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Martin Kemble (ART LABOR Gallery, China)

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Martin Kemble (Canada) is the curator, founder and owner of the commercial contemporary art gallery ART LABOR in China. Located in the cultural and commercial centre of China – Shanghai – ART LABOR represents local and foreign artists. We talked to Kemble to find out about the status of contemporary art in China, what shapes it’s identity and which Chinese artists we should look out for.

Tell us about the beginnings of your career. Were you always interested in art?

Well, I grew up around it, for sure. My mum was the director of an art gallery in Canada. She was also an artist, sort of like my dad who was a potter/painter when young and an architect. But I was more interested in performing arts, so I did a lot of music and acting. I didn’t plan on following my mother into the visual arts world, gallery scene, but I did work part-time at the gallery with her for a couple of years. That was until I ended up in China doing different things, working in PR and TV/films again and then, just randomly, I had the opportunity to open a gallery here. That was 8 years ago. I hadn’t planned on opening a gallery here at all. It’s probably one of the most high-risk things going out there in terms of a business investment. I mean, the chances of gallery actually making money are extremely low, you wouldn’t be doing it for money.

Could you talk about the profile of your gallery? What do you specialize in? What are the main disciplines you represent? And what differentiates you from other Shanghai galleries?

In China, it’s a very particular art scene. Only until fairly recently, say the past few years, has there been a little bit of an activity around international artists. We’re kind of the first gallery to show at least a large proportion of foreign artists alongside Chinese artists. Before that, very few people would have shown international art, there were a only couple of dealers in Beijing, who would bring in international artists. James Cohan gallery in Shanghai brings their artists from New York and they also show local artists as well, which makes sense. It’s really expensive and difficult to bring in international artists paperwork wise. Chinese customs is complex. It’s near probably the same as Russia in terms of customs. They’re both difficult these days. But we’re pretty open to things. I mean, I just look for artists that I think are beginning something interesting. It has to be kind of unique or that you won’t see around other galleries. I mean, we try to aim mostly for originality, just by being unique. There’s a lot of other galleries in Shanghai that are very much defined by their Chinese art.

So, for an international gallery we’re quite an anomaly. Most of the galleries deal with Chinese artists, almost exclusively. And we look at Shanghai as being this international base, and while it’s still a Chinese city, it’s very international. We couldn’t operate in Beijing, it just wouldn’t fit. It would be too international, it would be too unrelated to what Beijing is, which is a very Chinese city.

Can you make a comment about what the Chinese art scene is like at the moment? And what it’s like for the young generation as well to be an artist? Because I remember us talking about it last time and, you know, you were saying that the young generation are trying to discover themselves and pull away from these stereotypes from copying all of the time, and trying to discover what is this new China art. Is that still going on or has it moved onto something else?

Well, I wouldn’t say that the rest of the world is that different. I would say that what was being made before one could define as Chinese contemporary art, because it really was about China. Aesthetically, it fit certain expectations, the colours people used in the 90’s, the iconic imagery – it was Chinese art. As annoying as it got after a while… Because Chinese don’t try very hard to constantly innovate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s changing all the time, yet it’s not changing all the time. China is a constant contradiction.

Chinese art tends to be self-reflective in terms of their culture. For example, Ying Yefu’s art. He does very fine, beautiful ink paintings. He’s one of our most successful artists. His work, is very East-Asian and self-reflective, especially a lot of his earlier work. His new work is more about gaining confidence in a newly confident China. So, it’s kind of interesting because his work is actually not so critical of China unlike the previous generation’s art, it’s more talking about this status quo in China. There’s a new found nationalism and confidence whereas they didn’t have that 10 years ago. They were constantly apologizing for themselves.

Do you have any recommendations for young emerging artists, especially from China, who we should look out for over here in Europe?

Well, there’s a few that are pretty good. I mean, Ying Yefu is probably not that well-known across the art world yet, but amongst people who know him he’s very popular and he’s going to be very special. He’s a very unique artist. But he’s an outsider artist. It’s a pretty small scene, you know. There are probably around 30 to 40 artists that you would really want to bother following and collecting. That’s sort of how I feel about that.

I also like Shang Chengxiang from Beijing, who I showed last summer. Zhang Lehua's work recently is not that impressive, but I really like his earlier work. He does these educational posters and I feel confident he will regain his direction. Guan-dian.org website has a selection of a lot of the better galleries and also it has a list of artists, who are really worth paying attention to from Beijing and Shanghai, and all over China, actually. And that’s actually a good list to go to. 

You mentioned Ying Yefu as being an outside artist. Is that what you’re mainly looking for – the quirky, outsider kind of art?

Yeah, maybe a little bit more like that. We definitely don’t do a lot of mainstream. I think that contemporary art around the world is in a little bit of a flat place right now. It needs to find a new direction, some new stimulation. A lot of it tends to be quite derivative of other things. There’s some pretty standard artists right now.

I mean, the problem is there is a certain style and culture that people are trying to find and develop in China, but it tends to be kind of more illustrative with street style and kind of the graphic look. The problem is that it lacks serious research or ideas behind it.

You can do things that are kind of lowbrow, like pop surrealists and it looks cartoony and simple, yet it’s backed up by a whole understanding of the meaning and history of it. And actually, Howie Tsui’s work is a good example. He does a sort of version of Chinese ink painting but it’s so much more. He’s an artist we will be showing in February 2015. He’s amazing. He’s 35 years-old and does these incredible ink paintings. It’s sort of lowbrow, pop surrealist political cartoons, but every painting he does is backed up by months of research. He does tons of historical background research and he’s very theoretical. He can talk ‘till the cows come home’ about any painting he does.

You ask artists of a similar generation here: “So what’s you work about?” and they say “Erm… I don’t really like to say…”. Or they show a picture of a teddy-bear and you ask them why a teddy-bear and the artist says: “Because it’s a teddy-bear. I like teddy-bears.” They have nothing to say. You know, “Ah, I can’t be bothered to explain it. You wouldn’t get it”. But it’s really because they wouldn’t be able to explain it to save their lives. They don’t have that theory education. They didn’t read a lot of art books when they were young, they were just drawing some cartoons and doing sketches of them. They were too busy studying every other subject, memorizing completely pointless things, like communist propaganda, history and mathematics, which they will never use. And they were not really focused on art from a young age. I think Western artists probably realize they want to become an artist around the age of 13-14 and that becomes their primary focus, and they do a lot of reading and researching.

All galleries in China have a similar complaint, which is: it’s really hard to get quality artwork and enough of it. If you find an artist, whose making anything good, it’s very hard to make enough work to meet the market demand. That’s one thing where the generation of Cynical realists, like Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun, did well. These guys came from a generation that worked fairly hard. They were poor and they were hungry, and they worked hard and created large studios and they hired a lot of assistants. They matched the market demand. They were able to keep up with it, which allowed investors to collect their work. If they can’t get work, people lose interest. Artists that make 12 paintings a year, they’re not going to go anywhere, because the galleries want fine art committed to them, because they’re going to take a lot of time to put up a show, but then they don’t have enough work to sell and that doesn't pay for the cost of running a gallery. So, you tend to look for artists that are going to produce a little bit more… It’s quite complicated.

I think, you can never let the pressure off yourself, as an artist, because you’re never going to bring the best out of yourself if you just start taking it easy. Just sort of resting on your laurels, it’s like anybody doing anything.

What about opportunities for young artists coming over from abroad to Shanghai? Are there any initiatives going on? Are the galleries looking more into bringing international artists over to China?

There are a few residencies. There’s the Red Gate gallery residency in Beijing, where you have to pay. But it’s quite cheap. You have a space and access to materials that are quite cheap. And also the opportunity to see how techniques are being used locally, you can spin ceramics or whatever.

In Shanghai, there’s the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, which is a 6-month residency for everybody from dancers to visual artists, sculptors, musicians, writers. There are 18 people in there at one time, it’s a 5-star boutique hotel. It’s right on the Bund overlooking Pudong with it’s skyline and the crazy Oriental Pearl tower. And the place is super designed, it’s very cool with big rooms, inspiring. Everybody gets their own studio to work in. So you get a hotel room AND a studio, and it’s really pretty awesome. I think, it’s the best residency I have ever seen. A lot of people really love it. And they pay for your flight and they give you breakfast every day. So that’s worth looking at online. It’s sponsored by Swatch. But the problem is you’re not really allowed to make the work for showing in Shanghai while you’re there. They have all these conditions and that’s one of them, which is weird because you’re there, you make all this work and yet you have to ship it home, which people don’t have the money to do, because a lot of these artists are quite poor and cannot afford to ship it home.

But there’s also other residencies in Shanghai you can get. And you can come over self-funded, rent a cheap apartment and work away. Or if you do ceramics you can go to Jingdezhen, it’s the porcelain capital of China.

A Latvian woman, Zane Mellupe, has been here for a while. She makes work here and shows at a lot of art fairs with IFA gallery here and aboard. We have shown artist Eric Leleu, who’s French and he’s done quite well. We bring over some other artists from aboard, some bigger name artists from Canada. So, yeah, you can come and live and work here.

Thank you for your time.

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