Interview: Zhou Tiehai

Read our interview with Zhou Tiehai, founder and director of West Bund Art & Design

By Aimee Lin

Zhou Tiehai. Photo: Ma Liang West Bund Art & Design fair exterior, Shanghai West Bund Art & Design fair interior, Shanghai. Photo: Ma Liang West Bund Corridor, Shanghai

Zhou Tiehai’s artwork, which often exposes the structures and strategies of the art market and art history, has been exhibited in museums and biennials internationally, ranging from the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York, to the 48th Venice Biennale and the 5th and 6th Gwangju Biennales. From 2009 to 2012 he was executive director at Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai. In 2014 he established West Bund Art & Design, a fair that brings international and Chinese art into even closer proximity in his hometown, Shanghai. How does he see this relationship developing in the future? What can we expect?

ArtReview Asia You have a very rich personal history. To start with, you are a successful conceptual artist. In your signature series of airbrush paintings, you created a fictitious character, ‘Joe Camel’, and replaced the head of portraits made by da Vinci, Goya and Ingres, as well as contemporary stars like Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan, with it; in your 1996 video piece Will/We Must, you revealed a power dynamic between the local art scene and the international artworld that still hasn’t changed much today; from 2009 to 2012 you were involved in the founding of Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum and were its first director; now you are also a founder and director of an art fair. Indeed, your involvement in art fairs began much earlier, when you were involved with the founding of the first edition of SH Contemporary, in 2007. How do you come to have occupied so many roles in the artworld?

Zhou Tiehai It happened naturally, sometimes due to practical reasons. But in general it is closely related to the experience I’ve accumulated through being directly involved in the artworld for such a long time and the judgements I’ve been able to make as a result of that. I went to Art Basel for the first time in 1997; three years later one of my artworks was part of its Statements section. Since then I’ve been to almost every major art fair in both the West and in Asia, either as a visitor or participating artist. During the course of all that I’ve gradually come to my own understanding of art fairs. So when I was invited to start a new one in Shanghai, I felt like it was doable. I’ve also witnessed a trend towards homogenisation within art fairs, but that means, on the other hand, that there is a greater possibility to shape something that’s different. So when West Bund approached me in 2014 and showed me the space, I felt like I could pick it up again.

ARA This November will see the third edition of West Bund Art & Design. How did the fair come into being?

ZTH In January 2014, the West Bund Group took me on a trip to a factory along the bank of Huangpu River that had been deserted for five years; they asked whether I would be interested in creating an art fair on the site. The West Bund Group is an institution led by local government that is seeking to transform an area along the bank of Huangpu River, referred to as West Bund now, into a culture corridor. The area was the site of the first international airport in China (Longhua Airport), with an early train station, cargo terminal and civil aviation facilities. That unique history has left the area with very special architectures and cultural landscapes. The West Bund Group’s plan is to turn the area into a zone comprising museums, art centres, galleries, architecture and artist studios, art education and leisure centres. Long Museum West Bund and Yuz Museum started operating in the area during the spring of 2014, and prior to that it had been a site for largescale architecture and sound art exhibitions. The building in which the art fair itself is housed was formerly an aircraft manufacturing plant. The highest point of its rooftop reaches 20 metres, and within the main area of its 55-by-120 sqm space there are no pillars. The whole space is open and grand, characterised by the functionalist aesthetics of industrial architecture, and that’s something that moved me deeply. At the time, there were many art fairs in Asia, such as the ones in Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, but here, with this space, one can make a different kind of art fair, something unique, and that was the basis for us to begin.

ARA As you mentioned, you were one of the first Chinese artists to be shown at Art Basel when your airbrush series Placebo was exhibited in the Statements section by ShanghART Gallery in 2000. Can you describe the experience?

ZTH It was a very small booth and we brought three works with us, one of which was sold. At that time, as it was the first time that the gallery or I had been to Art Basel, our expectations were limited: we thought it was totally reasonable if we didn’t sell even one piece! So we were very pleased with the final outcome.

ARA Nowadays West Bund Art & Design has become the platform via which many Western artists and their works enter the Chinese market for the first time. Do you think Shanghai has become a true marketplace for international art?

ZTH In China, many established collectors who began their collections with Chinese art are now capable of and used to purchasing international art. They buy artworks across the globe at different art fairs, from galleries and from auction houses. But there are a lot more who just started collecting; and right from the start they have been very interested in both Chinese and international art. Alongside that, company collections are also growing at a rapid speed. The tariff on importing artworks to the mainland of China, no matter whether the purchase takes place on the mainland or out of it, is as high as 23 percent [17 percent VAT plus 6 percent customs duty]. Even so, Shanghai is ripe with potential to become an international art market. The biggest challenge for audiences is to understand the artworks, which takes time. However, there are local collectors who are willing to spend time to study and research such works, and I think assisting with this is something to which galleries need to devote more effort.

ARA More and more international galleries are trying to enter the Chinese market. Chinese collectors’ purchases in auction houses and at international fairs have also attracted much attention. Who is this group of people that are buying contemporary art? Apart from the big names (such as Shanghai-based couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, who own three Long Museums, one of which is located in West Bund), who else is out there? What kinds of works are they interested in? Apart from those who own private museums, do normal collectors buy international art?

Artistic activities led by the government or the market have become the norm. In comparison to the rest of China, Shanghai residents are relatively more curious about and tolerant towards Western culture, and young people consider the consumption of contemporary art as part of a hip lifestyle.

ZTH China doesn’t have a very long history when it comes to collecting contemporary art. In the early days, collectors focused more on local art and liked to spend a lot of time with the artists, getting to know them privately. The ones who started collecting Western art either have a background of living abroad, or got to know Western culture early; there are some who came into contact with foreign galleries or attended Western art fairs early. Among them, some are more interested in classical Western works, while others are more interested in contemporary ones. Currently it is easier for them to engage with artists who are established figures within art history. Some collectors are very sensitive to the current trends in the international market as well. Compared to more conceptual works, they are more into the fine-looking and delicately produced works. Collectors usually like to exchange information and communicate with each other, and they like to go on studio visits. I’ve seen some unique concepts in collecting among collectors in recent years. What’s more, there are always newcomers. There are certain collectors, beyond those who own private museums, who purchase contemporary international art as well. They usually purchase works of artists who are well known as well, but they are also very open to new art. And I am happy to see that West Bund is playing a positive role in bringing both kinds of art to China.

ARA What role does art play in the culture life of Shanghai? How has that changed in the past 20 years?

ZTH Contemporary art within the last 20 years has gone from being underground to mainstream, with a market that once didn’t exist now developing rapidly. Artistic activities led by the government or the market have become the norm. In comparison to the rest of China, Shanghai residents are relatively more curious about and tolerant towards Western culture, and young people consider the consumption of contemporary art as part of a hip lifestyle. Besides all that, the development of contemporary art in Shanghai has a lot to do with the urban transformation and urban planning.

ARA Speaking from the market perspective, galleries centred on 798 Art District in Beijing started to develop in scale after the year of 2000 (I remember the pivotal point was 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics). Within the last couple years, because of the opening of private museums as well as the activities of old and new galleries, Shanghai has come back to the fore. How do you see the recent developments of art in Shanghai?

ZTH Actually private museums had already started to emerge in Shanghai as early as ten years ago. We still encounter a lot of problems, for example the lack of qualified professionals working in museums, galleries and other types of organisation. But despite that we are working hard and there are more and more international exhibitions and projects.

ARA Ideally what kind of art fair does Shanghai or China need?

ZTH As the global agenda of fairs becomes busier and busier, we need a simplified fair with a careful selection of participating galleries. The ideal art fair needs a humanised design that makes people feel comfortable inside, so that they can not only focus on the works but also enjoy the general atmosphere of the fair. In other words, double the pleasure by combining ‘shopping’ and ‘wandering’.

ARA What advice would you give to international collectors who’d like to get a foothold in Chinese art, and for local collectors interested in international art?

ZTH International collectors should try to come to China if possible and work with credible galleries. When confused about the works, it is best to communicate directly with the artists. Local collectors likewise should visit more exhibitions, and communicate with credible galleries and artists. For both of them, it is very important to spend (or invest) their time.

ARA This year West Bund Art & Design has moved from September to November to coincide with the Shanghai Biennale. What role does West Bund play in the local ecosystem of art?

ZTH West Bund Art & Design has managed to build a high-quality, open and vigorous image of the Chinese art market. Together with other institutions, academies and artists in and around Shanghai, we manage to bring local art into international view and international art to local audiences. Besides that, it is set in the West Bund Corridor, and together with our neighbouring private museums, art centres, galleries and artist studios, it is starting to create a new cultural landmark in the city. This autumn in Shanghai, apart from the 11th Shanghai Biennale, curated by Raqs Media Collective, the city will also see the first Shanghai Project, codirected by Hans Ulrich Obrist and its initiator Yongwoo Lee. During the fair there will be collective openings of institutions, museums and galleries, and pop-up shows, not only in the West Bund Corridor, but also in other places in Shanghai.

ARA Besides West Bund Art & Design, another art fair, ART021, will also take place this November in Shanghai. Would you please elaborate on what sets West Bund Art & Design apart from ART021?

ZTH Once I asked a participating gallerist why they would take part in West Bund, he replied that because it is the ‘future of art fairs’. This year, just like before, we still keep the number of participating galleries around 30 while carrying out a new curated section, Xiàn Chǎng, in collaboration with ArtReview Asia. This section will invite international and Chinese artists to showcase largescale sculptures, installations, paintings as well as photography and moving images across the main space of the fair, a newly built tent and outdoor spaces. Crucially, this section is not only open to artists represented by galleries participating in the main fair but also to other artists who bring new positions and perspectives to the event. Perhaps this is something that’s very particular about West Bund Art & Design: it is of course an art fair, but it also has a mission to develop and expand the understanding of art for both local and international audiences, which, as I said before, is crucial to the development of the contemporary art scene in the city.

ARA Is Shanghai capable of hosting two art fairs (at the same time)?

ZTH It is not about how many art fairs Shanghai can support, but the need for art fairs of different orientation, characters and types.

ARA A lot of international galleries are concerned about state censorship in China. What do you think is the effect of censorship upon art production and the work shown in fairs?

ZTH State censorship has always been a problem that art professionals need to deal with anytime, anywhere. I believe that one of the particular charms of art is the way that it allows artists to create and deploy imaginative strategies, especially when it comes to this matter. 

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia