Lorenz Helbling: ShanghART's strength is to find good talents

Lorenz Helbling came to Shanghai in 1985 to study Chinese history and film. It was an era when the "new wave" art movement was stirring, but he didn't take much notice.
Ti Gong

Lorenz Helbling, owner of ShanghART gallery

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Lorenz Helbling came to Shanghai in 1985 to study Chinese history and film at Fudan University. It was an era when the “new wave” art movement was stirring, but he didn’t take much notice at the time.

It was not until 1992, while he was working at a gallery in Hong Kong, that he was introduced to Chinese art in the oil paintings of Chen Yifei and ink-wash works of Wu Guanzhong. In 1996, he opened ShanghART on the corridor of the then Portman Hotel on Nanjing Road W., which is today the Portman Ritz-Carlton. In 2000, ShanghART was China’s first gallery to participate in Art Basel, one of the most prestigious international art fairs. Today’s leading lights — Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Enli, Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi — are all ShanghART artists.

Q: When you opened ShanghART at the then Portman Hotel in 1996, were you confident about the future of Chinese contemporary art?

A: Shanghai was a cultural hub with international influences for a big part of its history. When I got here in the mid-1990s, Shanghai didn’t have a gallery for contemporary art, so it only could get better. I didn’t think much more than that.

Q: At that time, everyone involved in the contemporary art circle was short of money, which might mean that most of them could fully focus on art without any outside disturbance. Do you think it was a golden age?

A: Money can have a bad influence, but no money is mostly worse. Looking back it is easy to get nostalgic, but the 1980s and 1990s were not good times for art. Many works got overpainted and even lost since the artists didn’t have money to buy new canvases. Works were thrown away because they could not afford storage, or works didn’t even get created since there was no money for paint. If a work got produced and survived, and is worth a fortune today, it could then only be sold for a penny, and artists emigrated or changed jobs. That is all not good, a loss. I prefer the time today, when artists have a fairer chance to create things and get recognition, although things are still hard enough.

Ti Gong

The opening of ShanghART in 1996 at the then Portman Hotel in Shanghai. ShanghART was China’s first gallery to participate in 2000 Art Basel. Today, a number of leading Chinese contemporary artists come from ShanghART.

Q: Can you remember the biggest challenge for you from 1995 to 2000 at ShanghART?

A: Paying the rent and other costs while showing challenging art. On a more abstract level it was to get people to look at the artworks. That is, making people forget what they know without getting lost. Contemporary art is always a challenge. Good works become masterpieces only after being around a long time. In the time they are created they are surrounded by doubts and naysayers. It needs open eyes, curiosity and courage to look at them.

Q: Today many top artists come from ShanghART. Some say that’s because of their talents, and some say because of the promotion of ShanghART. What’s your interpretation?

A: Without good art we cannot do anything, without talents all our efforts are useless. But also, I don’t think we have been really good at promoting. Our strength is rather to find good talents and then not to get desperate when things need time.

Q: What are the criteria for ShanghART to select its own artists? It is said that you usually would observe an artist for years. Is that true?

A: Yes, it needs time, courage and curiosity, and an understanding of the time we live in is also helpful.

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