nature of art, and this forms the basis for ShanghART’s retrospective exhibition; essentially, the disparate paths of investigation the gallery’s artists have pursued, not driven so much by strategic purpose as intellectual curiosity.
“Holzwege” is a mix of established artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, Ding Yi, Zhang Enli, Yang Fudong, and Xu Zhen alongside works by as yet less internationally prominent artists, such as Sun Xun, Zhao Yang and Ouyang Chun, as well as overseas artists, such as the German neoexpressionists Jörg Immendorff and Markus Lüpertz and the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The inclusion of a handful of foreign artists is wry and strategic. In the first place they act as the “spring rolls” at the party, as Li Xianting would say. (3) Secondly, it in some way positions the local artists in relation to an established Western hierarchy (part of ShanghART’s success has always been Lorenz’s ability to strategically introduce artists to renowned Western galleries that can further the artist’s reputation beyond China—think of Zhang Enli at Hauser & Wirth, Zhang Ding at Galerie Krinzinger, and now Sun Xun at Sean Kelly Gallery). It is also one of the reasons the gallery participates in so many art fairs regionally and in Europe and the U.S.
Upstairs, a windowless, low-ceilinged room creates a more archival atmosphere. Works by Lüpertz and Immendorff are again paired with a Chinese counterpart, this time Yu Youhan’s “A Pocket of Western Art History about Mao—Victor Vasarely” (1999-2000). The real challenge, though, are the ciphers in the middle of the room. There is a large blue box with “execute” lettered on the side in white (Liu Chengrui) and an anodised folded-metal citadel (Shao Yi’s “Rhythm”), both 2016. Behind them is a large black abstract photographic wall work, a fake reflective dark sky with a sunny, almost Odilon Redon-esque sun leaning against it (Liu Yue, “Maximised Uniqueness 14”, 2016) and finally at the back of the room is Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling’s installation “A Man Who Doesn’t Know Better”, a series of textured polished aluminium plates propped against a dark green wall. A frequently heard comment about art in China is that it is derivative of Western works. What a lazy and dumb escape route. Derivative work can be found everywhere, especially in the West, and looking for and finding familiar characteristics is an inevitable and even automatic part of the process of getting to know an artwork. But the second act of “Holzwege” is not so indecipherable. If the first act was about historiography; the processing of history, then the second is about a present in which Shanghai has become the city of the future, and history and influence have been absorbed, domesticated and hybridized. Hence Liu Yue’s sun and sky loom behind the city built by Liu Chengrui and Shao Yi, refined but empty vessels, whose purpose is simply to “execute”. And behind it all an ideology, a classroom containing pristine ‘blackboards’ with polished surfaces and immaculate ideas.
Shi Yong, who has long shown with the gallery (and when taking a break from creating art, regularly is part of the gallery team too, Art Basel included), describes Lorenz as a “wise, taciturn Swiss mountain person” (not that Lorenz’s hometown of Brugg is particularly mountainous but the almost hermetic image conjured up is fitting). The respective practices of the artists of ShanghART are extremely diverse but there is a commonality of sensibility and humor. While each seeks their own Holzweg through the forest, sometimes they meet each other, and Lorenz’s role is sometimes guide and sometimes wise man. The purpose of “Holzwege” is to celebrate ShanghART’s first 20 years but it is also a log, not a map, of artistic explorations and concerns of multiple generations of artists who formed and built Shanghai’s and China’s bubbling art scene. “Holzwege” needs neither purpose nor destination but it is the perfect path for a journey.
1. Sam Gaskin “The gallerist, Lorenz Helbling, Shanghai Pioneer”, Artinfo, September 26, 2013
2. “Gewisse Leute aus dem Westen glaubten, bei uns die Kultur der Eingeborenen zu entdecken”, sagt der Künstler. “Auch Lorenz Helbling? “, “Lorenz ist längst einer von uns”, sagt Zhou Tiehai”, in Roy Spring “Von einem, der auszog, die chinesische Kunstwelt zu erobern”, originally published in Kulturmagazin, October 2011
3. Li Xianting: “Two contexts are of particular importance: one is the end of the Cold War, and the other is the effect of post-colonial culture. To Westerners, post-colonial culture means the search for pluralism in cultural expression as a substitute for a Eurocentric cultural hegemony. Where they would like to prove that, as the leaders of global culture, they have the ability to determine the direction for the world, they need to bring in cultures from outside the Eurocentric circle to make them part of their mixed platter of international art. Under these circumstances, it happens that at the moment China is playing the part of the spring roll on this international banquet table.”
–Li Xianting,”Should We Be the Spring Roll on the Mixed Platter of International Art?”
Also discussed with Li Xianting in Duncan Hewitt, “Life in a Changing China” Vintage Books: London, 2008 (first published by Chatto & Windus, London, 2007). Li also invented the term “Cynical Realism”.
Sam Gaskin “The gallerist, Lorenz Helbling, Shanghai Pioneer”, Artinfo, September 26, 2013
Tom Mangione “Talking To: Lorenz Helbling” in Talk Magazine, 2012-05
Xenia Pïech, Lorenz Helbling, “Interview” in The Crocodile in the Pond, ex. Cat. , Global Art St. Urban Foundation, Kerber Verlag: Bielefeld, Germany, 2016.
Roy Spring “Von einem, der auszog, die chinesische Kunstwelt zu erobern”, originally published in Kulturmagazin, October 2011