Johnson Chang on Chinese art past, present and future – interview

Hanart TZ’s Johnson Chang gives his insights on the last three decades of Chinese contemporary art.

Academic, curator and gallerist Johnson Chang, Founder of Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, talks to Art Radar about the development of the Chinese art scene in the past 30 years, as he celebrates the 30th anniversary of the gallery.

Curator, Professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and Founder of Hanart TZ Gallery, Johnson Chang. "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", Hong Kong Arts Centre, February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Curator, Professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and Founder of Hanart TZ Gallery, Johnson Chang (Chang Tsong-Zung). Seen in front of Yu Youren’s ‘Calligraphy Couplet’, at “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Hanart TZ Gallery is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2014. For the occasion, the gallery has organised a major exhibition and a two-day forum, titled “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies“, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC).

The two-part exhibition displaying 100 significant artworks was held at Hanart Square and the HKAC. Meanwhile, Hanart TZ Gallery featured a conceptual display. The exhibited collection will remain in the public domain of Hong Kong, says Johnson Chang, although to whom it will be donated still remains to be worked out.

Both events were curated by Johnson Chang (Chang Tsong-Zung) and Professor Gao Shiming in collaboration with researchers of the Institute of Contemporary Art and Social Thought, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. The academic forums brought together 20 eminent international and local scholars.

Installation view of "Hanart: 100 Idriosyncrasies", Hanart Square, Kwai Chung, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of “Hanart: 100 Idriosyncrasies”, Hanart Square, Kwai Chung, Hong Kong, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

In light of these anniversary events and his major contributions made to the Chinese contemporary art scene, Art Radar spoke to Johnson Chang about his insights into the art world, the development of the gallery, his role in supporting the arts and the evolution of Chinese contemporary art in the past 30 years.

Hanart TZ’s 30 years

Hanart TZ Gallery is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. Do you feel you have fulfilled your ambitions as a gallerist since you started out?

Well, I didn’t really start wanting to be a gallerist. I started out wanting to find a platform to do art and do things I was interested in. And after 30 years, the gallery is still one of the platforms but, in addition to that, I’ ve also done some other things and, in a way, the gallery has become one of the multiple platforms I operate on.

What would you say your major contributions to the Hong Kong art scene have been?

I think this is a question that you’d better ask other people in Hong Kong! My interest in the arts field has always been in Chinese contemporary culture as a whole, not just Hong Kong but China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as different momentums of art practice that zoom in and out of the spectrum of contemporary art. So, I suppose my position in the Hong Kong art [scene] is that of somebody who tries to bring Hong Kong into focus in this bigger picture.

How has your gallery developed over time? Has your main mission as a gallery changed or evolved throughout the years?

I wouldn’t be so ambitious as to say that there was a mission, but I would say that I have tried to stay abreast of things and tried to make sense of things as China changes, as the art scene changes. My interest has always been more than just in the art field or just in the contemporary art field, but also in Chinese contemporary culture and the Chinese contemporary situation reflected by art practices.

Prior to opening your gallery, what was your involvement with the art scene?

Before I opened the gallery, I wrote art criticism. I independently curated exhibitions. I used the Hong Kong Arts Centre as the platform, because it was one of the very few exhibition sites open to some of the outside institutions and [then] I developed my own platform for the gallery. But then, I was also doing other things, I was one of the curators of the Shanghai Biennale in 2012, the last biennale, and other curatorial activities.

Installation view of the conceptual diplay at Hanart TZ Gallery, during "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of the conceptual display at Hanart TZ Gallery, during “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

30 years of art in Hong Kong and China

When you opened the gallery thirty years ago, what would you say the art scene in Hong Kong was like at that stage?

The Hong Kong art scene… for me, I think that the art scene anywhere always is interesting. Whether you have a very small [number] of artists or whether you have a lot of people. Thirty years ago there were very few players, but then it was very interesting because of that as well; you know everybody. And you know that what you do would have some bearing on the direction of things. Now, there are many more artists who have started with the idea that they want to become artists and are looking at [being an] artist as a career. But thirty years ago, very few people that did art started out seeking art out as a career. It’s something they would do with passion, something they stumbled on, something they found a voice in. So things have changed.

How would you say the Chinese art scene has changed, transformed and developed over the last three decades? What are the most significant changes you have observed?

The Chinese art scene has also changed tremendously. After the Cultural Revolution and when Mao died in 1976, of course the art schools were still closed. So it was only after 1976 that all the art schools started to have students again, and all the artist schools that were [until then] considered bourgeois and artists that were considered incorrect were reinstated.

So thirty years ago, in the late seventies and early eighties, it was very exciting because everything was possible. And it was also the time when Deng Xiaoping was trying to grab power, so he turned a blind eye to public protests, public demands for greater freedom of expression as exemplified by the Stars Art Group.

But then, of course, as soon as he came in control, like any other military ruler, he started to clamp down and by the early eighties Deng Xiaoping was very brutal. A lot of people were killed for very minor offences, [like] having illicit sex, or such as saying something wrong. People would actually be executed, at the time when Deng did a campaign, the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. But then, when that blew over in 1983, I believe, a new great wave of experimentation was ushered in.

I think this whole vacuum created by Mao Zedong 38 years ago has created a huge urge, a huge drive for ideas, for material goods, and it’s like China was hollowed out except for this huge passion and desire. So art and culture were something that everybody was interested in.

Those were also the days before market economy, so livelihood was not an issue. Everybody had very little, but everybody was quite content, there was not that urge to compete, not over having a lot of material well being, even though by then the machinery for market forces had been activated. Then there was that big change after 1989, when Deng Xiaoping decided to open up the market, radically unprepared, just in order to counter this huge mistake of the Tiananmen crackdown.

And in the 1990s and 2000s? What were the biggest changes in the arts in China in those decades?

The nineties were an adjustment… The nineties were a period when a socialist hopeful world shifted into a global capitalist kind of world. It was a shift from one side of the cold war to the other side. And the relationship of artists to audiences changed. It was a completely new set of audiences outside of China, so they [the artists] were making things for curators and art professionals outside of their own territory. That was the main change. And then later in the nineties, the market started to move in slowly and in the last ten years, some of the artists are making things not just for the art world, but also for the market, especially auction houses and collectors.

Installation view of "Hanart: 100 Idiosybcrasies" at Hanart Square, Kwai Chung, Hong Kong, February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies” at Hanart Square, Kwai Chung, Hong Kong, 17 January – 15  February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

The influence of art fairs

With the inception of ArtHK in 2008, what were the immediate transformations that you noticed in the art scene and art market in Hong Kong?

Well, that was the first really well organised art fair for a long time in Hong Kong. There was a first major art fair in 1992, I think, that was the first one. It was a Canadian organiser, and it was quite well done. But then it only lasted a few years, because I don’t think that there was enough market to keep the fair afloat, to keep all the key galleries interested.

But when Magnus Renfrew started the Hong Kong art fair in 2008, the market was ready: the market was developed in China as well as in the Asia region. Also, that was the time when the art fair in China met with a lot of obstacles – because of import export restrictions, because of foreign exchange – so all of a sudden everybody decided to shift to Hong Kong. And that situation helped the market here to develop immediately, at least as the art world [is concerned].

How have the art scene and art market evolved over the years with the growth of art fairs in the region? How has that changed the operations of galleries?

Well, I don’t’ know all the other art fairs in Asia… One for me is enough to deal with! We don’t really do very many art fairs, I find it a lot of pressure. However, the international gallery scene has discovered Hong Kong: a lot of big galleries have started to open offices here, started to open galleries here, bringing international shows, so it is changing the playing field. It changes the level of investment we put into exhibitions, it changes the investments we make into gallery space, it changes the cost structure of galleries, so… a lot of changes because of that.

Have you participated in Art Basel Hong Kong, originally ArtHK?

Yes, every single one.

And what further development have you seen after ArtHK’s acquisition by the Art Basel brand? Obviously there have been major changes, like inflow of new collectors and a lot of ‘imported’ people including new curators, for example.

Yes, well, ‘imported’ curators have passed through Hong Kong before and not just because of the art fair. This is the place where people transit and the place people gather to study the Chinese art world, so it’s long been the centre of this kind of Chinese art [circle].

Installation view of "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies" at Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies” at Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

The influx of new galleries in Hong Kong

How would you describe the growth in the gallery business in Hong Kong over the last decade? You mentioned the opening of big international galleries, like Gagosian and White Cube, for example. Which ones would you say are the most influential on the scene right now, both international and local, besides yours?

It seems like international galleries have focused on western artists, and the focus on western artists also means a focus on established names. But I think the most interesting exhibitions are still with local galleries, which show Asian artists. There are quite a few that put serious curatorial effort into the shows.

Apart from Hanart, there is Osage, Pearl Lam [and] there are a lot of smaller galleries, which are very experimental. And I find them much more interesting than the big galleries that sell works that are made for a million dollars.

Can you name a couple of the smaller galleries that you find most interesting?

I was asking my colleagues for opinions… they say Gallery EXIT for one. There’s a small place that specialises in photography called OP Gallery and AM gallery, and from nonprofit, Para Site is very famous.

Why is it important to have big name international galleries here in Hong Kong? To show western artists? What is the importance of that for the art scene?

I think they understand that eventually China will buy a lot of this non-Chinese art, so for them [it] is highly advantageous and [they are] destined to be here.

Installation view of "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies" at Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies” at Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC), 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Artists to watch

On your roster of artists there are many big Chinese names, including Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang and Gu Wenda to name but a few. Which artists have become the most successful out of those you started representing 30 years ago? And by success, I don’t mean only accepted by the market as commercial success, but also by critical acclaim, curatorially, in the development of their practice…

Well, a few artists are still very underpriced, [who] the market has just started to glance at from the corner of its eyes. Some of these artists are of course, Wu Shanzhuan, one of my favourite artists, and I’m always very fond of Qiu Zhijie – suddenly this last year he has become quite sought after by the market. I’m very fond of artists like Liu Dahong, and I am a very big admirer of artists like Chen Jieren (Chen Chieh-Jen) from Taiwan, and I think Yeh Weili from Taipei is also one of the top artists, and he is only getting recognition from professionals.

How about Hong Kong artists? Do you have anyone that you recommend, even young or emerging ones?

Hong Kong actually has very interesting artists. There are quite a few, let’s see… a painter that I am very impressed with is Ho Sin Tung. Ho, I think, is a naturally born painter, in the way that she just thinks through images and drawings. There are also other more conceptual artists, like… there are thousands of them, I don’t know where to start!

For example, let’s see… artists that do performance work, like Morgan Wong, artists like Angela Su who I think is very interesting, artists like Kwan Sheung Chi, Kwan is a very interesting artist. His brother had been working in galleries for ten years, before he went to Christie’s. Artists like Nadim Abbas, … there are quite a few interesting Hong Kong artists. And yes, Samson Young is a very good artist, I like him.

I think you can get a good list from Hong Kong Eye, I was on the curatorial committee and there were like 60-odd artists.

What about Frog King Kwok?

I think Frog King is more of a curiosity by now. Of course, he kindles the fire and then his eccentric persona has become very much his visiting [business] card. He is important in that he was one of the first performance artists [in Hong Kong]. Hong Kong artists have a very strong tradition of performance, like Pak Sheung-Chuen. I think he’s brilliant, very very clever. And then of course you know King of Kowloon, who died some time ago.

What is your biggest interest in an artist’s practice ?

I am very interested in various practices. For example, now I am pursuing some research with Qinghua University and Hong Kong University and the Hangzhou Academy on traditional Chinese ritual practice, as I am now interested in research of the Chinese modern body, but I am looking at it from the angle of the Confucian body, the classical Chinese ritual body. So my interest sometimes has a lot to do with my current research interest, as well.

Installation view of "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies" at Hanart Square, February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Installation view of “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies” at Hanart Square, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

An auction world

Recently, both Chinese and international auction houses have established a foothold in Hong Kong and have been a driving force in the Hong Kong art market. How would you say their presence and operations have affected you as a gallerist and the art scene in general?

Well, of course they brought prices up and they also raised expectations, so that is a challenge for artists and also a challenge for galleries.

On the other hand, in the primary market like the art gallery it would be difficult to judge the real market acceptance, the market level, until something is put in the secondary market. So the secondary market, like auction houses, is very important in raising the bar and also in setting expectations. But there are also disadvantages in having auction houses being such a big presence, in that you’ll start to judge art performance [only] by the market value.

Who collects what?

Who are your main collectors and buyers, is there a relatively good balance between international and local collectors from China and Hong Kong?

Yes, we have a good range of collectors internationally and locally. From China, for us, it is still a small number. I am surprised that we don’t have more mainland Chinese collectors here.

In terms of taste, what do the Chinese collectors like to buy the most? Who are the artists that local – Chinese and Hong Kong – collectors look for?

Mainland [China] collectors basically want to buy mainland artists, and they want to buy big name artists. And they aim at the big galleries. So I think international galleries really have their eyes on the big spenders from mainland China.

Mao Xuhui (b. 1956), 'Inverted Scissors in Charcoal Grey', 1998, oil on canvas, 180 x 130 cm. In "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", 17 January - 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Mao Xuhui (b. 1956), ‘Inverted Scissors in Charcoal Grey’, 1998, oil on canvas, 180 x 130cm. Displayed in “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

The online art world

There has been a strong growth in online art businesses, from online auction houses to online-only galleries, and many seem to be successful. With this new direction in the art world, do you as a gallerist also put more emphasis on this aspect of your business? Do you pursue particular online sale strategies to boost your sales and your virtual presence?

Not really, we have enough to do as it is. We try basically to do what we are good at. Some years ago, I tried my hand at different market approaches, with the help of some pocket book, but it worked the reverse, and I realised that I can’t afford the time to [do that]… I think nobody can, really… They [people] do what they are really good at.

So most of the sales that you close are still face to face?

Yes, it is really just a physical exchange.

The Hong Kong art scene

In your opinion, what are the main trends and driving forces in the art scene and art market in Hong Kong today, and how do you adjust to them as a gallerist?

I don’t think there is any driving force except for what one does oneself. I think that every gallery is its own driving force, because you have to create a direction, you have to create a vision of art through your exhibitions, your selections, your interpretations.

There has been much discussion on how the Hong Kong art scene is mostly driven by its buoyant art market: that is, Hong Kong is very much commercial in its framework. But what is lacking are the important aspects of nurturing the art scene in terms of art education, curatorial practice, museum presence and also the space for artists to create. Studio rentals are an issue, for example, as rent prices are too high and it is difficult to have decent studio space. Do you agree with this and what do you think is still lacking in the Hong Kong art scene? How do you think these issues can be overcome and resolved?

Well, there are several different issues here. One issue is really just the physical constraint and Hong Kong is a very expensive place to operate, there is not enough government support because only the state can do something about prices of real estate, and only legislation can help sort out the education system.

As far as curatorial practice, I find that very wrong. I am sure that anyone who has said that Hong Kong is lacking curatorial practice hasn’t seen “Hanart: 100″ exhibition!

Chen Fushan (b. 1904), 'Alice in Wonderland', 1975, acrylic on paper, 120.7 x 60.3 cm. Displayed in "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", 17 January - 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Chen Fushan (b. 1904), ‘Alice in Wonderland’, 1975, acrylic on paper, 120.7 x 60.3cm. Displayed in “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Art education in China and Hong Kong

What about art education in Hong Kong, how is it compared to mainland China?

Not all art education in China is equally good, I mean, every institution is different. I teach at the China Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou, and we have a very interesting department, bringing in a lot of interesting people, and try strike out innovative ways.

In Hong Kong, the teaching of curatorial practice, I think, is not as interesting, but aspects of studio practice are very strong. In Chinese universities, studio practice and conceptual practice go hand in hand, and a lot of these young artists that I just mentioned earlier graduated from the Chinese universities, as well as, some Hong Kong art schools, some of the new institutions.

I think that in Hong Kong, the School of Creative Media at the Hong Kong City University is very good. They have fantastic facilities, great teachers, and I think that this will be one of the most important institutions of art in this part of the world in the next ten years.

At the Academy in Hangzhou do you encourage experimentation?

Mainly, we work with curatorial practice. We work with students through a conceptual framework. We try to open up possibilities for the art practice and to open up field of knowledge, open up engagement with the social sphere, and basically use art practice to make society more interesting.

Tang Xiaohe (b. 1941), 'Strive Forward in Wind and Tides', 1971, oil on canvas, 172.5 x 294.5 x 3 cm. Displayed in "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", 15 January - 17 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Tang Xiaohe (b. 1941), ‘Strive Forward in Wind and Tides’, 1971, oil on canvas, 172.5 x 294.5 x 3 cm. Displayed in “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, 15 January – 17 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

China’s museum boom

China is opening thousands of new museums all over the country, big, small, private, public ones, you name it.  Some commentators have said this is not the time to open so many museums because the actual audience for them is not that large, and others say this indeed is the museum era in China. What do you think about this issue?

If so many people are opening so many museums, then it must be the time! Because this means that whoever is opening later, he is going to miss the time. By the time you come in, when you open later, there will be so many ahead of you.

Which ones do you think are the best new museums in China? Say, the top three?

I think there is the National Gallery. It is of course the biggest, most important museum, but of course it is also the state museum, so of course it is very powerful, and hosts very important shows but also has very official type of exhibitions.

I find museum director Wang Huangsheng [is] one of the most interesting museum directors, and he has made the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA Art Museum) in Beijing very interesting.

The Shanghai Art Museum used to be the centre for the Shanghai Biennale, now it has split. Now it has become the Power Station of Art (in Pudong) in Shanghai, and it opened just last year when Qiu Zhijie and I curated the last Shanghai Biennale. I think there is great potential for the Power Station of Art.

I have actually curated a few shows for the Hubei Provincial Museum of Art in Wuhan, and that museum is very interesting, it has a very good direction, they push through their projects.

How about in Hong Kong, in terms of museums?

People complain about the Hong Kong Museum of Fine Art. Although I am not that happy with it, it has been the most important site for decades, and it has overlapping functions, so it is difficult for a space, which is really relatively restricted, to have a programme that crosses various fields and to operate successfully. So I was hoping that M+ would take over the contemporary modern sections. Although I still think that the Hong Kong Museum of Fine Art has until now been the most important site and also the Hong Kong Museum of History has always done a very good job, but then they do not deal in contemporary art.

Fan Lijun (b. 1963), 'Series II, No.1', 1991-1992, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Displayed in "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies", 17 January - 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Fan Lijun (b. 1963), ‘Series II, No.1′, 1991-1992, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Displayed in “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies”, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

A Biennial world

There are more and more biennales coming out in every city in the world, and sometimes it is difficult to keep track of the new ones. Do you think Hong Kong needs one?

Hong Kong has a biennale just for local art, so it is essentially a biennial summary of what the [local] art scene has come up with. As far as international biennials [are concerned]… in a way, international biennials are a way for each city to engage with the rest of the world and to make its cultural statement on a regular basis. I can see these institutional biennials [around the world] are trying to continue delivery [of their cultural statements].

Do you visit many biennales? Did you go to the 55th Venice Biennale last year?

Not really. I missed the last one [Venice Biennale] for example. And now it is very difficult to attend every show. And so I choose and select. It’s always fun to go to a biennale, and for me every biennale is education, and it is important to learn from  other curators. But to read a biennale, especially a good one, is actually intellectually very challenging, so it requires a few days.

This year China had the biggest presence in Venice, with a variety of shows throughout the city. Do you think it was a concerted effort?

I’ve heard about this. I think it is just that some very sharp operators have discovered that it is possible to rent venues in Venice and become part of the collateral exhibitions simply by applying, so they organised very many exhibitions and offered them to many people to find who could afford to pay [for them]. It is not necessarily a very complementary situation.

Wang Wuxie (b. 1936), 'Comtemplation #10', 1988, ink and colour on paper, 125.5 x 62.5 cm. Displayed in "Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies', 17 January - 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

Wang Wuxie (b. 1936), ‘Contemplation #10′, 1988, ink and colour on paper, 125.5 x 62.5cm. Displayed in “Hanart: 100 Idiosyncrasies’, 17 January – 15 February 2014. Image courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.

A vision for the future

Finally, what will you as a gallerist be contributing to the further development of the Hong Kong art scene? What do you envision for the future of your gallery?

Basically, I would just be doing what I’ve been doing most of my life – trying to make good exhibitions while I make ends meet, and to keep all the other outside projects going and keep them innovative.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

Related topics: Chinese art and artists, Hong Kong art and artistsHong Kong and China’s art sceneinterviews

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