Growing up fast

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2008, 12:00am

When Tang Contemporary Art opened on Hollywood Road last week, one could have been forgiven for wondering whether the local art market could accommodate yet another gallery selling Chinese contemporary art.

Time will tell, although the early signs are encouraging: the gallery's debut show is a properly curated exhibition in which Norman Ford, who was curator for the Hong Kong show Star Fairy at the Venice Biennale last year, has taken a museum approach, with a detailed catalogue that includes an essay and a wide-ranging interview with the mainland artist.

Naked Beyond Skin, a collection of sculptures by Xiang Jing, is creating a buzz not only thanks to the strength of the work, but also because of this approach, which is rare among local dealer galleries.

Tang Contemporary founder and owner Zheng Lin hopes his gallery will bring new energy to the city's art scene, as he claims to have done in Bangkok and Beijing, where he set up shop in 1997 and 2006 respectively. Zheng, an influential figure on the mainland art circuit, has built his reputation on his independent approach to organising exhibitions.

'We invite independent curators for many of our exhibitions and I don't interfere with their work,' he says. 'We do discuss plans for exhibitions, but in the end the curator decides.'

Zheng is also very particular about space. 'Hong Kong has good galleries,' he says, 'but usually they are not well equipped to house big exhibitions. There's simply not a lot of space in this city.'

Beijing has many problems, but a lack of space is not among them. Since the mid-1990s, a cluster of galleries has developed in Dashanzi - also known as the 798 art district - a largely disused factory compound in the north of the city where his gallery is now based.

'Running a gallery in Beijing has some advantages,' says Zheng, 'and we would like to bring some of these benefits to Hong Kong.' He has at least managed to overcome the space issue: his new gallery, in the basement of the Hollywood Centre, occupies 1,100 square feet.

Tang Contemporary represents some of the biggest auction heavyweights in Chinese contemporary art, including Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong, Michael Lin and Wang Guangyi, among others. And Zheng, whose understanding of contemporary Chinese art comes from more than a decade of experience on the mainland and in the region, is well connected.

He belongs to the same generation as many of the artists associated with his gallery. Like their careers, his began during the wild, early years of new art in China, in the 1980s. He was a painter and took part in group shows before gradually getting into curating and dealing.

Throughout the early and mid-80s, Zheng recalls, mainland artists found the freedom to do what they thought was right rather than toe the party line.

'That was the time of the underground,' he says.

With a few exceptions such as the so-called Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution in 1983, when the authorities fired warning shots over the heads of any potential subversives, new Chinese art stayed off their radar.

Mainland museums wouldn't touch the new work and private galleries did not exist.

The first sign of a market for the emerging art was interest from foreign collectors and in the 90s 'China fever' began to take hold, stoked by curious expats in Beijing - investors such as Uli Sigg, a Swiss collector who boasts arguably the biggest and best collection of new mainland art - and exhibitions in Europe.

By 1997, Zheng spotted an opportunity in Southeast Asia and moved to Bangkok. Then the Asian financial crisis struck. But instead of retreating, he stuck it out there, selling Chinese and Thai modern art. Nine years later, Chinese art was beginning to reflect the growing affluence on the mainland and Zheng decided a presence in Beijing made sense.

'If you're not in Beijing, if you deal with contemporary Chinese art from overseas, chances are you will get marginalised,' says Zheng. 'Chinese art went through an ice age that lasted almost a century. It's small wonder it's now growing all the more vigorously.'

Zheng says Hong Kong is the right spot to repeat his successes in Bangkok and Beijing. Measured by auction sales, the city is the third-largest art market in the world after New York and London, and strong on modern art from China. Regional collectors are a growing force, too: in Sotheby's Hong Kong April sale of Chinese modern art last year, more than three-quarters of buyers were Asian.

'Many collectors from the mainland have a background in real estate and they are just beginning to collect,' says Zheng.

'[In the past] they tended simply to buy what they thought looked good. Often that meant realistic paintings that had nothing to do with the currents in contemporary art.'

But Zheng thinks he can help people to develop a good eye, and his gallery won't be showcasing just Chinese art in the future.

'If you give your clients some good guidance and gradually adjust their views, they are able to turn to serious collecting,' he says.

Apart from being sound business, a wider audience for Chinese contemporary art is also likely to bring it into the global art mainstream, which is one of Zheng's ambitions. His discussion of Chinese art and its critical reception is peppered with the words 'professional', 'international standards' and 'academic orientation', and there's little doubt that extending his operations to Hong Kong is a stepping stone on the path to greater global recognition for mainland work.

Whether the mainland art scene is better off with a more conventional art scene may be a moot point, but with Zheng's foresight and familiarity with its key figures, Chinese contemporary art seems assured of an even higher profile in the future.