A conversation about the intricacies of the Chinese art market with iconic Chinese gallerist Pearl Lam. Lam has been a fixture in the contemporary art scenes of Shanghai and Hong Kong during an unprecedented time of growth and evolution among Chinese artists and collectors. Her galleries represent artists from both China and abroad and The China Art Foundation (which she co-founded with scholar Gao Minglu) aims to utilize art to spark cross-cultural dialogues between the East and the West.
Craig : [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I dive into the intricacies of the Chinese art market with iconic Chinese gallerist Pearl Lam. Lam has been a fixture in the contemporary art scenes of Shanghai and Hong Kong during an unprecedented time of growth and evolution among Chinese artists and collectors. Her galleries represent artists from both China and abroad, and the China Art Foundation, which she co-founded with scholar Gao Minglu, aims to utilize art to spark cross-cultural dialogues between the East and the West. And now a conversation about leveraging art to build a bridge between cultures. With gallerist Pearl Lam. Craig : [00:01:08] Pear Lam, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. Pearl, it feels as though you really do have a worldwide reputation as a gallerist, but on those occasions that you meet the total stranger, how do you start to explain who Pearl Lam is? Pearl: [00:01:27] I do the very British way, which is really modest. I'm just a gallerist. That's it. Having said, several galleries in Asia, that's all I would say in a very British modest way. I'm one of those lucky ones who happens to be in China, who witnessed the evolution of Chinese contemporary art and how the West came into China, how the Western institutions, collectors, everybody went to China, and how Chinese contemporary art becomes now an international art. So it just happened that I was there, and then I witnessed how the whole market grows or the whole the the evolution of of and of the museum institution and how the art infrastructure in China has been evolving. So I was the lucky one who has been there and who witnessed all this evolution. I was also there when Hong Kong started. When I went back to Hong Kong at the very, very beginning, I went back in 1993 when I did my first pop up shows there. My father actually said to me after the opening...first thing when I talked to him, I went to open the gallery, he said over his dead body. "I didn't send you out to go abroad after 11 years". (when I was sent abroad, I was 11 years old) "And then to to return as a shopkeeper." In his mind in Hong Kong at that time...I mean, it was really...in 93, they didn't know what culture is, has no idea about. I mean, there's two galleries, but there's no idea what really an art world is about. So he felt embarrassed. He said to me, "How can you have not big dreams, big dreams, not a small thing". And then I have a pop of shows and and right off the top of shows I have a lunch with him. And he was literally begging me to close the show because the Hong Kong people consider me as delinquent. Because you're doing art, you're doing culture. "You have no future". This is completely a delinquent job. Hong Kong was absolutely adverse. China, the difference is, in China when I was there, there's no market. The artist was making art for art. And it was a very interesting thing because I went to China having this really arrogant British colonial attitude because I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Hong Kong, sent abroad, really having this arrogance that I didn't even realize that I had that arrogance went to China and I was being sent to China as a property developer to learn to become a property developer because my father and my family would not allow to me to become a gallerist. So the negotiation is I can do three pop-up shows a year. Pearl: [00:04:58] They didn't understand what pop-up shows is. They couldn't understand what was going on. But I had to become a property developer. So when I was there, my first month's salary, I had it and my and my friend in Hong Kong just opened a gallery and she has a Shanghai artist. So I was sat right next to the Shanghainese artist. Little did they know that I couldn't speak a word of Mandarin. And when I went to China, no Mandarin. My Chinese standard is to eleven years old. But my mother is Shanghainese, so I could understand Shanghainese. But I couldn't speak Shanghainese because I always reply in Cantonese. But they didn't realize I was sitting beside the Shanghainese artist. So he was talking to me and I can understand everything, but I could not reply. So I was writing my limited Chinese. Actually, at that gallery dinner we were all forced to buy a painting which we all bought. And to seal this friendship with this artist. So lucky...I was really lucky to have met him because when I was in Shanghai, the thing is, I don't know that art world. I did not know anything. So he was there. So I got bored. So I got my assistant calling him up. Pearl: [00:06:35] So they speak. So he said, "Oh, come, come, come, come and have dinner". So I went with him to the street. We were having dinner. So he opens the Chinese art world to me and at the time it was really pretty strange because, you know, when you have an oral conversation in Mandarin or Shanghainese, I can pick up most of it. But when you speak in the very literary terms, I was having so much problems, right? So he was the one that was hanging out with or else I have to hang up with the dropping of the project manager or the clerk of work, which is completely not interesting. So I was always hanging out with him. And so it went. And then after one week I decided that the conversation is not going anywhere because I couldn't understand half of the things that we're talking about. So he was bringing me to his friends. So when they were having this intellectual conversation, it was really tough for me. So then I got my assistant going there. Then next thing I got, I employed from university a research assistant. So whenever they speak, they would translate to English for me. And whenever I don't understand, they go to the library to research, to tell me what is going on, because I don't know anything about Chinese culture in whatsoever, man. Pearl: [00:08:08] I mean, I'm just pretending to be Chinese because the Hong Kong people are not Chinese. Because we were not being educated. We were not be educated. All right? You know, we can talk about Confucius, but what is actually Confucian about? No idea, right? We know a little bit of Chinese, so it's completely like hollow walking in. And at the time, my arrogance as well, if you ask me whether I'm Chinese or not, I will tell you I'm not Chinese. I'm in Hong-Kongese. I'm not Chinese. All right? So it was going on. So I was learning in my own manner with all those researching. After two months or three months, because I go in and out of and of China. One day I got more courage. So I said to them, I said, "You guys are really weird". And I said, "In England, when you talk about art world, we talk about so the society, the politics, the street culture". And I said, "You guys are talking about Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism. This is completely...this is weird". So they turn around, they said to me, "Do you understand there is something called Cultural Revolution?" I said,"I read about it". They said, "Cultural Revolution, meaning that you cannot talk about all these culture. So what we are doing now is completely rebelling against whatever we were taught. Pearl: [00:09:44] And so we are the coup". And and then they look at me, they said, "What are you. You're not even Chinese". They said, "You're like a banana. Banana meaning that outside yellow, inside white". And then after that, I realized that there's a word called egg. Egg is describing Westerners who is white inside, but actually they are really Shanghaified, so they yellow inside. That's an egg. So they call me the banana. Craig : [00:10:09] Wow. Pearl: [00:10:10] Because I knew nothing. Zero. So I have to say that, you know, all that journey in and in China, I mean, I go in and out of China only I mean, I was learning to become a Chinese, actually. I knew zero about Chinese culture. And actually, you know, Hong Kong people speaks very direct. We speak very direct. And China, they don't. They beat around the bush. They go round and round. So you have to guess the metaphor. You have to guess their intention. And actually, you know, they really you know, I think in Japan when you see how Japanese are or the Korean, especially Japanese, they were the old ancient Chinese because they don't like to say no. In China now they still will say no, but they really don't want to say no immediately. So you have to guess everything. So I was learning all the things about Chinese culture, and little did I know that the basis of Chinese culture is Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It's two philosophies mixed together. Pearl: [00:11:20] So I was learning and learning and learning that and then looking at art in very different ways. Because one of your questions that you were talking about, the evolution of the Chinese art... Craig : [00:11:32] Right. Pearl: [00:11:32] When I went there, because there was still a government suppression, I think is until 1995, everything was more free, but there was Japanese, so they were painting a lot of things, still referring to the Cultural Revolution. Still there are a lot of political paintings and even at the time, you know, the laughing face, the white face, you know Zheng Xiogang, Yue Minjun, in the West they called cynical realism. Basically they are saying that they want to criticize the government but they don't they can't do openly because there is a suppression of freedom of expression. So they use all other metaphor to talk about the government at that time because there wasn't any market. And the artists themselves are very frustrated. So they do paint things that will be a bit criticizing the government, but a lot of them would do experimental ink brush, right? The traditional ink brush painting, but experimental because they were open. They start seeing from the foreign magazines, they were underground magazines. But by then it was more popular. You can get magazines and you can get books. You can actually get a lot of art books, which is published in China. Craig : [00:13:03] Right Pearl: [00:13:04] So they were looking at it and they were learning the esthetic. And I have to say that these artists, they really they want to learn. So they read every single word of these books that they can get hold of and they really try to learn and try to be connected with the West, because most of them hasn't been to the West and those who has been the West, very few comes back. I came back at that time a lot in 1981, a whole group of artists left, including AI Weiwei left and throughout the 1980s. They were they were all the artists leaving to go to France, Germany, America. So these artists didn't return. All the artists who were left in China, they were trying to...self-taught. They were trying to improve. It was really a very interesting time. And they sit down, they talk, they speak what they have learned, what they've read from the West, and a lot of exchange of ideas. By '95 and there onwards, there were western museums coming in. And I have to say that in even in 1980s, there were a lot of artist residencies or institutions. They would invite Chinese artists to go abroad to study or to do not exchange it for study to go there. Pearl: [00:14:42] It happens in the '80s towards the '90s, but by the middle of the '90s, it will be the museum curators and all of them coming in looking at these Chinese artworks are starting to talk to the artists at the time very strong was video art. The video art was very, very strong. I think many of these video art has been collected by MoMA. MoMA has a lot. A lot of the '90s video art And also Pompidou. They have a lot. And all these artists, I think all these artists, they were setting a really low price, but all these artists were the first to really make make a bit of money. Okay? And by '95, most of the art market there was...and this one Hong Kong gallery which is Han Art. Han Art was selling the Chinese artist work. I think the whole world is only that gallery. I think Plum Blossom was there was doing some but mainly it was was Han Art and my friend's gallery at the time was Ho Gallery. It was all the Hong Kong. And then it was selling to consulate and was selling to expatriate lawyers, accountant who was coming in. So all of them were buying like a souvenir. Present. Yeah. So they were really low price and that's how they all collected all those, all those later on becomes Political Pop. Craig : [00:16:05] I feel like many art markets are driven by collector tastes. Have collector tastes evolved in China? Because my impression is 30, 40 years ago... Pearl: [00:16:16] Yes, it has, it has, it has. Because, it's very funny because in the West they call the Political Pop as the Chinese contemporary art, we call it as a Western definition of Chinese contemporary art. This is the West calling this as Chinese contemporary art. But this is not. This is something that they connect it with the West because it's like a pop art. It's about, you know, you have all the Mao Zedong phase, you have the Cultural Revolution. Immediately they are connected. Most of the Chinese, except those...a lot of those who buy that sort of art were following the trend. So the trend was buying. But there after, after 2011...2011 was really the mainland Chinese coming into the market to buy. Okay, before them it's only a few numbers, but after 2011, they came in crowds of buying art because it was encouraged by the Chinese government. So everything works is based on the Chinese government. So the Chinese government encouraged and pushed everybody to support culture. All of them started to go to auction houses to buy Chinese art. So all that started for four or five years. They were all buying the Political Pop because they would go to auction house. Pearl: [00:17:47] They said, "We don't know art, just let me know which is the highest price of your auction". So they follow that. Then later on, it all changed again, because the first group of art collectors, so-called collectors, they are investors, they're flippers, they come in, they buy, they want to flip. Then it gets...and then they look at different art and then all the political pop, no more. So they look at all different of the artists. So they start buying. Now, today, the last three, four or five years is the younger generation who has been studying abroad. They came back because they studied, they look at the western gallery. The Western galleries are more fashionable, more cool, cooler. So they only want to buy Western art. What America is selling, these are the things that they want to buy because they have...they all study abroad. They look at the Western art, they don't look at Chinese artists. They like to have that connection. So now all the younger people...the younger people has very big budget. They are in the twenties or early thirties, they are all buying the Western art. So I think it's phase that, you know, it's coming. The whole phase. Craig : [00:19:05] Is that causing Chinese artists to change their work to meet Western tastes of these expats that are coming back to China? Pearl: [00:19:13] No, actually the Chinese artist hasn't really changed esthetic. No, because all the younger collectors are buying are not. Even if you change the esthetic, they won't because they want to buy Western artists. And that's I mean, that's the norm. Those are the younger crowd. The older crowd, they want to feel secure. So they want to buy blue chip art that has an international audience so when they want to resell it, it's easier. So the whole thing is changed. Then you have the middle people who are still collecting some Chinese art, but it's not as much as before because they are spreading their interests. Then they have international collectors coming in as well. Now, of course, these few years no, but the international collectors are looking at Chinese art to buy Chinese art. So this is I mean, is a really big, big change of dynamic. I don't know what is will be happening until China is fully open. China today is not fully open.I mean, we were just at the art fair within two days across the art fair because of one person being COVID infected. So it's really difficult actually to gauge what is going to happen in Chinese contemporary art. I think the Chinese contemporary art is really important is they have their own language and they have their own concept and theory, and it's really needed to be exchanged with the West. Pearl: [00:20:54] To do that, we need to have publications. Now, Professor Gao Minglu did a book published by MIT. China Art Foundation sponsored that. So we need to have more of these Chinese academics, whether it's Warhol or all these people coming, coming and write the book so that the West, the Western academics will understand what direction we're talking about. And recently I went to Pittsburgh to see Professor Gao Minglu and asking, "you know, he's been writing all the Chinese books." And I said, "We need translation, we need translation. Can we have some some books, published and in English?" So all that needs to be really happening before Chinese contemporary art or Chinese art could be well understood, or we need to have that exchanges. But what is wonderful about a world of differences is we have different cultures, a different way of approaching art and the exchange. Now we don't. We still have Western theory, Western concept leading the whole art world in order to have a better understanding. And we do need, whether it is all over the world, we need to have different academics having their books published. Therefore all ideas could be exchanged, all concepts can be exchanged. And I think that is vital. Craig : [00:22:26] That kind of brings us around to your foundation, the China Art Foundation. So what specific programs... Pearl: [00:22:33] I will tell you the story about The China Foundation, how it was founded. I always have a problem with Chinese contemporary art at the early days until my artist gave me a Chinese essay written by Professor Gao Minglu. So you know, it's in Chinese and in simplified Chinese people take one hour to finish, I take a week because it's really difficult for me. It's very, very difficult for me to and to understand. So actually, after I read it and after I discuss with different people to make sure that my understanding is right. So I wanted to see Professor Gao Minglu because all my missing link was connected, completely connected...my missing link. So, so that they found him. And then people said to me, Oh, he's not in Beijing. If you want to see him, he's in Pittsburgh. Because he's he's a research professor there in Pittsburgh only teaching PhD. So I said, "Okay, Can you make an appointment?" I fly to Pittsburgh. So I flew to Pittsburgh. I had a meeting with him in the canteen. First thing he saw me, he said, he said to me, "I don't curate show for galleries". Speaker2: [00:23:55] And I said, "Do you know that?" I said, "My Contrast Gallery doesn't even have a gallery. We only do pop up shows". I said, "I'm not asking you and coming here to ask you to curate a show show". He said, "I only curate show for museum." And then he said," Why are you coming here? Why do you want to come here from so far away?" I said, "Because I want to learn from you. I need to ask questions. There's so many questions I don't understand. There is so many missing link about that. And you were there during the whole and and the whole evolution from the 1970s." So I said, "I need someone to explain to me. So three hours conversation, every half an hour. He said, "you know, I don't work with a gallery, blah, blah, blah." So after three hours, he said, "I'm just telling you I won't work..." I said, "It's okay." And I said, "after three hours. I clearly understand what was going on". Craig : [00:24:59] It feels like how you spoke earlier about how people in China are indirect and they're going around. It's almost like he thought that you were spinning... Pearl: [00:25:09] Yeah, because he felt that I was giving. Yeah, giving him pressure because I'm from Hong Kong. I'm not from China. Right? China people, I didn't realize that...I didn't realize China people, when they you see you, they bring you a present. They do all the polite things. I didn't have anything. I didn't have a present. I didn't have anything. I did not greet very politely. I just went direct to ask. Completely not the mannerism where you have...where you see a professor, you pay respect. I didn't even bring tea or bring anything. I'm Hong Kong. So it was completely...if you look at it now, I will say that I was very disrespectful. Okay. Not knowing everything. Anyway. So then after that, I flew to London. I talked to the ICA director at the time, Philip Dodd, and I said, "Philip, I have a problem. I always had a problem with Chinese contemporary art, there was always a missing link. Now I find a solution and I'm sure that if I have this missing link, I think a lot of people will have a misinterpretation about Chinese contemporary art". I said, "What can I do in order to make people understand?" He said, "form of foundation. Do a foundation and form a foundation." So I formed the foundation. The first thing we do is a close door conference. And to form this foundation, I also invited Philip Dodd to be a founder, Gao Minglu to be a founder and my other friend to be a founder. So then Gao Minglu thinks that I'm serious. Still didn't trust me, still not trust me, still did not trust me. Pearl: [00:26:55] So I said, okay, we had a closed door conference. So the closed door conference was mainly invite all these academics, museum directors, academics and the other side was Nick Serota from Tate heading it. So it was invited. So we have a closed door conference exchanging ideas for three days. It was the first time we did it. All right. And then after that, we did another one in Shanghai. So it's all about exchanging ideas. This is what we do. And we publish books and we sponsor, live BNA lectures. I mean, the whole foundation is about academics, supporting curators, supporting exchanging ideas. Because what I want people to learn is what is really what is Chinese art? What is Chinese culture, Right? What is it? Because when I confuse from Hong Kong, I'm sure that many people would be confused. So that's what we have been doing for the past years. But there were years where we haven't we haven't been very active. So I think that it's very important that if I ...for me, art is a communication, so it is really important that we can use that art and to talk about to use culture and art to have to have exchanges, especially the world now is so complicated and so many egos. So I think art with the soft power culture so far is the great to have exchanges. Craig : [00:28:47] Is the hope that both artists and collectors can have a better understanding of each other's cultures. Or is it... Pearl: [00:28:57] Yes, each other culture using China as one as an example. So it's called China Foundation. The the mission is actually to ask them to understand China, because there's a lot of misunderstanding in America. In America, people are intimidated by China. I mean, which is, okay, we have a different leader, but it shouldn't be intimidated. If you look at our Chinese culture, it's not about using using all the weapons, power and all that. It's not. So our ancient culture evolving until now, we are pretty quiet type. And so I was hoping that that this platform would be able to enhance the East and West understanding. I see myself as a bridge. Craig : [00:29:51] Right. Pearl: [00:29:52] To bring the East and West because I have to learn to become a Chinese. So to me, over ten years to become a Chinese. Craig : [00:30:01] Is your Mandarin any better now? Pearl: [00:30:04] I can speak Mandarin, but I hate my accent, so I try not to speak Mandarin because my accent is so bad. My accent is like Hong Kong people speaking Cantonese but speaking a little bit slighter accent. I mean, I did. The joke was I did a one hour TV interview in Mandarin. It was so bad that they have subtitles in Chinese and some of them having question marks. Yeah, you know, it was the artists and it was everybody who forced me. If I would have known it was a TV interview, I would have some lessons first before I went. Craig : [00:30:43] So let me ask you this. If this podcast interview was a platform for...I think the majority of my listeners are Western, what would you want a Western listener to understand a little bit better? You know, and I know it's there's thousands and thousands of years of culture and but are there some simple... Pearl: [00:31:05] No, actually, actually our culture is very basic. There's only three philosophies. Many Westerners are Buddhism are Buddhist. Buddhism is one of the one of the key cultures. So is Buddhism. Daoism is even more free. Confucianism is actually very tough. And Confucianism today doesn't work, especially when we talk about democracy. If they look at Daoism and if they look at Buddhism, they would be more open to it. It's like in Chinese culture is there's never black or white, it's always gray, it's always in the middle way. Is the midway. This is what our culture is about. It's a midway culture, because in America or in the West it's either yes or no. I mean, but we don't have yes or no. We go the midway. It's always the midway. That is really basic about culture. So when people...I think China doesn't have a very good communication because people hear it and they feel that they're in fear because they think we are aggressive. Actually, we are not an aggressive culture. So I think there is a lot of miscommunication. China's sentiment is very simple because we have 150 years being suppressed by the West. There was foreign aggression in the 19th century. They were trying to to split and partition China, luckily America came in and stopped this. And with a lot of you know when you are pushed to the end that you feel inferior and all of a sudden now you come out and become powerful. So it's that reaction. Right, because if you've being pushed with Western aggression, foreign domination, and we always have to bow for all that. And then now first time we recognize in 2008, actually China has money. Money means power and they have consumer power and all that. So just imagine if you are like this and all of a sudden people recognize you, You have that power. So your behavior is not as sophisticated as it should be. That's all about it. Craig : [00:33:40] Your gallery represents western Western artists and Chinese artists. Is your roster of artists. Do they all seem to kind of coexist together? If you were to look at look at them all, does it say something about you as a curator, or is it about cultural exchange? Pearl: [00:34:01] Like there's a cultural dialogue, there's cultural dialogue. It's all about cultural dialogue. I give you one example. Our new artist, which is a Nigerian artist called Ayo. So she paint portraiture. We are known in the art world because we were the first who promoted Chinese abstract. Because in the in the West they always say that our abstract is copying the Western abstract. Actually, no, our abstract is derived from Chinese calligraphy. So we were the first to push our abstract. Why would we have a portrait person? Because and, and actually this portrait person, when they do the portraitry the person is not real. It's just imagination of person to do the portraitry. So in China, our ancient China, we never have still life. When they paint, it's based on the perception of the artist. If they paint portraiture, it's also the perception of the artist is not about a still life. So we are taking that idea and Babajide's work and putting this painting into that cultural dialogue. It's an ancient way, but because in the ancient China we start doing what we call the Chinese conceptual art way, way longer than the West, because we start with calligraphy, which is words text, but we start with words before imagery. We they never have still live until the 20th century when the Western painting comes in. Craig : [00:35:45] When I look at art market data that sorts artists by secondary market value, a third of the top hundred artists are Chinese. But I think many American collectors would be hard pressed to name more than four Chinese artists at most. Who would you encourage listeners to learn more about? And is it necessary for them to have a better understanding of Chinese culture to be able to appreciate these artists that are showing up as top in the market? Pearl: [00:36:15] No, because an artist should have an international visual language. I mean, in the Western contemporary art, we always said that you look at the art and if you have this connection and that's where you're connected to. But if you want to learn more, then obviously you go more deeper. But, but we go to our fairs, we go around, you don't look at and you don't understand everything. You have this connection with the art and then you acquire, you buy them, you collect them then. So depending on on the attitude of the collectors, are they collectors or are they buying it for investment? When you invest and when you collect is two different things. Craig : [00:36:59] Where is the Chinese collecting market right now? Is it still speculative or are you finding more and more real collectors? Pearl: [00:37:08] No, no. Chinese. Chinese. Now, mainly the people who really love Chinese art, they will collect. Of course there's a whole group of Western collectors. They also believe that China is going to be an international number one power. So they look at American art. When you become number one power, everybody will buy American. So they see that China, everybody will buy China. So this is one of the collectors was telling me about is because I said to you, collect you don't flip the market. He said, sit on it for ten years, twenty years? Yes. I'll wait for China to be number one. Yeah. That is a lot of them. And that mentality, this is how they think. Craig : [00:38:02] I know that we're just about out of time. If folks wanted to follow your gallery, follow your foundation. Where's the best place for someone to keep track of you and the work you're doing in bridging the East and the West? Pearl: [00:38:15] Instagram, website, the usual venue, right? Craig : [00:38:20] Sure. And China Art Foundation programing. Are there are there books or cultural exchange talks that are planned for the near future? Pearl: [00:38:30] No, no, because we are revamping the foundation. First thing is our chair lady Sydney Picasso has resigned, so we are now having another chair lady. So when they come in, then they will decide where we should go. So it will be very interesting. Craig : [00:38:49] Well, Pearl, I really appreciate you being so generous with your time today, and I feel like we could come back in four or five months and talk for another hour because I feel like we've only scratched the surface on all of your experiences and all your insights on this cultural exchange, and I really appreciate you being willing to talk this morning. Pearl: [00:39:13] Okay. Thank you, Craig. Nice meeting you. Bye. Craig : [00:39:23] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.Show More >