How Chinese contemporary sculptures took pride of place in art lover’s Californian winery

Pieces by Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjun and Zhan Wang stand out among the works on the Donum wine estate, where Allan Warburg has mixed his two loves – wine and art – with spectacular results

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 12:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 9:56am

The approach to the Donum Estate winery passes through some of the most striking scenery in the United States. Starting in San Francisco, it takes visitors over the Golden Gate Bridge, and along roads winding for miles between the hills of Napa Valley, surrounded by vistas more reminiscent of Tuscany than anything in the New World.

Nothing prepares you for Donum itself. The property is breathtaking, all oblique sunlight, sparkling water, and gently waving fields of lavender. But what everybody notices first when they turn into the estate is Sanna, the 2015 sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.

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The stark white head towers above you, its eyes seemingly following your car up the gravel drive.

It’s impossible not to imagine the front gate to Donum being a portal into another realm, an impression that only grows as you wander the 80-hectare (200-acre) grounds. Donum is, in a word, otherworldly.

The Donum name is familiar to wine lovers. The label has three wine-producing properties in California and makes some of the finest pinot noir in the United States. But this property in Sonoma – thanks to majority owner Allan Warburg and his wife, Mei – is about to become a place of pilgrimage for both art lovers and oenophiles.

In September, the sculpture collection at Donum was officially launched; it boasts one of the finest collections of large-scale international art anywhere in the world, including works from the most acclaimed Chinese artists working today.

The Warburgs are well known as international patrons of the arts, and Allan – an Asia-based fashion tycoon who co-founded Bestseller Fashion Group Asia – is often credited with being one of the first Westerners to appreciate the flowering of creativity in China that was taking place in the 1990s.

“I got to know a lot of artists,” he says, in an office overlooking the rolling hills of Donum. “I hear it was the same when the Berlin Wall fell, that it was just this explosion of new creativity being unleashed, and I felt that in the late ’90s and early 2000s in Beijing.”

But when he bought Donum in December 2011, the only thing on his mind was the wine; he acquired the estate without even seeing it. It was only when he visited it that it occurred to him that here was an opportunity to combine two of his great passions.

“I’d been collecting art already, mostly paintings,” he recalls, “and one day I was standing out here having a nice glass of wine and just thought, wow, it would be fantastic to put sculptures out here.”

Since then, transforming the grounds into a world-class sculpture park has become a passion project.

The grounds are now home to 39 installations, with more already commissioned.

The Warburgs’ first purchase for Donum is still among the most inspired. Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, a 2011 piece by Ai Weiwei, features a circle of oversized recreations of the heads of the Chinese zodiac animals that were pillaged by foreign soldiers from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in the 19th century.

I have heard of many outdoor sculpture parks, but never expected how perfect this is
Liu Xiaodong

At the end of last month, Ai made a surprise appearance at the property. He wandered the grounds, took in the art, and posed for smiling selfies with other artists.

“This is the first time I have seen the Zodiac Heads in a permanent setting,” he said. “I am very touched to see what a beautiful home they have found here.”

Today the sculptures sit on the estate, and their likenesses decorate Donum’s wine labels.

Warburg’s connection to Asia, and his love of contemporary Chinese art, has ensured that many of China’s greatest artistic luminaries find homes for their works at Donum.

In his opening remarks at a lunch to mark the official inauguration of the sculpture park, Warburg laid out his vision for the collection: “We love diversity and different cultures, and feel now more than ever it is important to build an understanding between them … going forward, we hope to create a platform where artists from everywhere can express themselves.”

That lunch saw an unprecedented coming together of some of the greatest talents from all over the world. Artists such as Marc Quinn and Subodh Gupta, Zhan Wang, Liu Xiaodong and Yue Minjun caught up over glasses of pinot noir and platters of fresh produce grown on the estate.

Today, Donum is home to one of the most striking collections of large-scale contemporary Chinese sculpture in the world.

Liu says he wasn’t sure how his work would fit into an “outdoor sculpture park”, but was blown away by what he saw.

“Because this is my first time here, I think ‘surprise’ would be the word,” says Liu. “I have heard of many outdoor sculpture parks, but never expected how perfect this is … The way Donum placed [the pieces] is so inspirational. This is something you cannot experience in a gallery or museum, because there are too many distractions in those places. But here you can actually feel the art calling to you.”

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After Ai, Yue is perhaps the most well-known Chinese artist with work displayed at the estate. His “laugh series” of exaggerated laughing men is popular all over the world.

Like Ai’s Zodiac Heads, Yue’s Contemporary Terracotta Warriors from 2005 draws on Chinese history and traditional art. His installation features a collection of his laughing figures, mimicking the famed Terracotta Warriors of Xian that guard the tomb of China’s first emperor.

Seeing his work in the environment of Donum was something of a dream come true for Yue.

We love diversity and different cultures, and feel now more than ever it is important to build an understanding between them
Allan Warburg

“I have always dreamed about ‘Big Time’, which means all the works have to be huge, with this expansive power and the energy to really capture people’s minds,” he says. “This whole space … is way beyond the gallery or the museum.”

Still, the effect of seeing his work in such a majestic setting caught him off guard. “I could never have imagined my work in such a wide-open setting,” he says.

Like the other artists whose work is displayed at Donum, Yue says that he trusts the Warburgs implicitly and feels their involvement and taste puts the work in a new context, breathing new life into it.

He hopes they will take an even greater role in the work they buy.

“Maybe they can even try to be creative and do something different each year, such as arranging them in different combinations,” Yue wonders. “Or put them in different locations according to the seasons?”

The piece that perhaps best exemplifies the exceptionalism of Donum’s sculpture collection is Zhan’s Artificial Rock No. 126. The artist is known for finding stones and covering them in reflective metals. The Warburgs first saw the work at Art Basel in Switzerland, and knew they must have it for the sculpture park.

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Historically, cultured Chinese officials would scour the countryside for particularly spectacular stones and have them moved to display in their gardens or estates. Zhan follows the same tradition, but takes the added step of covering the stones in a metal finish.

There is really no comparable tradition in the West, and you would think a piece like Artificial Rock No. 126 would seem out of place in the California landscape, surrounded by vineyards, but the opposite is true. Zhan’s piece is perhaps the most spectacular of all on the property. The landscape casts the sculpture in ethereal relief, somehow emphasising both its natural origin and otherworldliness.

When Zhan saw his piece in situ, the overall impression took his breath away. “It’s like the circle of life,” he says. “I found this stone in Shandong province, in a similar environment as Donum, actually.

“It came from nature, was sculpted by an artist, exhibited around the world, and now has been returned to nature. I took it where it came from and now it’s back where it is supposed to be … it’s very inspiring.”

Coming upon Artificial Rock No. 126 on a walk around the grounds, a glass of wine in hand, as the setting sun glints off its metallic edges and the air fills with the smell of lavender, the incongruity of a Chinese artwork in a California landscape disappears, along with any thought of the piece’s origin or history.

Instead, the wine, the land and the piece seem to meld together, transporting you away from anything as mundane as place or time, for an experience outside geography or history, that still could only take place here, at Donum.

Getting there

United Airlines flies to Sonoma County Airport via San Francisco, and Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly to Los Angeles, from where Alaska Airlines connects to Sonoma County Airport.