The final frontier Our columnist is a pioneer, an artist who left New York in 1994 to travel to China and establish himself as an artist, curator and commentator on the burgeoning contemporary art scene. From his unique standpoint, he outlines for LUX his views on Chinese contemporary art and its future directions MATHIEU BOYRSEVICZ

I went to China in 1994 as an artist, to get out of NYC and find some inspiration. I was oblivious to what I might find there. I was enamoured by the spirit of the scene and the intensity of the terrain. Then, there was no support system for the artists, and outright intolerance from the authorities.

There was no market or history of contemporary art, but there was a socio-cultural precedent and an impassioned will. This renegade, almost idealistic approach to art dazzled me and was something I felt artists in NYC seemed to have lost a long time ago.

There were no real venues for contemporary art; you had to seek it out, mainly in the artists’ homes. The direct contact with the work, people and stories gave me tremendous insight. The changes that have happened since then are parallel to those of the country itself. China’s art market is the second largest in the world. In the summer of 1998 there was only the recent, awkward, birth of one gallery in Beijing and one in Shanghai. Now there are tens of thousands of galleries.

The economic aspect is only one side. The change in attitude from the officialdom is astonishing. Now all the major academies train ‘contemporary artists’ and the government has sanctioned places like 798 in Beijing as ‘cultural zones’ and official tourist destinations. There are initiatives across the country, by both public and private sectors, to establish ‘world-class’ art museums. The Ministry of Culture has even established an Experimental Art Committee, served by some of China’s most important avantgarde artists.

Then there is the case of the Chinese artists on the international circuit. In the late 90s and early 2000s most of the [Western] art world politely rolled their eyes and dismissed Chinese art as another perestroika-like phenomenon. Now the most prominent galleries in the world – Gagosian, Pace, and White Cube just to mention a few – all have Chinese artists in their stable. Major Western museums are not only exhibiting contemporary art from China, but are systematically collecting it as well.

Up until the late 1990s, the market for Chinese art was mainly an export one; made in China, consumed in the West. China offered something sexy to Western dealers and curators – the rebel, the revolutionary, working against the system, moreover a communist system.

Chinese contemporary art also evolved with multicultural and post-colonial theory in the West. It made a perfect ‘other’, an Orientalist’s feast. In many people’s minds this export dynamic also impacted the nature of the work.

Westerners established the market. In the early 2000s it finally became apparent to the Chinese government and private sector that contemporary art had serious market value. The Chinese themselves got involved and the ante was raised – prices shot up, galleries and private museums opened and the system blossomed.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching some artists evolve and others sadly retrogress. I recently launched Xu Bing’s new Book from the Ground project in China and watching this artist’s evolution has been nothing short of astounding. Xu’s ability to retain his commitment to and concentration on many multi-faceted, long-term projects simultaneously, along with serving as vice dean to the Central Academy of Fine Arts is truly astonishing.

Liu Wei (the younger) is somebody who I thought in the 1990s was just following trends and would eventually fade away, but over the last few years he has become a firestorm of truly awesome production. Zhang Huan is also someone who has gone through multiple periods of metamorphosis, each one begetting the next.

Yang Fudong never ceases to amaze. Just when you think he’s repeating himself he delves a little deeper, pushes the bar further and dazzles. Ding Yi is interesting for the complete opposite reasonbecause he does nothing but repeat himself like a wise monk murmuring his mantra.

No matter what one thinks of Ai Weiwei’s tactics and the spectacle surrounding him his ability to stand up for his beliefs is truly anomalous in China. He is one of the few citizens, and certainly one of the only artists, to make his revulsion to injustice a brilliant art and effective protest. Xu Bing is another big inspiration. He approaches his artworks as a scientist might approach research. His explorations are almost like a lifelong unthreading of our global cultural spindles.

In terms of new young artists, Gao Weigang came out of nowhere a few years ago with a very mature body of work and has been coming on with full force ever since. Gao is a conceptual artist that oscillates between many different mediums with such ease, confidence and understanding of his materials, while at the same time retaining a consistent language, subdued sense of poetry, humour and temper.

Xu Zhen is the Chinese art world’s jester. Both his early work and reincarnation as ‘Made In Company’ (a collective of which Xu is the director) are not only hyper-imaginative (think the Cookie Monster surfing the internet on acid) and rich with humour but also poignant in their take on global politics.

Ouyang Chun, Lee Kit, Zhao Yao, Liao Guohe, Lu Yang, Zhang Lehua, Lin Zhipeng are all other exciting young artists to look out for. Unlike Western artists who get into art as a way to express themselves – meaning the existential angst of being alive – much contemporary Chinese art has, up to this point, been more focussed on the bigger socio-political picture. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but many artists are now looking at themselves, the personal, psychosomatic terrain of their daily lives.

Chinese contemporary art is a by-product of globalization. The history of contemporary art in China started in the late 1970s when China opened up its economy to the outside world; financial investment, literature, film, art, and culture also poured in.

On the other hand we now see a very homogenized approach to the arts, especially with artists born after 1980. They have had a different socio-economic experience than previous generations; many have studied abroad, are socialmedia crazed, drink Starbucks. Much of their work looks like it could’ve been made anywhere in the world. This, perhaps inevitable, situation evens the playing field but at the same time makes things less diverse. The current debate for artists and the creative industries in China is how to be contemporary while still being Chinese.

The Chinese economy is facing one of the toughest times in recent years but this leaves the 1%, the biggest consumers of art, largely unaffected. Those with money in China don’t have many investment options; the real estate market and stock market are bust. There was a bubble growing; maybe it hasn’t burst completely but it’s deflated. Yesterday I ran into an artist who was recently evicted from his 798 studio and returned to working at home. He said “I feel like we’re going back to early 2000 days… but it’s a good thing!” The cycles help to clean things up a bit, weed out the weaklings, and hopefully reinvigorate the art.

Mathieu Boyrsevicz is a curator and art advisor based in Shanghai and New York. Latterly Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art, he opens his own gallery space in China this autumn.

Reading time: 6 min
Rupert Shrive: Painted Lady, 2012

Rupert Shrive: Painted Lady, 2012

Serena Morton had a unique challenge to curate an art collection for one of London’s landmark historic buildings, now an exclusive members’ club. The twist: she had to complement décor ranging from Georgian grand to Zaha Hadid-designed cool. Caroline Davies discovers how she did it

How do you start curating for a space like Home House?

Before this project the art in Home House was a bit of a mish-mash. Over the years, someone would take a fancy to this or to that and it would go in. The Courtauld Institute was based at Home House from 1932 to 1976. It is a strong thread that holds the house together and we wanted to bring it back with a big statement.

We looked at Home House members. They all have a connection to London, are varied in age and are a pretty sophisticated bunch. We decided that you could make the balance of membership more interesting by really creating a solid art program, which helps draw more of a culture crowd.

Why did you decide to have individual artists in each room?

I have launched, run and directed 3 galleries, two of my own and one for someone else, and curated exhibitions in many different pop-up forms. The one thing I know is that it is much less impactful when you put a bunch of artists together who don’t really have any connections. This is happening a lot at the moment, but the connections are still forming. We don’t really have a current movement so why would you mash them all together? When you just have one thing to look at and the space around it it’s more interesting.

Home House is itself a set of rooms. It was three Georgian town houses which were joined together, each a residence so each room is different and so is the décor. Spreading the art across all the rooms wouldn’t necessarily work, but these ‘mini galleries’ allow the art to flow and creates conversation.

Which artists did you use and why?

They range in age from seventies downwards. You have some really senior artists like Ethel Walker and Simon Edmonson right down to some emergent stars like Jim Threapleton and Robi Walters who recently won the Lexus Telegraph prize.

Rupert Shrive, who has had double page Vogue spreads around the world, a huge piece in the Grand Palais and is now in the Courtauld, is on the staircase. Ethel Walker, one of the leading Scottish colourists has painted some huge panels in the dining room, they take you up to the heavens. Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis is in The Garden Room next to her; I love the scale she uses, which is physically difficult, combined with her feminine take on landscapes. I hope the dining room atmosphere elevates your palette and your senses, rather than getting indigestion because you are looking at something rather pornographic.

Jim Threapleton: 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate IV, 2012

Jim Threapleton: 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate IV, 2012

Piers Jackson’s geometric shapes are in the bar, which is the core, the kernel of the club; everything else starts to morph around that. Theo Mouxigouli, next door, is very different. He is a Georgian painter based in Shoreditch. He lives in squats and travels around with his canvases rolled on his back. His work is mainly of London, representational, all about feeling with a sense of going back to the past. I think you get a kind of mini buzz from each. Simon Edmondson is a huge heavyweight that London forgot. He has a whole installation in one big member’s lounge which is almost going to be like a Rothko chapel. He creates large interior scenes with a muted pallet, sometimes quite sexual. I think he needs to be seen again. Jim Threapleton was a film maker that has been studying at art school. It has taken a long time to work out what he is doing visually and he has not shown; it’s about slowly presenting him without too much over exposure. I loved Robi Walters’ work as soon as I saw it. There is such an intelligence and positivity about it. He is a massive star in the rising and still very young. Chris Moon is in the House lounge. The Hayward described him as a cross between Bacon and Hockney which is a rather large statement. He is a darn good painter.

How did you select the artists?

I tend to go with my gut feeling. I picked people that I hoped would appeal to a range of ages and members. All the pieces are originals, there is no edition work and they are all technical; they don’t look like things that have been made easily, you couldn’t do it yourself. There is a lot of conceptual art around at the moment and it is not that. It is nice to promote the emerging rather than fully blown. There is a gang of artists that everyone knows about in the London scene at the moment and I wanted to present something different. I am working with these people, but I am always working with a huge number of others as well. I think it’s only natural that you would promote people that you believe in.

The Octagon 02 dining room

The Octagon 02 dining room

How did you work with your artists?

All of the artists have been in to see the space. They go away, put together a mock up, come back and we talk. As a curator they trust me to say what I think and to steer the project. At the end of the day, I have chosen the pieces with them. We work together; I’m very artist indulgent.

What do you want to achieve?

I’m not trying to be clever, I’m just trying to present things that are interesting and beautiful and well made. I’m tired of going to art fairs, tired of being presented with over-priced things. I call it the “I could do that” school of art. I feel we are in serious times and we can still put something forward that is hopefully taking this to a more beautiful, hopeful, positive place.

Reading time: 5 min