Super Eight

Ali Pechman on the Armory Show’s China Symposium

Left: Professor Jerome Cohen, Danwei director Jeremy Goldkorn, K11 Art Foundation chairman Adrian Cheng, Modern Media's Thomas Shao, and writer Reihan Salam. Right: Collector and Yuz Foundation founder Budi Tek and K11 Art Foundation chairman Adrian Cheng. (All Photos: Ali Pechman)

IN CHINA, perhaps even more than elsewhere, art-world power is often evinced in terms of numbers: One thinks of the country’s $14 billion art market, upward of four hundred museums built a year. On a more symbolic register, one might consider Christie’s rumored swap last fall, when the auction house changed the lot number for Francis Bacon’s $142 million triptych to China’s lucky number, eight.

Art fairs continue to give numbers the upper hand. So it was something of a relief last weekend to encounter the Armory Show’s China Symposium, eight ambitious discussions on the role of contemporary art in China, supported by Adrian Cheng and his K11 Art Foundation. The talks, organized by Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, complemented the fair’s China Focus, a showcase of Chinese galleries also selected by Tinari. At the center of his layout on the south end of Pier 94 was the Shanghai-based Xu Zhen’s Action of Consciousness, a closed-off white cube which every few minutes spat into the air one of fifty assorted art objects, aping the split-second viewings that characterize art-fair mania. The Armory Show’s choice of an artist who embraces all things commercial—Xu Zhen operates as a company under the artist’s name—seemed an inspired choice, and it was notable that Ai Weiwei was nowhere in sight. (Neither, for that matter, was Xu himself, who is afraid of flying and supervised his team remotely.) As Xu put it to me when I visited his studio in Shanghai last fall, “Ai’s busy with politics, and we’re busy making money.”

Last Friday, K11 Art Foundation kicked off the weekend at the Skylark bar. He An and Zhang Ding mingled with the Xu Zhen crowd while Huang Rui and Shen Chen recounted a drunken daylong road trip. Lu Pingyuan had just seen the Whitney Biennial: “It’s supposed to be American artists, right? And are they supposed to be young?” Anyone would have enjoyed the champagne and 1960s Chinese surf-pop juxtaposed with glittering panoramic views of uptown—that is, provided you could get in. Budi Tek, the Chinese-Indonesian farming tycoon and art collector, arrived around 11 PM, after getting stuck in a huge line outside—“…of three thousand people!” an outraged friend emphasized.

Left: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art director Philip Tinari and UCCA's Winnie Hu. Right: Scene at the Skylark.

Tek, who opens the one hundred thousand–square-foot Yuz Museum in Shanghai in May, seemed amused by the snafu. “I told them, ‘I’m Budi Tek,’ and they said, ‘Who?’ ” He laughed. “Sometimes you have to be, ah... humble!” Tinari did not have a problem getting in, arriving late after the Gagosian dinner at Carbone. (Given the weather, the Beijing car dealer Yang Bin, once ranked the second-richest person in China, had wondered what to wear to the dinner. “It’s like, wear a big white puffy jacket or something,” said the UCCA’s Winnie Hu. “Who cares? You’re Yang Bin!”)

The privileged have more to worry about than access and dress codes, of course. “I can do a lot of things as long as I don’t cross a line,” Cheng said Saturday of his art foundation, whose recent projects include a Shanghai megamall-cum-museum. “As long as we don’t cross the government,” he later clarified.

Cheng’s symposium marathon featured talks with titles like “The Big Picture,” or as Jerome Cohen, the NYU law professor and China expert, called it, “Instant China for Busy People.” A fitting observation given that Hans Ulrich Obrist, originally billed to appear on the panel, had to cancel last-minute.

Despite the recent explosion of Chinese collectors, everyone was quick to note that contemporary sales make up only about 1 percent of the Chinese art market. “Why are you still doing paintings, installations, same old same old?” Thomas Shao, president of Modern Media, rhetorically asked Chinese artists. “Why can’t someone leverage the 600 million WeChat users?” (WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp and Facebook, claims to be valued at more than $60 billion.) Those interested in hearing from artists deeply engaged in such matters might have found answers in Sunday’s “The On | Off Generation” panel moderated by Lee Ambrozy.

“American culture, there’s something about it I don’t like,” offered Shen Qibin, director of the Tianrenheyi Art Center in Hangzhou during Saturday’s “The Chinese Art World Described as a System,” ironically the most chaotic of the panels. “It’s all about muscle competition.”

Left: Xu Zhen's Alexia Dehaene and Louise Lan with Fanming Zhu. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Hardly a trait unique to the US, as attested to by all the flexing among private museum holders in “The Museum Boom.” The panel, which featured Wuhan Art Terminus’s Colin Chinnery, China Megacities Lab’s Jeffrey Johnson, the Sifang Art Museum’s Lu Xun, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal’s Karen Smith, and Budi Tek, drew the biggest crowd. “There’s a lot to learn,” said dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Tek and Lu showed off their goods via PowerPoint. The Sifang, a modern Xanadu, is a resort-style 115-acre museum complex on the outskirts of Nanjing, dedicated to “the beautiful things in your life,” as Lu called them: Maurizio Cattelans, Olafur Eliassons, and Movement Field, a huge hillside of white zigzag paths by Xu Zhen. “I don’t think people need to understand it to enjoy it,” Lu said, apparently speaking of Xu. Tek said his bright-red Shanghai museum would be one of the best, most professional, most “real” museums in a country littered with cheap imitations. “But I’m not talking about the Sifang,” he quickly added. “Lu Xun and I are friends.”

On Sunday afternoon, the final panel was devoted to Xu Zhen. Project manager Alexia Dehaene gave an overview of the company’s output. This included Movement Field, which uses actual overlapping and intersecting routes taken by various political uprisings the world over. Even with Xu’s sly subversions in the spotlight, panelists invoked the same names and buzzwords: “speed,” “commercial,” “Mao,” and …oh no, there’s “Ai Weiwei” again!

“You know, I’m just going to stop it,” Tinari said, as the fair and panels wound to a close. “Every other conversation about Chinese art ends with Ai Weiwei. Why should this one be any different?”

Left: Artists Zhang Ding and He An. Right: Artists Shen Chen and Huang Rui.