A Decade Ago, Wim Delvoye’s Work Was Censored in Shanghai. Now, He’s Launching Perrotin Gallery’s New Shanghai Space
The Belgian artist previously ran a farm in China where he tattooed pigs.
The French art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin has never been one to make a quiet entrance. True to form, next month he will open his new Shanghai outpost—the gallery’s first location in mainland China—with an exhibition of work by Belgian artist and provocateur Wim Delvoye. A decade ago, that same artist’s work was censored in the city.
The show, Delvoye’s first solo presentation in Shanghai, spans 15 years of his career and includes work from the very project that aroused opposition ahead of a planned appearance in the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair in 2008. The piece, a three-screen video installation titled Art Farm, documents the artist’s time running a pig farm in the Chinese province of Sichuan between 2003 and 2010.
Perrotin does not anticipate any issues this time around. “The problem was that he wanted to show the pigs live at the fair,” the dealer explained. (Ant Farm appeared at the city’s Xin Beijing Gallery in 2007 without incident.)
To create the video, Delvoye tattooed each young piglet, creating living art that grew and changed as the animal matured, their hides stretched like a canvas after their deaths. “The pigs who were with Wim were the lucky ones!” said Perrotin, describing their lives, which included daily massages, as a stark contrast to the terrible conditions faced at factory farms. “To have skin that would be in good condition for a work of art, they were treated super well—the aristocracy of pigs.”
A Commitment to Asia
The forthcoming gallery is Perrotin’s fourth location in Asia. It will open inside a former warehouse built in 1937 on Huqui Road, once nicknamed “Museum Road” because of the nearby museums and auction houses. Although a large handful of Western galleries have opened in Hong Kong over the past 15 years, very few have made the jump to launch in Shanghai. (Lévy Gorvy and Hauser & Wirth operate offices in the city, but not full-blown gallery spaces.)
Perrotin expects to stage eight solo shows a year in his Shanghai space, which can host two exhibitions at any given time. In preparation for the new venture, he is leaning heavily on gallery partners Etsuko Nakajima and Alice Lung, who oversee the gallery’s existing Asian operations.
Originally founded in 1990 in Paris, where the gallery now has three locations, Perrotin first expanded to Asia in 2012, with a Hong Kong outpost. Seoul followed in 2016, and Tokyo the following year.
The landscape of the Asian art world has changed quite a bit since Perrotin first set foot in the region, and Shanghai represents a big opportunity for growth. Indeed, Hong Kong is no longer China’s only center for international art and commerce. In Shanghai, Perrotin says, “things happen super fast. What would take 20 years in Europe takes five years there.”
As the gallery operations have expanded over the past nearly-30 years, Perrotin has experienced greater freedom, but with it, greater pressure. “The big difference is you have the pleasure to work with your artists more regularly,” he said. “You don’t have to wait two or three or four years, depending on the city, in between every show.”
Although he’s excited about taking this next step into the Chinese market, which he views as complementary to the Hong Kong operation, Perrotin remains cautious about the new gallery’s prospect. The dealer hopes he’s right in sensing growing interest from collectors in mainland China, but admitted, “I will be able to tell you later if it was the right time.”
And despite his bullish attitude toward the Delvoye exhibition, Perrotin is still aware that he will have to navigate politics and potential censorship. “Some aspects of the organization of shows will be complicated, but we will learn doing it,” he said. “We can’t anticipate everything.”
Another challenge for a contemporary art gallery attempting to break into mainland China, according to Perrotin, is that “many collectors are collecting ink, or not what we consider contemporary art. In the past they’ve been focused on Chinese artists, but now they are becoming open to artists from the rest of the world.”
Perrotin has been seriously considering expanding to Shanghai for about three years. He began testing the waters and developing connections with local collectors as an exhibitor at Shanghai’s ART021 art fair, where he began to show in 2013. Now with a brick-and-mortar space, he says, he hopes to develop those relationships into something deeper.
“The art fairs are great because we can spend five days in many different countries, but nobody has real time to talk with you. They go from one booth to another!” said Perrotin. “We cannot do what is part of our mission, which is to introduce artists who aren’t yet recognized or known.”
Whatever happens, Perrotin is ready to meet the challenge. He acknowledges that it is more difficult to sell art in mainland China than branded luxury goods like designer bags, but notes, “I heard many things before I opened in Hong Kong, and honestly I didn’t have any problems in the end.”
“We are quite happy to be at the beginning of this adventure for international galleries in mainland China,” he added. “I’m 50 now, and Leo Castelli opened his gallery at 50 years old—so maybe I have a new life starting now!”
See more work by Delvoye from the upcoming show below.
“Wim Delvoye” will be on view at Perrotin Shangai, 3/F, 27 Huqiu Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai, September 20–October 20, 2018.
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