Artists Contemporary art Fairs China

Up close and personal: the stars of Chinese art

Why the biggest names on the contemporary Chinese scene were happy to reveal themselves to Thomas Fuesser

Ai Weiwei ©Thomas Fuesser

Thomas Fuesser, a Shanghai-based, German-born photographer, provides an intimate perspective of how making art unfolds in China, a process that is usually inaccessible, in Short Cuts: Artists in China.

Fuesser’s choice of artists was in part personal. It includes “nearly everybody I knew from the early 1990s”, he says. “I had very early access to them. So if I do something like this, I do it with people I know. If, for example, [I’m] photographing Ding Yi, he does not wonder what I’m doing. I can spend hours photographing and we will not talk, because he accepts me. The base of everything is trust. Ding Yi is mostly painting. He is like a monk, a Buddhist.”

Fuesser first met the artists Wu Shanzhuan and Zhang Peili in February 1993 at the “China Avantgarde” show in Berlin, which was organised by Hans van Dijk. Intrigued, the photographer headed to Beijing that autumn. “I met Ai Weiwei when he was just back from New York, I met all the Beijing guys,” he recalls.

Short Cuts is organised around the profiles of 16 artists or collectives, starting with Ding. The focus is on Shanghai, with just a few Beijing artists. Several of the chapters follow significant solo exhibitions from their inception to their opening: Liu Wei at Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum, Cai Guo-Qiang and Zeng Fanzhi at the city’s Rockbund Art Museum, and Yu Hong at the Shanghai Art Museum.

Fuesser focuses on their art, and the work behind it, often in evocative close-up. “It was painful to go away from old attitudes, of only taking portraits,” he admits. “[The artists] are all different, and not all painters: there is video, multi­media,” he says.

“There is a mix of different points of view, like with Ai Weiwei, I show what is less seen of him.” Or, of Cai Guo-Qiang, “I don’t show his art, because there are already 20,000 books of his art. He is a media artist, so I show him with media, like at the press conference, everyone’s waiting on him. He is like a rock star.”

The idea for the book, which takes its name from the 1993 film by Robert Altman, grew out of the ShanghArt Gallery’s 2009 exhibition “Stolen Treasures from Modern China”, which included Fuesser’s portraits of now-renowned Chinese artists back in the heady early 1990s.

“The purpose of our initiative was to trace some of the creative and psychological processes that had taken place since 1993,” writes Lorenz Helbling, the owner of ShanghArt, who worked with Fuesser on the book. Helbling adds that the book explores the ways in which “China’s art, self-image, and history were sculpted by local and foreign interventions… 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.”

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