After a fifteen year absence from The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), Rossi & Rossi director Fabio Rossi talks about why 2013 is the year to turn back to Europe, and the Tibetan Gangnam Style.
Fabio Rossi joined the family business in 1988, dealing Asian classical art and textiles from Rossi & Rossi’s London-based gallery. In 2005, Rossi & Rossi also began dealing in contemporary art, and now represents fifteen contemporary artists from across Asia, over half of whom are Tibetan.
Art Radar met up with director Fabio Rossi before The European Fine Art Fair, which ran from 14 to 23 March 2013, for some insight into the gallery’s decision to return to the event.
Originally, the reason we stopped TEFAF was because Asia Week New York started running at the same time, so there was a clash of dates. Asia Week is a specifically Asian art fair, of course, and then we started doing more exhibitions in New York and it became more important for us to be part of the New York week. And then a few years ago I started applying to TEFAF again, three or four years ago, and I was on the waiting list until finally in October 2012 I got news that I had got a stand. In the meantime, TEFAF has grown to be a much bigger fair than it was in the nineties, and it’s attracting an even more international audience. Unfortunately, it still clashes with New York, but I’ve decided to refocus the London gallery to look into Europe again. I’m based here in Hong Kong, so I can look after the Asian audience quite well. I do have colleagues in New York that I work with, but I decided that I wanted to refocus my attention to Europe.
What has changed over those fifteen years to make you refocus your attention on Europe?
In 1995, there was almost no clue in the West about contemporary Asian art. That was just the beginning of people looking into it; in fact, the first people who started looking were not the Europeans, but the Australians, with the Queensland APT in 1993. So definitely awareness in the West has grown and keeps growing. For the UK, it’s been an interesting few years since we started doing this [contemporary art], and it’s challenging. I think the audience in the UK are either not so much aware or not so interested, and there’s a lot of competition for attention: audience attention and press attention. But I think there’s a gradual movement… I think interest is growing. What is happening, I think, is that you start to have a healthier environment where you have a few galleries like us who do Asian contemporary art, you have some galleries who maybe do not specialise in Asian contemporary art but are showing contemporary Asian artists and then you have some collectors, of course. And then you have the museums that are starting to go into it, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the V&A, more and more they’re looking into these areas. And even smaller museums: we just sold some works of Pakistani artists to a museum near Birmingham, the New Art Gallery Walsall. I think to have a healthy, organic environment you need all these things: the artists, the galleries, curators, museums. I think all of this is growing and I think that London in particular is, of course, a cosmopolitan city, so there’s no reason why any artist couldn’t have an audience here. But what is interesting is we also have interest outside London. We sold works of our Tibetan artists to a museum in Liverpool, for example, three or four years ago, and they bought eight or nine works. It’s not just London, there’s a growing interest. Museums will be an important part of it: by doing exhibitions or acquiring works they raise awareness of these artists. This type of interest will hopefully keep growing in the future.
How has Rossi & Rossi changed over those fifteen or so years to reflect this growing interest in contemporary Asian art?
I think as a gallery we keep growing. That’s one of the most exciting things about the profession, you always try to have new challenges and push yourself to find new ways and new professional interests. We definitely have a very strong reputation and are very well established in the classical world; it’s a family business and my mother’s been active for more than forty years and myself for 25, and certainly, we’ve grown. In terms of the contemporary, we’ve been trying to grow and establish the same reputation for being committed and serious, and I think our contemporary programme has grown leaps and bounds since we started in 2005.
Is there a marked difference between the works sold in the United Kingdom and those that you sell in continental Europe?
I think, in a way, yes, there are differences. Sometimes you feel like there’s a French taste, there’s a Northern European taste, there’s an Italian taste. Every fair has a slightly different feeling, I would say. I think that we [Rossi & Rossi] tend to have a fairly international client base, it’s very mixed. I think some collectors are very engaged in the political aspect of the work, the content. But for me, if I look at all the artists I represent, all of them work in different mediums, have different styles. There is not a unifying aesthetic because I tend to be quite eclectic myself, but I think what unifies them is that they’re all content driven. They’re all telling stories and I like to listen to their stories. A lot of our collectors are interested in what we’re interested in, which is really this combination of content and aesthetic. The strength is in the two together.
Rossi & Rossi also organises its own exhibitions in its London gallery space. What does this allow you to do that exhibiting at a fair does not?
Well, the gallery set up is for exhibitions and for nurturing the career of artists. In a gallery, you have more space, a longer exposure. You can have a show for as long as you want, but ours usually last between five and six weeks. You have a more focused audience. Some fairs are better than others, of course, and it’s a nice way to engage new collectors and scholars and critics. But you rarely have the space to do justice to the works. When we do contemporary fairs, most of the time we do solo booths, because I feel like … it gives a little bit of focus to whoever comes into your stand. People don’t get confused by lots of different things. A gallery allows you to plan shows; you can work with curators and the people who write the catalogue. You have a much more meaningful and fruitful experience.
Which artists will you show at TEFAF 2013? How did you make the selection?
We’re only taking one artist and one work because we’ve been accepted after three or four years [of applications] at TEFAF for our classical Himalayan works, so the focus of our stand at the fair has to be classical. Of course, we’re allowed to bring a few contemporary [artworks], so we’re bringing a Tsherin Sherpa painting. He’s a Tibetan artist and he has a tremendous connection with the classical world, a classical background. He was trained in classical Tibetan painting, so I felt it was a good way to introduce a new audience to what we do; in the sense, to breach a certain gap. I also decided specifically to give him an image of an eighteenth century painting that I’m taking to the fair, and I asked him to create a piece in response to that. It’s a completely new work done specifically for TEFAF in response to a traditional work which we’ll take to the fair.
The Sherpa painting that you’re taking to TEFAF 2013 is called Conqueror (Gangnam Style), referring to the Korean pop culture phenomenon. Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei have also created art around the song. Can you tell us more about Sherpa’s interpretation?
Conqueror (Gangnam Style) is a sort of commentary on, or response to, a traditional piece we’re exhibiting in [TEFAF] Maastricht, which is almost the same size, or maybe the traditional piece is even bigger. It’s kind of a symbol of a deity, a very big, protective, tantric deity, very unusual, quite wonderful. Tsherin actually wrote a commentary for this painting, the painting is of a figure who is considered the conqueror of death in Tibetan Buddhism, so it’s a protective figure in a way, and he said in his commentary that one might think that pairing this traditional figure with an international pop culture sensation… one could find it odd. But, in a sense, in this Tibetan manifestation and the dance that the god performs, it’s sort of a mirror of a new global consciousness. And, for him, the idea of conquering death is related very strongly to what’s going on in Tibet right now with the self-immolations. If you’re self-immolating, you’re conquering death somehow, and that’s a part of the piece as well. So in a way it looks like a fun, joyful piece, but there’s a strong message in it as well. And it’s also… it’s a way that he feels that other contemporary artists have embraced the pop medium, using this song as a way to discuss freedom of expression.
Rossi & Rossi has a particular interest in Tibetan contemporary artists. Why?
I think that springs from my interest in Tibet going back decades. I grew up looking at this sculpture, and I’ve been travelling to Tibet since 1991, so that’s 22 years, and I go every year, sometimes more than once a year. When I first started exhibiting contemporary art, the first show was a group show of Tibetan contemporary artists, many still working in Tibet and one working in London. The reason I did it was because I was in Tibet in 2005 and a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you come and meet some contemporary artists with me?” And I was sceptical because, even though I’d already been travelling in Tibet for fifteen years, I’d never seen any contemporary art, so I didn’t think it existed. I thought he meant artists who just copied traditional painting, like the kind you see in the market. But instead I just fell in love with this group of artists. Some of them had been active since the late eighties and early nineties, they were not young students just out of art school, they were well-seasoned artists who’d been doing their own work for some time, just for themselves. And I felt this is something that would be interesting to explore. Because of my affinity for the culture and the people, I could also understand where they were coming from and what they were trying to express, and I could understand some of their stylistic choices.
Rossi & Rossi represent Tibet’s Tenzing Rigdol, whose artwork Bollywood Buddha (2011) caused controversy when it was exhibited in India. What happened?
Yes, it did. It was a misguided controversy like very often these are. Some fundamentalists decided it [the painting] was irreverent. They were very upset about it and they went to the gallery and threatened to destroy the piece and the gallery. Luckily, the owner of the gallery had some warning, so the police were already there. The piece was taken into police protection [and] was removed from the exhibition.
What particular challenges do Tibetan artists face regarding freedom of expression?
I think, generally speaking, if you live and work outside China you have, by definition, more freedom of expression. Artists working in China, whether they’re Tibetan or Chinese or Uyghur, they face a different reality, they have to work within the system. Having said that, I think artists, visual artists, have a certain leeway and freedom that is not given to writers, for example, because it’s all about interpretation, and you can actually get away with a lot in painting, in a photograph, that maybe a writer can’t get away with. But you can’t avoid, as an artist, depicting what’s going on in your life and in your community somehow.
In a recent interview with Art of England magazine you say that your finest accomplishment to date was raising public awareness of Tibetan art. Why is this important?
Oh gosh, I don’t remember that exact quote. But I am very proud of it, of course. I think it’s important because, as I say, I was very sceptical when I was first introduced to these artists, and later when I would talk to people about Tibetan contemporary art I would start the conversation, and before showing any work they would look at me very sceptically. So, somehow, now I think there’s been a change; there’s now an audience, people really appreciate these artists, not just commercially, I’m talking about curators, critics, just people who love art. I think this has been not just my achievement, but the work the artists have been doing with me, time and time again, promoting their work, showing their work, talking about their work non-stop to people. And the reality has changed, and I’m very proud of it.
The Rossi & Rossi website references the tendency in Asian contemporary art to explore “the struggle between the traditional and contemporary worlds”. Is this different to art from other regions?
Well, I think, yes, certainly compared to Western art, for sure. Because modernity is very often a very recent concept in these [Asian] countries. There is this… sometimes you could say it’s a struggle, but it’s also a way to represent these transitional times, which are very sudden and very major historical shifts. What attracted me to the Tibetan artists is I feel they’re living a very important historical moment for the country and for the people, and this is very much reflected in their work. And one aspect is the issue of modernity, which is not solely exclusive to Tibet, it’s Cambodia, Pakistan, Central Asia, as well. And I think in many of these regions, contemporary art is also a new concept. There was no contemporary art in Tibet until this generation. Yes, there was a little bit in the sixties, a beginning of the introduction of certain aspects, but the idea of contemporary art as we understand it today, or artists working for their own sake and not being commissioned by a monastery or whatever, is completely new for them. In Asia, these issues are very fresh and new. And at the same time, on top of that, they also have political issues, sometimes very specific to the country and other times very global; the environment, ecological issues are not specific to a country, but are global issues as well.
Is Tsherin Sherpa’s Conqueror (Gangnam Style) emblematic of that mix of modernity and tradition?
I think Tsherin’s whole practice is emblematic of that. I mean, Tsherin is in his mid forties and up to four years ago he was only painting traditionally, so for him it’s really exploring his own tradition, but transforming it and bringing it into contemporary life. When he first contacted me it was four years ago, and he said, ‘I’ve been a traditional artist all my life, and I want to be a contemporary artist. What should I do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m a gallerist, I’m not an artist. But I suggest you go outside and look at the world and then look within yourself and think about what you want to say with your work, and what are the important issues in your life.’ And the work he sent me was, of course, exquisitely executed, but it was also fascinating the way it was using traditional elements with contemporary elements and fusing them. Seeing the ways he has evolved has been a really fascinating journey, for him and for me.
From where is the most exciting contemporary art coming right now?
That’s a difficult one. I think there is so much exciting work being created. I can’t choose. We work with so many different areas. There are some great things coming from Central Asia, from Southeast Asia, Pakistan has some wonderful artists, Sri Lanka… I can’t choose.
What can people expect to see from Rossi & Rossi in the near future?
More of the same. You can expect us to continue investing time and energy and passion in working with these [currently represented] artists. Now we have two spaces, a new one in Hong Kong which is bigger than London and will give us the possibility of different types of projects. But I’m very loyal to the artists I work with, so I’ll keep working with them until they get fed up with me.
- Wave of galleries breaks into Hong Kong in 2013 – January 2013 – overview of new galleries in the city, including Fabio Rossi’s Yallay Space
- Ai Weiwei wins White Box award for “defending human rights against oppression” – May 2012 – under house arrest in China, Ai is recognised for defending freedom of expression
- Tibetan art installation brings homeland to exiles – December 2011 – review of Tenzing Rigdol’s installation Our Land, Our People
- Excitement at Asian Contemporary Art Week despite recession – interview Leeza Ahmady director ACAW – May 2009 – event director Leeza Ahmady talks about her ambitions for Asia Week in the face of the economic downturn
- Contemporary Tibetan art moves away from its religious origins – September 2008 – closer look at modernity and tradition in Tibetan art
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