Since 1949 China has been experiencing constant social, political, economic, and cultural transformation. As a result, the images of China and its people have likewise undergone a constant change. This development is well reflected, for example, in China’s economy, which had opened up to foreign investments already in the 1990s and ever since had overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.
The exhibition “The Future is the Past – In Search of a Chinese Portrait” in late 2014 in Austria presented a rich and nuanced context in which audiences from outside of China could experience this very change that the red dragon has undergone, and is in fact still undergoing, through the ways its people are portrayed and the ways they portray themselves. This rare exhibition in Vienna, considered by many Europe’s cultural capital, offered a unique insight into the evolving thoughts and attitudes of Chinese people through the various works of three generations of artists born between the 1950s-1980s. The youngest among them were Zhang Wenrong, No Survivors (Wang Yang & Zong Ning) and Li Xiaoshi.
The first steps of BMCA
Blue Mountain Contemporary Art (BMCA), which sponsored and produced this event as part of the Vienna Art Week 2014, is both a platform and a collection of Chinese contemporary art established in 2010 by Ofer Levin, a financial strategist at an investment fund and a well-known collector of Israeli art. His experience in the Israeli art scene has led him to broaden his interest in Chinese art.
“The very beginning was naturally seeking contemporary Chinese artwork that might catch our western eyes,” explains Levin “Gedaliah Afterman, who at the time was becoming increasingly familiar with the art scene in Beijing, and I, started collecting with care, thinking about the direction we wished to take the project and how it could be presented. It was always important to us to take on special projects. The Future is the Past in Austria,” says Ofer Levin, “was the first such project that came together and was exhibited in Vienna".
"The idea was to put forward a different narrative of the development of Chinese contemporary art. It has a more complex context and resultant layered meaning than the usual tropes, symbols, and stereotypes.”
According to Levin, the famous narrative of contemporary Chinese art is still dominated by particular artists who are familiar to Western audiences. However, these are not necessarily the artists that people in China regard as representative, or noteworthy. BMCA chose to focus on a different take on the Chinese contemporary art scene, explains Ofer Levin from his home in Austria.
“Getting to know the younger generation of artists has been an important aspect of the BMCA project. I find the art of this new generation of Chinese artists more personal, less obviously political, and generally more nuanced than that of the previous generation. Another factor is that the Chinese artists today see themselves as ‘international,’ rather than Chinese artists. After all, they show many parallels with Austrian, Italian, or other European artists, for instance. Their oeuvre, too, covers territory beyond national and continental borders.”
Finding a location for BMCA’s first project was an easy decision to make for Ofer Levin: “Austria was a practical location for our first Chinese exhibition, as I am based in Vienna. Another was the sense of bringing together two worlds. On the one hand, the histories, philosophies, and cultures of China and Europe. On the other hand, the established, somewhat conservative Viennese art scene with the developing, young, and sometimes disorganized Chinese contemporary art arena,” he asserts.
Spreading BMCA’s vision
Today the BMCA collection consists of twenty artists, and Ofer Levin considers himself not only as a collector of contemporary Chinese art and a sponsor of related events, but also as someone who is deeply interested in establishing long-term relationships with artists for the benefit of Israel. These investments, so he reveals, were completely worthwhile: “We were surprised and happy to discover that Israel in general, has been of great interest to the Chinese artists and curators with whom we have worked. Many are interested in realizing projects in Israel. As a result of the link, we hosted in 2015 a solo exhibition (“A Tale of Mammals”) for the leading Israeli artist, Yuval Shaul, in Beijing, and we continue to encourage interactions between artists in both countries".
"Several exhibitions of the BMCA collection have already taken place in Israel, such as The Mulan River Project in 2017 at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art. The exhibition was especially significant for the artists, Chen Yujun and Chen Yufan. Not only was it the conceptual scale of presenting the idea of the Mulan River – of migration and identity – but it was also a showcase of the most substantial selection of work exhibited from the artists’ collaborative collection. Seeing the success of our artists and the interest they have attracted from museums and art institutions in China and internationally, I have no doubt that in the near future people will be more exposed to Chinese art.”
BMCA also publishes a comprehensive catalog of each exhibition project as part of its raison d’tre to seize the conceptual framework of the artist and to trace its development, while both explaining its significance and opening up potential interpretative paths for others. BMCA’s most recent publications are Capturing the Moment – BMCA Collection 2013 – 2018 and Mulan River Cuò both by the international art book publisher Kerber. “Beyond our art collection,” points out Levin “I believe in the value of this placement of the work we see into its intellectual framework. It facilitates understanding. We are excited to do more work of a documentary and research nature for the Chinese collection and Chinese contemporary art in general.”