Art+ Shanghai Gallery
My fascination with contemporary art and my curiosity for the Chinese emerging scene ran into Art+ Shanghai Gallery. It was founded in 2007 by four partners who share a long passion and involvement in art. I met the founders and directors Ana Gonzalez and Agnès Cohade. Through a passionate conversation about their work, they enlightened me about many factors related to the current Chinese world of gallerists, emerging artists, collectors, market evolutions and, it couldn’t miss, actions and reactions during the Pandemic.
The peculiarity of the talk has been the dialectic perspective between the international and local systems.
Art is a difficult world to penetrate and, being foreigners in China, it’s even harder. Can you imagine how challenging is to set up this kind of business and enter the market of art in China?
Ana, from Spain, has a very rich and variegated international experience, from fashion design to art, science to comparative literature from the Sorbonne University. Her first contact with Chinese art occurred on a trip to China in 1993. She worked as Gallery Director in an M50-area Shanghai gallery before opening her own gallery.
Agnès, originally from France, has a degree from the French Business School and a Master of Science in Business Administration from the Pennsylvania State University. She spent 18 years living in a variety of countries, including Brazil, the United States, Mexico, Singapore, and Switzerland, before moving to China in 2005. Since opening Art+ Shanghai Gallery in 2007, Agnes Cohade has acted as one of the gallery's managing directors.
“Above all, you need to create your reputation among artists before they decide to rely on you and sign an agreement. They need to trust a renowned curator and gallerist.”
Thanks to a good network of collaborators with a structured reputation among emergent and middle career artists, they could set up the conditions for starting.
Since the beginning, the Gallery wanted to focus on Chinese artists; there is a new, rising attention among foreigner collectors and the goal is to enhance it, since it’s still too little and exclusive.
“At present, 96 % of our clients are foreigners, not only based in China but also from abroad. They are very interested in emergent Chinese artists and they know very well what they want”.
Talking about the Chinese market, Ana and Agnes explained to me how their Gallery, being still young, has always to find the good compromise between the art and the market. This is some time limiting because you can’t take high risk in the artists’ selection, but on the other hand is defining an exciting side of their work, which is to educate a new generation of collectors.
“Working with Institutions, such as museums, is different than dealing only with private clients, above all if they are new and you are proposing emergent artists. In most cases, they start selecting on the base of artworks fitting their houses, and only at a later time they start following specific artists and collecting their pieces. They start to understand more and more and to build their filters and knowledge. This is the role of small galleries like ours! We introduce art to people for the first time and we create art followers and lovers!”
Another interesting point emerged during the discussion is the difference between Europe and China: in Europe, people are afraid to enter in galleries if they are not experts, they are worried to be judged, they feel embarrassed and observed, as they don’t belong to that world.
In China people feel more comfortable to enter in galleries, even foreigners, who admit that they never entered in an art gallery in Europe. In China there is the perception that nothing is impossible!
“When people come in, they influence each other’s and the whole neighborhood, they think that art is accessible. Our role is also to educate people, to open the doors and make them feel comfortable and to understand that art is not a question of understanding but of feeling, at least at the beginning.”
A remarkable change is taking place in China: in the last 3 years, the target of people interested in art is becoming younger; before the age range was between 45 and 65 years, now, between 25 and 30, 40 years. Art is becoming a trend here; people want to be part of a “special” community. The other shift is that the number of women artists is increasing a lot. This is due to the fact that they have less pressure from the family to find a steady job and get a high salary. Buying an apartment and supporting economically the family is still a man priority.
However, the main and most delicate activity of the gallery is the artists’ selection.
It takes a lot of time and efforts. It is crucial to understand the cultural background of their work.
“One of the first thing I do when I go to visit a new artist in his/her studio, is to take a picture of the books I see around. This quickly give me a lot of information” says Ana.
The exhibitions are carefully curated by the gallerists and external curators. On the base of the concept, the space changes every time, from the wall painting, lights, circulation, layout. Usually the program is scheduled and arranged for a whole year.
This year, 2020, has been different, of course, for everybody and also for galleries and artists.
“We had a program of solo exhibitions, but, view the difficult situation, both for collectors abroad to be here and participate to the events and for the artists to work, we decided to set up only group exhibitions to give the opportunity to all our artists to participate and have more chance to sell their works. On March we sent a letter to them to communicate we were cancelling all the solo exhibitions programmed for the year and to invite them to share with us their current situation during the pandemic; how their work was affected and what they were producing in response to the situation? We launched two chapters titled “One hundred days of solitude”, to show the works created during the Pandemic and facing different problematics and reflections. Some artists didn’t have access to their studio and materials, so they had to experiment other solutions at home, other made works inspired by the new emergency.”
In the gallery, some works from these two chapters are still exhibited and some have been sold.
A representative artist is Ye Hongxing, a Beijing-based artist, born in 1972 in Guangxi Province. “She is one of the most relevant and successful artists of the contemporary Chinese scene, selected as one of the top 20 contemporary Chinese artists by the curator of California’s Asia Art Museum and the director of Art Cologne. Working with oil paint, mixed media, sculpture, and installation, Ye’s works have been well-received internationally. Using symbols of the everyday and patterns from tradition, she is motivated by her perception of China’s development and the international preoccupation with money and materialism. Her work reflects the contradiction within society using a decorative visual language made of sculptures, oil paint and stickers’ collages. Her works relish a sense of vivid, exquisite chaos, expressing richness and luxury that combines bright hues with pop culture symbols and traditional motifs.”
She experienced an adventure related to the Pandemic. She was supposed to go to the States at the beginning of this year, and, since the Pandemic already started in China, she decided to reach the States through Europe, since American borders were starting to forbid the entrance from China. She travelled a little in Europe, visiting Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and, by the time she decided to flight to the States, the borders finally closed, and she had to come back to China. Responding to Art+ Shanghai Gallery invitation, she realized pieces inspired by her experience: she created a series of “maps of isolation”, referred to the cities she was travelling, Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona and the one she wanted to reach, Los Angeles.
Another exemplar artist of the Gallery is Tamen+, a collective formed in 2003 by artists Lai Shengyu and Yang Xiaogang, born in China’s Hunan Province in 1978 and 1979, respectively.
“The duo has traveled widely and rejects contemporary society’s infatuation with the individualism by seamlessly collaborating on and co-painting each work. The two artists co-paint, co-operate and co-practice, placing emphasis on communication and dialogue, both in the process and results of their work. Before beginning a work, a general theme and setting may be discussed, while the rest of the conversation occurs through the painting as they alternate working on the piece, continuously adding upon the other’s work, with neither having the right to erase the work of the other. They are satirical and ironical towards Chinese society and its changes.”
Ana and Agnès told me an anecdote of their life: in 2010, after the World Expo, they had a moment of rupture in their collaboration and felt guilty for their critical approach towards China and, for a while, went back to their hometown and to the Chinese culture and traditions. Their work changed a lot and reached, for the first time, the attention of the Chinese public and collectors.
In the back of the Gallery, I was impressed by a big painting, part of the previous chapter 1 of “one hundred days of solitude”, made out of a particular technique. It’s called “Faces 2020”, by the artist
He Jian, born in 1978 in Guang Yuan, Sichuan province. “His distinctive style of artistic expression is inspired by the frescoes of the 14th century Yongle temple in Shanxi province. At first glance, his works look aged, as if they are in need of intensive restoration, the effect that the artist reaches with the technique of layered paint over a thin surface of rice paper. Juxtaposing antique techniques of meticulous Chinese brush painting with the subject-matter of Chinese contemporary everyday life as well as his childhood memories, He Jian takes his works into a unique temporal dimension.”
Visiting Art+ Shanghai Gallery made me discover many interesting aspects and proponents of the contemporary Chinese Art. Also, I am thankful to Ana and Agnès to open my eyes on some hidden, silent dynamics and transcultural preconceptions. They are passionate about Chinese art and its evolution. Among many other activities and efforts, they are engaged with the disclosure and promotion of local art, which is still poorly represented in worldwide events and fairs, poorly considered by International media and still affected by stereotypes and bad reputation.