2012.02.06 Mon, by Translated by: Song Jing
All Roads Lead to Vancouver:
Zheng Shengtian remembers Vancouver's early connections to Chinese contemporary art

Standing at a distance from the bubbling cauldron that is Chinese contemporary art, Vancouver-based Zheng Shengtian, Managing Editor of Yishu, remembers his work with Annie Wong and their early efforts to promote Chinese contemporary artists from abroad.

Vancouver is known widely as an Asian city in North America. A whopping 30 percent of its population is of Chinese descent due to its rich history of Chinese immigration, including a current wave of wealthy immigrants arriving from Mainland Chinese cities. So what about the city’s connections to Chinese contemporary art? All queries into the topic seemed to lead to Zheng Shengtian.

I met Zheng at a cafe near the Yishu office to discuss Vancouver’s links to Chinese contemporary art. Our conversation immediately turned to a discussion about Vancouver’s Jiangnan project. At a time when the elite international circles of the contemporary art world knew little of this upcoming phenomenon, Vancouver was a very important meeting place for Chinese contemporary artists, curators and scholars. Zheng describes Vancouver as “one of the pioneer cities of contemporary Chinese art. Back in the 1990s, Vancouver had more shows than any other city outside of Asia on contemporary Chinese art — and was the site of the Jiangnan project.”

Named after the lower reaches of the Yangtze River Delta, a region in China with a long history of artistic richness, Vancouver’s Jiangnan involved exhibitions at 12 Vancouver art galleries from March through May of 1998. It included a lecture series and an international symposium. “Xu Jiang, then the Vice-President of the China Academy of Art, came and he said that he had never seen any event like it in the whole world, so many shows about Chinese art together at a very high level. Xu Bing, Huang Yongping, Zhang Peili, all these important artists were in Vancouver. And that was at a time when other countries or cities did not have many chances to see one single Chinese art show.”

Before moving to Vancouver in 1990, Zheng had worked as a professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou for 30 years. In the early 1990s, few people from Mainland China were immigrating to Vancouver. At first, he worked as a freelance artist and then as a curator and a writer. In 1995, he got involved with the Annie Wong Art Foundation. Zheng’s connections to the artistic communities of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing were unique and complemented Wong’s network in Hong Kong and her financial resources. Together they set in motion many events that had a significant influence on the careers of Chinese artists such as Chen Zhen, Yang Fudong and Cai Guo-Qiang.

An artist herself, a generous philanthropist (daughter of late Hong Kong banker, merchant and philanthropist Dr. Leung Kau Kai), and a Vancouverite, Mrs Annie Wong Leung Kit Wah was intent on supporting and promoting Chinese contemporary art from outside of China. In 1995, she started a gallery, Art Beatus, in Vancouver to showcase Chinese art and also set up the Annie Wong Art Foundation, the first private Chinese foundation to support contemporary artists. Zheng became the director of the Gallery and the Foundation.

The venture took off and by 1998, they were spearheading the Jiangnan project and generally promoting the professional development of many Chinese contemporary artists. Zheng knew first-hand about the challenges faced by Mainland Chinese artists. At that time, contemporary art was criticized or ignored by the Chinese government and still viewed with suspicion by public audiences. “In the middle of the 1990s Chinese artists had very few resources: to find sponsors, to show their work — especially outside of China.”

After exhibiting work in Vancouver at Art Beatus, the shows were promoted in further exhibitions abroad. The Foundation covered travel expenses and sponsored artists’ involvement in international biennales. At the time, art galleries based in China were not on Basel’s invitation list. However, from 1998, the Annie Wong Art Foundation was invited to show the work of Chinese artists such as Huang Yongping, Chen Zhen, Xu Bing, Wang Jianwei, Yue Minjun, Zheng Guogu, Gu Wenda, Shen Yuan, and many others. As Zheng recalls, “We sponsored Cai Guo-Qiang to go to the 48th Venice Biennale, the year he did ‘Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard’ and won [the Golden Lion Award. We sponsored Chen Zhen’s major exhibition in Israel. His installation was so successful that he was invited to Venice Biennale in 1999.”

Though based the whole time in Vancouver, the Annie Wong Art Foundation was also involved in the early years of the Shanghai Biennale. In 1998, the Directors of the Shanghai Art Museum approached the Annie Wong Art Foundation for assistance. They wanted to develop the Biennale into an international show and they needed help making sense of the international art scene. The Foundation stepped in as a co-organizer from 1998 and donated half a million Renminbi to the Biennale. They also recommended Hou Hanru as the co-curator, for the third Shanghai Biennale (2000), who started to invite and attract international artists.

As well as helping Chinese artists gain international exposure abroad, at the end of 2000, the Foundation toured well-known Western curators (such as Okwui Enwezor, now director Haus der Kunst in Munich, Chris Dercon, the new Director of Tate Modern, and Lynne Cooke, curator-at-large for DIA Foundation, New York, and chief-curator for the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid) around art studios in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Taipei and Hong Kong. “Yang Fudong was ‘discovered’ by those curators. He and other artists were introduced to Europe and the United States.”

Shaking his head, Zheng pauses and adds, “Those were very busy years!” Eventually, he and Wong were ready to move on to other projects. By that time contemporary Chinese art had made its international debut, the art market was heating up, and commercial sponsors (for better or for worse) were then ready to step in and take the place of the Foundation in funding the Shanghai Biennale.

Art Beatus and the Annie Wong Art Foundation continue to support and exhibit Chinese contemporary art from locations in Vancouver and Hong Kong. Zheng helped set-up and remains actively involved with Vancouver’s Centre A, a pivotal Vancouver institution devoted to Asian Art. He also worked with Ken Lum, contemporary artist and academic, to establish Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art and is its Managing Editor.

After enthusiastically promoting Chinese contemporary art from Vancouver for 20 years, Zheng’s views are now much more cautious and his role as promoter has shifted to that of critic. From this new vantage point, he continues to see Vancouver as a city with an important role to play in the future of Chinese contemporary art.