In the zone

Updated: 2012-02-17 07:49

By Li Aoxue (China Daily)

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In the zone

Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in the 798 Art Zone. [Wang Jing / China Daily]

Since his first 798 visit, UCCA gallery director has been drawn to contemporary Chinese art

Like many other young Westerners who wanted to see China for themselves, Philip Tinari arrived in Beijing as an undergraduate in 2001 to study Chinese and ended up staying.

He decided to extend his stay after a year in the Chinese capital and it was then that a friend took him to a place that proved to be a turning point in his life - the 798 Art Zone.

A decade ago, the cultural area was still being built, but Tinari fell in love with it immediately. He helped translate a book with artwork of Chinese contemporary artists for display at art centers in the zone as well as guided the increasing number of tourists there.

After returning to the United States and postgraduate East Asian studies at Harvard University, his growing interest in the arts field led him to a job offer in New York at Sotheby's, one of the world's largest auction houses.

As he was translating his first auction book on contemporary Chinese art, he started to think about making the subject his career.

"I felt interested in contemporary Chinese art the more I studied it, the more I felt addicted," says the 33-year-old Philadelphia native, who also holds a bachelor's degree in Literature from Duke University.

In June 2006, Tinari decided it was time to move back to Beijing and make contemporary Chinese art his full-time job.

Five years later, he found himself back in 798, this time as the fifth director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a major art center and one of the zone's largest galleries. The zone itself has since become an icon of the arts community and a hub of art galleries in China.

Tinari believes the UCCA, a nonprofit art center founded by art collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens in November 2007, is well positioned to hold exhibitions of contemporary Chinese artists better than any art center in the world.

Tinari says that if the 798 Art Zone is seen as a shopping mall, then the UCCA will probably be the department store always bringing new things to people.

Last year, the number of visitors to the center hit about 600,000, considered the biggest number among visitors to all arts centers in Beijing.

"We hope there will be more visitors to UCCA this year, hopefully 1 million," Tinari says.

"We have the location, as most contemporary Chinese artists are based in Beijing," he says.

Before joining the UCCA, Tinari was also founding editor and acting publisher of LEAP, an international art magazine of contemporary China. Prior to LEAP, Tinari was a contributing editor to Artforum magazine and adjunct professor of art criticism and theory at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Tinari insists he is still only an outsider but he wants make UCCA serve contemporary Chinese artists better and try to expand their reach worldwide.

"Sometimes, international exhibitions such as works by Picasso are presented in Shanghai. We hope the UCCA can go abroad and be presented in other countries as well," he says.

Sixteen exhibitions will be presented at the UCCA this year. One exhibition this month is in cooperation with international contemporary art specialty magazine Parkett. Tinari says three exhibition spaces will be made to display the 200 works and there will be garden passages, living rooms, dressing rooms and studios within the spaces to make them look like a house.

"In recent years, exhibitions on contemporary art tend to focus on the scale, but we put these 200 works into a house design, which is different from the traditionally large exhibition shows," Tinari says.

Tinari is also putting together an exhibition on contemporary Indian artists that will be shown at the UCCA this summer.

Indian Highway, a major exhibition of contemporary art from India, will be a comprehensive snapshot of artists working in India today, including works from 40 Indian artists who have been active in the field of world contemporary art.

The show was first exhibited in London in 2008 and has been to four places worldwide. Beijing is its next stop in Asia.

Tinari says it will be an interesting exhibition as most of the time Chinese people only think about their contemporary art in relation with Western art and seldom consider its links to neighbors such as India.

"It is interesting that when a Chinese person meets a Japanese, they speak English and probably that Chinese knows more about London than Japan; surely there is a lack of understanding for neighbors in Asia," Tinari says.

He says such an exhibition will provide an opportunity for Chinese audiences to know more about Indian contemporary art since there is a lack of communication between the two.

On March 24, works of Gu Dexin, one of the most avant-garde of China's leading contemporary artists, will also be shown at the UCCA.

"Gu withdrew himself from the stage in 2009; it is therefore exciting to re-present his work again at the UCCA as most people have been expecting it for quite a long time," Tinari says.

Gu quickly made a name for himself in the late 1980s with his strange, colorful portraits of alien beings and provocative experiments altering and reshaping plastics and other materials.

Another exhibition Tinari plans is one of contemporary Chinese artists who were born after China's reform and opening-up in the late 1970s. The exhibition will be an important platform for these artists and Tinari hopes to establish their reputations through it.

"As a foreign director in China, what I am concerned about is whether these contemporary Chinese artists are recognizable in the world; the exhibition will be first held in China, and then go to other countries," he says.