One of Chinas best-know museums for contemporary art, the UCCA in Beijing (that just finished a record breaking Picasso show) has a new neighbour: high-end fashion brand Shanghai Tang.
The Chinese heritage label’s concept store has recently opened its doors in the newly renovated UCCA complex in Beijing`s 798 art district and it seems a perfect match as the brand has a long history with contemporary Chinese art under his belt. Why this? Thanks to its late founder Sir David Tang, an avid art collector, the brand rubbed shoulders with various leading Chinese artists in the past.
Looking behind the scene, the proximity of UCCA and Shanghai Tang does not come at a surprise: the entrepreneurial minds and owners behind both businesses are Derek Sulger and Jerry Mao, who together run Shanghai-based Lunar, which focuses on the transforming Chinese consumer through new lifestyle, new culture and new retail. Driving all of this is a strong belief that Chinese millennial and Gen Z consumers seeking out a unique personal identity that reflects this idea of New Chinese Culture, through very authentic and localized Chinese brands.
So it seems while over the past weeks global Fashion Weeks brands navigated between story lining heritage and attracting millennials, Chinese brands seems to follow a particular strategy. Derek Sulger said, that “there is a powerful transformation underway in Chinese consumer desires, where people are moving away from just buying what is needed, or international luxury “high cost commodities”, to buying what reflects their Chinese identity and individuality. We see this especially amongst Generation Z, who respond strongly to authentic offerings in that strongly reflect Chinese concepts.”
For Shanghai Tang, Chinese culture is the brand’s backbone and it looks back to various collaborations with Chinese artists, recently with renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing, whose internationally lauded works have exhibited at the likes of MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London and, of course, the UCCA in Beijing.
Xu Bing created an exclusive artwork for Shanghai Tang, portraying the brand vision “Shanghai Tang – Created by Chinese” in his now-legendary Square Word Calligraphy, a system for rendering English letters to resemble Chinese characters. Xu Bing invented this concept in 1994, the same year Shanghai Tang was born, making this cross-disciplinary project a serendipitous joint 25th Anniversary celebration.
Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy invites the audience to break down cultural barriers and decipher a new form of communication. The ingenious and artistic system organises the letters of each word into structures that resemble Chinese characters. A consequence on his project is that non-Chinese speakers can understand how each character is similarly composed.
Wondering whether there is a different trend as for rather following international names in the art world vs celebrating “Chineseness“ among the Chinese art world, Jerry Mao noted “Chinese contemporary art is becoming hugely influential throughout society, and was now exciting and relevant enough to attract mass-market attention alongside renowned international contemporary artists”. Mao further noted that this was evident in having Picasso exhibition at the UCCA in Beijing, while at the same time the UCCA was running a retrospective of the evolution of 1990s China through video art and photography, marrying the best of new Chinese art with the most important retrospective of Picasso in Modern Chinese history. “ Shanghai Tang working with Xu Bing and UCCA is so exciting as bringing together Chinese art and Chinese fashion for a new identity of “China Now”.
So while it seems rather unlikely to expect popular collaboration choices such as Daniel Arsham (the artist made his China debut in Shanghai earlier this year) collaborating with Shanghai Tang, we remain excited to further observe the role Chinese art will play in the art, fashion and brand context. Certainly, the role of cultural experiences and storytelling as mentioned above, plays a crucial role in this cross-industry environment – not only for China.
BEIJING — The fashion peacocks are parading in Beijing this summer. A young woman with a short crop of neon green hair. Another with scarlet bangs. Others in pointy-toed shoes and perfect makeup. A young man in a pale blue silk shirt, matching bermudas and beige boots.
They are all part of the crowd lining up to see the hot art show of the season — works by the young Picasso at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, a prestigious gallery in the 798 art quarter.
Beijing brags about its humming art scene. Galleries thrive. The art schools possess a certain frisson. Art is widely taught in elementary schools.
But shrouding all this creative fervor is the meddling hand of the government. Censorship is rife in literature, and film. Although few art shows have been closed in the last few years, exhibitions are self-censored, and many artists choose to work abroad to escape the official tastemakers.
For the under-35-year-olds flocking to the Picasso show, some of them artists themselves, the young Spaniard’s wild imagination during the first three decades of his career touched a nerve. They were captivated by Picasso’s drive to experiment before he was even 30. The painter and sculptor didn’t just change the art world; he helped change how a new century saw itself.
But the implicit theme of the show was: Would genius like Picasso’s thrive within the confinements of contemporary China?
The answer isn’t an easy yes or no. Some Chinese artists compete favorably on the world’s freewheeling art stage, which prizes the outré, and the central government welcomes the global recognition its art stars bring. But the authorities can interfere as arbitrary censors at any time, and any work denigrating the party or state, or even hinting at separatism, is strictly forbidden.
For the artists and other creative types visiting the show, Picasso’s works seemed to hint at what’s possible for artists when completely unfettered.
Yan Lei, a sculptor from Beijing, was halfway through the show when he peered into a plexiglass case with one of the artist’s trailblazing works, “Violin.” The blue, brown and white mélange of metal sheets and iron wires was created in 1915, when World War I was raging, and Picasso was 34, about the same age as Mr. Yan.
He was blown away by the originality from so long ago.
“We are doing this today, and think it is very modern,” said Mr. Yan, who keeps a studio on the outskirts of the city. “He was doing this 100 years ago.”
Boliang Shen, a 34-year-old content director of a podcast, was riveted by a sculpture of Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s early girlfriend. In some places, the rough-hewed wood looked as though it had been hacked with a penknife.
“You can feel Picasso,” Mr. Shen said as he circled the work. “He’s looking for himself, his own voice.”
Picasso has long been accepted in China. His onetime membership in the Communist Party helped. When the Communists grasped victory in 1949, an image of a dove by Picasso hung as a symbol of peace at an international conference in Beijing alongside portraits of Stalin and Mao.
He was blacklisted during the Cultural Revolution, like almost all other artists dismissed as a not-to-be-tolerated bourgeois influence. But in the early 1980s, a small show of 30 works marked his comeback, attracting an eager audience hungry for European art after China’s decades in the wilderness.
His celebrity, as important a driver in shaping taste in China as in the West, adds extra allure, as does the astronomical value of his art. The 103 paintings, sculptures and drawings in the show are worth close to $1 billion.
“People are coming in part because he is very famous and very expensive,” said Philip Tinari, the director of the UCCA gallery.
Another big question raised by the show is whether China will learn about projecting soft power from one of the globe’s best at this, France. The Musée National Picasso-Paris lent the 103 works for the exhibition.
When President Xi Jinping of China met the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in the spring, both men publicly blessed the show. But a last-minute glitch having to do with China’s strict customs policies almost scuttled the opening.
“The sticking point wasn’t censorship,” Mr. Tinari said. “It was that the works are so valuable.”
As the deadline for the opening loomed in early June, Chinese customs insisted on a $225 million deposit — 25 percent of the value of the works — as a kind of sales tax, treating the art as if it was to be sold. That amount was to be paid by the gallery before the pieces arrived.
But the art was not for sale. So the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who happened to be in Beijing at the end of April for a gathering of world leaders to discuss China’s global infrastructure program, asked his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to persuade customs to forgo the deposit. And it did.
By June 10, the works had arrived on nine different planes from Europe, and were then installed in the vast industrial space of the UCCA gallery.
Primary school students come in groups with their art teachers, all part of an exercise of what is referred to in China as improving the “good taste” of young children.
One father had picked up his daughter from a tough math exam, and brought her immediately to the show to join her classmates so she could “relax and learn” at the same time.
David Zhang, 42, an art instructor, assembled his group of restless 9-year-olds before the star piece of the show, a melancholy 1901 “Self-portrait” painted in somber shades of blue, the face a ghostly faint gray. It was painted after the death of a friend.
Mr. Zhang, also an artist, looked the part in a crisp round-collared white shirt, rimless glasses, short cropped hair and an old-fashioned tan leather camera bag slung over his shoulder.
“Just feel it, stand in front of it — this is the original painting,” he said.
Some paid attention, others wriggled. “The color of the skin is not true human skin color,” he said. “How would you call it?”
“They get really excited seeing the real paintings,” Mr. Zhang said, as he pushed through the crowds.
The curators chose a 1906 self-portrait in pale pink-and-white tones with big black eyes as the leitmotif of the exhibition. The painting bears an eerie resemblance to characters in Japan’s animated movies and graphic novels known as manga, one of the most celebrated foreign art forms in China.
The pastel image appears on the show’s catalog cover, advertising posters outside the gallery and shopping bags in the store.
It was a good marketing choice, said Wang Xingwei, a well-known Beijing painter, who has exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and dropped by the show one evening to check out the response.
Like manga, the self-portrait was “cute,” Mr. Wang said, offering a novel interpretation of the young Picasso. “Cute is a popular, important word in China now.”
The portrait was not the most complicated work in the show, he said, but it fit with the moment and appealed to the crowd, which jostled to get a better view.