Features & Interviews
Interview: John Dodelande, Leading European Collector & of Chinese Contemporary Art
John Dodelande is a leading European collector of Chinese contemporary art. He has been growing his collection since his early twenties and owns works by many of China’s most significant living artists. Travelling to meet those artists in person is a crucial part of his method; it is what makes him one of the most engaged collectors of the new generation.
Dodelande is also an entrepreneur. Through his business activities and art collection he aims to foster connections between East and West, to help forge a post-millennial ‘Silk Road’. Dodelande has organized revelatory exhibitions in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and in Georgia (all of the Silk Road countries). He collaborated with the Long Museum to produce a monograph on Wang Yuyang, and has sponsored works on Zhao Zhao and Hu Xiaoyuan. He helped bring to fruition He Xiangyu’s meditative book on the colour yellow. And Dodelande heads a patrons’ group dedicated to Chinese art at Le Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris, his native city.
This week, The Artling had the opportunity to speak to John on his newly released book, CHINESE ART: THE IMPOSSIBLE COLLECTION, and his journey in art collecting, and his perspective on the future of Chinese contemporary art.
Adrian and I noticed that there was no good book that explained Chinese culture, and in particular contemporary Chinese art, to a postmillennial audience. So our aim was to explain that, to put the contemporary scene in its proper historical context by telling a wide public what Chinese culture is about – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Meanwhile, Assouline was seeking authors for a book on contemporary Chinese art. It made sense to have a dual perspective – one collector based in Europe, the other in Asia. So Adrian and I agreed to do it because we knew it would be an interesting project, and because we are friends.
In the end, the book was more than two years in the making. It was a tricky task because there is no archive for contemporary work in China, no central source or repository that we could turn to. That meant the research was a time-consuming, labour-intensive undertaking – a big chunk of those two years.
Adrian and I decided early on that the works in the book must fit certain criteria. We said we must include artists that figure in major collections around the world and those who command the highest prices in the present-day market. We agreed that where possible we must consult the artists themselves about what they see as their most important works. And we wanted to allow some latitude for our own judgment. The book is not an encyclopedia, after all, but an anthology: our own idiosyncratic telling of the story of contemporary art in China.
To start with, we made separate lists of ‘candidates’. Those lists totalled well over 200 works, so a great deal of talk went into paring down the selection to the 100 fabulous works you see in the book. And, incidentally, the book is specifically about the works, not the individuals. Some artists, if we thought they were crucial, have more than one work in the book.
Adrian and I have differing approaches. His collection aims to reflect the entire universe of Chinese contemporary. Mine, meanwhile, is based on artists born after 1970 – because I like to set myself some kind of parameters. As for the heated discussions, these were not so much about specific artists as our separate views of the artistic landscape. Adrian’s focus is on Hong Kong artists, whereas my starting point is Beijing. So we argued about where the true locus of Chinese contemporary art lies – is it Beijing or Hong Kong, or come to that, Shanghai?
John Dodelande, Chinese Art: The Impossible Collection, Image courtesy of John Dodelande, Photo by Harald Gottschalk
It just seems to me that China’s moment has come. When you look back at recent art history, you see that a century ago, contemporary art belonged to Europe – I am thinking of the post-Impressionist epoch, of Picasso and the explosion of modern art in Paris and elsewhere. The post-war era was America’s: Rothko, Warhol, Rauschenberg – and figures such as Basquiat too. It is clear to me that the focus has now shifted again, this time to Asia in general and China in particular. China is actively working to export its culture (as indeed the US did during the Cold War, sending exhibitions of abstract expressionist painting to Eastern Europe, for example). I can’t say if the Chinese Basquiat is already at work, or has not even been born yet. No one can know that. But he or she is coming; of that there can be no doubt.
Installation View, Constellation of Stars, 2017, Baku. Image courtesy of John Dodelande
I was actually born in France, and still live there, but I have a home in Tbilisi and I hold Georgian citizenship. I was drawn to Georgia because it is such a vibrant and dynamic place, a country populated with fierce, indomitable and hospitable people. Geographically and culturally it sits on the cusp of Europe and Asia, halfway along the ancient Silk Road that once served as the main line of communication between East and West, the primary conduit of cultural exchange. So it is the natural place for me to base myself, as a European collector of Chinese art.
You ask how my own collection began. There was a small French-speaking community of art-lovers who were the first to notice that something special was going on in China. Among those people was Guy Ullens, who created the first private museum in Beijing, and Jean-Marc Decrop, a great expert who taught me everything about Chinese art and the Chinese market. I realised that I could do something worthwhile here – that in this moment, in this small market, I could collect the best. It was challenging, of course, a mountain to climb, but I enjoy that kind of challenge.
Installation View, Constellation, 2017, Georgia. Image courtesy of John Dodelande
As I say, I concentrate on the younger generation – by which, broadly speaking, I mean artists who belong to the post-Mao era. I am drawn to abstract painting more than figurative art, and I think Chinese contemporary artists have a special affinity for abstraction. There are so many outstanding that do it in ways that are imaginative and thought-provoking.
And I like it when a compelling story informs a work or an artist’s practice. Take Wang Guangle and his layered paintings that shade from colour at the edges to black at the centre. He comes from a part of China where people buy a coffin for themselves as they grow old, then paint it each day, morning and night, with a fresh coat of lacquer. What an amazing ritual – both everyday and eternal, mundane and meaningful. Wang Guangle recognised that fact and incorporated the rite into his art. And in the process, he made an art of staggering beauty.
Installation View, Singularity - Wang Yuyang, 2018, Baku. Image courtesy of John Dodelande
I am sure that Hans Ulbrich Obrist believes– as I do – that art is the royal road to an understanding of culture – any culture – because it is the most universal art form. To understand a country through its literature you must know its language. A musical work takes time to absorb, and the aesthetics of harmony and melody do not always easily translate. But a painting can be apprehended in an instant – and with successive viewings, the meaning for the viewer can only deepen and evolve.
The urgency that Hans speaks of lies in the fact that China is here to stay, its rise is a fact of 21st-century life, and so the western world vitally needs to understand it. Up until now China’s art has been underestimated, underappreciated, little understood. I hope our book will go some way to redressing that imbalance.
Installation View, Racing the Galaxy, 2019, Kazakhstan. Image courtesy of John Dodelande
I think it was someone else who described me as a defender of Chinese contemporary art. I have to admit that I don’t see myself that way. I don’t have the time to be a defender or an advocate or an ambassador. But more importantly, contemporary Chinese art doesn’t need me to be its champion. The scene is strong enough, and sufficiently well-established, to stand up for itself and fight its own corner.
Well, the pandemic has meant that I cannot go hunting for the next big thing in the paint-spattered studios of Beijing, or drink tea with artist friends in their ateliers. So I have to rely on my network of people who are there – and I guess that includes my co-author Adrian Cheng. I keep in touch with my contacts in China via WeChat, and I have an ear to the ground. As soon as travel becomes possible again, I will return to looking at Chinese contemporary art in the places where it is being conceived and produced. I will be ready.
Installation View, Constellation, 2017, Georgia. Image courtesy of John Dodelande
Having published a book called the Impossible Collection, Adrian and I are now keen to stage a real-world show of our actual collections – taking some favourite works from our two separate sets of holdings and exhibiting them side by side. We are still at the early stages, but the show when it happens will be in Hong Kong.
Quite separately, I am working on an idea that I think will transform the entire business of art collecting. I can’t say much more at this stage, except that I want the joy of art to be accessible to a much wider public. We can all benefit from contemplating great art, from having it in our homes where we see it every day. I think that pleasure, that spiritual uplift, should be available to anyone who wants it, not just to millionaires and rich connoisseurs.
Click here to view Chinese Art: The Impossible Collection on The Artling!
Follow John Dodelande on Instagram @johndodelande
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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