‘Chinese artists will soon be the global superstars of the art world’
For French businessman and collector John Dodelande, the future of art lies in China, where he seeks out work by artists inspired by ancient philosophy rather than the market. Jonathan Bastable reports
The home of John Dodelande is crammed with large and enigmatic works of art. But the strangest piece is also the smallest. It is a tiny tower made of three perfect human teeth stacked on top of each other, and surmounted with the kind of curved roof that you might see on a Ming dynasty prayer hall. ‘They are my wisdom teeth,’ says Dodelande, ‘which I’ve kept since my youth.’
This orthodontal pagoda is the work of Berlin-based Chinese artist He Xiangyu — who constructed a similar edifice from his own teeth. The fact that the artist revisited the idea for Dodelande’s sake says something about how this French entrepreneur is viewed in the world of Chinese contemporary art, and how much of himself he has committed to it.
Dodelande is not a typical art collector. For one thing, he is considerably younger than most — in his early thirties. He has been a businessman since his teens — first in fashion, then in real estate and other industries. He has collected contemporary Chinese art almost since the beginning of his career.
Dodelande also happens to be a first-rate mountain climber, and he goes about collecting in the same way as he might approach an assault on an unconquered peak: with a careful strategy, an understanding of the terrain, and an eye to the goal.
‘Have you been to Beijing?’ he asks. ‘Going there to meet artists is tough, super-complicated. It is dusty, dirty, cold — not like looking for art in Los Angeles: no lunches with gallerists, no seduction game...
‘But the fact that I have been amassing a collection over a long period of time allows the people there to form an opinion of me, to evaluate me. The effort that I have put in to find the art gives me credibility with the artists, for sure.’
That sustained effort has brought him some stunning works of art. Three particularly striking pieces hang in his drawing room. The first is 121030, by Wang Guangle. A black rectangle at the centre of the canvas shades into an enclosing frame of deep scarlet. Contemplating the painting is like standing in an unlit corridor or staring down a deep well. The piece feels like an abstracted memento mori, a premonition of oblivion and, as it turns out, that’s exactly what it is.
‘Wang Guangle comes from an area of China where people, as they grow old, buy a coffin for themselves,’ says Dodelande. ‘Each morning and evening they paint it with one layer of lacquer. They perform this ritual every day until they die.
‘So the idea is not an invention — people are doing it today. And the thing I like about this generation of artists is that they don’t come up with a conceptual idea just to talk about it in a press release. Everything they do and say is legit, it comes from their roots.’
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Above the fireplace is the second eye-catching piece — a painting by Zhang Zhenyu. It is a bronze colour-field, flecked with black, and burnished like the shield of a Trojan foot soldier. As with the Wang Guangle, the lustre comes from many layers of varnish — and again there is a story attached. The pigmentation is not metallic at all. It is dust, ordinary grime gathered from the choked streets of Beijing. Zhang has fixed it and polished it and made it beautiful.
The third piece, by He Xiangyu, makes gaudier reference to metallurgy. It consists of a gilded egg tray, three metres square and empty except for one unobtrusive egg. The piece would appear to be a wry comment on China’s one-child policy.
‘Dodelande accepts that interpretation, but at the same time insists that the present generation of Chinese artists has moved past the political obsessions of their elders, that a liberation from protest art is one of the things that makes the work exciting.
‘Most of them were born in the 1980s,’ he says. ‘They did not grow up with Mao Zedong, and anyway Chinese culture is so much more than that. Even now, it is rooted in Confucius, and these artists are tapping into something deep and strong and ancient.’
The collection seems to bear that out: most of the works are entirely or partly abstract, but one senses there is a profound meaning in all of them, something that hovers beyond or behind the painted canvas. And that meaning remains obscure until it is shared with the viewer.
The same is true of another Chinese cultural artefact: its writing system. Ideogrammatic symbols, lined up on the page, are a miniature gallery of abstract pictures, all of them unconnected to the real world unless the reader has been told what each one signifies. Even the pronunciation of a word is unguessable unless the observer is in the know.
‘Today in China, the work that is being produced is in harmony with the personalities of the artists.... When I meet these artists, I feel their interior force’ — John Dodelande
Could that habit of mind explain why Chinese contemporary art makes such fruitful use of abstraction: because individuals become comfortable with it, and are trained to parse it, from the moment they first pick up a book and start learning to read?
Dodelande agrees that the Chinese contemporary art world is governed by a very different mindset — one that contrasts favourably with what he sees as the mercantile fixations of Western artists.
‘As a European, it would be arrogant for me to say that I understand the culture. But in the USA, there are lots of artists that you meet and you are disappointed, because the market has taken control of their personality. But today in China, the work that is being produced is in harmony with the personalities of the artists. This is true: you don’t even have to speak with them to know it. It is enough to watch their body language. When I meet these artists, I feel their interior force.’
Dodelande’s passion for the artists he collects is such that one wonders whether advocacy is part of the point. Together with fellow collector Adrian Cheng, founder of the K11 Art Mall in Hong Kong, he is putting together a sumptuous book on the contemporary artists they both collect. Is that a deliberate attempt to place them before a still underappreciative Western public? And, if so, does he see himself as an unofficial ambassador for the Chinese contemporary scene?
‘I don’t want to be an ambassador. I don’t have time,’ he says. ‘But the artists make me — what is the word? — beholden. They have all created a relationship with me in which I am beholden to them. You know what Nicolas Sarkozy once said about his career: “I did not choose politics, politics chose me.” That’s my position vis-à-vis contemporary Chinese art.’
So Dodelande makes an emotional as well as a financial investment in the artists he buys. He admires their values — their integrity — as much as their output. Among the key players for him is Zhao Zhao (‘he is maybe more political than the others’), who shoots bullets at sheets of reinforced plate glass to create shatter-patterns that look like constellations or galactic clouds.
There is He Xiangyu, who boiled down ‘a swimming bath full of Coca Cola’ until he was left with a residue that looks like blackened coral — a glass box containing this dead detritus sits beneath Wang Guangle’s 121030.
There is work by Xie Molin, who has adapted cutting machinery to extrude pigment in regular patterns onto a flat surface: he is literally weaving with oils. And there is Xu Zhen, piping paint like sugar frosting to make the extraordinary bouquets of pastel colour that fill a canvas with forms so beautiful you would never suspect his ironic intent.
Dodelande owns such works because, clearly, he loves them. But he also has a shrewd sense that this is the art of the near-future. In his opinion, the Chinese century has already arrived — it is just that not everyone has noticed.
‘All Europe will be Venice, a museum for tourists,’ he says. ‘Chinese artists will soon be the global superstars of the art world — as Basquiat, say, is today. They all want the chance to become a part of art history. I don’t know if that will happen in this generation of artists, but I hope so.’
Find out more about John Dodelande and his art collection