Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

ShanghArt Gallery at Moganshan Lu, currently the main gallery space in Shanghai

ShanghART Gallery, a long-time fixture of Shanghai’s Moganshan Lu designated art zone, is closing and relocating to a brand new, architect-designed 2,000m2building in the city’s rapidly expanding West Bund development, as part of the gallery’s 20th-anniversary celebration said owner Lorenz Helbling, although he remains a touch equivocal on the subject.
Is he moving out or not? ‘Yes, maybe, perhaps,’ he said. When will the new gallery open? ‘We will see. We do not like to make big decisions. There was a soft opening last September with an exhibition of work by Geng Jianyi to coincide with the West Bund Art and Design Fair, but it was all a bit rushed so the gallery is currently closed to allow for the build to be properly finished,’ he further explained.

Helbling may parry the questions with oblique and consummate ease, but he remains a man on a mission, a mission that has been in place for 20 years since he arrived on the Shanghai art scene in 1996 – and that is to make his gallery, ShanghArt the home for Chinese contemporary art – and judging by the artist who have stayed with him over the years, Xu Zhen, Zhang Enli and Yang Fudong included, his reputation as being one of the premiere contemporary art galleries in China is well deserved.

ShanghArt was the first contemporary art space in the city when it opened in a corridor on the second floor of the Portman Hotel. ‘It was still avant-garde art then, contemporary art was not talked about and no one came to Shanghai to see art. We say it was the first independent space but for us it was not a so much a space as just a few walls in a hotel showing art,’ Helbling commented. The first artist Helbling showed in the Portman was the abstractionist Ding Yi. ‘Fifteen works from his Appearance of Crosses series challenged visitors with their strangeness,’ Helbling confided.

Since then, Helbling’s art empire has grown to six galleries, three in Shanghai, one in Singapore at Gillman Barracks (‘Things are not easy there’), and two in Beijing and the soon to be opened seventh on the swish new West Bund development. West Bund is the Shanghai authorities’ attempt to turn two-and-a-half kilometres of disused and derelict docklands on the banks of the lugubrious Huangpu River into a world-class arts and culture hub. When it is finished it will include private art museums, a refurbished abandoned aircraft factory that has become home to the West Bund Art and Design Fair as well as the city’s first dedicated photography museum. If this was not enough, cinemas restaurants, performance venues, and a Legoland Discovery Centre are all also planned along with a DreamWorks US$2.5 billion, joint-venture, animation studio and entertainment complex slated to open in 2017. West Bund is obviously the place to be.
Helbling has had a love affair with China since 1985 when he studied Chinese history at Shanghai’s Fudan University. He moved to Hong Kong in 1992 as a fresh-faced gallerist and worked at Plum Blossoms Gallery promoting young artists from China. ‘I quickly realised that Hong Kong was not the place to be, it was simply a window on what was happening in China,’ Helbling explained over tea in the upper rooms of ShanghArt Gallery space. ‘But it was very difficult to understand what the artists were doing and what the discussion was and what the product was that was coming out. I knew I needed to be in China,’ he said.

In 1996, he moved back to Shanghai to focus on young Chinese artists such as Zhou Tiehai, Ji Wenyu, Xue Song, and Shen Fan, who at that time were making avant-garde and modern art before Chinese contemporary art gate-crashed the art scene and began making dramatic waves through auction houses around the world. ‘Contemporary art was not talked about then,’ Helbling said. The Portman space was little more than a chair and table and several paintings either on the walls or propped up salon-like on easels along a second floor corridor. ‘But the general manager seemed to like art,’ Helbling continued, even if the local Shanghainese were not that enamoured and remained at best indifferent to contemporary art and secondly confused as to what it was.
In 2000, ShanghArt shifted to Moganshan Lu close to the Jing’An district, an area of disused industrial warehouses where low rents were attracting artists and galleries; Zhang Enli, Xue Song, and Zhou Tiehai already had studios there and M50 soon became the centre of avant-garde and contemporary art in the city. ‘If it was to do with art then it could be found at Moganshan,’ commented Helbling.

When Helbling takes up residence in his Margo Renisio-designed West Bund building he will be in good company along the extensive boardwalk that flanks the Huangpu. Uber collectors Wang Wei and husband Liu Yiqian and Indonesian agricultural czar and collector Budi Tek have already opened their respective Long Museum West Bund and Yuz Museum to  showcase their private contemporary art collections as well as staging curated blockbuster shows. At the time of writing the Long Museum has just opened the first survey show in China by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in its monolithic concrete bunker while Yuz is showing what they bill as ‘the world’s largest retrospective of work by Alberto Giacometti’ in its sprawling converted aircraft hangar.

Crowds have descended on these shows regardless of the precincts inaccessibility and remoteness and the fact that taxi drivers seem not yet to know precisely where West Bund is as your writer can attest to on a recent visit. Helbling remains unconcerned about such matters. ‘When we moved into Morganshan Road there were no taxis – but only in the beginning. It is the same now at West Bund, but the subway is close by,’ he said. ‘It is a nice area, you can walk, it is open. You can see the river and the sky. There are huge ships and barges on the river. Here at Moganshan it is very much old Shanghai. Very nice but it does get a little bit crowded. West Bund has more chance to develop,’ he expanded. When pressed about how he came to be occupying a prime piece of real estate among so many lavish developments he admitted to the fact that the Shanghai authorities came looking for him. ‘There is this piece of land near the water which has been unused for so long, they said. So what do you do? You can try and make something with it,’ Helbling said.

 

‘The idea was to get art there. When M50 started Shanghai was not famous for art and there was no place people could go to see art. The idea was that everything related to art would be here at Moganshan Lu. So it became the centre of art. But these things are only good for a certain time and now if you come here it is a totally mixed environment. People who come to see good contemporary art can only see four or five places here. The rest is horrible. Only for a certain time was Moganshan a place for art. West Bund is different. It is more contemporary, more serious and it has more space. Here at Moganshan if you have an opening 10 people come and the street is clogged and if it gets too crowded it is not a good space.’
Even the artist who once gave Moganshan its character are moving to bigger studios with Zhang Enli being one of the latest to uproot himself from a studio with three-metre high ceilings in favour of one with 10-metre high ceilings.

While the spaces may have changed at Moganshan I asked Helbling about changes in the art itself. How has contemporary art changed over the intervening years?‘Concerns change as people change what they are thinking about. Education has also changed totally. In the 1990s people could hardly travel. They had to learn things from books. Then dvds came, now the young generation have seen all the movies of the world. The internet came, much more information came through.  People now have more money to spend on art and more information, more knowledge. It is hard to compare today with our first Ding Yi exhibition even though he is still with ShanghArt. There were some very expensive works then that nobody could afford …. some were US$1,000, some US$10,000 and more. In comparison today’s prices do not look so high. Quality is certainly something that is better than before and that is surely something positive. ‘From the beginning my aim was always long term ….. not to make too many stupid mistakes along the way, not to go too go fast but to grab opportunities, and try not to screw them up,’ he explained.

While Helbling’s approach may not have changed the art certainly has. Pop Art and Cynical Realism has given way to a much more conceptual approach to art making by artists whose oeuvre is more ideas based. Moving image art – or what at one time would have been called video art – is now everywhere. As Helbling and I talked, auteur filmmaker Yang Fudong – another of ShanghArt’s long-term artists, was out of town finishing a feature length film with a working title Fragrant River. And these things have also impacted on the way Helbling does business. ‘How can we show Fudong’s new movie in the gallery? It is not a video work. We just do not have the space. However, in a museum it would be great,  so now we work with museums in this way, always trying to see the long term and what is best for the artist. ‘A few years ago we would do museum shows in the gallery but now there are so many new museums in Shanghai doing the big shows that we tend not to do them in the gallery any more. So we concentrate perhaps on making the gallery a little smaller.’

Helbling’s new West Bund gallery is inspired by shipping containers and there is a pragmatic reason for this, he confided. ‘The lease is only five years and I did not want to use expensive marble or that type of high-end product in the build because in five years time the whole thing could be knocked down. In Shanghai you just never know what might happen,’ he said somewhat sagely.

 

 

BY MICHAEL YOUNG