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November 21, 2010

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Home » Feature » People

Man behind big names and promising artists

HIS business card gives his Chinese name "He Pulin," but everyone in the Chinese art industry knows him as Lorenz.

As the founder of ShanghART, the city's first independent art gallery, Lorenz Helbling ("He Pulin") has established himself over 15 years as an important expert and promoter of Chinese contemporary art.

There is a belief among Shanghai's artists that if an artist is discovered by the ShanghART Gallery, it means he or she has found the way to the Western art market. Helbling disagrees.

"Some artists thought all their problems would be solved if they signed a contract with ShanghART. That's not true.

"They need to solve problems by themselves, think independently, find out what they really want when they are 20 and when they are 80," Helbling said.

The Swiss national, who likes to speak Chinese, studied art history and Chinese at the University of Zurich. He studied Chinese contemporary art at Fudan University in 1986.

He then worked in a Hong Kong gallery, but returned to Shanghai in 1995. Determined that "a city must have a gallery," he established one - two marble walls in a hallway of the Portman Ritz-Carlton, at a time when the art market had just started in the city.

Helbling is no laowai in the Chinese art industry. He has a strong instinct for great contemporary art, as well as Chinese artists, and he spares no effort to help those with the potential.

He is behind many big names as well as up-and-coming artists, including Zhou Tiehai, Yue Minjun, Ding Yi, Zeng Fanzhi and Yang Zhenzhong.

Many years ago, people looked with curiosity at the slim and serious young foreigner who rode a second-hand bicycle from lane to lane to find significant works and arrange exhibitions.

They probably couldn't imagine that Zhou Tiehai or Xue Song's works that sold for US$100 (667 yuan) would eventually fetch several thousands of dollars; or that Zeng Fanzhi's US$2,000 work could fetch a record price today. One piece sold for US$10 million at Christie's auction in 2009.

Actually, China's contemporary art market reached a red-hot (and, many said unrealistic) level in 2006 and 2007. Then it was hit by the global economic tsunami in 2008. Today, prices are recovering but the mood is more rational and less speculative.

Helbling said he doesn't like to talk about the market or investing, but the man on the frontline of the art scene pays close attention to the new generation artists who will be the future of China's contemporary art in the next 10 years.

From corridor to "art space" then "warehouse," Helbling's ShanghART Gallery (with a branch in Beijing) has always kept a low profile, despite its influence. Q: How do you evaluate young artists and their works?

A: It is difficult to judge the value of contemporary art. If you can say that some artist's work has 100 percent market potential, that's not contemporary art.

I always pay close attention to young artists and what they can create. Young generation artists have a broader horizon and more chances to learn. What I care about is how much they put in to art.

It is kind of risky when you do contemporary art since you do not know what it is. I do not know what it is either. Nobody can predict its value in the market. If you like the work, the art is something that echoes in your soul, there are personal feelings. I recommend works by artists such as Liu Weijian and Zhang Qing. Based on my personal experiences, I thought they are interesting and the artists themselves have the ability to express their ideas. But I won't tell people that they are the future.

ShanghART has made profiles for 30 signed artists. If you check them, you will find that there are no personal comments by me, just information about artists and their works, as well as the professional reviews from the industry.

Q: There are two generations of Chinese contemporary artists. The older are financed by Western collectors and approved by the Western aesthetics system. The new adapt to China's aesthetics and are supported in the country. You work with both generations - how do you view them?

A: When I first started the gallery, China's contemporary art did not have its market in the city. We could only see some artists' work in Hong Kong's market. For example, you could find Chen Yifei's work at good prices; curators were willing to hold exhibitions for Ding Yi and Zhang Xiaogang.

At that time, artists just focused on art, they did not think of selling their work when they created it. It is unavoidable to say they have been influenced by Western aesthetics. After China's opening-up, artists saw different art forms from all over the world, which definitely had an impact on their thoughts and works.

The new generation of young artists have a broader view, a strong thirst for knowledge, and a bold desire to express their own will. From that point, I see great potential in China's contemporary art industry. China's new generation of artists have been influenced not only by the Western world, but also by traditional Chinese culture.

They are more sensitive to the market. Some people think that they (the young artists) are just making something strange and weird, but that probably represents the current culture.

Q: You have said that "the best relationship between art and business is that they have nothing to do with each other." Please elaborate.

A: Yes. I pay more attention to artistic work itself and do not like the topic of the market. There can only be a market if there are great works.

In 1998, we held a solo exhibition by Zeng Fanzhi and his "Mask Series No. 6" sold for US$15,000; then in 2008, it sold for a record auction price of US$9.76 million at Christie's auction house.

China's contemporary art is still in the beginning stage. Art and business are relatively connected, but the artists should stay independent, which means "Do not put business before art."

I spend a lot of time with artists and pay close attention to them, see their works, and what they will do next. I usually observe young artists for two or three years before cooperation.

Q: What's your opinion of China's gallery system?

A: Western countries have already developed a well-organized art system in which collectors, galleries, museums, critics, media and auction houses perform different functions. In China, there is no integrated system. Galleries need to carry more exhibition works, which is usually the art museums' job.

Q: ShanghART Gallery helps young artists enter the global market and on one level your gallery leads the way for Chinese art. What art trends do you foresee?

A: China's contemporary art market has seen tremendous development in the past years, and the field of art investment has also drawn global attention.

But the art circle is still not big enough. There are nearly 60,000 people working in the art circle in New York, but in China, the owner of a gallery needs to hang pictures by himself. In Shanghai, almost all of the galleries buy frames in the same shop.

In New York, you need to spend over a week to see all the galleries in the city, and more time on art museums, but in Shanghai, there are not so many choices. China's art circle still needs lots of artists, collectors and professional art media. The problem is how the industry can grow and become mature.


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