by Xenia Pïech
translated by Zheng Yuantao 郑远涛
This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 5 (Spring 2017)
A son of an artist, Lorenz Helbling is one of a handful of gallerists responsible for establishing China’s contemporary art market and gallery scene. Since opening ShanghART in the lobby of a hotel in Shanghai in 1996, Lorenz has been friend and mentor to scores of artists, including Ding Yi, Zeng Fanzhi, Yu Youhan, Zhao Bandi, Xu Zhen, and Birdhead, among many others. Sardonic and understated, Helbling’s Swiss roots are routinely noted but as Zhou Tiehai comments, “Lorenz has long been one of us”. Xenia Piëch spoke with Helbling on the occasion of an exhibition last year of 11 artists from ShanghART, held in a former monastery in a Swiss village supported by the Art Global St. Urban Foundation.
Xenia Piëch: Your reputation as one of the best gallerists in China precedes you, especially the close bond you have with your artists. At the openings of your shows one always sees a large quantity of the other artists present. How did you manage to create this sort of team spirit?
Lorenz Helbling: What shall I say? I guess it has to do with the fact that in the very beginning pretty much the only audience for the shows was artists. They were the ones interested, and they were a great audience because they were both informed and critical. Now, we work actively on cultivating artists as the primary audience for an exhibition. We always call them, tell them about the show, and invite them. We aren’t very good about calling the collectors…[laughs]. Artists are the most involved in the art world; they are the best experts and can give valuable feedback to the exhibiting artist…because artists want to be understood. It creates a dialogue, a challenge and thus a chance for further development.
XP: What best characterizes your way of working with artists? Do you have certain guidelines or principles by which you work?
LH: I think the key adjective would be “long-term”. I seek a long-term relationship with each artist I work with, and the way to achieve that is with a long process. The artist evolves and the gallery evolves. We aim to work with artists exclusively, but that is not a given or a matter of a quick contract. A sustainable partnership can only be achieved by cooperating and working towards a common goal. It always involves a lot of discussion and exchange. It is about building up trust between the artist and the gallery, about including him or her in the “family”. It is about creating dialogue and bringing an artists’ work to a wider public. If there is a better opportunity for an artist with another gallery, then I am open to working with that gallery.
XP: I watched a video in which you and a journalist visited Zeng Fanzhi’s studio. I see you chatting with him over lunch about the normal things in life—furniture, where the kids’ room will be, etc. Artists often drop by your gallery just to hang out and chat. But what about the old credo that says friendship and business don’t mix?
LH: Artists are people first and foremost, only they are very talented people, so spending time with them and engaging with them is rewarding— even the mundane aspects of life are treated intensely.
Selling art is a means to an end and not at the center of my relationship with the artists. Of course, without money, neither the gallery nor the artist can live. So in one sense business and friendship are inseparable. But the final aim of the gallery is to give an artist the space to develop and be understood. China is also a unique situation. We started from zero; there was no clear division of labor between the gallery that sells, the museum that exhibits, the collector that collects, etc. Here, everything is somewhat intermingled. A gallery that just sells is boring, and it’s also not ideal given the situation here. Selling contemporary art is never easy, but finding a way that clears a path forward is even harder.
XP: I’ve heard that you often finance artist’s projects—even artists from other galleries, and even if they might be deemed “unsellable”—because you find them interesting, and also that you will advise clients not to buy a certain piece because the artist made better ones. . How do you think this attitude has helped or hindered your efforts in the Chinese art world?
LH: It’s difficult to say. Maybe we would be much bigger now, or would already have ceased to exist if we had done it differently. At the core of everything is the art. What is most important is to create the opportunity for works to be made and then to be shown. They are the beginning of everything.
XP: Did you ever break with an artist? If yes, why, and if not, is there a reason for that, or did you just make good choices to start with? Do you have a bottom line on ethical conduct when it comes to your artists?
LH: I have worked with many of the artists for a long time. As I said, it is this long-term perspective that I am most interested in. Some artists stopped working. Some went their separate ways. There are various reasons, communication being one, because in the end, we stand between the artist and the collectors; it is our job to make sure everyone is mostly happy with the situation. Too much conflict may be a reason to end a co-operation, meaning when it is about reputation. When a work of art is sold twice, for example, things get tricky.
XP: What do you look for in an artist?
LH: What I am interested in is not so much Chinese art—the art of a so-called faraway exotic land—but the art of our world, our time. If one has to make geographical distinctions, then the most interesting thing would be to try and understand what these artists from China can tell us in Switzerland, in the same way that one looked at American Art in the ’60s and ’70s. When searching for artists, I look for strong individual positions. I am interested in works which are conscious, artists who are open and sensitive and who are aware of our time, reflecting upon our world. I look for talent in the broadest sense, and specifically for those who possess the talent to express themselves in an interesting way. For me, the issues addressed by Chinese artists echo the lives and interests of people all over the world. How to live in a dense, interlinked society? What is the relationship between an individual and society? Between old and new, their own culture and foreign culture. How to live with change, and with uncertainty? The key thing is to always look at art from the vantage point of curiosity. How is this artist connected with the world? I ask which questions are posed, what can I learn, or what is even illuminated by a particular work? We live in a highly complex world and we need talent from all over the world to be able to find our way. In short: no boring people, but people with highly concentrated talent! Life is too short….
XP: What do you see as the most important aspect of your role vis-à-vis your artists?
LH: Providing a certain consistency, and providing space—to create, to develop, and to avoid misunderstandings; to provide perspective, and through that, to create continuity.
XP: From what I can see there are no “90s kids” in your group of artists. There are also very few women artists. That cannot be a coincidence…..or is it?
LH: [Chuckle] The youngest artists we currently have are in their early 30s, not their 20s. My door isn’t closed to young artists and we are always on the lookout for new talent, but we are not specifically looking for artists born in the 1990s. The youngest artists often have a lot more resources. As a gallery, it is important for us to find artists for whom we can be a contributing factor. And women artists…yes, we have very few. There are not many women artists in China to start with. Maybe there will be more in the next generation. There are many women at the art academies, but many of them stop practicing for various reasons. There are also not enough role models for women artists, whereas there are many more for men. Most practicing women artists who are well known are married to men who are artists themselves; this gives the female artist a chance to be part of the very male-dominated art world. There are also those who just power out because of the immediate hype that ensues as soon as a new—good—woman artist enters the stage…It is difficult to pin down exactly what it comes down to.
XP: Many artists in China have a very entrepreneurial attitude towards work. How do you see it?
LH: Well, they have to live off their art. There is no other source of support for them; the rest of the world is also very commercial. So somehow they have to learn how to deal with it and decide how commercial they want to be. But I don’t feel that being entrepreneurial is necessarily something negative. It provides a certain freedom, and each artist has to decide which path to take—whether to copy the same thing 500 times or whether to be innovative if they have the talent for it. In the world we live in today, money simply is important, and artists have to survive. But whether to do this in a way that is very market orientated or very withdrawn depends on the artist’s attitude.
XP: You were the first and to this day remain the most important gallery in China. Yet in Switzerland, contemporary art from China is usually synonymous with the name Uli Sigg. Why are they not shouting your name from the rooftops? How closely have you worked with Uli Sigg to help build his collection? What are your thoughts on it?
LH: [Laughs] 10 years ago one didn’t even know the name Uli Sigg. Chinese art was unknown. Now, one of the big collectors has made a name for himself. That is already a very good thing. In the beginning we worked very closely with Sigg to support the building of his collection. He is very ambitious; it’s a big collection that changes the situation for contemporary art from China. Having part of his collection in a museum close to Mainland China—at M+ in Hong Kong—is a very good thing. Whether people know my name or his name is not that important. In another 10 to 20 years both will be forgotten. People look at the artwork—that is what remains. Andy Warhol is still remembered by many people, but only very few may know who his dealer was, who his collectors were.
XP: I remember meeting you for the first time during your student days in China. Did you already see contemporary art there in the mid ’80s? If yes, what was it and what was your impression of it? Did seeing these works in any way influence your later path?
LH: Getting to China in 1985, I was busy discovering my own exotic China and was not really open to seeing what was going on in the art world. But I had some artist friends, saw some exhibitions…often secretive things for insiders. Naked people on canvas, snakes dipped into ink and let loose to slither over rice-paper, dark bones, etc. Only later did I find out that 1985 was the high time of the New Wave movement. Seeing those artworks did not really influence my later career choice. At the time I was more into Chinese film— big, popular movies. Only in the ’90s, when movies lost their energy and Chinese artists started to find their voices, did I become interested in Chinese art.
XP: You started out showing artworks in your apartment. Today, you have several gallery spaces in various locations. Do you sometimes feel nostalgic about the early days?
LH: It was a lovely time. The artworks that I remember stacked against my apartment wall are now worth millions. They were great works, but back then there wasn’t much that could be done with or for them. To do anything that even remotely reminded one of an art exhibition was to hang up few works on the wall over your dining room table. Sometimes you had an exhibition and hardly anyone came; sometimes you put together an exhibition just for one specific visitor. Now, there is starting to be a wider public that is interested and informed. If I show works by Yu Youhan, for example, they already have a certain background and I don’t need to explain from the very beginning. In this sense, holding an exhibition now is much more enriching than it was in the early days. Those first exhibitions were almost tragic. No one showed up.
XP: The contemporary art scene in China has changed from being an outsider’s niche to a hip social event. In one interview, you described the atmosphere back in the 1990s as one in which “no-one wanted to know where you came from, what yesterday was, and what tomorrow will be.” Have you seen the artists change along with the blossoming of the contemporary art world?
LH: Well, yes, I would hope that they have developed and grown along with the times. They have had a chance to gather much more experience, and they have a better audience. All in all, I would say things have developed in a positive way. But of course, we are still in the early stages. 20 years ago, artists had very little experience; they made a lot of mistakes and were often misunderstood. Many have grown, and grown well. It is a pleasure to watch them. Seeing Zeng Fanzhi or Zhang Enli work towards an exhibition shows how much experience they have gathered, how secure and confident they are. They start to work with and trust the long term. 20 years ago, people worked with the idea that if an opportunity comes up, it is only there today. As soon as someone came to the studio, you had to sell to them immediately. If you had the chance, participate in any and every exhibition offered to you. Now, I think it has calmed down. There are more people who dare to work slowly on long-term projects and ideas, and that’s good.
For a long time, what happened was that you painted a big head and you sold it. Then you painted something else. No one bought it. You painted another big head and it sold. For a long time, the people who were most successful were the ones who just repeated the same thing over and over again. Meanwhile, those artists who kept experimenting with new things—Geng Jianyi, for example—had a very tough life. But now, looking back, it is their way of working that has enabled them to establish a good reputation and high esteem. Others who kept repeating the same theme over and over again are slowly disappearing. That is something good—it brings hope, especially to young artists. It shows them that if they work seriously, they have a chance of succeeding. But the blame doesn’t just lie with the artists; I was often very disappointed with the audience and with some collectors. It was very frustrating to find them demanding the same type of work from an artist over and over again.
XP: Zhou Tiehai, who was very vocal about the phenomenon of “parachute curators, collectors and gallerists”, once said about you “he is already one of us.” How do you see yourself?
LH: Wow. That is very nice of him. I am surely not a complete outsider compared with others. I have lived in China for a long time and there are these beautiful moments when you feel completely immersed and that there is no communication barrier anymore. But then there are the moments where the separateness becomes apparent. Is it a different world? Or just a different time? I mean, I only just learnt how to use WeChat. There are many things that seem removed from me; whether that is a matter of place or time is hard to say.
XP: There was a time when the hype around contemporary art from China created a gold-digger mentality among collectors and buyers. In their search for “the next big thing,” first-year graduation exhibitions at renowned art academies were often sold out even before the opening. Is this still the case?
LH: That can still happen. There are always people on the lookout for the newest, shiniest and cheapest. But there are also artists now who just won’t go for this. They make a long-term—10 or 20 year—plan.
XP: What would you say are the top three clichés about contemporary art from China that permeate European and American thinking?
LH: The main thing that keeps coming up is “that is not art”; ”real art is only produced in the West, and contemporary art from China is just a copy—it’s all been seen and done before.” Another is that only with a lot of background information about China can the art be understood. Both of these attitudes are wrong. One has to look; look closely and take it seriously. It is the same as in the West—there is always good work and bad work. But one should not just put a China stamp on it and then either not look at it or think it is not understandable by default. Art can come from anywhere, and maybe art from China can address this better because people living in China have more experience with the future world that is coming than we do. They live in extremely densely populated cities. In the West, we are still trying to come to terms with the vicissitudes of the internet, tracking, surveillance…. Here in China, people handle this naturally. They are used to working with a very limited amount of free and individual space. I think it would be worthwhile for the West to have a close look and learn how one can live in this new world we are facing.
XP: Did you talk to your father, who was an artist, about your work as a gallerist? What did he think about your way of doing things? Were there any memorable exchanges or things he said that influenced you?
LH: We certainly shared our passion for art. He was an artist; I am a gallerist. He remained local, I crossed the globe. He was convinced that one would understand a lot more if one remained in one place and looked at the same tree or flower for twenty, thirty, or forty years than if one kept moving and flying around the world. This is something that sticks with me. Art today is very global; it reflects the times. But I think there may also be this other art—the other side of the coin, so to speak. Very local. Very contained. Very deep. That may also prove to be very interesting. They are different approaches, and I keep thinking about it. It’s not clear-cut. Both are viable, and maybe both need to be explored.
XP: Have you come across artists like that in China?
LH: I lack the time to look. [Laughs] I see many artists who are ambitious and see the world as their audience, but it’s still their small world that is important to their creative work. Artists like my father who consciously work and live in a very focused and narrow world—they may exist, but I have yet to come across them in China. And if I had, I wouldn’t tell…..
XP: ShanghArt is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Looking back, what have been your happiest and most trying moments?
LH: Oh…[laughs]. In the beginning, this world was very far away from the rest of the world. Chinese art wasn’t seen as art. Now, Chinese art is more respected and visible. This of course makes me happy because it proves I had the right intuition. The most trying thing always is to find a balance: between money and talent, between the people that work here, the collectors and the artists; and to keep reinventing the gallery. Shanghai is a constantly changing environment, so we have to keep thinking about how to adapt, almost like starting anew. I still have the feeling of being at the beginning. The past 20 years have just been preparatory work. The real work starts only now.
XP: If you had one wish for the next 20 years of ShanghArt, what would it be?
LH: [Laughs]…oh…only one wish? That the people who make this gallery what it is will stay with it for the next 20 years—the staff, the artists, and the collectors.