Beijing museum director sketches future of Chinese contemporary art

Beijing-based Philip Tinari has quietly aided the boom in Chinese contemporary art, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am

A few weeks before the opening of the Armory Show, New York's largest art fair which ran from March 6-9, the director of Beijing museum Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Philip Tinari, stopped off in Hong Kong.

He was curating "Armory Focus: China", a spotlight on the nation's artistic landscape, and was en route to Los Angeles to meet artists for an exhibition. On his brief stopover, Tinari spoke to a group of art writers at Duddell's in Central about current and upcoming projects.

Our mission is to present Chinese art in a way that implies an international context
Philip Tinari 

His expertise in contemporary Chinese art includes Hong Kong. In 2009, he curated "The Hong Kong Seven" - featuring artists Nadim Abbas, Lee Kit, Leung Chi-wo, Pak Sheung-chuen, Tsang Kin-wah, Adrian Wong and Doris Wong - as part of a Louis Vuitton-sponsored exhibition at the Museum of Art.

Come May, Tinari will be curating an exhibition for Duddell's.

The American was born in 1979 and grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. "Very far from China, no personal connection except we had this very famous Chinese symphony conductor that lived at the top of the hill in this property development," he says.

At Duke University his love of languages set him on a course to become an expert on contemporary Chinese art. "I started studying Chinese and got really interested in contemporary Chinese art … as a crystallisation of the other things I was interested in: globalisation and cultural change, the perilous future position of the US - this was high Clintonian times. And then this idea of whether liberalisation leads to democratisation," he says.

"All that kind of stuff seemed to very neatly be reflected in this body of practices and texts that was the Chinese art world, which is a weird supposition to call it an art world at that point because it was a very kind of underground moment."

In 2001, he moved to Beijing a week before the September 11 attacks to take an intensive Chinese-language course. (He is now fluent in Putonghua.) "With a few calls you could find yourself at the centre of the Beijing art world back then."

There were many opportunities to pursue: the capital's 798 Art Zone was taking off and the first edition of the Guangzhou Triennial took place; he served as editor for the catalogue.

Tinari returned to the US to complete two years of graduate work at Harvard University before moving to New York to work at Sotheby's. He spent six months working on the auction house's first Chinese contemporary art sale and decided "it would make a lot more sense to be on the ground and see things unfold in actuality rather than looking at how they were filtered and presented on the other side of the world".

After the Sotheby's sale in 2006, he moved back to Beijing. He took on a number of posts with high-profile institutions such as the Art Basel fair and the Artforum magazine; he also did independent translation, and wrote essays and artist profiles. During this time, he met his wife.

By 2009, his activity caught the attention of Modern Media, which tapped him to become editor of the bilingual contemporary art magazine LEAP. The magazine became a must-read for those working in the art world. In 2011, after the Sotheby's sale of the Ullens collection, UCCA offered the position of director.

"I was approached by the Ullens at the shakiest moment in the history of the centre - after their 2011 collection sale - so I made the crazy decision to go do that and it's been two and a half years," he says.

"One of my biggest goals always is to make it impossible for people to come through something and still not get it. I'm always thinking about those college kids who might take the bus over to see what we've got up, the people who used to work in a factory … and the foreigners who live there and want to show [their visitors from home] how exciting the city they live in is.

"Our mission is to present Chinese art in a way that implies an international context, in a way that gives it international significance because of the outreach we do. You have the potential to introduce new experiences to people's lives in a way the state museums are not so good at and in a way the commercial system is not geared towards."

Under his leadership, UCCA has exhibited Berlin-based Tino Sehgal and American Taryn Simon, and bolstered the reputation of Chinese artist Wang Keping.

Perhaps the reason for Tinari's success is his belief, back in 2001, that Beijing would become a major setting in the art world. "I remember when I was first living in Beijing going into it with this almost conscious fiction that you were living in a global cultural capital - that's what made my generation of people who went to China a little bit different from the one that came before. We weren't slumming it and we weren't on the fringes. We were projecting forward and imagining a time when there would be a network of more or less equal players. That time has completely arrived."

As the Chinese art world has grown, so has Tinari. "It's interesting when your personal trajectory and the developmental trajectory of the context in which you work are unfolding at the same time. I could never have said in 2002 I would love to run UCCA in 10 years because it didn't exist then," he says.

"It is a really interesting subset of people in China who are involved in contemporary art and people tend to stay involved for the long haul, so it is a big extended family and you have these relationships with people that are now 10 years old and going. I think it just gets richer and more complex and the story gets deeper as it goes along."