Ullens Center Director Philip Tinari and I at the booth of Tianrenheyi Art Center. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.
NEW YORK - My initial impression of the 2014 Armory Show’s China Focus: it’s not very Chinese. What do I mean by that? The works do not share a common denominator that can be handily classified with a shared cultural identity. Other than the fact that these are works produced by Chinese artists working inside and outside China today, some of them could be almost from anywhere in the world. This is precisely the point that Philip Tinari, the curator of the China Focus and Director of The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (UCCA), wants you to take note.
I asked Tinari how he went about selecting and contacting the 17 galleries which ended up participating in the show. He said, “It’s actually fairly simple – these are the galleries that we work with on a regular basis running a museum. I have shown many of these artists in exhibitions that we had at the UCCA. Last year we did a major exhibition called ON/OFF of 50 young artists who were born in the late 70s and 80s. You see eight or nine of those artists present amongst this section. Similarly, [for] somebody like Wang Keping (b. 1949) from the Stars [Group] generation, we just had a big show a few months ago. Even Xu Zhen [the 2014 Armory Show Commissioned Artist] is currently the subject of a career survey at the UCCA. These are the artworks, not just of one kind, that I have found captivating over the years.”
Huang Rui (b. 1952) with his abstract paintings, part of the Space Structure series, from the early 1980s, shown at the booth of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.
For Tinari, by presenting the artists in the context of an art fair, you also bring galleries to New York. “You show that there are these great galleries in China . . . people did not realize that suddenly in China you have this incredible gallery scene. There was this stereotype of Chinese artists being disloyal [to galleries] and would sell works out of their own studios. Actually in the last couple of years this has all been changing because the quality of the galleries has gone so much better. These galleries are able to think about the careers of the artists and help them in many different ways. Galleries have different personalities and represent different stables of artists. It is kind of fun to show a bit of that as well.”
Zhao Yao, A Painting of Thought I-305 (2013), acrylic on found fabric. Photo courtesy of Beijing Commune.
Unlike a typical art fair procedure whereby a gallery would apply to a committee to qualify for exhibiting and participating in the fair, Tinari explained that China Focus involved a curatorial process through which he engaged in conversations with galleries as to the interesting works to bring to the show. “I don't’ want the galleries to just bring here a bunch of works. I really want them to make statements.” Some galleries opt for presenting solo shows, while others curate themed exhibitions. “Platform China brought a group of six oil painters and divide the booth into two parts: one includes several artists while the other each day focuses on one artist in a solo presentation.”
An installation view of the carnival project by Double Fly Art Center, an art collective established in 2008 by nine young artists who had recently graduated from the New Media Department of China Academy of Art (Hangzhou), shown at the booth of Space Station. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.
I asked Tinari if he had to negotiate to make sure the offerings are diverse, he responded that it actually happened very naturally even though he did want to make a balanced presentation in terms of media, gender and generation. “For instance Zhao Yao is someone that I felt very strongly about, so I went to Beijing Commune to ask it to bring Zhao Yao because no one in New York knows him yet.” Zhao’s A Painting of Thought series, placing the geometric forms of brainteaser puzzles against a found fabric background, teases the “intelligent viewers” who try to solve the puzzle of an artwork and thus reduce it to a simple formula.
Ma Ke, Trailer (2008), oil on painting, shown at the booth of Platform China. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.
Tinari told me that the organization of the show and the related China symposium has involved more work than he anticipated. But the end result was exciting. In addition to the interest from the American and international audiences, the show has generated a great interest from China. “In the 80s and 90s, the greatest thing you can do as an artist was to come to New York or go to Paris. Now you don’t need to leave China any more. There is so much to do in China. The market is there. So we have to find new ways to create this [opportunity to bring artists to New York].”
Chen Haiyan (b. 1955), Caterpillar (2009), ink and color on xuan paper, shown at Ink Studio, a Beijing gallery focusing on ink art founded by independent scholar and curator Britta Lee Erickson one year ago. Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen.
Before Tinari and I got together at the show, he was speaking to a group of collectors visiting from China. In addition to a group organized by Tianrenheyi Art Center, UCCA also runs its own patron program in parallel to the Armory’s. “Chinese collectors are getting sophisticated,” observed Tinari, “and increasingly so . . . you see more and more collectors who are learning so much about art so quickly. Many of them are new to the field. So many of them I know are interested in this for intellectual reasons. For them, art is a way to think through issues they face in their careers, their lives and their society. There is this stereotype about Chinese collectors being just investors. I don’t think it is true.”
ARMORY SHOW: CHINA FOCUS
New York City
March 6-9, 2014