Paris fair shows how Chinese blend tradition with modernity

Updated: 2016-11-04 07:07

By Ming Liu For China Daily(China Daily)

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It was a sense of discovery and learning that recently permeated a room in Paris during a panel discussion about Chinese contemporary design. Held at Asia Now, a rare European fair dedicated to contemporary Asian art, the discussion was anchored around one of the fair's exhibitors Shang Xia - a Chinese contemporary design firm that is co-owned by French luxury house Hermes.

The panel comprised three experts - Jiang Qionger, Shang Xia's co-founder and artistic director; Geraldine Lenain, international director of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at auction house Christie's; and collector Dominque Levy - and was held on the eve of the preview of Asia Now.

The fair, in its second edition, and which ran over Oct 19-23, was one of the many satellite fairs around Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, a contemporary art fair that every autumn attracts global collectors to the "city of light".

Shang Xia and Christie's jointly showed 12 of the design firm's pieces that had not been seen before.

The exhibition, Light Is More, highlighted the ethos of the Chinese firm, which aims to take Chinese techniques and materials and fuse them with 21st-century design.

Shang Xia literally means "up, down", signaling the movement from past to present to future, but also, as Jiang says: "It is a philosophy of two opposites - and how to bring them together in harmony and balance."

Light Is More, says Jiang, is to "take craftsmanship in contemporary design, and merge it with real functionality and modernity that correspond to life today. The result is lightness, purity, simplicity, comfort and an emotional touch".

She refers to her porcelain echo bowls, on display at Asia Now, which are less than 0.5 millimeters thick and made in kilns at 1,200 C. The pieces can take up to two months to create, and come in a range of ethereal-like glazes, or in a striking red or black print. Ultrathin and delicate, it's the next generation of this beloved, ancient Chinese material, she says.

"Feeling that extreme lightness brings a strong emotional connection," explains Jiang. "It's so fine, literally like an eggshell."

The same concept makes its way into her carbon fiber chairs. Weighing just 2.7 kilograms and withstanding up to 200 kg of pressure, the designs come in cool epoxy finishes, and in a shape that is distinctly from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Such chairs were traditionally made in heavy woods, which "would have had a thickness of 2 centimeters, but here are 8 mm," says Jiang.

Christie's Lenain was on hand to bring in the collector's angle.

Only in the past few years has contemporary Chinese design started to appeal to international collectors and museums. But it's been a steep learning curve.

"We started from scratch," says Lenain. "In the West, the concept of design has been there forever - people don't even think about it. But in China it was completely new."

Foreign competition was another factor.

Since the early 2000s Western brands have been fervently marketing their products to Chinese customers, making it even harder for local designers to have a voice.

In 2014, Christie's Hong Kong held its first Chinese Contemporary Design sale, which initially toured New York and Europe, and the overseas response was robust.

"We had Shang Xia's carbon fiber chairs in Rockefeller Center," recalls Lenain.

"People did not believe it was 100 percent made in China - that the idea, materials and construction were Chinese."

The enthusiasm translated into sales too, with all lots sold.

"We have been brainwashed by the Western press for the past 30 years," says Jiang.

"That the term 'made in China' means poor quality or counterfeits. But there is a new trend. There is a side of China that has creativity, design originality, quality and excellence in craftsmanship."

Paris fair shows how Chinese blend tradition with modernity 

A carbon fiber chair designed by Chinese firm Shang Xia.

(China Daily 11/04/2016 page18)