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Interview with Mr. Cheng from Xin Dong Cheng Gallery

This is an interview with Mr. Cheng from Xin Dong Cheng Gallery in Beijing and Paris.

AfN: Dear Mr. Cheng, you just did a book presentation: a Chinese translation of the French book "Art Business" by Judith Benhamou-Huet. Why have you chosen that book to translate into Chinese? And how was the presentation?

Cheng: China is completely new in the art system. We were building the system with old artistic elements, so all this information is very very useful to help China to do its first steps towards the restauration of artists, galleries, artists, museums, auction houses...

Judith Benhamou is a French journalist, a person who has a lot of experience because she travels a lot in the world, a specialist of the art markets... I found information in her book that can be useful for China. That is why I did it [the translation] - because I think it is good, and because I see a financial chance in everything, and because I think it is very useful for the Chinese public.

AfN: So the wider Chinese audience is still not very familiar with the Western system of how the art world is organised. Why is that?

Cheng: After a special period in the past, when the country went through war, after certain political moments, after the cultural revolution, completely all systems of art collapsed.

With the new era of globalisation, Chinese will know a lot of new things; I am not sure if that is good, if the Western systems are good for China, but anyway, they can learn something from that. They can compare. There are so many experiences which are useful for China.

AfN: And do you publish these books on your own. Do you have a publishing house?

Cheng: That is why I created a publishing house. I am not really a publisher... We are the new Chinese generation, and we are actually living the new era; life changed so quickly, and China becomes more and more open to the world. Every day there is so much information... I have never experienced that before. I did not learn that at school. So for us, it is new. We are acting, and we are learning something, and then you know how to do it.

AfN: We would like to know a little bit about you. When did you open your first gallery, and what is your background?

Cheng: First, I studied in China. I passed the national examinations. It was very hard. Less than 1% of people could pass the examination and go to university. But it was still much better than during the cultural revolution when all the universities were closed. But the competition was very hard; everything was managed by the government, they chose the best students to study science because at the beginning of the 20th century, they were thinking: "Only science and technology can help China - China has lost so many wars, they need the technology." So I studied science here. I did not want to, but back then, I was 15 years old, and the government chose the students to learn something - no discussion, everything was organised and paid by the government. But the first year after, I said to myself: "This is not what I want to do." Young Chinese people did not have the choice so they learned and finished. And then, with the opening-up in the 80s, we learned a lot of things outside of the school system - from the society, from TV, the publishing books. At that time, I was the leader of a student movement, so I organised a lot of dialogues, art forums, discussions. After Mao Zedong, and the new economic reform, with the new leader, everything was completely different so we learned again - we were learning about the real China, to know it better, the Chinese culture, geography... everything - even Confucianism! It is an old philosophy but we did not learn this in school. So it was a completely different China!... The young people looked at China like at a new country, like a baby. So I wanted to change, too, but there was no chance. The only thing I could do was to learn something from somewhere else.

AfN: And then you went to Paris?

Cheng: Not so quickly. In '83, the central government suddenly changed the politics against the reformists. I had organised a lot of conferences and dialogues, so I was criticised by the school. It was forbidden for me to organise anything. The only thing I could do was to study science. At that time, we could only pass examination after examination; I made a master, doctorate, I came back. I wanted to change, to learn something else but I finished my four years of studies in science, chemistry - I had no choice. I was sent to the countryside to work in a pharmaceutical factory for two years. I wanted to show that I can do better, so I studied again. I passed again examination after examination. I chose another city like Xian which was a bit further of where I come from. I wanted to go back to the origins of China's cultural heritage so I went to Xian to study philosophy. But at that time, chemistry was the only thing that I could do. Then, I was again chosen as the leader of a students movement, and at the beginning of '86, the situation changed again, there was again a change of leadership.

Studying at that time was very hard; just a few books were translated. What we knew about Europe, were names like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola... nothing about the contemporary world. So when China opened up a little bit, I have seen several images in the publication books, but all in all, there was very little information, no internet, mainly propaganda. What we tried to do is to find all the information possible. From all people in China we were the first generation that went to foreign countries to study. As I passed every examination, I was allowed to go to France to study, at the beginning of '89.

AfN: So you were sent to France?

Cheng: Yes. I passed the examination for it. And at that time, I met a French girl, love story..., so we took the train together: Beijing-Moscow, Moscow-Warsaw... it went slowly...

When I arrived at the Gare du Nord, I immediately fell in love with the city Paris. So I studied there, and, of course, it was very important to learn the language first; everything was new for me. All I knew about Paris were names like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, several new books written by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and very few books and images of Paris, some postcards of Paris like Notre Dame de Paris... nothing else. So it was a new world, a new life for me. It was a new beginning.

AfN: Did you open your first gallery in Paris or in Beijing?

Cheng: First, I did not study chemistry anymore, I did not like it but I learned something about it. I began to study suburban culture, and at that time, I got lucky and I met the director of the Galerie de France in Paris whose work is so important, who works with everybody, with great international artists. So I met her, and I started to work there, and I learned things very quickly. Then, there was this very rich period when I met all the most important international galleries, went to big museum exhibitions, travelled to see biennales, the biennale de Venice, the biennale São Paolo, the biennale de Vienna; I was discovering the system. After all that, I told myself "what I want to do is art". With my experience, it would be good to do something in China and work as a promoter, producer or something like this. The concept of gallery was completely new for me; it did not exist in China. Even now, it is still new in China. I learned everything about the system in the 90s, and I learned it in an international context where art, relationships, business, public, politics - everything is coming together!

And then in 1992, the fresh government was preparing a "Pierre Soulages"-exhibition in China. Soulages, at that time, worked with the Galerie de France. They needed somebody like me with a connection to China. I had the experience, so in 1992, I went back to China to prepare it. It was completely new, something like this. I learned a lot. After, I asked myself: "How can I use best the different experiences? How can I bring the different cultures together?" So that is how I found my personal identity.

In 1996, I was the first person to introduce Chinese contemporary art to Paris, to France - first, at the Galerie de France, and then in public spaces like museums, Musée de Picardie in Amiens etc. I was lucky to meet very important international artists so I tried to bring them to China. In the 90s, I had no money, no gallery, I only had my experiences. So I thought that the easiest way to make a connection between Paris and Beijing was to create two bases in these two cities and to facilitate the contact. Since then, I was a creator, le commissaire d'exposition, and I introduced a lot French artists like Buren, Martial Raysse, etc to China, and not only in the big cities but also in the capitals of the provinces. It was a big event, and I had to organise it. I tried to push all the forces, strengths together to promote, to show in public because it was the first time for China; especially in the provinces it was really something new. [...] Life changed since 1999; and I told myself "I should organise a space in China". I opened my space in 2000.

At the beginning, it was in my house. There were not enough collectors, there were very few. I created artist studios; I invited artists to work in my studios. In three months, I created everything, and then, after three months, Beijing made a studio exhibition.

Xin Dong Cheng and Marek Claassen

AfN: Your first art fair was the FIAC in 2003. But then, you went back to Paris because you have a branch there, too. When did you open that branch?

Cheng: Of course, I wanted to open my own gallery to sell art. I had nothing to rely on, no financial system in China. There was no capital, because everybody was communist, everybody was equal. The first fair I took part in was here in 1997, at the Shanghai art fair. I am the only one taking part since the beginning. shcontemporary is new, before there was only the Shanghai art fair. So I went there to help my friends; it was important for Shanghai at the beginning. I was the only one showing contemporary and international art, both together. But nothing was sold (except for some masterpieces; I made quite a big event). People at that time, in 2000, used artworks for communication. There was no background of art, no art education at schools - it was something completely new. How can art be discussed? The only thing you can do is to show the distance of communication and to make them understand art. You must create the movement. So now, we can talk about art because we have passed the most difficult period. Of course now, there is the shcontemporary. This is progress. It was not that easy. It was more than 10 years of work.

Now I have three galleries in Beijing, and each year, I organise a big event for the Chinese contemporary art in the world, in another country. Before it was in Europe, last year for the second biennale of Moscow where I invited more than 30 artists. It was a useful experience. This year, we were in Greece, in the National Contemporary Art Centre. More than 40 artists were there. Next year, we will be in South America. I have my gallery, my publishing house... Why is it such hard work? Because if you don't do it, the government will not do it. We are late. I hope that China, one day, can offer some good museums...

AfN: But slowly the government is accepting it. It uses this fame of Chinese art for the fame of the country. Isn't there a change in the relationship between artists or the art community and the government?

Cheng: They make some progress compared to the beginning of the 80s, 90s. It is a completely new phase in contemporary art, at least for some of it. The media is not open to everything and everybody. We still have the propaganda ministry. Some pieces cannot be shown for political reasons, for violence reasons, sex - but that's life.

AfN: I also have the feeling that sometimes the censorship is rather privately motivated. There is not a real structure or reason why this artwork can be shown, and the other one cannot be shown. It is mainly because a certain censor might say "I don't like this", and then it is not shown...

Cheng: For practical reasons. The ultimate aim is the stability of society.

AfN: Today is the last day of the shcontemporary art fair in 2008. You also did the 2007 edition. Compared to last year, what is your impression of the future for the shcontemporary? Or for Shanghai as a major art venue in general?

Cheng: If we think about the future and think about Shanghai and China, the shcontemporary is very important because it is organised by a new, more international team. The team has more international relationships, a lot of experience; they are more professional. Of course, for Shanghai, this is very important. The only problem is that China is not ready to observe all those international artworks because they don't know, they don't understand them. There are exceptions; the new generation has seen more, they travelled. But the public in general, a lot of people don't come here because it is too early. There is no [art] education at school.

AfN: It is different for them. When I compare the Shanghai art fair with this, I can see a big difference. There is a completely different viewing; it seems that a lot of Chinese people are rather traditional. But this year, I was in New York at a fair called Bridge Art Fair where they show a lot of Chinese galleries. I was surprised to see that the Americans and New Yorkers were really shocked. They could not really interact with Chinese contemporary art - too much colour, too much power...

Cheng: They can understand Chinese modern "classic" better than Chinese contemporary art. It is perhaps not very contemporary but for them, it is evolutionary.

AfN: There is a gap in viewing culture.

Cheng: Of course. It is the same for everybody. The Chinese are closer to their own culture because they have the background, they have some education about their own culture assimilation.

AfN: But what about Beijing?
I always had the feeling that they never managed to make such a big event like it is done here in Shanghai.

Cheng: I think they already make a big, big, big effort. The only problem is that the new Chinese generation, they do not have enough experience. They need more relationships. They don't know enough people to introduce a more international crowd, and they cannot do that without sufficient knowledge of the market. Of course, they try their best. It is still the beginning.

AfN: So Hong Kong is the place to be?

Cheng: Hong Kong is big. It is a very good place to do [a big event]. But still, Hong Kong itself has a very poor local culture. It is only business. Of course, art fairs are business.

AfN: Yes, but I mean, Hong Kong as a city, I never associated it with art. There are art galleries, also major art galleries, but the city is a pure business town.

Cheng: Why not? You cannot ask everybody to be an artist, you cannot ask every buyer to keep pieces for future generations. There are no responsibilities. Why? You buy for your own pleasure like when you shop for clothes. And next year, [the fashion] changes again.

AfN: In preparation of this interview I have read an article in "Le Monde" where it says: "Les temps ont changé. Il aurait été surprenant que l'art chinois échappe à la commercialisation à outrance, voire à la tendance à l'"industrialisation" qui pousse certains artistes à faire tourner jusqu'à la surchauffe leur machine à créer." The catchword for me was "industrialization", especially when I compare for example the shcontemporary art fair with the Shanghai art fair. When you switch
between the events you have the feeling that everything is possible: Art production for the Chinese collectors eye, art production for the western collectors eye - anything desired is for sale. Do you think that we westerners have a too romantic view on the art world?

Cheng: For me, personal creations of artists come from the studio. Of course, it could be commissioned or industrialised ... You cannot escape this development. What do you do with art creations? You want to show them and let the society know about the creations. It is not a problem. Andy Warhol tried to break the system. He wanted to make mass reproductions in order to change art concepts by the volume of art. But who gives the volume of art? First of all, the artists - they make the creations. And then we, the public, understand artworks more, understand artists more... The social volume grows. It is normal. The market has cracked. Since the beginning of the human being, society exists with the same social laws: You need a market. And with art, it is the same. But it is not exclusively like this. You cannot choose artists only like products.

AfN: Since Impressionism, we add certain unique figures to art. We think of the artist as a loner with a beard, painting or creating crazy things alone in his studio...

Cheng: Ok, you can. But one day, art creations leave the studio and enter the society.

AfN: And then the mechanisms of society get hold of them...

Cheng: People talk about prices. They say that the Mona Lisa has no price, that there is art without price. This is nothing sure. At the beginning of François I, the French king, he bought the piece with a price. There was always a price.

AfN: The same "Le Monde" article - there's also a quotation from somebody who wanted to remain anonymous. It says: "L'art contemporain chinois reste prisonnier d'une esthétique facile et sans contenu réel ! C'est du tape à l'oeil !" On the contrary, I know that lots of famous contemporary artists in China have experienced the cultural revolution and/or the happenings on Tiananmen Square in 1989. These events must have left emotional traces for the artists. How would you explain that we westerners sometimes miss this subjective and emotional expression that the Chinese of course must have as well?

Cheng: We have different measures. Western people have western visions. But why do you ask Chinese to share the same visions? The Chinese contemporary artworks will get better; the communist period is still present. And this period is a period of the struggle of powers. I want to show this period because we cannot escape it. Why should I ignore this? I share these emotions; of course, I cannot ask my children to share the same things with me. The other people, they only know stories from television etc, and they don't know what they are talking about. My responsibilty is to describe this period as deeply as possible, to show this emotion and to understand the vision of art. You cannot ask anybody to be responsible for other civilisations.

AfN: Another thing concerning the keyword "industrialization" is the relationship "artist to gallery" and "artist to auction house". Chinese artist became very famous within a short period of time, through the results of their auctions. Now the British artist, Damien Hirst sells directly from his studio to the auction house. Do you think that this is also an indicator of the "industrialization" of the whole sector?

Cheng: In the art world, there are not so many artists who can do the same like Damien Hirst. First of all, he knows the communication and the system very well; he is already supported by a very strong art system. He is selling more than 200 pieces. Maybe he wants to break the system? Perhaps it is a joke? I don't know. It is difficult for the people who supported him since the beginning, the galleries... I think he is free to do what he wants to do. But I don't know how he will do it in the future. Of course, art can sell without art fairs, especially when the artist is famous.

AfN: Mr. Cheng, where are you heading to next? Are you going to Miami?

Cheng: Before the end of this year, I will be in my galleries where we will have three or two exhibitions. I will alos help to organise some exhibitions in museums. I will be in Greece, preparing the National Contemporary Art Centre. [...] We will also be in Miami at the fair. And we are preparing for next year, the fairs, the exhibitions, my galleries... Life continues.

AfN: Thank you very much for the interview.

Cheng: Thank you very much.


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