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Gallery Owner’s Goal: East Meets West

For the last 15 years, Pearl Lam, the mercurial socialite and art world patron, has presided over Contrasts, the gallery that exhibited an impressive roster of Chinese artists well before their current popularity.

For the last 15 years, Pearl Lam, the mercurial socialite and art world patron, has presided over Contrasts, the gallery that exhibited an impressive roster of Chinese artists well before their current popularity. A regular presence on the international art fair circuit, Lam is easily the most fashionable doyenne of the Chinese art scene, perhaps due to the extensive exhibition program of her three galleries, one in Beijing and two in Shanghai, and the dinner parties at her penthouse apartment in Shanghai — at a table that seats 64. “Contrasts is one of the two most important galleries in Shanghai,” said ShContemporary’s director, Lorenzo Rudolf.

Prior to the opening of ShContemporary, and two days before she would host a dinner for 250 guests at her private club in the city’s French Concession, Lam discussed Chinese art with WWD. — Andrew Yang

WWD: Why do you think it’s taken so long for a contemporary art fair like ShContemporary to come to Shanghai?

Pearl Lam: I think this is the first international fair in Asia, so it’s not just limited to Shanghai. They had one that was not as serious in Hong Kong some years ago, around 1994, and it was a failure. And I think the reasons why it never happened in this region is because art collecting is very different, especially with regard to the Chinese, and especially with what you see on the auction market. It used to be Chinese porcelain commanded the highest prices. This is what Chinese collectors usually buy. All of a sudden there is a difference between fine art and decorative art. Traditionally, we didn’t have that. Having said that, I think the art fair has happened because Asian art has become a focus. And secondly, Chinese art now is being collected by a lot of Westerners.

WWD: Who are the collectors who are coming to China for the fair?

P.L.: Shanghai is hot, and China is hot. The people who are coming are people who have never even been to China, and they are coming here for the first time ever. The galleries are bringing artists like Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol; they are aiming to develop a discerning Chinese clientele. There are Korean galleries who are going to do an Andy Warhol show. All of a sudden there’s Asian wealth, and there’s high disposable income. And Asian people recognize Western art labels, names, as much as the Western collectors know about Chinese arts — they know them as labels, or names. So that’s how it looks to each other. I think it’s a great time to see what is happening.

WWD: Being that you see it both as a gallerist and a collector, do you think all the hype surrounding Chinese art necessarily means the art is good?

P.L.: I have to admit, Chinese art is very fashionable. When you go to a collector’s house, you see a Chinese painting, whether it’s in England or America. You get a little bit scared because it’s so fashionable. It’s cool to have Chinese contemporary art. I also believe that most of the collectors today are only picking art that is talking about politics, or is political. And that they identify Chinese contemporary art as [paintings that feature] the big laughing face. Art is not about just politics. It is about reinventing traditions, creating a synthesis using Western expression, Western media.

WWD: But is that really happening?

P.L.: That’s always been happening. There always has been Chinese traditional-art thinking. Even if you look at Zhang Xiao Gong, who paints figures in whiteface, the whole composition is based on ancestral painting. And also, I think there is a misconception between West and East. Now, all of Chinese art is based on a Western point of view, because the structure of the Western way of looking is always based on conceptualism. But we don’t have conceptualism. All of these artists are creating work out of their sentiments, their passion, their emotions, which is completely the opposite of objectivity. The true reality — and I did a little research into it — is that whether it’s Indian, Japanese or Korean art, the artists are creating things out of sentiments, emotion.

WWD: Do you think Asian art will change drastically in the next few years?

P.L.: Let’s say that I think Chinese art will always be — I hope — Chinese. If Chinese will become Western, then we are talking about homogenous culture, homogenous expression. And so I think it’s important for the Chinese to be strong, and to show the West what Chinese sensibilities are. What are we Chinese creating? It’s easy to try to please on international curatorial standards, to adapt to their eye, to adapt to their thinking and just join international shows. But Chinese art is not just about that. I think there is very strong tradition being reinvented in much of the work.

WWD: What do you think is fueling this heated art market?

P.L.: I call this phenomenon import art and export art. For hundreds of years since the Qing dynasty, we have local art, and we have export art. Export art is to cater for the Western tastes. And we have local art for local tastes. We don’t say what’s good or bad, we say everything is all based on respect. We respect your taste; we hope you respect our taste. And we always have this trend. So now, most artists are creating export art. The artists know a lot of collectors are Western, so they really are creating work for that market. So all of a sudden, it becomes export art, unknowingly.

WWD: What do you think will happen to the work that’s being created in this climate?

P.L.: I always believe that what goes up will always come down. There will be a market correction. We’ll have to see. A lot of these artists were creating their best work in the early Nineties, but they didn’t evolve. And I think it’s really difficult for an artist to evolve, because you are scared of losing your audience.