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When contemporary chinese art conquers the West

 

From New York to Paris, the Centre Pompidou to the Palais de Tokyo, never before has Chinese contemporary art been so popular. A new wave started by one foundation, k11, and by one man, Adrian Cheng. Numéro went to meet him in Shanghai.

The K11 tower in Shanghai reaches almost 280 meters into the sky. It houses boutiques, restaurants, works of art and vast exhibition spaces. 

 

It’s the end of 2015 and Shanghai’s pollution is at its worst. The fog is such you can barely discern the tops of the skyscrapers. And yet the K11 tower, a gigantic 278-metre tall, art deco-inspired shopping mall is no less impressive. It disappears into the clouds like a sort of contemporary Tower of Babel. Billionaire art collector Adrian Cheng welcomes us into his kingdom: a vast mall occupied by a medley of shops, contemporary art works and sprawling exhibition spaces. The thirty-something Chinese man, whom everyone calls Adrian, is one of the wealthiest on the planet – his fortune is estimated somewhere between 9 and 14 billion dollars. A regular at big international institutions, his unusual sartorial style of glittering pop star meets pure Dorian Grey dandyism no longer raises any eyebrows. 

View of the exhibition organised by Cheng Ran and Shen Qianshi at Wuhan in Chine with K11. 

 

With a (permanent) smile, Adrian Cheng answers questions unhesitatingly while offering extra clues into understanding this sudden influx of Chinese art around the world, a scene on which he has been a key player. The young man born into the Hong Kong elite went to Harvard. He preferred Asian and oriental studies to economy and marketing lessons… but that didn’t stop him from becoming a banker in the early 2000s. He also did a stint in Tokyo where he studied Japanese culture. But it was in Beijing where he first became aware that “China was rich in a new generation of contemporary artists and curators who were unable to form a coherent eco-system and didn’t yet have the keys to enter the world’s artistic system. It was the perfect moment for Adrian Cheng to step in and become the salesman with his K11 Foundation established in 2010.

 

“Our line of action rests on three pillars,” explains the patron. “We wanted to increase the renown and the understanding of Chinese artists by supporting exhibitions in the greatest institutions and by multiplying collaborations. But I also wanted the Chinese public to have access and to discover the contemporary art of its own country, an art it has barely any awareness of. Our K11 centres in Shanghai and Hong Kong are working on that. We also support emerging creativity through our K11 village in Wuhan that every year offers a dozen young artists from Greater China [the Chinese continent, Taiwan and Hong Kong] a studio space as well as logistic and PR support. For example I provided financial backing for Cheng Ran’s nine hour long film that we premiered at the Istanbul Biennale.” Which also got shown in the prestigious Unlimited section of Art Basel last June… 

Corporate (4 Knives Groups) [2014], 300 x 990 x 150 cm, a piece of art by Xu Zhen offered in 2015 by Adrian Cheng and David Chau to the Centre Pompidou. 

 

Change of scene. We go and visit Wuhan, a “small town” of 10 million inhabitants, better known for its universities and French businesses (PSA and Renault) than its art scene. It’s here that Adrian Cheng has set up his “incubator” designed to bring a new generation of artists to light. “Artists who are not as politicised as they were in the 1990s,” the young collector explains. “They’re just as interested in what’s going on in the world as they are in daily life. They’re not good Chinese artists; they are good artists, full stop.” Selected by a panel that always includes a foreign curator, the artists are welcomed into the heart of a “village” that looks more like a modern hospital than picturesque dwellings. We see fascinating sculptures made from melted computer keyboards there. Further in to town is a space that gives fledgling curators a chance to try their hand. An exciting exhibition organised by a curatorial duo reveals the best images from a burgeoning photographic scene. 

 

View of a workshop in Wuhan.

 

 

But is the K11 Foundation also there to serve the interests of Adrian Cheng’s personal collection? The billionaire insists otherwise. “The K11 Foundation has an independent buying committee and its objectives are completely separate from those of my own personal collection. The Foundation supports only Chinese artists and looks for museum pieces to exhibit in public spaces. My personal tastes tend towards creators who place humans at the heart of their works. I do collect Chinese artists of course, but also those from abroad, from France, like Pierre Huyghe and Tatiana Trouvé.” French artists he has welcomed with open arms. In 2014 the Marmottan Museum lent Adrian Cheng 52 canvases including 40 Monets, and 350,000 visitors came to see them hanging in his Shanghai mall. Then in 2015 it was the Palais de Tokyo that signed up with the K11 Art Village to establish artistic residencies. The Pompidou Centre has since established a partnership with K11 with a specialised Chinese art curator post. And to think China is only just waking up… 

 

By Thibaut Wychowanok.

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