23 Sep, 2016
The New York Times, by Barbara Pollack

Pigeons will speak, and American actors will struggle with Mandarin in two of the 15 short videos that Cheng Ran, a Chinese artist, is making for his United States debut at the New Museum, opening Oct. 26.

This 35-year-old, born in Inner Mongolia, is on his first trip to New York for a residency sponsored by the K11 Art Foundation, a Hong Kong nonprofit that is building a bridge between Chinese artists and international museums.

Since he arrived in August, he has been busy shooting, scouring the city — from a boat graveyard in Staten Island to obscure music venues in Bushwick — to see if it matches depictions in “Taxi Driver” and other Hollywood films.

It is the first time the museum has offered this opportunity to a mainland Chinese artist since the 1990s — when Chen Zhen, Huang Yong Ping and Xu Bing had solo exhibitions. Cheng Ran’s residency is proof of the influence of the K11 Art Foundation and the inroads it is making in the New York art scene.

The foundation is the creation of the Hong Kong entrepreneur Adrian Cheng, 36, who is the executive vice chairman of the $9.4 billion New World Development real estate and retail empire founded by his grandfather Cheng Yu-tung. Having spent 10 years in the United States in boarding school and at Harvard, Adrian Cheng started the foundation at the age of 31 and identifies closely with the group of millennial artists his foundation supports.

“There’s no argument that people are quite interested in emerging Chinese artists, but a lot of curators do not have the access,” he said by phone from his office in Hong Kong.
He has the unbridled enthusiasm of a well-bred salesman, throwing around terms such as “incubation” and “globalism” in ways that can sound like a pitch — but one that it seems many museum directors have bought into.

“The reason so many curators listen to us is because we are not a gallery, we are not dealers, and we do not represent artists — our list is more academic,” he said, noting that there are few residency programs like K11 Art Village in Wuhan and hardly anyone organizing tours for foreign curators in China.

He also views the foundation’s work as a counterbalance to the overheated Chinese art market. “If you look at China in the past few years, a lot of conceptual artists are emerging whose work does not work in any auction market,” he said. “I am not saying that the auctions are bad. I am just saying that the art scene needs to be more diversified.”

Adrian Cheng was already a collector of “global contemporary art,” he said, including artists as varied as Adrián Villar Rojas, an Argentine, and Thomas Houseago, who is British. He showed his international flair in 2008 when he started K11 Art Malls in Hong Kong and Shanghai. These art-and-commerce shopping centers have exhibition spaces and public works from the likes of Damien Hirst and Olafur Eliasson.

Two years later, he established the foundation after noting a lack of infrastructure in China to support young artists, including women, and the need for a way to offer them opportunities at prestigious institutions.

Since then, it has formed partnerships with Palais de Tokyo and the Pompidou Center in Paris, as well as the Serpentine Galleries and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London
In 2013, it sponsored the Ink Art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year, Adrian Cheng cemented his influence by joining the board of the Public Art Fund. While he says that his business will invest $2 billion in the K11 brand in China, he is not saying how much will go to his foundation for art projects in the United States.
The foundation has a network of local curators to help find artists worthy of support. It provided the New Museum with 50 artists; 15 were interviewed via Skype before the New Museum selected Cheng Ran.

he New Museum, who served as director of the 2010 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, said that the foundation had furthered the museum’s own research into Asian art and that the relationship was collaborative, not just financial.

Though neither he nor Adrian Cheng would say what the gift entailed, Mr. Gioni insisted that the amount did not factor into their decision to work with the foundation and that it was entirely separate from the $43 million the museum had raised toward its $80 million capital campaign.

Certainly, the lift that the foundation has given Cheng Ran’s career over the past four years demonstrates just how helpful it can be. Since Adrian Cheng first met the artist at the Leo Xu Projects gallery in Shanghai in 2012, the foundation has included his work in two exhibitions, finally producing his nine-hour masterpiece, “In Course of the Miraculous,” in 2015.
The film, almost impossible to watch in its entirety, is packed with stunning images while telling three real-life stories about people who disappeared mysteriously: the British explorer George Mallory, who went missing on Mount Everest in 1924; the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, who vanished during his 1975 journey across the Atlantic; and the 2011 mutiny on the Chinese fishing trawler Lu Rong Yu 2682 that left only a third of its crew alive.

“I haven’t seen a work with images of such strangeness and purity come out of an artist of his age in quite a while,” Mr. Gioni said. Cheng Ran’s coming exhibition at the New Museum — titled “Diary of a Madman” (after the first Chinese-language modern novel by the author Lu Xun) — will be akin to an open studio, with 11 monitors playing simultaneously while an ambient soundtrack provided by the noise band While We Still Have Bodies fills the gallery.

The New Museum is now planning to reciprocate, sending Lauren Cornell, its specialist in art and technology, to Shanghai to serve as lead curator of “Arcade,” an exhibition of international and Chinese artworks inspired by video games, opening at K11 Shanghai in March.

“As the art world has become more and more global and complex, we need to rely more on the expertise of people who are on the [ground],” Mr. Gioni said. “This doesn’t mean I am simply drinking the Kool Aid or I give up my critical distance, but I feel this is more honest than the colonialist presumed superiority of a curator that goes to China to ‘discover’ the scene.”