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China ushers in a new era for contemporary art

The success of Antony Gormley's current exhibition "Living Time" at the TAG Art Museum in China reflects the country's ambition to see contemporary art emerge as a new cultural vector, with avenues of expression emancipated from official lines.

Bettina Bush Mignanego

By Bettina Bush Mignanego31 octobre 2023

Until December 10, China's TAG Art Museum in Qingdao is exhibiting 'Living Time', a major retrospective of the celebrated British sculptor Antony Gormley, highlighting the relationship between body and space (Huang Shaoli)

How important is contemporary Chinese art for the country that will become the world's leading power by 2028? Even if it is impossible to respond to this question with an economic value, let’s look at some examples, such as the Chinese TAG Museum, to get an idea. Founded in 2019 in Qingdao and measuring a total of 17 thousand square meters, 12 rooms built along the coast bring together interiors and exteriors between sea and mountains, the result of a very ambitious project. Its aim is to present and transmit a particularly open vision, to combine the local and the global, to usher in a new era of contemporary art, and to engage in a dialogue with design and fashion while constantly considering the spectacular natural context of the area. The building was designed and created by the French architect Jean Nouvel and the landscape designer Gilles Clément with the goal of respecting natural ecology in order to become a new model of architecture that interacts with ecology and culture.

Winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1994, Antony Gormley has created monumental public works and large-scale installations throughout the world (Chao Qixuan).

Franco Amadei, former director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Beijing for four years and currently based in China, explains: "In China, there has been significant investment in museum infrastructure, leading to the creation and construction of the TAG Art Museum. This investment in infrastructure is a phenomenon that began with the new millennium." How is contemporary art developing in the country today? According to Vincenzo Sanfo, curator and expert in Chinese contemporary art, "Contemporary art is a vehicle for promoting culture. In China and within its government, we see two lines, one official and one less official. On the other hand, an increasingly assertive generation of young collectors is emerging, buying 90% of the works in China. They will undoubtedly contribute to changing the overall perception of contemporary art. I have noticed that British artist Antony Gormley is very popular with this generation, in part due to his visual codes closely aligned with Chinese philosophy. These are clear signs that contemporary art is becoming increasingly independent."

Antony Gormley's exhibition "Living Time," in collaboration with Galleria Continua and the Associazione Arte Continua, is currently on display at the TAG Art Museum and can be explored until December 10. It is the largest monograph of a British sculptor in Asia, who has won numerous awards, including the Turner Prize in 1994. Today, he is considered one of the most famous artists of our time, widely recognized for his sculptures, installations, and public artworks that explore the relationship between the human body and space. Antony Gormley granted an exclusive interview to Luxury Tribune, providing insight into the cultural and artistic bridge between the West and the East and the role of contemporary art in the country.

To begin with, you were drawn to the East, a place where you went when you were very young and also the place where you decided to become an artist.

Antony Gormley's sculptures are often representations of the human body. He frequently uses his own body as a mold (Huang Shaoli)

Antony Gormley. I was lucky, I think, to be at university in the late 60s – a time when the ambition of all university education was to unleash whatever imaginative curiosity might be inside an individual. We were less concerned with academic distinction than with expanding our minds, and certainly, it was at Cambridge where I first came across Evans-Wentz’s translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Legend of the Golden Flower. We were reading the Yi Ching alongside the Little Red Book of Chairman Mau, so there was a real openness to the influence of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, as well as our appreciation of aspects of Mao's thought, like his idea that it would be good for scholars to work the land. On my first summer vacation in ’69, I went to India. I hitchhiked first to Istanbul and then took buses and local transport and ended up near Katmandu. I had been influenced by my mother, who was a great reader of Hermann Hesse, and I had read Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game. I then became curious about what India meant. My father had been a regular visitor there, and he came back with extraordinary tales of people and places I could only imagine; the most powerful experience for me was when, at a certain time of year, a huge crate of Alphonso mangoes would arrive, and you can imagine that they blew my mind in both taste and color. From that point on, a seed was planted about a place that I knew I needed to visit.

Why did you decide to become a sculptor?

I had a choice to stay in India and become a Buddhist monk or return to England and become a sculptor. And why a sculptor? Because in my wanderings, I would draw the people, the landscapes, the places that I visited. But this wasn’t enough; I didn’t want to make pictures of things that already existed. I realized that sculpture is unique as an art form insofar as it interacts with the world. It does not have to be a representation of something that already exists. It is not dependent on any given structure; rather, it immediately changes the world. You can put sculptures out on the street, on a beach, on a mountain, or in a house, and it changes your attitude to those places. Sculpture aspires to make its stillness and silence active, and this is really exciting. Sculpture lacks all the things we humans possess – and in its lack, it allows us to become aware of our freedoms of thought, feeling, and movement in space and time.

Antony Gormley describes the TAG Art Museum as an ambitious achievement in China, a space with few preconceived ideas of what a museum is, thus free from the constraints of the history of museology (Huang Shaoli)

Can you tell us about your relationship with the TAG, with its architecture? In the “Living Time” exhibition, there are 35 sculptures in one room and 4 works weighing up to 8 tons in the other…

“TAG Art Museum is part of an incredibly ambitious, almost utopian idea in China of making a creative, outward-looking world. What is positive is that, at TAG, there is so little preconception about what a museum is, and so they are not burdened by the history of museology. With the new museums in China, we have new possibilities; this is about making places in which art can arise, be made, and be shared. For me, it was necessary to both interrogate and utilize the specific characteristics of Halls 4 and 5. Hall 4 has a low ceiling, with lowered top light windows that had never been fully opened. The height of that ceiling is about 4 meters. Hall 5 is almost the opposite: it has a solid ceiling, is cuboid in shape, around 32 meters square and 32 meters high – so huge in volume and very luminous. Firstly, I had to use the conditions of light and then the specific tectonics of those two spaces in a way that was going to engage the viewer and their motion through the spaces. It was for that reason that I used a grid as the principle of an organization so that irrespective of the time that the pieces were made or the language that they were made, 35 works were shown in five columns of seven works, equally spaced. You could say that this was a cruel thing to do. I have never done this before, and I am usually very careful about how I articulate the space with work. Here, there was no poetics; it was almost like a catalog raisonné of every materialized piece of research into the body that I had made but without chronological or formal order interrogating the idea of the body as a place rather than an object. And as a result, the viewer is free to wander from one work to the other, making connections or making meaning however they like.

The 'Living Time' exhibition at the TAG Art Museum bears witness to the evolution of contemporary art, driven by a new generation of young collectors (Huang Shaoli)

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