China gets its first contemporary art museum

The opening of the Ullens Center will transform the local scene and the West’s understanding of what’s happening in China


This is the moment we have all been dreaming of,” is how Lu Jie, director of the Long March Space, a not-for-profit gallery in Beijing, summed up the opening last month of the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art in the Chinese capital.

The new gallery is entirely funded by the Belgian foodstuffs baron Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam who have signed an eight-year renewable lease for a former munitions factory in the 798 district, an industrial complex built by Bauhaus-trained East German architects in the North-east of Beijing. This area is already home to nearly 100 Chinese and international galleries, not-for-profit spaces, bookshops, and cafés—a product of the phenomenal rise of Chinese contemporary art on global markets in recent years and the growing interest of regional and domestic collectors. However, it has lacked a proper art institution with the full complement of museum services: curators on staff, major exhibition programme, publications, and research facilities. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) now fills that gap.

“UCCA will help shift the focus away from the art market,” says Lu Jie. “Chinese art today is overproduced and overexposed. There are many very good artists working in China who are unknown. In the last month alone, 28 new art magazines launched in China—all of them are market led; none of them contain any art criticism.”

Speaking at the press launch of UCCA, Colin Chinnery, deputy director and chief curator, voiced similar concerns: “There is a chronic lack of research on artists not embraced by the market [UCCA will set up the first archive in mainland China for contemporary art]. Despite the growing interest in Chinese contemporary art, most Western collectors are not really interested in buying Chinese art, they’re interested in buying a piece of China.”

As a result, only a handful of artists are known in the West—those whose paintings now sell for millions at auction. And the temptation to churn out work which appeals to rich, Western buyers can be hard to resist resulting in a vastly distorted impression of what is really happening on the ground. “Our job is to promote emerging artists. The $2m canvas is not for us. We want to show a lot of art produced in China,” says Guy Ullens.

Engaging with China

Baron Guy Ullens comes from a Belgian diplomatic family first posted to China in the 1930s. He inherited a family business that refined sugar and grew seeds and made a fortune selling it for e1.2 billion in 1990. In 1985 he established a new company, Artal Group, which invested in the US, Europe and China and then bought WeightWatchers at a fraction of the price it achieved when it then went public. His collecting is eclectic: he began with antique Chinese art, including calligraphy, and also acquired an important group of Turner watercolours which he sold at Sotheby’s in London on 4 July for £10.8m ($21.7m) to help fund UCCA. His focus now is on Chinese contemporary art and he owns some 1,500 works.

He says that when he first saw the factory which was to become UCCA (converted by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte) he thought “it was made for an institution like the Guggenheim [who at one point was in discussions to establish an international outpost in the 798 district] but they wanted too much money from the Chinese government.”

The Guggenheim offer was rejected; there is almost no State money for contemporary art in China. The senior members of the Politburo are nearly all trained engineers with little knowledge or affinity for art. If anything, their interest lies in architecture: landmark buildings by leading international firms are now under construction in Beijing for the summer Olympics. However the popularity of Chinese art abroad and Baron Ullens’ offer to fund UCCA in its entirety proved hard to resist—as John McDonald of the Sydney Morning Herald puts it: “The Chinese have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this venture.”

Not that the baron is taking anything for granted: “At the moment we are under probation,” he says. Having taken round a group of Chinese officials just before the press launch, he reported that: “Their initial feedback has been very positive.” When asked if he’d like to move his entire collection (currently housed in a freeport in Geneva) to China, he replies: “Eventually, yes. But we can’t push this. The dream of every collector is to find a home for his collection. To set up a major museum in Europe would have been impossible. Our dream is to achieve this in Beijing.”

He remains cryptic on the subject of money, telling reporters only that all of the funding for UCCA has come from his own pocket. Recalling his attempts to raise funds from bankers, he says: “It was painful. They actually decreased my line of credit because they thought I was crazy.” However he hopes “the institution will be financially independent within four to five years” and he has hired Virginia Ibbott, previously of Tate and the V&A in London, to set up a fund-raising friends group for UCCA—the first such initiative in China.

Opening gambit

UCCA’s inaugural exhibition, “ ‘85 New Wave: the Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art”, curated by the gallery’s artistic director Fai Dawei, examines the art made in China from 1985 to 1995—the decade when artists broke with centuries of tradition and began to engage with the idea of the avant-garde. “Chinese artists saw Western art through black and white reproductions,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, of the Serpentine in London. “Joseph Beuys was incredibly influential in the 80s, as was Andy Warhol. This was a very important movement which is very little known in the West.” The art on view represents the moment of contact, which all emerging national schools experience, when artists experiment with dominant international trends before finding their own vision. The work ranges from the abstract and figurative to the expressionist, and symbolist. There is even a home-grown version of Dada (Xiamen Dada). There was, according to Colin Chinnery “a diversity in the show which no longer exists in Chinese art today”.

Displays includes an installation by Wu Shanzhuan who adopted the colour, form and style of the posters and slogans of the Cultural Revolution to express personal messages; Huang Yong Ping’s Reptile, which consists of three washing machines and mountains of lint—a work first seen in the 1989 Pompidou exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”, and Fish Bed, by the artist Shen Yuan (Huang Yong Ping’s wife), a disturbing work consisting of a plastic mattress filled with water in which five fish, deprived of oxygen, are slowly left to die. “The idea might have been an intuitive reaction to contemporary society, political life and the situation of living in a time when freedom was only limited to smaller spaces,” writes the artist in the exhibition catalogue. The work was made in 1989, shortly before censorship began to affect every aspect of artists’ lives: they moved their shows to basements and private apartments.

That UCCA is able to display these works at all in a country where freedom of expression is still highly curtailed is encouraging but traces of censorship are not hard to find.

A timeline which accompanies the exhibition informs visitors that “On 4 June 1989 martial law forces begin to clear out Tiananmen Square in the early morning”, a disturbing euphemism for the massacre which took place that day. Another example is the wall text accompanying an installation of phone booths by Xiao Lu, an artist who famously fired a gun at her own artwork in 1989, which led the authorities to immediately close down the show where this occurred. It reopened only to be closed down again. In the wall text this is referred to simply as “the gun incident” with no further explanation.

Colin Chinnery explains that all exhibitions are vetted by the China International Exhibition Agency. “We submit everything to them and they submit our proposals to the Ministry of Culture. Catalogues go through the vetting process as well.”

Will it succeed?

If UCCA is to succeed as a major international institution, Baron Ullens will need to grant his curators complete autonomy and he repeatedly assured the press that he will divorce himself from the running of the institution. The roster of upcoming exhibitions and new commissions is certainly impressive: the Walker Art Center’s Huang Yong Ping retrospective “House of Oracles” opens in March 2008; Rebecca Horn will also get a solo show; while an exhibition drawn from the Baron’s own collection will coincide with the Olympics next summer.

Whether the programme will attract sufficient crowds to generate the revenue needed to run the place remains to be seen. “How many people will come? Will it be popular? Who knows?” says Guy Ullens

Dong Qiang, professor of French literature and art history at Peking University, says: “There is no real tradition of accepting contemporary art in China. It is all very new. The Chinese art history curriculum is still dominated by Gombrich.” Professor Dong, who studied under Milan Kundera in Paris and has translated the works of Derrida and Deleuze into Mandarin, continues: “I think many Chinese will be indifferent to UCCA’s venture, schools will not come here with spontaneity with their students as they might visit museums in the West but young artists will come.”

Professor Dong also believes UCCA will galvanise local collectors: “The Chinese are very, very competitive. I think Chinese collectors will be jealous of UCCA and will want to do the same thing, they will launch their own spaces.”

Collector Guan Yi who has the largest contemporary Chinese art collection within China (and is a lender to the opening UCCA show) has been talking for some time about creating a museum to display his vast holdings of paintings and installations. And telecoms entrepreneur Zhang Haoming (who owns the Beijing Art Now gallery) and who started buying Chinese contemporary art in 2002 has built a 1,700-square-metre private villa to display his growing collection. “What makes the Chinese scene so interesting is that everything moves so fast,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist. In years to come, the opening of UCCA may be seen as one of the defining moments in Chinese art.