by Daniel Szehin Ho 何思衍
translated by Peng Zuqiang 彭祖强
Late last year, a gallery some distance away from the usual art districts in Shanghai—m50, the Bund, the French concession—popped up in the unlikely environs of Laoximen/Xiaonanmen. Housed in a gorgeous and elegant century-old Shanghai-style building, Rén Spacefocuses on limited artists’ editions, which is exceedingly rare in China but not entirely uncommon elsewhere. And make no mistake, we are not talking about cheap posters here. Already, Rén Space has worked with Lu Yang, an up-and-coming artist working with beautifully batty topics—”Uterusman” and “Cancer Baby”, among others—while the upcoming show, opening this week, will feature works by Zhang Peili, often dubbed the “Father of video art” in China.
Randian spoke to Summer Sun, Director of Rén Space.
Daniel Szehin Ho: How did the gallery start?
Summer Sun: It began with a simple observation. The founder of Ren Space, Jung Lee, saw that a significant and potential segment of collectors were not being served by the current Chinese art system. The focus on contemporary Chinese art has mostly been on a handful of leading artists and the new auction records being set by them; most of these works are out of reach for many of us.
DH: The gallery focuses on limited editions. I think this must be one of the first in China. What made you decide to focus on this?
SS: We provide options for art aficionados and collectors—a different way of acquiring highly collectable, original works by leading artists. In the current market, only two types of works are viable for collection; one is paying a high premium for original works on canvas, and the other is collecting simple reproduction works with artists’ signatures at a steep price.
We aim for artists to produce new and compelling works in small quantities that are unique to the medium. The result of the work is a marriage between different techniques and artistry that cannot be achieved in other media.
We also hope to provide artists with opportunities to experiment with new and different technologies and enable them to move beyond their stylistic boundaries.
DH: If you don’t mind my asking: what are the quantities of the editions? And how much do the works go for (roughly)—especially in relation to the cost of paintings, etc.?
SS: The number of editions usually stays in the range of 10 to 30, depending on the project and types of medium. We are just completing a collaboration project with Zhang Peili, for example, with a range of 12 and 20 per edition. There are exceptions, of course. Mono-prints are unique one off works, for example, and sometimes a larger numbers of editions is published. It is based on individual projects.
DH: How do you approach artists? Or: how does the focus on a limited edition limit the mediums available?
SS: We first study their works carefully. Then, we bring them options for tools and media, along with resources and support to make the project a success. We match these artists with top studios in various media. Often, artists are exposed to the medium for the first time. Full collaborations between the artists and studios have been very productive; the artist is always in charge of his/her work and makes the ultimate decisions.
DH: How does the gallery select artists and their pieces? And how does the gallery co-produce pieces together with artists?
SS: We have simple criteria: great artists who can and are willing to do great works.
We pair the artists with the top studios throughout the world with which we collaborate, and support the entire process.
DH: How has the reaction been—from the public, and from the art crowd?
SS: We bring in our expertise from past experiences, but at the same time work at the forefront. Naturally, we’ve had to face some challenges on occasion, and we will have to learn new things. But it has been fantastic, and we really appreciate the support we have been getting from the artists and the public!
DH: And collectors? In fact, is there a particular type of collector your gallery attracts?
SS: Thus far, the collectors we have attracted are from the art circle. It is mainly artists and the people working with them who are buying the works. We believe this is a very good indication, since these a folks are the most informed about the value and quality of the works.
DH: The building—I really have to emphasize this—is fantastic. Old-school Shanghai elegance. How did the gallery find the space? Could you tell us a bit more about the history?
SS: It’s one of oldest and best examples of a shikumen building in Shanghai. It is located in one of the oldest historic parts of Shanghai. It’s amazing that it has survived intact, as it has witnessed a lot of history, from what we understand. The stone calligraphy of the ‘Ren Space’ over the gate is work of Yi Lixun—one of the leading calligraphers of his time. It’s an amazing place to be in on a sunny day as the sunlight fills in the space; on a rainy day, it’s filled with the melancholic mood of old Shanghai. We feel very privileged to be the present caretakers of this special space, and have tremendous respect for it.
DH: The gallery is also not in the usual gallery areas (m50, or the Bund, or the French Concession). How has it been to be a bit further out? The area is quite local, too.
SS: Yes, it’s off the beaten path for sure. As you might have surmised by now, we like doing things and moving at our own pace. As they say, “build it and they will come.”
When you have something of value, especially in era of WeChat and google maps, we believe people will find us.
DH: The Lu Yang show in the summer was fascinating—in her signature mix of the scientific, the grotesque, and the “anime” cute. You chose a really different show to follow that opening exhibition didn’t you?
SS: Lu Yang is a fascinating soul and artist who can cross demographics and cultures. We love her very much. Her internal journey and artistic exploration are fearless.
She breaks universal and accepted molds. Then, she puts them together in different permutations and perspectives; then she turns them inside out and outside in again.
DH: The whole focus on cancer—were there any really negative reactions from cancer patients and their families?
SS: On the contrary. We went out of our way to reach out and communicate with the patient community for this exhibition. We invited some of them to attend the opening. All went home with big smiles, wearing Lu Yang’s cancer baby rings.
The vast majority of the patients were at first intrigued and happy that this subject is out in the open, instead of hidden under the carpet. It is part of our life process and we believe accepting it and dealing with it is much better than hiding and living in denial.
DH: Finally, what shows are coming up?
SS: We spent a very intense summer with Zhang Peili in the US: half of it in the high desert of the southwest and the second half in the midst of the urban environment of Northern California. The pieces he worked on during this period are unlike anything this giant of an artist has done before. They all use new media, but with his strong artistic DNA embedded in it. Yet, we believe this new body of work speaks of and reflects today’s China. Stay tuned.