Open Door Policy ShContemporary 07
Source:ShContemporary Author:Editors of Art Asia Pacific Date: 2007-09-01 Size:
Lorenz o Rudolf is a large, stocky man who, when talking, swings between sudden animation and deliberate thoughtfulness.

"We cannot come to China and say ‘We know everything, this is how you do it.’ If you do something in another place with its own history and art scene, then you need to respect what is already there.”

Lorenz o Rudolf is a large, stocky man who, when talking, swings between sudden animation and deliberate thoughtfulness. Originally trained as a lawyer, he made his name as director of the Art Basel art fair in the 1990s and is credited with turning a summer tradition into a yearly spectacle, broadening the fair’s focus on pre-Modern and Modern blue-chip art to include younger galleries and initiatives for showcasing cutting-edge artists. Before he left his post at Art Basel, Rudolf began looking into expanding the fair to Miami.

Rudolf wanted a place where image itself could help drive the event—“a place where you combine art, fun, leisure, a good time,” as he puts it—as well as a location that could bridge continents. Since the first Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2002, that vision has paid off, with Rudolf noting, “Last year more private jets flew in for Basel than for the Super Bowl.”

Yet neither the private jets, nor Art Basel Miami Beach’s bottom line (Art Basel does not release official sales totals, but 2006 estimates begin at USD 200 million), is as convincing a testimony to the fair’s success as the sheer proliferation of satellite fairs that have sprung up in its shadow, with a colorful menagerie including Aqua, Art Miami, Bridge, Design Miami, DiVA, Fountain, INK, New Art Dealers Alliance, photo MIAMI, Pool, PULSE, ~scope and Zone, all in a short five-day span. The contemporary art market is booming, fuelled by dedicated patrons, new collectors and speculators. New fairs are springing up elsewhere, too, with the Gulf Art Fair launching in Dubai in March (see AAP 53). And while an inevitable bust still cautions over-exuberance, growing wealth in developing nations suggests that contemporary art’s Black Friday may yet be a ways off.

It comes as no surprise then that Rudolf’s latest major project is the ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai, which launches its inaugural edition, ShContemporary 07, this September 6-9. ShContemporary’s team includes influential gallerist and collector Pierre Huber, as artistic director, and Italian company BolognaFiere, the Bologna-based trade show producers who operate in China as BF China. With increasing interest in Chinese contemporary art and international curiosity about Shanghai’s rebirth as a cosmopolitan pleasure ground, ShContemporary could energize a nascent regional art market where the prevailing model has seen more locally-based dealers than actual clientele.

Setting up at the Stalinist wedding-cake Shanghai Exhibition Center, presented as a gift by the Soviet dictator to Mao Zedong, ShContemporary offers an ambitious line-up of international galleries, some Art Basel regulars making their first appearance in Asia, and others Asian galleries earning their first chance to exhibit alongside high profile American and European peers. In addition, the fair supports two curated sections selected by Pierre Huber, Best of Artists and Best of Discovery, that provide platforms for individual artists, with the former focusing on established Asian figures and the latter introducing an international mix of rising names as well as unknowns.


The difficulties of producing a fair of this scope in China are not lost on Rudolf, whose itinerary over the past year has caromed between Shanghai and his home in Switzerland. Rudolf’s relationship with China intensified in 2000–02 when, as director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing industry’s largest trade show, he pursued projects there and had meetings with the culture ministry. For ShContemporary he has had to navigate the opaque and mercurial Shanghai municipal bureaucracy; the fair would not be possible without support from the Shanghai International Culture and Communication Association, a non-governmental association affiliated with the Public Communications Department of the Party Committee of the City of Shanghai. And all exhibitors must submit portfolios of the art they intend to bring for government review. Still, Rudolf says, “I have never adjusted my expectations for ShContemporary; the concept, the strategy, is quite clear. It has to be top level. We have to adapt to working in China, but the goal remains the same as if we were doing this in the US or Europe.”

ShContemporary’s collective pedigree helped attract many of its international participants. Peter Nagy, of New Delhi’s Nature Morte / Bose Pacia, admits that he has never been to China and has minimal contact with Chinese collectors and institutions, but cites Huber as a major influence in his decision to go to Shanghai. “I wanted to support Pierre. He has collected from the gallery and been instrumental in developing the career of one of our most important artists, Subodh Gupta (se AAP 41, 48 & Almanac 1). And he is increasingly involved with art from India and Pakistan.”

Few gallerists expect a full-blown Chinese market, although they are all cognizant of the potential for developing local collectors. London’s Michael Hue Williams, whose Albion Gallery represents bold type names such as Mariko Mori and Xu Bing, affirms, “We’re not daunted about exhibiting at ShContemporary. Why should Asia be different from anywhere else? A Chinese market is definitely going to happen and Asian collectors have already made a tremendous mark at the auction level.” New York gallerist Thomas Erben, whose roster for the fair includes artists with South Asian backgrounds such as Chitra Ganesh and Tejal Shaw, cautions, “It might be too early to sell international art in China—as is the case in India—but I know collectors are coming to see what Shanghai's mix can offer.”

Many of the regional participants look forward to ShContemporary filling a significant void in the art calendar. Sueo Mitsuma, who runs Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo, is among the few Japanese dealers actively seeking to develop a market in China, spurred by the lack of strong collectors in Japan itself. He has made frequent trips to scout the mainland and contemporary art sales in Hong Kong. Mitsuma comments wryly, “Over the past years, we have participated in various art fairs in Europe and America, like migrant workers. Asia needs a fair that can bring international collectors to the region.” Sonal Singh of Bodhi Art, with branches in Singapore, Mumbai, New Delhi and New York, concurs, “There is growing interest in Indian art from the Far East, but even so ShContemporary will fill in missing links.”

The fair has assiduously distanced itself from a purely commercial focus. Huber, who controversially sold part of his collection this February at Christie’s in New York (se AAP 52) in order to fund new projects, including ShContemporary and an art prize he sponsors at Hangzhou Academy of Art, has spent the past year seeking out young artists for Best of Discovery with the aid of guides such as Subodh Gupta in India and the artist Rashid Rana, a professor at Lahore’s Beacon House National University. Huber jokes, “I am retired so this is day work, like a pianist practicing. I have a great team at the gallery and my philosophy now is to just do what excites me.”

Best of Artists, on the other hand, features a historical dimension, beginning with printmaker Zarina Hashmi (se AAP 41, 54), a member of New York’s feminist art movement in the 1970s and an outspoken political voice who is just beginning to receive broader recognition. Huber says, “It’s important we show another vision. Zarina’s work is great, like Brice Marden. This is my historical reformation. She absolutely should be in Best of Artists.”

Within Shanghai itself, there is cautious support for the fair. Lorenz Helbling, the Swiss dealer behind the city’s premier gallery, ShanghART, notes, “It’s difficult to speculate about how ShContemporary will compare with an established fair like Basel, but we don’t want to see Art Basel in Shanghai.” ShanghART, one of six local galleries participating in ShContemporary, will present political-pop figurehead Wang Guangyi (se AAP suplement to Art and Australia Vol. 30, No. 4 & AAP 33, 47, 50) for Best of Artists. William Zhang of Aura Gallery, which represents artists such as photographer Hong Lei and painter Zhou Chunya, whose works regularly turn up on the auction circuit, takes a wait and see approach: “We have high expectations but understand it’s ‘no pain no gain.’”


Artist Zhou Tiehai, who famously made a video, Will (1997), about artists determined to build their own airport in order to attract international curators and critics, has collaborated closely with ShContemporary and is the fair’s greatest ambassador in China. He asserts: “Everyone thinks Beijing is so important, but Shanghai has really developed with the Shanghai Biennale, the Centre Pompidou planning a branch here and a wave of new galleries. A fair like ShContemporary that can brand the city will add a great impact.”

Others feel that local galleries were priced out of contention by the fair’s booth fees (the smallest booth costs about 10,000 euros). Notable absences include quasi-commercial spaces Eastlink and BizArt, which frequently support young artists and challenging exhibitions. One source states, “There is a sense of resentment at having this huge fair come to Shanghai without more representation from local galleries.”

Rudolf counters that the fair is not just about China: “The fair is held in China and we surely want to promote Chinese art. Everyone talks about how hot China is, or even India, which is only one step behind. But we have to be clear it’s not only those two. We want to make a fair that is a catalyst for the entire Asian art scene.”

Such ambitions reflect the ambiguities that exist today between the market and institutional art infrastructure, as top-tier fairs encroach on international biennials by pursuing curatorial and educational programs. Emblematic of this trend, New York’s James Cohan Gallery will exhibit artist Yun-Fei Ji (se AAP 51) for the first time in China since he left 20 years ago, in addition to artists like Bill Viola, Yinka Shonibare and work by the late Nam June Paik (se AAP Vol. 3, No. 3; 29, 49). Ji’s recent ink and watercolor paintings on paper address the destruction caused by the Three Gorges Dam project in western China. While both Ji and gallery director Arthur Solway would have preferred a museum context for the work, they recognize that art fairs have now become pivotal intersection points for all aspects of the art world. Solway contends, “the museum community and curators come, and academics come from all over the world, so it’s not just shopping. It will be fascinating to see how people respond to Yun-Fei’s work and if a museum sees it and something comes from that, then it really pays off.”

Huber, like Solway, is pragmatic about divisions between commercial and institutional spheres: “‘Commercialization’ is just a shorthand description for what is going on in art today because we don’t know what will happen in 20 years. The moment an artist becomes ‘commercial’ is when people start fighting to buy the art. I always try to make my own decisions about what is interesting. Once it becomes commercial it’s not my problem.”

From his position as fair director, Rudolf has to be philosophical about the market and its intricacies, the concentric circle of patronage that binds together collectors, galleries, artists, museums, curators and critics. “We can’t change this world, but we have to make sure that what we are doing at ShContemporary is serious about the art first. I have nothing against someone with money who’s looking for a great status symbol, and if that gets him interested, then I want to show him art is not just something that’s easy to hang on the wall. Art can be much more than that.”

[Editor] Zhang Shuo