COS Magazine interview: Leo Xu


More than Beijing or Hong Kong, Shanghai is the creative epicentre of Asia’s booming art economy. But even the bustling megacity has its serene quarters. In a residential pocket of Shanghai’s monied French Concession, the 32-year-old gallerist Leo Xu goes about the business of advancing contemporary art in China. Whether he’s placing climbable art in a shopping mall or allowing artists to mess with his website, he promotes work that has something contemporary art gallerists aren’t always known for: a healthy sense of humour. Leo eschews the term ‘gallery’, claiming he’s doing so much more than running an ATM for art. We converse on such subjects as we descend from his office on the third floor at Leo Xu Projects and step into the damp, fragrant afternoon for a fast-paced tour of the neighbourhood.

Iona: I love your shoes. The vivid blue panels on your brogues match the print of your shirt. What are they?

Leo: I designed them.

I: You designed them?

L: Yes. I’m not a shoe fanatic, but I have friends who design shoes, and I’ve also had the chance to work with a couple of brands, so my collection has been growing recently.

I: What is more important to you in shoes: comfort or style?

L: Shoes have to be comfortable and walkable. I’m a volleyball player in my secret life.

I: Really? I didn’t know that. Where shall we go?

L: Let’s turn left out of the gallery towards Wukang Road. I really love these old lane houses and the beautiful London plane trees overhead.

I: There’s a certain kind of gentrification going on in this particular area, the French Concession. I guess you and your gallery are part of it. How do you feel about that?

L: It’s exciting! On one hand it’s a little bit sad to see history disappear, but on the other hand it’s great to witness this kind of upgrade on a scale that you don’t find in New York or London. It’s like building a new model of the city for the 21st century. I think this also explains why Spike Jonze shot his latest film, Her, here in Shanghai – because it already looks like a city from the future. That’s what struck me when I walked out of the cinema in Pudong after seeing Star Trek and saw all these gigantic buildings like the IFC tower. Shanghai just looks like a sci-fi city, and it’s becoming more and more interesting.

I: That probably means you have to adapt a lot.

L: You have to adapt, but I also think you have to actively explore and engage with the past. When I moved back here after living in Beijing for a couple of years, I felt there was something in Shanghai that I really missed out on in terms of public discourse. Shanghai is a fusion city, a mixture of East and West. Look at how these art deco buildings live in total harmony with the ones built by the Chinese, who were a minority in the French Concession.

I: How did you get to open a gallery?

L: I studied as an artist and I worked as a photographer, but I got bored. At some point I got the opportunity to work with the artist Xu Bing, and through him I encountered a number of curators. I found curating a very interesting and groundbreaking discipline. It’s so all-encompassing, the way it combines scenography, management, administration, sociability, knowledge of art history and working with artists, pushing the limits of different disciplines and blurring boundaries. I worked for galleries in Beijing and abroad for a while, and then I opened my own gallery in 2011.

I: What’s the story behind your space? It’s quite linear but also intimate.

L: Before I moved in, it had been the office of a company. It looked quite shabby, but I thought it had the right dimensions for presenting something visually. It has long walls and a very interesting central staircase. It reminded me of a smaller-scale version of the Neues Museum in Berlin.

I: I often prefer smaller galleries. In Beijing, for example, you sometimes feel as if you’re drowning in these huge spaces, and artists have had to make giant works just for the sake of filling them.

L: I worked for James Cohan Gallery and Chambers Fine Art before, so I’ve dealt with those two different kinds of spaces – an old warehouse converted into a huge white box and a very delicate art deco house. I felt I had had enough, and I find Shanghai to be really inspiring as a city. I felt the need for a gallery as a laboratory – or a headquarters – rather than as a huge warehouse. I want it to be an engine, a motor for putting my curatorial input across the city. I don’t think my artists produce work just to fit into a white cube. They make work to fit into the city.

I: It’s as if you’re infiltrating, in a way.

L: We work a lot with public spaces – we show works in the open air or in shopping malls – but also on iPhones and iPads and on printed matter. Last year the Argentine artist Leandro Erlich spectacularly infiltrated a shopping centre in downtown Shanghai with the life-sized facade of a traditional Shanghai shikumen-style house on the floor and a mirror suspended overhead. Shoppers could clamber over the model and see themselves reflected in the mirror as if they were climbing the facade, hanging from windows or being suspended upside down. I like my artists and the gallery to engage in the development of the new Shanghai. I like the idea of intervention. Have you seen my website?

I: Oh, yes. It plays a trick on you, faking electromagnetic interference and the sound of a vibrating phone, so that you automatically check your pocket.

L: Right. The Dutch artist Gabriel Lester, who used to live in Shanghai, hacked the site. The inspiration is the buzzing of phones, which makes people nervous and panicky. I love the idea because both Gabriel and I are workaholics – we’re always on the phone. It’s fun for us to see how people react to our prank.

I: Is it this kind of work that leads you to call your gallery Leo Xu Projects rather than, say, Leo Xu Gallery?

L: Yes. I think the most important aspect of this gallery is that we’re a thinking brain. Many people take galleries to be ATMs for art. (laughs) I think what makes us special is that we’re a good partner for artists. We challenge them and we help them.

I: What do your artists need help with?

L: We work with a lot of young artists from Asia, so we’re aware of their age crisis. (laughs) They’re upset by their scarce visibility around the world. Mid-career artists are anxious about the next step, and the more established artists are very aware of their price issues. I always tell people that we’re creating a constellation. One day when we look back on all our work with artists, it will form a big, organic picture. Sometimes they cross paths and you can see the spark.

I: Are there specific tendencies you’re talking about at the moment with your friends and colleagues and artists?

L: Many of my artists are talking about and working with the concept of shanzhai – fake consumer goods. We live in a big city that is a huge market for shanzhai products. If there’s a Starbucks here, you’ll see a ‘Starbanks’ or whatever across the street. People ride around on Apple-branded scooters, even though Apple doesn’t make scooters. But through the shanzhai process something gets reinvented, and it makes things much more democratic, much more accessible for people.

I: You’re wearing a beautifully crisp white shirt covered with a print of hexagons in royal blue. Do you have a tailor close by?

L: Not really. I have my stylist. (laughs) I have friends who work in fashion. It’s good to have friends in fashion!

I: We’re passing a number of small shops and boutiques. Are there any that you particularly like?

L: Actually, I like the newsstands. I enjoy talking to the owners about magazine sales and what titles are popular. Some offer interesting foreign titles that are not supposed to be available or distributed locally; some sell manga and other stuff. Some vendors have their own profound and peculiar understanding of publication and press, which I love to hear about. And I love seeing all the kitsch cover designs.

I: How about shops in this area you don’t like and wish weren’t there?

L: Oh yes, these touristy boutiques that sell Chinese designs – classic qipao dresses made for Westerners. They’re everywhere in the French Concession.

I: Is there anything particular that you notice as we walk along?

L: Misinformation. Shanghai is composed of many different people and numerous languages and dialects – it’s more complicated than people think. Love, affection, prejudice, hatred – this causes a lot of interesting misunderstandings. I love the idea of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. You can truly feel lost here, and I love being lost.

I: Are you a morning person or an evening person?

L: I’m an evening person.

I: I know this feeling in cities – at night, everything is quieter.

L: At night I think I turn into some other person. I find inspiration and am stimulated to write. I’m good at communicating and reaching people, and then when you work with me on email, you cannot tell where I am! People in New York think I’m there because I answer emails right away, but I have the same with people in Europe. So they’re kind of confused.

I: You must need very little sleep.

L: Yes.

I: Where can you be found most often when not at home or at the gallery?

L: Out on the streets. After many years of being a photographer, I’m still addicted to the habit of walking the streets. Nowadays, I’m more and more interested in visiting different places – seeing the design of the spaces and knowing about the people and their stories. I go to DVD shops, bookstores, design boutiques, teahouses, residential buildings and factories, measuring every inch. I’m a scanner. I want to stay within the city, alone with everybody.

I: You’re happy to be in Shanghai, then?

L: I think being in China is one of the biggest luxuries I have ever had, and I have to make the most of it. The country is becoming a new laboratory – it’s full of possibilities, good and bad, and it gives you the right to experiment. One should do as much as possible. I’m adventurous. I want to go wild but also keep everything under control.

I: And what are you most wild about at the moment?

L: A preoccupation that I share with my artists, with my architect, writer and filmmaker friends, and with musicians who I work with is this idea of the future city. And the future of Shanghai’s sexed-up art scene more specifically. At the moment, this city has at least six art fairs, a handful of supersized museums, a fast-growing gallery scene and a booming creative community. Where is it all heading?

Read it in COS Magazine


08 2014

Zhang Hui: Imprints

The most impressive paintings in “Groundless”, the previous exhibition by Zhang Hui at Long March Space, depicted life rings. Isolated from ordinary context, the robustness of these objects—in spite of their smooth, oddly narrow shape—was brought to the fore out of empty (though not insubstantial) painted fields.

If the works in that show were literally “groundless,” the works in this new exhibition “Plaza” have been bestowed again with a sense of environment. A plaza conjures thoughts of display—open, yet fluid space for people and events, a public place supporting and witnessing situations of whatever kind. The idea of theater—always integral to Zhang’s work—is not remote from a plaza, being in many ways a stage upon which action unfolds.

Coupled with this is a certain aura of possession conveyed through the idea of the “blueprint”. It infuses the show, visually, as the color blue—that familiar, powerful tone not unlike Yves Klein’s—which has its own aesthetic attraction for the viewer and, one imagines, the artist. It is used for the ribbon-like depiction of an apartment block (“Blueprint, Second Floor”, 2014), for example, and a scene of a couple being served by an air hostess (“Blueprint, Communication 1”, 2012–13). Blueprint is the title of this leading series in the exhibition, and is explained in the exhibition text in terms of the reality of existence depending on “the machinations and designs of mankind and the subsequent creations to arise from such planning” — a distinctly humanistic perspective, which seems to deny chance.

The feel of this notion across the show can be called possessive for the way this blue hue seems to be in everything; on sawn-off tree stumps in the painting “Blueprint, Accident” (2014), blue is revealed inside the trunk; in “Blueprint, Spread” (2014) and “Blueprint, footprints” (2012-14), it covers—even replaces—the soles of sports shoes. In a much more sinister way, while this blue seems to be inside trees and beneath objects and infilling speech (in a bubble in the exchange with the air hostess), it is also seen on human fingers and palms. Three paintings like this (“Blueprint, Interior” and “Blueprint, Exterior”, both 2012, and “Blueprint, Partial”, 2013) somehow hint at the painter himself as orchestrator, or orchestrated—just as other beings and objects are. Overall, a strange sense of inevitability pervades the works, with the same force among them visible as a color, either hidden inside or otherwise present. Blue itself is a color at the cooler end of the spectrum often interpreted as conveying calm; in this exhibition, it simultaneously evokes passivity and influence in a way that borders on the uncanny.

An artist who began with theater design and used installation as part of the “Post-Sense Sensibility” group before settling on painting, Zhang Hui has consistently explored the layers of reality, finding holes in it. A painting is simply another layer on which things can appear to us and are experienced and explored. Duration, too, is something that intrudes into these newer works. The painting entitled “Blueprint, Solidification” (2014) appears at first simply to show a grid of white rectangles—perhaps a floor or wall. Upon closer or later inspection one sees the outlines of simple figures in a grouping (as of a crowd seen from above) materialize in the milky paintwork. This discovery places the viewer in a state of surprise and involves them and the painting in a mutual time frame, where recognition (of further content: the figures) develops and is confirmed. Surprise is theatrical, and the time of the realization plays out in its own way, also. Even as the ribbon-like images of the apartment and airplane scene elsewhere in the Blueprint series might look as if they could blow easily away, so this image instead instills itself, offering more to the viewer if one notices its depth.

Despite the number of works in this exhibition, some paintings deliver a clear sense of their significance where others seem more incidental. The work “Blueprint, Fold” (2012), showing paper outspread after having been crumpled up, is one such work. The piece “Blueprint, Pleasant Sensation” (2009-10, 2013, which mimics a New Year greetings card with a large blue snowflake on it at bottom right and shows a waiter figure comically covered in snow), again, has its roots in the permutations of reality and surface (and, possibly, sardonic humor) that Zhang wishes to go into, yet may not instill itself deeply. Those works which deal more readily with scenes or figuration—rather than articles or objects—are more persuasive in this exhibition, not least because of their more direct link to human action. In them, it seems, Zhang’s case deepens most bravely.

Read it on Randian.

All images courtesy of Long March Space.


06 2014

Canadian Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Artists’ Rights on Fees

In what is an important moment for the rights of artists, the Supreme Court in Canada ruled on May 14th for binding minimum fees for the payment of artists (similar to a minimum wage) at the National Gallery of Canada.
In a perceived conflict between the Status of the Artist Act and the Copyright Act, representative associations CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Font des Artists Canadiens) and RAAV (Regroupement Des Artistes En Arts Visuels) argued for the binding minimum fees, whereas the National Gallery opposed this for taking away the right of the artist to be paid less, if they chose.
The proceedings followed an appeal on behalf of artists which was unanimously approved by the bench. In permitting this appeal, the Court rejected the argument against minimum fees – unusually, after merely oral arguments, a decision was reached immediately.
Of the verdict, President of CARFAC Grant McConnell is quoted as saying “It’s a good day for artists…This is a major victory for all artists in Canada and Quebec.”

Source: CARFAC website

Read it on Randian


06 2014

He An: It’s Forever Not (Art Review, May 2014)

He An
It’s Forever Not
Magician Space, Beijing

This is the fifth in a series of what can be called “architectural” installations by He An since 2010. As direct interventions in a given exhibition space, to date these have involved altered gradients, heights, widths or entry points and infill. The first two works of this kind were painted pure white and kept smooth to appear seamless with the white cube interiors they occupied; more recently, at Top Contemporary Art Centre, Sifang Art Museum and now Magician Space in Beijing (also the site of the first two shows), plaster infused with Chinese ink, rough concrete paving slabs, neon light elements and thin rubber tubes seeping engine oil have comprised the materials.

The consistent themes of He An’s work are urban development, loneliness, dislocation, poetic longing and filmic references and exploring human relationships to architecture in a psycho-physical or emotive vein. The current work is an instance of the latter impulse – the rawness of the installation’s form casts aside the refinement of the earlier interventions in favour of visceral rough surfaces, cracks and leaking fluid. The floor of the gallery has been overlaid with large square concrete slabs; the rubber tubes lie around and protrude between them at random, and watery oil is visible soaking in. In the far right corner, a rectangle of black marble has a small coil of blue neon light on it; barely noticeable is a patch of gloss paint on the white wall, as if it were the reflection of the marble. The ceiling of the main space is now much lower – its surface and lighting replicated as if the whole thing had simply been pulled down. Numbers appear on the walls at divisions between the slabs, though without apparent sequence. The adjacent smaller room of the gallery is now occupied fully by giant blocks around 6 ft high, covered in the ink-stained plaster. A straight vertical crevice between them invites one to peer in, but yields nothing.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

“It’s Forever Not” is a title which aptly evokes a common atmosphere around He An’s work – a distinct statement resting on a broad foundation of negation or want, which in turn is born of the emotional backdrop to his life in China; implicitly, the artist acts somewhat in the manner of a poet, distilling these sensations as those shared by millions. The form of the installation in Beijing is brutalist (to borrow an architectural term) and melancholic in an impassive way. Emotional lack or loneliness translate, conversely, into a filling-in of space (one might suppose, like the will to fulfil oneself). Grey surfaces and wasted liquid might imply unclear zones of human relations – grey areas, definite but unclear.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

Yet there is also a hint of the absurd here – all is not pathos. You are still encouraged to climb onto the raised floor, and the lowered ceiling exactly replicates the original one in what feels something like a game, or virtuoso touch. Despite a landscape of concrete structures, it seems, a certain spirit persists.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space


05 2014

The Informer: ABHK 2014

Next year, Art Basel Hong Kong will happen in mid-March—a sartorial and navigational godsend for all involved. Those who attempted to fly in early in the week were stymied by the storms, some finding themselves stuck in Guilin, or even on a train from Beijing after flights were cancelled. There were rumors that one Angelina Jolie flew in on Sunday—but these turned out to be just rumors. Buoyed by recent acquisitions, perhaps she was blown off course.

At the fair, the mood among the booths (on walls and wardrobes) was noticeably conservative—a tendency that began last year. Despite the caliber of collectors at the private view, there seemed to have been a slight downturn in glamor for those walking round. Fortunate, perhaps, to save a few fancy togs from the bright red ink that bled off the Art Basel catalog bags onto people’s clothes. A prevalence of European and American Modernist art available (including Picasso and de Chirico), suggests that gallerists are playing it somewhat safe by aiming at less sophisticated collectors from the Asian region. A wonderful exhibition of drawings, painting and sculpture by Giacometti at Gagosian in the Pedder Building cemented this atmosphere. Reports say that the galleries did sell, and weekend sales were pulled up by Indonesian and Singaporean collectors who flew themselves in. Also present were a newly conspicuous cast of rather glib art recruiters, making the 2014 edition also a job-fair, of sorts.

Hairstyles, however, were spectacular. Following the opening, a low fence had been erected beneath the canopy of Gu Wenda’s Encounter project. “United Nations Human Space” (1999–2000)—188 flags fashioned from human hair—was quite some greeting, draped from the ceiling like something monstrous gathered from an enormous drain. The mind boggles at the thought of unsuspecting VIPs, walking scenically beneath, quashed suddenly by fallen mats of dirty follicles. A symbol of “cultural colonialism” (as the artist intended) it would surely have been. It might also have given the art conservators—apparently bored by a want of damaged works – something to do.

Gu Wenda’s Encounters project, “United Nations Human Space” (1999–2000)

Lee Wen’s ping pong table (iPreciation Gallery)

Ping pong was a sure sign of fun both inside and beyond the fair. The installation of a circle of blue table-tennis tables by Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen, brought by iPreciation gallery, was seldom empty of players. Unfortunately, it sounds as if the Lee’s anti-China remarks went down less well on Saturday night. The unrelated Ping Pong bar, in Sai Ying Pun, was the site of the longest parties for those still with legs to dance on after many miles covered along the exhibition aisles.

Most talked about was probably the Absolut Art Bar and Ming Wong’s Lady Gaga performance there, as well as the sheer difficulty of getting in. Queues stretched down the street and zig-zagged into the foyer split into VIP, less-VIP and everybody else. The Informer witnessed a noted institutional director from Beijing trying to argue his way into the bar, having exited the lift into a wall of waiting bouncers. Thwarted, he gave up (inadvertently saving himself from another round of bad cocktails). Not content with waiting in the queue or trying their diplomacy skills with Sutton PR-Suffragettes in the foyer, MAP Office were seen trying to enter through a building under construction down the street. Having got in, one found a decent spread of techno noise throughout the week, ecstatic dancing from Adrian Wong and décor composed of sandbags, weevils (sadly only printed) and video screens, with blood bags of beetroot cocktails to suck on. On the last night, clearly fed up with so much artsy experimentalism, the final DJ opened his laptop at 1am and delighted everyone with a jelly-shaking’‘90s mix.

Elsewhere, Beijing bands propped up the parties, as usual; Carsick Cars invaded Kee Club, and Pet Conspiracy rocked out before hundreds of perspiring revelers and Hong Kong art-lites in a giant, oven-like warehouse in Chai Wan on Friday. The Informer retired to the fish market for beers on a plastic tablecloth with a jovial Li Zhenhua, who should be congratulated for such a successful first Film program alongside the fair, trumping the Conversations and Salon series. Modern Media’s Vernissage after-party was a bust (yet again)—no match for Carsten Nicolai’s Alpha Pulse display and rooftop event on Thursday. The 2014 party trophy must go, however, to Art Basel Executive Director Marc Spiegler who, come 7am on Sunday morning, was still dancing in Club Volar on Lan Kwai Fong.

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Carsten Nicolai performing Alpha | Pulse in front of the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong (Photo by Jessica Hromas / Art Basel)

Art Basel on May 15, 2014 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Xaume Olleros / Art Basel)

Zhan Wang’s work at Eslite Gallery booth

Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 preview

*With the contributions of other Randian writers.

Invisible to the visitor to Art Basel Hong Kong is the vast volume of preparation that feeds into such an affair—the applications, the travel, the contracts, the labels, the publications, the packing, the selection, the booth-planning (and re-planning), the commissions, the liaison, the framing, the fees, the hotels, the outfits, the installation (and de-installation), the patter and the logistics.

For visitors perusing the results of such efforts, particularly visible will be the large-scale art works in the Encounters sector designed to decorate, dramatize and disarm the setting of the fair. A trend this year seems to be audience participation – with 5 of the 17 projects including some invitation to interact. From Taipei, Eslite Gallery is presenting “Point” by Michael Lin, which is a grand stand with a rotating sign – a place from which to see and be seen. More playful is the gigantic colored cube made by Cecilia de Torres from New York (“Cube 48 Orange”), whose panels people can unfold to change the shape.

Marta Chilindron, “Cube 48 Orange”, 2014. Courtesy of Marta Chilindron and Cecilia de Torres, New York

Xu Qu, “Conquer”, 2013. Courtesy the artist and the gallery

Galerie Urs Meile is bringing an ambitious installation by Tobias Rehberger—a recreation of Bar Oppenheimer, which the artist frequents in Frankfurt—made entirely from bone China. The mind boggles at how Xu Qu’s work, brought by Tang Contemporary and described as a nine-by-8-metre installation “made up of eight screen-printed panels with an aquatic scene bound together by ropes and chains” will look. A predictable inclusion, the animator Sun Xun has created an imaginary country called “Jing Bang” – an installation and performance piece (courtesy of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and ShanghART ). Visitors are invited to apply for citizenship. Shen Shaomin, whose unnerving silica creatures have been seen before at Art Hong Kong (“I Sleep on Top of Myself”), will this year show “I Touched the Voice of God’” (2012) – fragments from a Chinese space craft.

At the fair itself, over 245 galleries will be participating—a mix of international blue-chip galleries, top Asian and mainland Chinese galleries, as well as local galleries (We will be writing more when the fair opens). For the first time this year, the fair features a film program curated by Li Zhenhua at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Look for the evening performances each night in the Agnes b. cinema. Back at the fair, an Afternoon Salon program covers a somewhat sporadic range of topics. Some highlights could be, on Thursday at 2pm, “Collecting and Archiving — Art vs. Architecture” with M+ curator Aric Chen and other speakers or – for those wishing to know more about the artist Nadim Abbas (also commissioned for the Absolut Art Bar) — “Made in Hong Kong: On Collecting Milk Pudding and Table Cloths” an hour later, with Abbas, fellow Hong Kong artist Lee Kit and William Lim. Carsten Nikolai, whose work “? (alpha) pulse” will be lighting up the façade of Hong Kong’s iconic International Commerce Centre (ICC) on the Kowloon harbor front each night, will be in conversation with curator Nikolaus Hirsch. Not to be missed should be “Hans van Dijk: Dialogues in the Development of Contemporary Art in China” for a valuable look at recent art history in China, via one of its chief actors and influencers. Afterwards, “Art and Language” gives space to talk about writing on art. Besides that, there are talks on nature of biennials, on the Shenzhen Biennale and much, much more.

For early birds, there is the “Post Sense-Sensibility” show at Duddells (curated by Phil Tinari), Zhang Enli show at K11 Project Space, among others. The Art Gallery Night (“Art After Hours”) will take place on Tuesday 13th, with galleries throughout the city staying open late. At Edouard Malingue, there will be a solo exhibition of new work by Sun Xun called “Brave New World”; de Sarthe has a show on modernist Chinese painters. Don’t expect to see native Chinese or Hong Kong art at the big-name international galleries, though. In the Pedder Building (beware the crowd), Simon Lee will show the British artist Toby Ziegler; Lehmann Maupin has the American Hernan Bas, and Ben Brown Fine Arts will present sculpture and paintings by Miquel Barceló. On Connaught Road, White Cube is going to show works by Mark Bradford. Galerie Perrotin will combine contemporary photographs and sculpture, with Ryan McGinley and Jean-Michel Othoniel, respectively. The corresponding event for galleries in the further-away Wong Chuk Hang / Aberdeen is on Thursday evening, now a burgeoning cluster of galleries and art spaces like Spring Workshop, Pékin Fine Arts (Hong Kong), Gallery Exit, Feast Projects, Blindspot, Rossi & Rossi, Mur Nomade, and more. The studios and galleries in Chai Wan will open their doors to guests until 10 pm on Friday night and all day on Saturday. Meanwhile, Osage and the City University will show “Market Forces” curated by Charles Merewether.

The Absolut after-hours haunt is this year being created by Nadim Abbas (“Apocalypse Postponed”). Complete with weevils, sandbags and mute dancers, the bar promises to postpone apocalypse—at least for the week.

Shen Shaomin, “I Touched the Voice of God”, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Osage Gallery

Sun Xun, “Jing Bang is a Heaven” (???????), 2013. Photos courtesy of Singapore Tyler Print Institute and the Artist

Read it on Randian.

Qiu Xiaofei: the Arbitrary Turn

Catalogue Essay

“Apollo Bangs Dionysus: Qiu Xiaofei Solo Exhibition”

Pace Beijing, 8th May 2014 – 21st June 2014

“Painting is a choice” Qiu Xiaofei remarked during a conversation in his studio in the lead up to Nanke Jie Cheng. This is a truth of which the artist has sought to remind himself in a new series of works. The nature of his decision pivots around form – the way in which shape and structure come about in his work and the mental action, technique and media he employs in a mode of indulgence, avoidance or negotiation; realistic or representational subject matter has all but vanished from this current approach. Apollo and Dionysus are loosely invoked as symbolic of the dream of formal order and restraint held in natural tension with – or overcoming – liquid, abstract impulses.

Whilst the act of painting entails a universal choice, it is one which becomes truly engaging only in the context of an artist’s individual development, and when split and extended therein. As argued in a recent article, the medium of painting needs no defence in China[1]. Tradition and the weight of formal training ensure its support and continuing accomplishment. If anything can be said to be at stake for contemporary painting, it could be content in the face of such skilled execution. But this kind of pure formalist bias is not something of which Qiu has been guilty to date. Alongside the strength of his painterly ability is an increasingly wilful awareness of what he is doing. That a conscious address to form – whether to provoke or avoid it – is happening now in Qiu Xiaofei’s practice is clearly symptomatic of his individual progress, and it is tempting to anticipate the importance of these paintings in terms of a necessary and productive phase – perhaps not extended, but strong.


The early painting for which Qiu Xiaofei became known, though in its effect not purely nostalgic, is based on a clear set of (once) tangible sources – family photographs and their related sites; expired scenes and actual locations that were being overcome by time and socio-economic development. For the exhibition “Heilongjiang Box” in 2006, marbles roll against the pages of the catalogue in its cardboard container; inside, a series of written monologues recount ephemeral memories of childhood. An intensely earnest and autobiographical atmosphere pervades this period of work: “I really wish that by painting every single day I am able to manifest the whole world I know with the real memories and history of my life…I hope that my paintings can help people…and give them hope”(sic), Qiu wrote in the foreword to the book.

These are sensations worth recounting in relation to his current stage. Powerfully conveyed before was a sense of the oscillating, mutual containment of memory and the individual – of the way in which so much is accountable for inside a broad passage of personal history and recollection; at the same time, this is emotional property in relation to which one feels a degree of volition, expecting choices about what is retained and recalled. In this way might one understand simply the objects Qiu recreated then in painted fibreglass – toy cars, TV sets, a desk and beer bottles – as if wanting somehow to grasp them; this, too, in the formal fortitude of his brushwork, which at times appears like plastic braille summoning the subject matter. The individual and their memory, then, are at once part of and larger than each other, marking another tense balance within range of Qiu Xiaofei’s work. This dynamic has perhaps also bled into his attitude to the painted field, and where it stands in relation to everything else.


In these terms, recollection and its attendant artistic action have always had a certain status – a linked validity and underlying safety. These qualities lie for the artist not so much in the finished product as in the action of rendering it, as if this were a form of discovery: Qiu is quoted as saying “[The past] is deep in my soul and brings me long-lost tranquillity and bliss when I work.” Broadly speaking, given the difficulty for artists (and others alike) of putting words to their art, why it is done and what it is, it is more productive to speak about how the work serves them. Qiu Xiaofei is one who affirms the importance of process; he hangs none of his paintings in his home – their function is as a procedure which is helpful to him.

Against the backdrop of his early career, furnished heavily with personal memory and introspection, the exhibition “Point of no Return” in 2010 presented works that were larger and less intimate – reflections on a more expansive field of human conduct through history, ideology, social interaction and sensations, and possibly-symbolic objects. At the same time, there intruded into these works definite formal speculation; odd compositional gestures and inconsistencies – for example in perspective, scale or subject matter – ruptured the expected integrity of the depiction. Picture planes were upset; pattern and detail suffuse or are absent in unexpected zones. In short, the internal environment of the canvas (once its own coherent realm) is destabilised, and the logic of its internal forces – gravity, normality – partly overturned. The feeling achieved collectively by these paintings is richly uncanny, though one still senses tight control and consideration in the hand holding the brush.


As such, the reach of Qiu Xiaofei’s work before 2011 remains in tune with origins in introspection, longing and doubt – in short, forms of distrust of the present and its appearances. This is by no means to say that the paintings fall short. But from the point of view of the artist, in hindsight this approach was insufficient for the long term. Qiu describes its effect with a likeness to sleeping pills: “I needed to find new solutions”. A paradigm shift in his work is visible in new exhibitions last year, following a period from 2011-12 during which he did not produce any work. The catalyst for this change he attributes to his Mother’s illness around 2006-2007, an episode which made the artist realise he had a painful or difficult relationship with childhood memories and to his work, in turn, as a self-healing process. “Perhaps I, too, was ill”, he says “…too attached to the past…I realised this was not a positive thing… I needed to find a new way of working to avoid this predicament and preoccupation.”

Following the speculative and semiotic tendencies which culminated in 2010, two solo exhibitions during 2013 by Qiu Xiaofei at Minsheng Art Museum and at Beijing Commune, respectively, mark the new incorporation of staging and overt critical reference. As part of both shows, it was as if the artist performed a newly active disdain for the space of the picture frame. Exterior light sources on stands mimicked the internal illumination and colour in certain pieces, overcoming that which was painted; objects placed near the works or affixed directly to them acted as if to defy the canvas as a membrane or division between real and pictorial space – pulling things out of it or pushing them into its very surface. Robert Rauschenberg was invoked, too, in support of an expanded view of what a painting could be and what it could reach out and grab beyond two dimensions. The sense of “consciousness” through which these experiments were articulated might apply as much to the artist’s thinking as to the life of the paintings, which might newly associate with other objects, break the boundaries of their context and influences or lean on outside supports.

The new exhibition at Pace Beijing has three parts. The point of departure is a large painting of an old computer – a residue of the earlier period when Qiu was still depicting recognisable objects. Its own starting point was the cutting out of the top right hand corner of the canvas as a deliberate, arbitrary ploy to affect the chosen subject matter – in the words of the artist, “Shapes influencing other shapes…” Where the works stood about in the studio, an adjacent, large canvas offered itself in deep black (“Black”, 2014). Over this pool-like ground play off-white and bluish paths of paint pulled down with the side of a palate knife in uneven, steadily-traveling strokes. Drips and the occasional splash complete the dance of the top layers of acrylic, which convenes slightly in the central portion of the canvas – yet for no representational reason one can discern.IMG_3652

The other paintings – a number of large, fairly evenly-sized canvases – share the same unrealistic, free-falling aura. These are paintings for which form is not pre-meditated, but in which the artist deigns to allow what may unfold; anticipating new and free markings, they are in striking contrast to the early works which come across increasingly as secondary images, born of mechanical predecessors and brought to canvas as if materialising again, immersed in the liquid of retrospection. Yet the new paintings are not completely without shape. Rising sometimes amongst the wide pushings, daubs and twists of acrylic pigment and against occasional semblances of a background float, perhaps, a triangle – still, and flat (in the painting “Jie Tai”, 2014) – or a striped white shape to the left of a composition looking not unlike an urban block; thick progressions of deep green advance like a broken, hill-like outline next to it, indifferent and disproportionate – though not threatening – to its presence (“Green and Ropes”, 2013). In the painting “Sand Mountain ” (2013), an apparent horizon line lies low beneath a beautiful upper portion of the canvas, wherein light blue laps against milky whites and slight brown as if to express sky. A phallic or figurative object sticks up in faint pink from the bottom area, and nearby the base of it, orange flecks move as if towards a rough green pavilion that has been set down there.

The artist emphasises that these works come about in a manner more than purely aesthetic; he describes wanting what is inside the painted area to return to some kind of concrete status; the shape this take needn’t be something he has seen or imagined before. Instead, it could be a “more subconscious” object or creature. He mentions “Imagined landscapes I have never been to”, and doesn’t assume knowledge of what he has painted. In short, Qiu seems to pursue an exercise – perhaps long overdue – in relinquishing personal consideration (if not full responsibility) for the evolving action and affect of his brushwork. The driving force behind these paintings and their exhibition is instead pinned to the daily selection of a first colour and an instrument – laid about are palate knives, a spray gun and brushes. This then “dictates” the development of a painting, for which Qiu invokes an analogy with music – free jazz – as spontaneous and improvised. There are two kinds of canvas; the surface of one kind is very minutely smooth, which he likens to a mirror (the sense of lightness or collage projected by some of the works can be attributed, in part, to this); the other is far contrastingly coarse.

There is thus a sense that the artist is prepared to establish the basis for these paintings – their surface and core notes – and to permit the stuff of his unconscious to enter their environments towards the end of the process. In between, he claims he backs away from anything too clear. It is a frame which can extend also to his feeling for his studio practice in the run-up to an exhibition: a period of time at the beginning and end of which he knows what he must do. The question of a boundary to be met or transgressed in the making of these works is a question he finds pertinent to himself, and to which he lacks an answer, as yet. From a new position, under a new kind of motivation, Qiu says “My previous approach drained away quite quickly.”

One imagines that for Qiu Xiaofei, working this way to generate such different art works from those that went before is a powerful sensation. Looking at the application in these paintings – long, wide strokes and piqued spreading, brief, glancing lines, drips, light blocks and laden, floating rounds giving unusual combinations of tone or pure colour – constitutes a completely different relationship between the physical body of the painter and the waiting surface; it is dynamic, as if addressing the canvas on more equal terms. “It is more exciting”, he agrees, with greater risk. “It is as if I have dug and dug and arrived at this level, which is very broad.” These are vastly impressive paintings produced in a spirit not of loyalty, but of conscious openness. It would be inadequate to interpret this imperative as a simple act of letting go.

[1] Liang Shuhan, “Painting Does Not Need to be Defended,” Randian magazine, 4 Apr. 2014, 12 Apr. 2014).


05 2014

Ploughing up Pace…

Those who went to Pace in 798 yesterday afternoon would have found a brown cow ploughing up and down the gallery on a huge shallow platform filled with earth. This is Xiao Yu’s aptly named “Ground”— the first exhibition at Pace in 2014 and the artist’s first showing there (he has just signed with the gallery). We are told in the press materials: “The performance can be seen as a ritual regarding labor and consumption…” Xiao Yu (b. 1965) is best known as a performance artist and participant in the Polit-Sheer-Form group.

Xiao Yu:

“In fact, my work is comprised of two components: opening and fitting together. In this course of events, I try to find the inherent power of the material, the hidden power.
If an artwork only has one answer, it is a poison that stirs up public sentiment by false statements. It is brainwashing. It is conspiracy. I create artwork based on one’s practice, sparking the audience to mobilize their prior experiences and advance them into a state of reflection.
An artist can be persistently attached to single point. An artist can do useless and foolish things. As time advances, an artist can, on the contrary, genuinely approach wisdom.
Even if they integrate a picture and symbol, if there on the spiritual level there is not a consistent awareness, then an artist’s practice can change into vagrancy, drifting with the waves and going with the flow.”

For further images see Randian.

Xiao Yu, “Ground”, view of the opening performance at Pace Beijing


03 2014

Shigeru Ban Wins 2014 Pritzker prize

The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Prize. He is recognized and applauded by the jury in particular for his deployment of cardboard materials, for example cardboard tubing, for a wide range of private and public architectural projects.

Ban’s 30-year career has homed in on experiments with cardboard engineering; major projects include the outpost of the Pompidou Centre in Metz, completed in 2010, conceived as a rippling rattan hat of bamboo and oiled paper.

Most deserving of recognition in the eyes of the Pritzker jury is Ban’s humanitarian work, whereby paper and card have been used to create essential temporary house, for example for refugees. “He is a force of nature,” said the jury chairman, Lord Palumbo, “which is entirely appropriate in the light of his voluntary work for the homeless and dispossessed in areas devastated by natural disasters.”

In 1994, prompted by the displacement of millions by the Rwandan civil war, Ban proposed paper-tube shelters to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, followed a year later by paper log cabins after the Kobe earthquake, with foundations made of sand-filled beer crates and walls of vertical cardboard tubes. After founding the Voluntary Architects’ Network in 1995, he has tackled disaster relief in Turkey, India, China and Haiti, most recently erecting a magnificent cardboard cathedral after the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, rising in an elegant A-frame next to the ruins of George Gilbert Scott’s stone building.

The 56 year-old splits his time and work between Tokyo, Paris and New York. On winning the prize, he says: “I see this prize as encouragement for me to keep doing what I am doing – not to change what I am doing, but to grow.”

Source: Guardian newspaper

Read it on Randian

Shigeru Ban, 56, the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize, in New York. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP


03 2014

He Yunchang: Worldly Fate

“Worldly Fate”: He Yunchang Solo Exhibition

White Box Museum of Art (798 Art District Of No. B07, Jiuxianqiao Road, Road No. 2, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China.) Mar 22–Apr 21, 2014

Those with strong stomachs and an interest in the continuation of Chinese performance art should see “Worldly Fate”—the solo exhibition by He Yunchang currently on show at the White Box Museum of Art in 798. He Yunchang has for twenty years been using his own body as a medium; indeed, he is somewhat alone in persisting with aggressive physical acts carried out upon himself as a medium for expression (his contemporary Zhang Huan, for example, has long since turned to less body-orientated practice). The texts accompanying the show present He Yunchang’s work in terms of “a physical proclamation that reminds us of the burdens imposed on the physical body”, and suggest that, for He’s audience, this is “an occasion to fully abandon arrogant concepts of art.”

In what is a shockingly graphic show, in places, a selection of He’s performance works are in evidence through photographs—and small blood stains on the floor. The day before the opening, the artist assembled a group of ten naked women, and asked surgeons to make sixteen incisions in his body. The blood collected from the wound was then applied to their finger and toe nails like polish. This piece, “The Spring” is characteristic of the determination, stamina, nakedness, drama and physical trauma seen across He’s practice—symptoms which amount to a repeated affirmation; in the words of the artist, interviewed in 2009: “After a performance work is over, I always think that every second in life is more valuable than gold.”

Read it on Randian

He Yunchang following the performance of “The Spring.” Photo: Ye Yuanfeng, White Box Museum of Art

He Yunchang, photographic documentation of the performance “The Sea Water of Venice”, 2013. Photo: Ye Yuanfeng, White Box Museum of Art

Photographic documentation of the artist during the opening performance of “The Spring” by He Yunchang at White Box Museum of Art


03 2014