I first met Thomas Fuesser in Beijing in 1993. Both foreigners from Europe, we shared a fascination for China’s new outlook and how we could each involve ourselves in a creative dialogue with its artists. But it was not until 2000 in Shanghai that we began to collaborate professionally, when I organised a series of general visits for various artists, curators, and art writers from Germany. At the time Thomas was working closely with the Ministry for Cultural Affairs of Hamburg, facilitating their sister city exchange with Shanghai. I had a small space then called Fuxing Lu Gallery. Later I also took them through my Suzhou Creek Warehouse next to Moganshan Lu. It was before the M50 art district emerged.
Then in 2009 we organised the ‘Stolen Treasures from Modern China’ group show in Beijing and Shanghai, along with Zhou Tiehai, Andy Hall, and Chris Gill. It was the first opportunity to see the images Thomas had previously kept tucked away as negatives for over a decade. Beautifully intimate photographs, he documented the Chinese ‘renaissance’ of the early 1990s, with many of China’s now famous artists. Accompanying these images and some artworks, we set up a forum to discuss the changes that had taken place in China over the previous two decades, as well as the media’s influences on art practice and the careers of contemporary artists here. It was a truly unique period; the country was stirring with reforms and the unprecedented atmosphere was the catalyst for a select group of artists to fly well above the cultural clouds. The purpose of our initiative was to trace some of the creative and psychological processes that had taken place since 1993. The ways in which China’s art, self-image, and history were sculpted by local and foreign interventions. Zhou Tiehai’s seminal silent film entitled ‘Will’, which depicts a band of artists intent on building their own airport to lure foreign collectors and critics to Shanghai, cleverly satirises the earliest naive notions of how artists become important. We received welcome attention, and came away eager to continue exploring the dynamics that had been generated. I remember urging Thomas to develop his ideas further along a similar vein, and I’m very happy to see that his ‘Short Cuts’ project has since evolved into this first volume account of an art world that is otherwise typically reclusive and difficult to access.
Having grown up surrounded by art – my father and two brothers are artists – I decided to study art history in Zurich. But I also wanted to travel, so I took up Chinese in the 1980s and became interested in Chinese art through its cinema. After some time in Hong Kong, I moved to Shanghai in 1996, hoping to work closely with artists, not just selling their work. Shanghai was a very different place back then. I wanted a gallery that provided information and nurtured relationships, but there was no market and I had to invest heavily.
For artists in China the early 1990s was a particularly challenging time. They would send their work to Hong Kong to be sold and many felt great pressure to become ‘successful’. Running a contemporary art gallery was no less complicated. In the beginning, we set up exhibitions at the Portman Hotel in Shanghai. It was a very small but free space, the owner had a license to sell paintings, and some people seemed to enjoy discovering contemporary art in a five star setting. In 1999 I moved to Fuxing Park, in the downtown French Concession. In fact, our first real show was on Ding Yi’s abstract works in 1996. It was a series of fifteen paintings, all basically the same size and colour. Abstraction was virtually unknown in China then. Art was considered for the people, so abstract work was seen as elitist. It was almost too much for the locals to take. In 1993, Wang Guangyi and other artists went to the Venice Biennale with their ‘Political Pop’. I found a younger generation of Shanghainese artists, and later began working with older ones, like Li Shang. In 1998 we started collaborating with artists in Beijing. I wanted a pluralist approach, with no specific or predefined program. Everything on show was good, but it was not easy for people to digest. Audiences were just beginning to realise what was being produced in China and its potential internationally.
I believe the most important thing is to see whether an artist can do something new, something distinct from what they did in their early stages; work that demonstrates a continuity of development. I like to play my part in that process, quietly motivating from the side and watching them attempt something interesting and innovative. I try to do this with all my artists and many have become friends. It’s what I have encouraged Thomas to do, and we still trust each other after all these years.
Cultural visionaries like Hans van Dijk (1946-2002) were vital to many artists’ careers and the fermentation of the art scenes in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. The period Thomas spent covering this was a vital one in China’s artistic consciousness. With the accelerated changes that have happened since, there is little time for reflection. We almost have to steal opportunities to stop and think. I admit I am personally driven by the need to make things happen. To break new ground, like a path in the jungle. Of course, this is never easy, but I try to maintain a focused and practical approach to the often painstaking process of birthing ideas and working collaboratively.
My aim has always been to build a cultural and aesthetic bridge; supporting and inviting artists to take their rightful place on the world stage. Strictly speaking, I have never seen myself as a collector or a conventional gallerist. After all is said and done, I think it’s about how artists feel about their work and what various kinds of people think about their journey. In China the practice of patronising contemporary art is still developing. Until relatively recently it was not considered a priority. By contrast, foreigners have been collecting in this part of the world for over two decades.
Personal, spontaneous, and creative adventures are for me always the most interesting kind. And it’s what I hope Thomas will continue to do for artists in China and photography itself.