Jérôme Sans, former director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, speaks to Christie’s specialist Tianyue Jiang about Chinese contemporary artists, the market, and advice for collectors starting out in this field
You were a founding director of both the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, working closely with artists such as Chen Zhen, Cai Guo-Qiang, Yan Pei-Ming, Liu Wei, among others. What differences have you observed between the first generation of contemporary artists and the current generation?
Jérôme Sans: ‘The artists you mention are absolutely from two different generations. Since the 1980s, the scene has changed a great deal and is now into its third generation. The birth of what we call ‘‘contemporary Chinese art’’ emerged from an explosion of creativity in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The beginnings of the avant-garde in China were marked at the end of the 20th century by a number of successive movements taking a revolutionary stance in opposition to official art.
‘The generation of artists who were born in the 1980s naturally diverges from its predecessors. Unlike the 20th-century avant-garde movements in the West, this generation did not proclaim a break from the previous one. It was from one reality to another — from the China of isolation to the China of globalization. China was in the throes of all-out development and radical economic, social and urban change. Unlike their elders, this new generation of artists has also benefitted from the massive growth of technology and access to information as well as an opening up to a global culture through immediate access to the internet.
‘This new generation doesn’t represent a particular artistic movement or trend, but its work does reflect a greater diversity of artistic approaches and styles than has ever existed in China, as well as a new individualistic approach focused on the “I” rather than the “we”. With respect to the previous generation, its approach is more minimal, non-figurative, dematerialised, more conceptual and absolutely globalised.'
Which artist interview, of the many you have conducted over the years, has been the most memorable?
JS: ‘One very special Chinese artist has continually inspired my vision of the world and of myself. This person, my dearest friend Chen Zhen, told me in 1999, during our long ongoing series of interviews in Paris, “Art as such is not all that important. What matters is giving meaning and thought to what one does and relating it to life itself.”’
Ten years ago, the West seemed to wake up to Chinese contemporary art, and we saw a boom in the Western market. With the recent Chinese contemporary art survey at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, do you expect another boom in the near future?
JS: ‘Chinese contemporary art is reinvented each decade as fresh generations of Chinese artists take their work in new directions. The Guggenheim survey has certainly been a key moment, but even without it, Chinese contemporary art would only continue to evolve, expand and amplify.
‘We are still at the beginning of this amazing story. I don’t think we need to speak in terms of different “waves” of Chinese contemporary art, but rather of successive “tides” that are going to establish the true importance of the Chinese contemporary art scene in an international context.’
What would you advise someone who wants to start collecting Chinese contemporary art?
JS: ‘I would suggest starting with his or her own generation of artists.’
What do you find most interesting about the current generation of Chinese contemporary artists, compared with their Western counterparts?
JS: ‘The current generation of Chinese artists not only takes a new view of the contemporary world, but is also contributing to a veritable Chinese “cultural revolution”.
Concentrated primarily in Beijing, which is the cultural and political centre of China with numerous museums, galleries and studios, this new generation of artists plays an active role in the emergence of the many new centres of contemporary art springing up all over the country, which parallel the emergence of a new generation of Chinese curators and collectors.’