A testimonial for Chinese contemporary art – Art Radar speaks with Weng Ling

ART PROFESSIONALS CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART ART HISTORY

Weng Ling has been an essential figure over the course of Chinese contemporary art history. Since graduating in art history from the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in 1989, she has achieved much. In this Art Radar interview, Weng outlines the relationship, as she sees it, between fashion and art and demystifies the perception of her as a “fashion-forward person”, as well as providing insight into the day-to-day activities involved in creating a television art show and running a premier art institution.

She was named director of the Gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Art in 1996, where the likes of Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang had their first solo shows. In 2001, she curated a breakthrough show called “Towards a New Image: Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Painting – 1981-2001”. For the first time, a canon of Chinese contemporary artists showed their works at national museums in China. In 2002, she helped curate the Shanghai Biennale “Urban Creation”. She then moved on to the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three-on-the-Bund, a high-end lifestyle project backed by Chinese American lawyer and entrepreneur Handel Lee. The gallery enjoyed critical success during the six years under Weng Ling’s direction.

In 2008, she returned to Beijing to run the Beijing Center for the Arts at Ch’ien Men 23, another integrated premier lifestyle development with her long-term business partner Handel Lee. In 2010, she ventured into media to produce and host “Arts China”. “Arts China” was the first in-depth interview program to focus exclusively on the top names in the art and culture world in China, including Xu Bing, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Tan Dun, Cui Jian, and more. Weng Ling blurs the lines between visual art, architecture, design and environmentalism. She collaborates with artists, designers, businessmen, scientists and some of the top institutions and museums in the world.

Art Radar Asia met up with Weng Ling one afternoon to discuss some of her projects.

Weng Ling Portrait, courtesy of Beijing Centre for the Arts

Weng Ling, an essential figure in China's contemporary art community. Image courtesy of Beijing Centre for the Arts.

Weng Ling on “Arts China”

How did you decide to focus on contemporary art when directing the Gallery of CAFA?

It was a natural choice for me. I like art and sincerely wanted to introduce contemporary artists’ reflections on society to a broader audience. I don’t think one has to be a contemporary art connoisseur to have contact with contemporary art itself. Many in the West started promoting Chinese contemporary art because some of the works reflect the conflicts in contemporary Chinese society. After Western capital was injected into the market to raise the monetary value of Chinese contemporary art, Chinese media started following the hype. Neither of the two groups really appreciates Chinese contemporary art based on a very genuine interest in Chinese artists.

Does this partially explain why you ventured into media and produced “Arts China”?

Indeed. The media tends to misinterpret me as a very fashionable person. My work always centers on promoting the most cutting-edge and avant-garde art projects and ideas. So that partially explains why the media could misread me as a “fashion-forward person”. My work can be challenging, as I often face doubt and lack of understanding. This is also the predicament many celebrated artists, designers, architects, directors and musicians find themselves in. So I thought it would be nice to have a casual chat with these friends of mine, in order to showcase the real art and culture figures in China.

The final product looks incredibly real and has a documentary feel to it. How was the process?

It involved a huge amount of work, it sometimes took a full day to record one interview. Luckily, as old friends recounting life and the old stories over all these years, we were very engaged in the conversations. For example, Wang Guangyi looked so carefree on the outside when sharing his longing to hold on to his earliest emotions as a young artist. It was so touching and I almost cried. I have to activate all of the different “channels” in my brain during these interviews, talking like an “insider”. It was quite demanding physically and intellectually. Many museum directors really appreciate “Arts China”, recognising its value in recording Chinese contemporary art history.

Weng Ling on Beijing Center for the Arts

To you, what’s unique about the Beijing Center for the Arts (BCA)?

We are a hybrid art institution between an art museum and a commercial gallery.  On one hand, we discover and promote good Chinese contemporary art that confronts reality and/or has traditional Chinese underpinnings. On the other hand, we are dedicated to promoting collaborations between contemporary art and other disciplines and creating internationally valuable projects. With no precedent in China, it is very interesting to create this space.

It sounds like BCA is your new brainchild, a way in which many of your past experiences can come together naturally.

Yes. Our “BCA Green Art Project” series last year included “Shan Shui: Nature on the Horizon of Art” and “3D City: Future China”, focusing on nature and the urban city respectively. We cooperated with many top-notch artists, architects, scientists, environmentalists and NGOs, governments and businesses from around the world to realise the project. It was a world-wide conversation well beyond the traditional definition of “art”, but a blending of knowledge from many fields. I have previously created fine art exhibitions, city/architecture exhibitions, seminars and have long supported environmental groups and all of these experiences have become a solid foundation for me to draw from to conceive large-scaled cross-disciplinary projects.

So far in your art career, how do you make decisions about which projects to run? Is it based on your instinct, chances, responsibilities or love of art?

I champion artists’ freedom and bravery – this is the “romantic attitude” I hold. Anyone can be an artist and any project can be realised. Creativity has no limit. Whilst I do believe all the work should aim for a high professional standard in its own right, be it music, visual art, design, architecture or others. Like a scientist, I approach each new art project with caution and a rational mind. There are tons of possibilities to create something meaningful in this era in China, and due to this sense of responsibility, I must carefully review all the potential projects.

Weng Ling on crossover collaboration

You have had vast experience collaborating with partners in various fields, including design, architecture, real estate development, and corporate branding. What do you think of the trendy partnership between fashion brands and art?

Many owners of the fashion houses are art collectors who promote the creation of new art. Many fashion designers have fine art training, too. However, Art and fashion must each keep their independence when partnered up – art can easily be overtaken by the commercial demand of the fashion brand. The most meaningful and lasting collaboration is built upon borrowing the strength from the partner to elevate one’s own strength. Both parties must contribute the best of their own strengths.

Unlike their foreign peers, local Chinese businesses aren’t usually used to the idea of sponsoring art. Is that the case in your experience?

Many Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen are my good friends. I keep learning many things from them, just like from artists. Chinese entrepreneurs have an enduring power to survive in a complex environment. Since the 90s, I have been receiving sponsorship from Chinese companies. They do not necessarily understand art itself, but want to help the ever changing Chinese art scene in any way they can.

On the other hand, the government should really implement policies to encourage corporate sponsorship. The current tax incentive is far from enough. I believe the government’s attitude is like forward-moving water, so as long as we hold an active conversation with them, things can be changed.

Finally, what do you think of the current vibe of the Chinese art scene?

Oh dear, after visiting many institutions in the UK, I have concluded, it’s so not “romantic” (laughs). Because there is no room to challenge myself, and no possibility to challenge the future. The system is so well-developed and built-up over there. Yet in China, there is a force to create something new and we never know what the height of our achievement will be. The historical meaningfulness might be beyond our imagination.

It’s true that China has many problems to deal with, but I am trying to contribute my own bit. The key is to have a humble heart and peace within, no matter which field one is in. The world doesn’t only rotate around people with money, but is transformed by the most creative individuals.

SXB/KN/HH

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Comments

A testimonial for Chinese contemporary art – Art Radar speaks with Weng Ling — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for your comment, Geoff. We are glad you find the website so useful.

  2. My discovery of artradarasia has been both immediately informing and inspiring as I pursue my work on pieces based on the I Ching. What an exciting time it must be in China for artists whose visual commentary will certainly chronicle this rich period for future generations. I look forward to following your site. The article featuring Weng Ling’s commentaries is very enlightening. Thanks you.

  3. Thanks for your comment Jing Daily. My gut feeling was that some Chinese owners of these venues are more goal-oriented than form-focused. They are quite pragmatic and would like to achieve their objectives (in Weng Ling’s case, to promote cross-disciplinary works), and tend to worry less about how to “define” their venues – a task proved difficult in the fast changing scene in China. – Sylvia Xue Bai

  4. We’d like to thank you, Jing Daily, for your constant support of our publication and your commitment to generating discussion. We agree that this is a trend increasingly being witnessed throughout Asia.

  5. It’s interesting how she describes BCA as a hybrid between an art museum and a commercial gallery. This new form of private museums seem particularly suited for China’s art and economic environment, as that seems to be a growing trend in China. Whether they can survive, and how they deal with serving the public will remain to be seen. These museums may start getting turned over voluntarily to the public, a trend indicated by forerunners like the Ullens Center.

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