CHRISTOPHE MAO AND CHAMBERS FINE ART
by Michèle Vicat
Christophe Mao, the founder and director of Chambers Fine Art, shares his thoughts with us about the art market in China and in the West, as well as his vision about the role and the development of contemporary Chinese art. One of the first galleries devoted to contemporary Chinese art in the United States, Chambers Fine Art helped to promote the work of artists who are now at the forefront of the international art world. Lu Shengzhong, Qiu Zhijie, Hong Hao, Song Dong belong deeply to Chambers' culture.
Christophe Mao, photographed by Michèle Vicat © 2011
Christophe Mao opened his New York gallery in 2000. From the beginning, he published catalogues and books that have become a reference. One of the latest deluxe editions is devoted to the photographic work that Ai WeiWei produced in New York between 1983 and 1993.
We interviewed Christophe Mao in his gallery in Chelsea, New York. He described why he opened a second gallery in Beijing in 2007 and a third exhibition space, ArtFarm, in Salt Point, upstate New York, a year later. Both the spaces in Beijing and in Salt Point were conceived and built by Ai WeiWei and the Swiss architectural firm HHF Architects. ArtFarm operates as a seasonal gallery during the summer. This summer 2011, there will be a group show « Characters, » featuring the work of Cui Fei ( see our article on her in Artist in Focus).
Today, Christophe Mao is following four young Chinese artists, all of them under 30 years old. The Financial Times highlighted the work of one of them, Wu Jian'an, who created a paper-cut installation for Chambers Fine Art at the latest Art Hong Kong, one of the preeminent art fairs in the world.
You have three galleries : one here in New York, another in Beijing and ArtFarm in upstate New York. What is the role of each?
ArtFarm is seasonal. It is open during the summer. It is like an addition to the gallery in New York City. The galleries are all the same. Even the program is the same. They are united.
New York Gallery. Photo courtesy of
Chambers Fine Art
Beijing Gallery. Photo courtesy of Chambers Fine Art |
ArtFarm. Photo courtesy of
Chambers Fine Art
Are the collectors different in Beijing and New York? What are they looking for?
People are looking for the same thing in both places. If they come to Chambers, I am sure they already have an idea, a pre-concept in their mind. The gallery in Beijing is relatively new. It opened three years ago. The reason why I opened the gallery in Beijing is because people travel a lot these days. If they are familiar with New York, they also go to Beijing. People know the reputation of Chambers in New York. We have the gallery for ten years now, but in Beijing, they haven't necessarily had the opportunity to see our artists. Now, they can.
How has the role of Chinese artists evolved over the last ten years?
In many ways, Chinese contemporary art is still in its infancy. When we opened ten years ago, there was no market for contemporary Chinese art – even if one was beginning, it was extremely limited.
We do not want to talk only about the market, but there are many things linked to the market. There are relationships between collectors, museums and galleries. There is no clean cut line here. Artists learned from a situation in which there was no market, and then they had to learn one in which there was a market. They learned very quickly that people had changed their attitude from having no interest in buying to one of wanting to buy. They also went from a situation in which they were struggling to one in which they had become ultra-rich. There are many layers of evolution and understanding in the life time of an artist. I do not know how to describe this rapid change : artists went from youth to adulthood. I don't know, but, for sure, they learned very fast. It is a different world than it was ten years ago.
How do you perceive a young artist today, lets say, an artist under 30 years old? Everything goes very fast today in China. How can the younger generation assimilate and express the changes? Do you see trends?
The artists older than 40 grew up in the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution. They had to sort out difficulties or those of their parents and grand-parents. They have a different mind-set from the artists who are under 30 years old who grew up in prosperity. China went from a poor country with a limited vision of the future to a super power. Today, money is present in daily life. So, yes, artists are influenced by the contemporaneity of their time. There is a reflection of that in their work.
Artists who are over 40 tend to express social changes and political issues. I think that they are looking more deeply at society. When they were growing up, the « today » was not good. They were forced to look at a bigger picture ; they had to embrace the society as a whole and try to connect the dots.
Today, because of the political, economical and social changes, younger artists are looking at themselves. Remember, they are all single children. Each one is at the center of the world. Hence, they talk more about « My life, » « Myself, » « What I think, » « How do I look at this situation? » Art has taken a completely different direction in China. It is not good or bad. The reality is different.
Wu Jian'an, "Xingtian," paper-cut, 72 7/8"x 35 3/8", 2006-2007, image coutesy of the Artist and Chambers Fine Art
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Are you looking at artists under 30 years old for your gallery?
I am. In fact, when you asked me how I am doing and my answer was « a little bit bored » that was the idea. I have to shift my focus. I have very strong artists in the gallery. I know them very well and I want to follow their work, but it is also time for me to look at something else. I think that a younger generation is starting to do interesting things. It helps me to look at things differently too, to open my mind. This is the beauty of art.
What are you looking for?
I mainly live here in New York. I am only in China from time to time. I am not in a position where I can follow and see what is happening there. The artists are in China and I have limited time to discover them by myself. I « discover » young artists through two channels. One is through group shows. The second channel is to ask my own artists. They usually teach in art academies and they can guide me to the best or the most interesting students. The majority of my young artists come from that second channel.
Someone who is going to become a major star, I think, is Wu Jian'an. Born in 1980, he was a student of Lu Shengzhong at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. He is taking paper-cut to another level.
Another artist, Guo Hongwei (born 1982), does water color and painting. He graduated from Sichuan Academy of Fine Art. I discovered him in a group show. I did an exhibition last year with him and Ye Nan (born 1984), another young artist and the favorite student of Qiu Zhijie. I also like Yuan Yuan (born 1984). Those are my four young artists, just under 30. They are all different. They do not follow the path of the older generations. But, you can see a small shadow from their teacher. I am following them because I think that they will be successful.
Guo Hongwei does watercolor on canvas which brings the feeling above that dull, quiet perception of watercolor that you have on paper. He drops color on the canvas, so you have an uncontrollable element in the image. It is unique because to do that you need extreme control in order to give a controllable look to your work. The subject deals with daily life. For example, he painted a series of water bottles. It is the same bottle of water, but it has a different look each time because of the way he approaches the material and the medium.
Guo Hongwei, "I Never Painted the Same Bottle of Water 8 Times Over," oil on canvas, 39 3/8"x 63", 2009, image courtesy of the Artist and Chambers Fine Art (Click on image to enlarge).
If you had to start an art gallery today from scratch, what would be your choice? Would you focus exclusively on contemporary Chinese art or would you consider art that is more global?
Errh…would I do it again ? It is a good question. Looking back, it was a very interesting journey for me. Would I do it again ? Yes, but differently, because I have learned from my mistakes ! But, life is not perfect and I think that at the beginning of all things you have to focus. I made my name because I focused on contemporary Chinese art. In fact, it does not matter what you start with. You have to focus. When you have built a name, then you can do things differently. At first, you have to create your identity.
What do you think about the art market today?
In 2006, 2007, early 2008, the market was irrational, crazy. It looked as though people were acting like there would not be any tomorrow. I am among the people who say that the crash was good. It stopped people from acting crazy. It was a time that made people slow down and look back to understand what had happened.
Mid-2008 was the time when we could look at things in a different way. Now, we are back to reality.
Are collectors different in China? Why do people collect and what they do collect?
First of all, collecting art is different from buying art. Collecting art is the same everywhere. It does not matter if the work is done by a Chinese artist or a German one. A collector should have a passion for art. For some collectors in China, it is an investment not only a financial one but a cultural one. There is no clean cut line. There is a mixture between pure love of art and personal advancement. That makes sense because you do not throw money away for nothing. It is not good when people want to make dollars in one day on one piece. Because what is left is the dollar sign. The art is gone.
Looking at art per se is unhealthy in a sense. And looking at the dollar sign is unhealthy too. There is a fine line between the two sides and the collector or anybody has to find it.
Ye Nan, "History of the Stellar Empire," Silkscreen, phosphorous, hand-made paper, 43 1/2" x 31", 2010, image courtesy of the Artist and Chambers Fine Art
(Click on image to enlarge)
What do you recommend to someone under 30, who is beginning to make a little money and wants to start a collection?
My first recommendation is to look for a young artist. I think that collecting is a journey for life. For me, the excitement is not in buying art that is well established or that is well recognized. The fun is not there. You grow your collection or your sense of collecting as you grow personally and as you see the artist grow. On the other hand, as exciting as it may be, only one or two young artists will make it. You are very lucky if you pick one of these artists.
For me, there are steps to follow. First, do your study. Then, go with a gallery. When I start to follow an artist in my gallery, I put my emotional resources as well as my financial resources into it. I put everything on that artist because I believe and I want that artist to make it. I follow artists. I follow some of them for 20 years. Somebody who starts a collection is busy with his or her job. That person does not have the time to follow each artist closely, and to establish a relationship with the artist.
I also establish a strong relationship with a collector or a potential collector. I can tell the collector if he or she goes wrong because I know his or her feelings and I know the emotional background of the artist.
I understand that it is hard for a young collector to start a collection. But, the young collector should be focused and accept that it is a learning process for which you pay the tuition, I guess !
In collecting, it is important to do an in depth study. Do not go all over the place. Then, develop an in depth understanding , and finally, an in depth relationship. It is the way to build up your own confidence. So, the final word is FOCUS.
If people do not have a lot of money, I recommend starting with art on paper and picking an artist they like. It is much cheaper, but that gives them a way to establish a relationship with the artist and his or her work. Then, you make a little more money and you move on with something a little more expensive by the same artist. I often see people saying « Oh, this is too expensive, I cannot afford it. » Or the opposite : « It is too cheap ! I am not going to buy. » When you have that behavior it means that you do not understand or that your goal is to produce money with your collection. There is no reflection.
What do you think about the pilot program being launched in Tianjin, outside of Beijing, that operates like a stock market – it allows small investors to invest in shares of artwork previously offered only at auction?
It is not a new idea. It exists in the West. For me, that kind of operation treats art purely as a commodity. So, it has nothing to do with art at all. I have no comment on that!
I see that you also have the work of Wang Jian Wei. What do you think about his work?
Wang Jian Wei is known as an artist philosopher (See our articles: Wang Jian Wei-Symptom at Nyon, and Wang Jian Wei-Welcome to the Desert of the Real). I like his work because there are many layers in his art and many meanings in his expression. He could have made a lot of money as an Oriental painter but he abandoned that idea because he thinks that he cannot express what he wants to say that way. On the surface, some of his representations can be very simple. But, he forces people to reflect more deeply on China today and the world as well. All my artists, in fact, are conceptual. To achieve that, you should be a philosopher. You should have some theoretical foundations. Each artist has its own way to interpret and express philosophical issues. That is what fascinates me about their work. Each artist is different and I have to approach each one in a different way. That is what I like.
What do you think about art education in China?
It is still based on the Russian system : high technique and rigor in the apprenticeship. The artist's creativity is not very important. Skills are highly valued. But, there are some changes. Two of the best art institutes in China, the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing, and the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, are opening new sections, new colleges like for example environmental art. CAFA is even talking about completely changing their system. Art schools in China are more and more developing exchange programs with international institutions. It is inevitable. China is open and it cannot continue with a system that was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Yuan Yuan,"Night Out," Oil on canvas, Porcelain frame, Set of 4, 13" x 13 3/4" each, 2009, image courtesy of the Artist and Chambers Fine Art (Click on image to enlarge)
If you were to give a definition of contemporary Chinese art, what would it be?
I must emphasize that contemporary Chinese art is like any contemporary art. It just happens to be that it comes from China. The difference is that there is a reflection on China's changes : economic, political, social and cultural. These changes are vast and have an enormous impact on everybody's life. Not only in China, but outside of China. That is one of the components of the dynamism of contemporary Chinese art. There are many components like the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the fact that people have more money today, hence more freedom in a sense, everything has an impact on the way artists look at their society. In China, we have stimuli, motivations…a lot of things are happening at the same time and it is big. In contrast, if you look at a country like Switzerland, there are changes of course, but they are within a framework that regulates them – you have a strong legal system for example. There are many interesting artists in Switzerland because you have a tradition of collecting art as well as a tradition at looking at art. You have another level there, a level where people try to express things that are not necessarily openly expressed in the society. Another country in the world that has that strong tradition of collecting is Belgium. It is such a small place, but people collect contemporary Chinese art because they have a sense, a tradition of collecting, hence they do their homework.
For more information on Chambers Fine Art Gallery go to http://chambersfineart.com
For more information on ArtFarm go to