Meet China’s top collector of contemporary art

Guan Yi tells us about his plans to open a museum and sculpture park on a 16.5-acre plot of land in Beijing


Guan Yi, 42, has assembled the most important holdings of contemporary art in China. He comes from a family which made huge sums of money in chemical manufacturing in Qingdao but in 1997 ceded management of the family business to his brother to concentrate entirely on collecting. At the time most contemporary art was going abroad to foreign buyers and he believed that “we Chinese should recognise that this art of our time is important”. Guan Yi believes he is collecting art as a mission, doing the work that public institutions and the Chinese government are failing to carry out. He now owns “700, maybe even 800 works” of Chinese art including pieces by Huang Yong Ping, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Wu Shanzhuan, and Yan Lei. Around one third of the collection consists of large-scale installation pieces. He says he is increasingly frustrated by the rampant speculation in the Chinese art market which is making it difficult for talented young artists to emerge today. He also sees the lack of professional art critics in China as another big problem. The tendency in China to equate high prices with art historical importance is hampering the development of significant work, he says. Although Guan Yi prefers to stay out of the limelight, he granted us a rare interview at his warehouse in Song Zhuang, on the outskirts of Beijing, to discuss his project to build a museum for his collection as well as a sculpture park for works commissioned from international artists.

The Art Newspaper: What are your intentions for your collection?

Guan Yi: I am planning to open a large contemporary art museum in a district of Beijing called Beigao, which is between the 798 art district and the airport. The land I hope to develop is next to a space where China’s Ministry of Culture is also planning to open a contemporary art museum.

TAN: Are you working with the Ministry of Culture?

GY: No, they are doing their project independently. I am doing mine, they are doing theirs.

TAN: In China all land belongs to the government and usage rights are a complicated issue. Have you discussed this with the authorities?

GY: Yes, we have communicated, but there are some outstanding legal issues regarding the land. In China, land is not for personal use. Under present law you can only get a 20-year lease on land, so we are negotiating on this point.

The amount of investment I commit to the museum will depend on the guarantees I receive from the government on this issue. We want a definite decision.

TAN: What is your idea for this private museum? There aren’t many such museums in China.

GY: I have collected a lot of installation work. What you can see here, in my warehouse, represents only 10% of my collection. One third of what I own is installation work and some pieces are more than several hundred metres in size, so to display my collection, I need a space of 15,000 sq. m. If you give these big pieces to a government museum such as the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Shanghai Art Museum, or the Guangdong Museum of Art, they have no place to put them. So I thought the solution was to build an art museum, not far from the centre of Beijing, something like Dia:Beacon [in upstate New York].

TAN: So Dia:Beacon inspired this project?

GY: Yes, partly, but they have converted a disused factory, whereas I will construct a new building to display my collection. I especially like the idea that I can get architects and artists to collaborate on this so the space can be designed around the works of art, to make the space fit the art. This model is new for China.

I have 16.5 acres of land, and the built space cannot be more than 15% of the entire area. So a big part of the land will be used for a park which I will use to show installations. And this will be the international part of the museum complex.

For example, I admire the Serpentine Gallery in London. Hans [Ulrich Obrist] and Julia [Peyton-Jones], the co-directors, are my very good friends. When Hans visited my collection he was very excited, very moved, by what I have here. So, I would like to invite international artists to create installations for this section of the museum. Works that fit the environment, so it will become an installation park.

In a way it will also be an environmentally-themed museum. It will use solar power and other devices. Also, the transportation around the park will be powered by environmentally friendly methods. We would like to explore ways that artists can turn this into a kind of installation work. For instance, I very much like the work of the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson that was in Tate Modern [Eliasson’s giant sun, The Weather Project, was installed in the Turbine Hall from October 2003 to March 2004]. In 2003 I met him in Shenzhen, and when I saw his work in Tate Modern I wanted to buy it, but it was too expensive.

TAN: Is the museum going to be entirely funded by you?

GY: It is my personal project, my own money. The more we talk about this museum, the more I feel I should talk about the things that happened in the past which brought me to this point. In the 1980s, I was also an artist, but maybe not as modernised as other artists, I can’t paint very well.

I can’t write well either, but when I was quite young my older brother bought me a Nikon FMR. In the 1980s in China, this was an extremely good camera, so I became a photographer. That time in China was called Wenhua Autobahn, or the Culture Utopia period.

TAN: Yes, I’ve heard that in the 1980s, books were freely translated and there was a lot of information coming in from the West, even though the economy wasn’t developed. But it all ended after 4 June 1989.

GY: Yes. So I was around during that time, until 4 June. Then in 1992 or 1993, as China’s economy started developing, I went into business. I still paid attention to developments in the art world, but by then information was restricted and you couldn’t read about much in the Chinese art press. People would bring me Taiwanese art magazines, artists’ magazines and by 1997 I was already thinking about returning to the art world. But how to do it? There was no way for me to be an artist. For a while I thought of becoming an architect, but then I discovered that wasn’t so easy either. So for a long time I made a lot of plans, and attended a lot of exhibitions, events, and thought about how I could return to the art world. At the same time, I would see work I liked a lot, so I started collecting.

After I started buying art, I realised that the whole system for collecting contemporary art in China was organised for foreign buyers, everything was going abroad. No one Chinese was collecting contemporary art. This got me very excited. I thought that what I could do was come up with a method to save some contemporary art for China. The last 30 years have been years of great change in China, in our society, in our ways of thinking. It is an immensely important period in our history. It is symptomatic of government ideology, that there was no systematic collection or protection of art and culture during this period. So I became anxious to do this. I am not being a nationalist, I just feel that we ourselves should have kept some work of this period, not others. For example, if this work is collected in Paris, and then they give it back to you or lend it to you, this is a separate thing but we Chinese should recognise that this art of our time is important.

The big problem is that the government is not collecting these works. In reality it should be the big three national art museums collecting this art, but actually they collect very few works.

I have loaned various works from my collection: after the Ullens show [Guan Yi loaned several pieces to the Huang Yong Ping retrospective which closed at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 district in June], I am lending several works to Japanese museums—three institutions are hosting a three-month show of Chinese art.

But I would now like to give this collection to the country, or more accurately, give it to society. If I say I am giving it to the country, I don’t know who that is, where do I look to find the person to give it to?

Another factor is that they will just look at my collection and say “this art is very expensive”, there’s no understanding of whether it is good or not. So no one understands its value and this is a real problem. Before my collection is handed back to the country or society, I will have to wait, until they are clearer about what it is.

There are other things that make me anxious, for instance that works of art are increasingly expensive, even young artists are expensive and it is hard to keep up. So now, when we buy things, we need to be increasingly careful to choose only the best art. There is no extra money to go and buy other things. So I only collect the work of a small group of artists, maybe around 30. There are tens of thousands of artists in China today, but I think to collect 30 to 50 artists, is enough. I think now, it’s even hard to find 30. If you were to choose ten from each decade of the last 30 years, this would be enough. And these 30 aren’t necessarily the 30 most expensive on the market.

TAN: Would you consider selling works from your collection at auction?

GY: I won’t sell at auction, but I now own 700, maybe even 800 works. So, maybe, some works are no longer as relevant to my overall collection or do not fit into my system.

TAN: Do you think there is a danger when you sell the work of a particular artist—like when Charles Saatchi was perceived to be no longer collecting an artist—that this could damage the artist’s career?

GY: Well, Saatchi stopped buying Damien Hirst’s work and Hirst is doing pretty well. Hirst is important, but his work is a bit too expensive.

TAN: So how do you choose works for your collection? Do you pay attention to what the critics say?

GY: I decide by myself [Guan Yi shows me two inscribed doorpost signs from an old temple]. These words describe how what happens outside the temple has no influence on the interior, but how being outside the temple you can still be inside the temple in your mind. You can carry the spirit of the temple with you. I pay great attention to this. I think in China, there is too much “tryism” [a combination of capitalism and trying things out to see what happens. Guan Yi points to another phrase on the doorpost]. This phrase refers to an ancient Chinese monk who went to India to study Buddhism, but what this means is we don’t have to travel to India to study Buddhism. If you are very familiar yourself with Buddhism, there is no need to travel. What I mean by this is not a kind of nationalism, many people have been here, groups from museums all around the world have visited this warehouse. But to understand Chinese contemporary art, you must understand that its history is very short, it is hard for us to know what is good and what is bad. And with the [prices achieved at] auctions recently, this makes it even more difficult, as people use this as a way of judging art. So now it is very hard to write about Chinese art. There is no education, there is no tradition, no texts. How do you get an accurate answer to any question? Who can tell you? Chinese critics? There are far too many problems with them. Too many people have become business-oriented, so you have no idea if they are telling the truth or lying. In the west, critics are clearer on the work, so the price and critical meaning are quite separate, but in China critics aren’t clear. Can we trust the national art museums? The art museums are also not clear, the market has such an influence. So, I rely on myself.

TAN: Is there anyone else who shares this desire to keep some contemporary artof China in the country?

GY: No, I am alone. I really don’t know if other people are with me or not, I don’t communicate much with others. If you look at a lot of other collectors, they are following the auction market. If you follow the auctions, then the whole thing is turned upside down. I’ll tell you a story: in 2004, just when this warehouse was finished, a lot of people, including bankers, came to visit to have a look at my contemporary art.

But after they had looked, they wanted to know: all of this work I had spent so much money on, what is it? They said, if you gave it to me I wouldn’t want it, and I would have nowhere to put it. But then, in around 2006, they got back in touch. They said they had heard these things had become extremely expensive and that they would like to come again and have another look. And I said, “no way, no way” would I let them look again. Because they didn’t understand what they were looking at. It was only when the art had a price attached to it that they paid attention to it. So, it is not about art or culture for them, it is about a capitalist way of looking. Now, a lot of people are investing in art, it has become a kind of stock, a lot of people are paying attention to it. Capital is becomingly increasingly important in art, and you must be especially careful of it, it’s a bad influence. It’s like Marx said. I have re-read Marx and a lot of what he said is right. It is not about developing art, it’s all about the price. This means this is the most difficult, most dangerous time for art in China. To be a young artist now is increasingly difficult. In the 1980s, for example, it was easier to become a good artist.

TAN: Some young artists now sell for tens of thousands of US dollars right at the beginning of their careers. Is this dangerous for their development as artists? Maybe a Picasso can cope with this, but for most artists it is normal to go through a period of struggle, to discover what it is they want to do.

GY: Yes, although there aren’t that many like Picasso. In China a lot of young artists come up with an idea, and with that one idea they can sell several hundred pieces. In the 1980s an artist would have an idea, then do perhaps two or three works and then leave it and move on. Now it has become like a production line this idea, several hundred pieces, that idea 200 pieces…not a lot to do with art.

TAN: Many believe that the political art coming out of China is made for foreigners. Do you think it is foreigners encouraging political expression? Or is it Chinese artists painting what Westerners perceive to be Chinese, like Mao Zedong or the Cultural Revolution?

GY: I think this is a very simple question, like a child’s question. So how will I answer? These political paintings are a very small, insignificant part of Chinese contemporary art.

TAN: So which contemporary artists do you think are important?

GY: The most recent period: Wang Xingwei, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, Zheng Guogu, Zhou Tiehai, Yan Lei, Liu Weihua, Cao Fei, Qiu Anxiong—they all represent this time.

Translated from Mandarin by Chris Gill

o For an interview with Huang Yong Ping, p35