Cover Johnson Chang has dedicated his life to bringing Chinese contemporary art to the forefront of the industry (Photo: Affa Chan)

Gallerist, curator and collector Johnson Chang founded Hanart TZ Gallery in 1983. He reflects on the wonder years.

How did you begin your career in the industry?

I started a gallery with my friend Harold Wong to sell traditional art in the late 1970s. The aftermath of the Cultural Revolution meant a large amount of old cultural artefacts were being disposed of, and Hong Kong was a major channel for this outflow. I started to curate exhibitions for contemporary Hong Kong artists around 1980, including for artists such as Antonio Mak and Luis Chan. I then founded Hanart TZ Gallery for contemporary art in December 1983. It was successful and I never looked back.

What was Hong Kong’s art scene like when you started?

In the early 1980s, Hong Kong had a few galleries, including Alisan Fine Arts and [historian and art critic] Nigel Cameron’s annual shows, but the creative scene was mainly small art societies and groups of friends. There were no independent art schools. The main studio art courses were given by the art departments of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. From the start, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) has given a lot of support to ink art and fostered the interest of local collectors. The first Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition was held in 1975; it has since been renamed the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Awards. They have focused on local art from the beginning, and for decades it has been one of the most important art events in the city.

Why has championing Chinese art always been important to you?

My agenda is to investigate and support the continuity of the Chinese cultural lineage. My curatorial interest has always been the contemporary expression of Chinese art in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and the diaspora. I try to understand what modern Chinese culture means by following artistic trends. I suppose this is a response to the iconoclastic destruction of the edifice of Chinese civilisation in the 20th century. My generation has witnessed some of the most dramatic devastations, including the Cultural Revolution and radical abolition of traditional social institutions in the 1960s and, following that, the sweeping destruction of traditional architecture and historical spaces in the name of “development” since the 1980s. I am devoted to the role of art in historic memory. I am also fascinated by the role art plays in cultural politics and new science.

How has your gallery evolved over the years?

My gallery has remained a small operation for the sake of agility and experimentation with new ideas. From a private residential site in the 1980s, I moved to the Old Bank of China Building in 1991 when my friend Sir David Tang opened the China Club on the top floor. But in 1997, all tenants, except for the Club, were asked to leave, and I moved to the Henley Building a few doors down on Queen’s Road Central. Later, I moved to the Pedder Building and stayed until late 2020, when Covid-19 shut the door on all visitors. The gallery has since been based in a large warehouse showroom in Kwai Chung. I feel lucky to have been given the period of respite to moot and plan, but am mindful that the pandemic has been tragic for others who are less fortunate.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Collectively, artists of every generation shape the culture of their time, and there are eras that produce more dramatic changes than others. I am fortunate to have taken part in some of the historical moments of contemporary art in China, and to have befriend the great talents who have since become household names in the art world.

In the 1990s, I ran non-stop between international exhibitions for over a decade. It was exhilarating and rewarding. From 2003, I spent most of my time on curatorial projects with colleagues from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. My interest shifted to new artistic and curatorial directions for Chinese art, and also to developing cultural exchanges with Asia, especially India. Several memorable projects developed out of these exchanges, including the third Guangzhou Triennial, Farewell to Post-Colonialism, in 2008, curated jointly by Professor Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj and me. Then there was the ongoing series of West Heavens projects, which began at the 2010 Shanghai Biennial and was another collaboration with Gao. 

What advice can you give to someone looking to start collecting Chinese contemporary art?

New collectors should always start with what touches their heart and opens their imagination. It doesn’t matter if [that first] artwork is just a trinket; it will always remain important in their collection.

How would you describe the current landscape of Chinese contemporary art in Hong Kong?

Contemporary Hong Kong art has gradually carved out a special niche in the wider world of Chinese art. Hong Kong art has always conversed with the world from its special location, and should continue to do so, as this is what makes it unique.

What’s next for Hanart TZ Gallery?

This year we will launch our NFT programme, focusing in particular on the digital drawings of Gaylord Chan. He started experimenting with the simple tool of MS Paint 20 years ago, and for his last decade painted almost exclusively on the monitor screen until 2018. Sadly, Gaylord passed away in late 2020 and missed the excitement of NFTs.

We will also run art fairs in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Finally, some of my collaborations with Indian creators are starting to bear fruit. They were created as an attempt to open up the cultural and intellectual dialogue of contemporary India to the Chinese audience and include music projects and a series of anthologies on India since the 1990s, which I’m very excited about.

See also: Claire Hsu On Asia Art Archive's Upcoming Exhibition at Tai Kwun—And What's Next For The Organisation

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