In late 2013, Korean-American tech investor Jung Lee opened an art gallery called Ren Space in a century-old building in the historic Huangpu neighbourhood in Shanghai. The avid art collector, who splits his time between Silicon Valley and China, wanted to create a new gallery model that could give contemporary artists the support they needed – both technical and financial – to be more experimental. Ren Space has worked successfully with established artists such as Zhang Peili, widely known as the “father of Chinese video art”, to finance and help with the fabrication, promotion and distribution of artworks. But Lee still finds that his attempt to disrupt the industry – by setting up an art gallery – has resulted in the equivalent of Toyota’s Prius, when what is needed is a Tesla. The Prius was the first mass-produced electronic hybrid vehicle when it was introduced in 1997, Lee, a former banker and entertainment executive turned angel investor, says. Despite the spectacular growth in the electric car market, the Japanese carmaker has yet to come up with a fully electric model. Instead, the leader in the field is Tesla , which was still a relatively new start up when it produced its first car in 2008. “Toyota never went beyond its traditional framework while Tesla, with no legacy to defend and market or territory to protect, adopted best practices without any constraint. The more you have something to lose, the more difficult it is for you to truly innovate,” Lee says. That’s why he is stepping away from his direct involvement in Ren Space to launch his “Tesla” of the art industry: Miralab, a digital robotics studio in China that can help artists fulfil their visions. The team is in the process of setting up a studio in Shanghai that uses robotics to carve stones and other materials, and provides rapid 3D-printing machines that can deal with a variety of materials, including metals. One Hongkonger’s journey from artist, to observer, to activist “This is with a US studio which developed a unique process that overcomes the challenges regarding cost, dimension and production speed,” Lee says. “[The Shanghai studio] will be manned by our overseas studio partners.” Additional machines will also be set up in another part of China in the future so that a wider pool of artists can have access to the facilities. As an art collector, Lee is familiar with the ecosystem of American art. “It is relatively well-established in terms of legacy, scale and size, whereas in China, everything is open,” he says. After travelling around the world before the Covid-19 outbreak to visit technology studios that work with renowned artists like Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama, Lee realised that the disruptive power of the technology sector can be extended to the Chinese art world in very concrete ways. He hopes that Chinese artists will be inspired to explore artmaking in different ways. Zhang, the video artist, accompanied Lee on his travels to view 10 robotics projects in three continents over the past few years to understand how these new tools can help him. “[Zhang] asked lots of questions and tried out a number of prototypes for his artworks using different materials like natural stones, handmade paper and ceramics,” Lee says. Another artist, Yang Zhenzhong, also visited studios with Lee in Japan and Italy. As a result, Yang worked with an Italian studio in Carrara that allowed him to be more creative with stones. The result will be unveiled in his new exhibition, called “Exposure”, that is being held at Ren Space until February 21. “Miralab invites stakeholders from inside and outside of the art world to cooperate with us to deepen China’s art ecosystem. We will partner with galleries, art fairs and other distribution platforms as well as educational institutions,” Lee says. Lee also wants to shake up the traditional relationship between artists and galleries besides expanding the technological toolkit available to Chinese artists. “How many industries do we know today that charge 50 per cent of sales for distribution? Fifty per cent is not an easy number to justify for what artists are getting from galleries, especially in China where the gallery tradition is much shorter and hasn’t yet matured into the scale anywhere close to their Western counterparts,” he says. Many galleries’ high-cost structure – a result of being located in expensive real estate and their focus on public relations – is not sustainable, Lee thinks. The pandemic outbreak has disrupted the traditional art fair model and so the distribution part of the art industry is ripe for major changes, he adds. As a result, artists are more likely to work directly with collectors, art fairs, auction houses and multiple galleries to sell their works, rather than just rely on one dealer exclusively, he says. It is in this new environment that Lee hopes to himself a useful partner for Chinese artists. Ren Space is limited by trying to be both an art gallery and the equivalent of an incubator for new art projects, he says. While the gallery has been a success and will continue to operate in Shanghai, Lee thinks that real breakthroughs are more likely to happen through a separate entity with an “open format”. “My analogy of Toyota versus Tesla is to illustrate that to build something new and truly transformational, one has to walk away from their comfort zone and take a risk,” he says. Exposure: Yang Zhenzhong’s Solo Exhibition, Ren Space, No 10, Lane 133 Shang Wen Road, Huang Pu District, Shanghai, China, Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Until February 21, 2021.