Art Insider: Johnson Chang
With his thick-rimmed glasses, Mandarin-collar jacket and broad smile, Johnson Chang is an instantly recognisable figure at many of Hong Kong’s art events—but he’s famous for far more than his fashion sense.
Johnson is widely regarded as the person who kick-started global interest in Chinese contemporary art, turning painters such as Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun into international sensations by curating era-defining exhibitions such as "The Stars: 10 Years" and "China’s New Art, Post 1989".
Here, he recalls scouring Hong Kong for art books as a child in the 1960s, explains why he’s so excited by Tai Kwun and reveals why he’s still looking for young artists to show in his gallery, Hanart TZ, which he established in 1983.
What was the first work of art that moved you?
I can’t remember my first infantile rapture with art, but it must be from some sort of Chinese comic strips of historical, military novels. As a child I was always interested in drawing things and when I was a teenager, one of my uncles invited me to view his collection of important classical paintings from the Shanghai and Suzhou region, which was my first lesson in connoisseurship.
I also spent many of my idle hours browsing art books at Swindon Books on Lock Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
What was the first exhibition you hosted?
I wasn’t a gallerist at the time, but I curated a show for the artist Mak Hin-Yeung at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in the late ‘70s. That was probably his first public exhibition in Hong Kong and it was very well received. There are a few other shows I did before I had a contemporary art gallery. I organised the first show for Luis Chan, it was 1981 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
Then in 1982 I did another show, for the sculptor Ju Ming. The Ju Ming exhibition was particularly successful, so I was persuaded to open a gallery because I was offered a space by my uncle at minimal rent.
Today, I still think, the only way to do an art gallery properly is to have minimal rental. Although I’m not speaking for myself now—Pedder Building has maximal rent.
What’s the most challenging exhibition you’ve ever hosted?
The two famous exhibitions I curated were the 10th anniversary show for The Stars Group, which was in 1989. Then in 1993 I put together an exhibition called "China’s New Art, Post 1989", which was the first major survey exhibition of contemporary art from China.
That was a very complex show—it featured 50 artists from across China [including Wang Guangyi, Gu Wenda, Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zeng Fanzhi].
Is there an artist who you don’t currently work with who you’d like to represent?
There are lots! I’m still interested in the new art coming from China and Hong Kong, so I still try and host exhibitions of recent work by [up-and-coming] artists.
I have an on-going project with the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, so every year I try to do a new group show or one-man exhibition with them.
What do you think is the best thing about the art scene in Hong Kong?
The best thing about the art scene in Hong Kong is that it really has a very Hong Kong character. Today I think people want to see art that brings with it its context, and I think Hong Kong artists have a very strong awareness of the works being contextualized in a geopolitical as well as a social era.
What’s the worst thing about the art scene in Hong Kong?
The worst thing about the art scene in Hong Kong is that there’s no place to show it. We’ve had one legitimate space since the late ‘70s and that is the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Until June 2018, it was still the only legitimate space in Hong Kong. Now we have Tai Kwun, thankfully, and we can look forward to M+ and West Kowloon in another two years. Things are looking up.
Who’s the most recent artist to join your gallery?
Luo Ying. The show I had with her [this August] was the first show I’ve had with her and it’s her first show outside of China. She is one of two classically-trained artists who have joined the gallery recently—the other is Zheng Li. They’ve both got strong personalities but deep ties to old traditions.
What exhibition are you hosting next?
Qiu Shihua. He is a big challenge for publications because his works all come out white and monochrome and he paints very thinly—you can even see the canvas.
They are actually very subtle landscapes—trees, hills. But they are impossible to see because he reduces the contrast right down. He’s been very successful internationally. He was one of the first Chinese artists to be given a one-man show at the Kunsthalle Basel.
Which exhibitions will you be visiting around the world in the coming year?
Unfortunately, I have a calendar of work planned rather than a calendar of travel. I’ve been helping on two projects at the Art Institute of Chicago—one with the calligrapher Wang Dongling and one a historical Chinese bronze exhibition—so I have been there recently.
Who in the art world most inspires you and why?
In terms of artists, I think one of the most inspiring Chinese contemporary artists is Wu Shanzhuan. Wu is one of the artists who makes me think about Chinese contemporary art differently than most other Chinese artists.
See also: Art Insider: Catherine Kwai