Curator Adrian Cheng was instrumental in bringing Zhang Enli's Space Paintings exhibition to Hong Kong

Businessman Adrian Cheng was key to setting up Zhang Enli's first solo show in Hong Kong, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

Adrian Cheng Chi-kong and Zhang Enli are the current odd couple of the Hong Kong art scene.

Cheng, 34, is a Hong Kong billionaire who wears a Tintin quiff and polka-dot socks. Zhang, 49, is a shaven-headed, sober-footed artist originally from Jilin province, up on the borders with Russia and North Korea. Although one of his paintings, Dancing No 2, sold at Sotheby's spring auction here last month for HK$6.6 million (the highest price ever paid for his work), Zhang is not quite in the billions league.

This A-to-Z duo have, somehow, managed to find each other and collaborate on an exhibition entitled "Space Painting". It's a mutual first: the first time Zhang has had a solo show in Hong Kong and the first time Cheng, founder and chairman of the K11 Art Foundation, and recent fixture on the international art scene, has curated an art show. How did this happen?

It's about probing. I know him more than he understands himself, sometimes
adrian cheng chi-kong, curator 

"We were friends already. I've known about his work for a long time," says Cheng, sitting in the ground floor of Cosco Tower in Sheung Wan (which is described, rather creatively, in the press release as being "in the city's financial district").

The room has been converted into the K11 Art Foundation Pop-up Space. A few of Zhang's earlier paintings, including last year's trompe l'oeil canvas, Space (by far the best piece in the show), are hanging on the walls, but the site-specific centrepiece is an installation consisting of numbered cardboard boxes that form a hidden chamber. The work, says Cheng, is "a monumental milestone" for Zhang.

The pair got together professionally last year, after the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London commissioned Zhang to make one of his "space paintings", in which he painted the surfaces of an existing room, converting it into his own personal area. Back in the 1990s, when he moved to Shanghai, Zhang had been known for depicting ordinary people doing ordinary things (drinking, eating, dancing). After 2000, he moved on to ordinary, unloved objects (pipes, ashtrays, tubes). In 2007, however, he created the first of such "space paintings" in Antwerp. It was followed by others in Korea, Brazil, India and, eventually, London.

"He's one of those artists I really respect," Cheng says, "and when I saw the ICA show, I was overwhelmed. I called him, I told him I'd find a big space in Central and I said I'd curate the show."

What did being a curator involve? "I ask a lot of questions. It's like you!" Cheng says, enthusiastically. "For him, it's all about elements of childhood, memories, reality. My role, and he agrees …" - Zhang, sitting alongside with an interpreter, nods silently - "is actually to stimulate him to know himself more. It's about probing. I know him more than he understands himself, sometimes."

The box installation is intended to reflect something about Hong Kong as well as the artist, although it is hard to say quite what. After further probing, Zhang says that his strongest feeling about the city is that it's very crowded. A more provocative, not to mention ironic, artist might have observed that these crowds mostly consist of mainlanders flocking to jewellery stores such as Chow Tai Fook, which is owned by Cheng's grandfather, Cheng Yu-tung. Zhang, however, is not that sort of artist.

Any further speculation that there's a subtext about lack of space in Hong Kong's flats (Cheng's family also owns New World Development) or an Occupy reference or even that Hong Kong is boxed in by the mainland is briskly headed off by Cheng. "He doesn't have political insinuations - it's a subconscious thing rather than a very superficial way of rationalising. All he thinks about is his childhood memory," Cheng says.

Zhang then proffers a clue, and says it's about his childhood impressions of being alone in a dark room, which sounds fairly un-Chinese. (Cheng: "Yes, that's why he's a global artist.")

Why was it dark? "Maybe no electricity," suggests Cheng. "He'd also lie in the pasture at night and look at the stars. The idea of recollection is very important to him because you accumulate memory as you get older. I told him I can't do that. I'm only in my 30s. I'm still learning."

As it happens, Zhang was a teacher at the Arts and Design Institute of Donghua University. He stopped several years ago, having achieved a degree of international prominence at Art Basel in 2006 (the show's opening during this year's Art Basel Hong Kong is no coincidence), but a didactic impulse still beats within.

He produces a cigarette packet from his pocket, removes the cellophane, stretches it between his fingers and explains how in order to paint this substance - its transparency, its elasticity - he thinks about it until it feels like his own skin and becomes a memory within his own body.

Then he crushes the packet, and asks: is it still a box? On a nearby wall hangs an untitled oil painting from 2002, which depicts exactly that: a crushed cigarette packet. Is it art? "That's from the Container series," says Cheng. "It's connecting with the viewer. Boxes are irrelevant and mundane and unimportant, but he once made a quote: 'The more you look at the mundane, the more it touches your heart.' It's spiritual."

Cheng taps a cardboard box, being used as a makeshift table, on which artist and curator have rested their coffees and mobile phones. "This is an art piece," he says. "We're, like - 'Oh, that's so cool! He wants to make this alive, to leave traces on it!' "

For Zhang, suddenly tickled at the thought, is leaning over in order to spill some coffee on the box. He mops it up and contemplates the coffee stains with grinning satisfaction. "This trace represents human presence," says Cheng, respectfully.

Such talk of dark rooms, aloneness, body, skin - plus the obvious self-containment - makes you wonder what, exactly, went on in Zhang's childhood. Was he ill? Was he hurt? But the artist won't comment. All he says is that he's lucky he's as healthy as he is.

He once did a series on the backs of people's head so that viewers wouldn't focus only on the face; he likes the unglamorous. (What about the back of Cheng's head? "He says a lot is coming through," replies the interpreter.)

"He's a beautiful person," says Cheng, doing a mini-tour within the cardboard box chamber which, frankly, is like negotiating one of Wellcome's aisles on a particularly cluttered afternoon during a power cut. Zhang has painted the interior with watercolours, in a deliberately slapdash representation of Hong Kong's landscape.

Will Cheng do more curating? "I'll see," he says. "First, I need to respect the artist. Secondly, I need to know if it'll make an impact in China and the West. Thirdly, it depends on my time."

Then he hands over a copy of the exhibition's catalogue, kindly (and, for an exhibition, unusually) signed by both artist and curator as a token of the creative double act.

" Space Painting by Zhang Enli" continues until July 13 at K11 Art Foundation Pop-up Space, G/F Cosco Tower, Grand Millennium Plaza, 183 Queen's Road Central, Sheung Wan