As White Cube opens its first overseas space, the gallery’s Asia director Graham Steele tells Edmund Lee why it’s Hong Kong, Gilbert & George, and now.
When did the idea of opening in Hong Kong first come about?
There’ve always been projects abroad that have been discussed over the past 10 or 15 years. There’ve been locations from New York to Dubai, São Paulo and, of course, Hong Kong. There’re lots of different places that we could potentially have opened. Hong Kong was identified probably four or five years ago as a gateway to Asia, specifically in terms of not just a new collector base but also the idea that there are so many places that our artists haven’t shown. We’re looking at the reasons why and Asia seems to have a very different kind of infrastructure in terms of museums and galleries, and the art world here operates in a completely different way. It became increasingly obvious to us that Hong Kong is fantastically well-situated in relation to Asia and the world in general.
I guess it’s been a minor surprise that White Cube is opening its first overseas gallery in Hong Kong – of all places.
That’s interesting. [Laughs] I think with the dynamism of the Asian presence in a global conversation on all levels – from the economic to the dialogue about the changing cultural landscape of Asia, sort of a shift in focus – that I’m myself surprised that people are surprised. But we’ll look forward to a programme that’ll excite everyone and fulfil all expectations and satisfy all levels of curiosity and surprises.
Two of the top names on White Cube’s roster are definitely Damien Hirst and Gilbert & George, and –
We have many more! Those are two stars among an entire constellation, but yes.
It’s almost natural for you to open with a Gilbert & George exhibition.
The idea of opening with Gilbert & George was not just to open with a famous artist. Gilbert & George were very specifically picked. Number one: they were one of the first Western artists to show in mainland China – in 1993 at the Shanghai Art Museum – so they had a precedent of showing here. If you ask Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese artists who they respect and look at in the West, Gilbert & George are always, always mentioned. Secondly, they have been working for nine years on a major project, London Pictures, and we wanted not just to open the gallery with a traditional show of an artist that might be a big name but really to bring the best of what we possibly can do – to premiere something incredibly exciting and to show the region how serious we are about showing important, new and dynamic exhibitions here.
Damien Hirst has already been shown here in two Gagosian shows over the past year. Any thoughts on that?
I’ve seen both of the exhibitions that Damien’s done at Gagosian. The relationship between White Cube and Damien is incredibly strong. We were the first people to show Damien worldwide and we have continued to debut more of Damien’s new work quite proudly every few years when he works on a major project. The trajectory of Damien’s career is something that we take very seriously and take an immense amount of pride in. The fact that Gagosian has done two exhibitions here is fantastic. It really primes collectors to be looking at Damien’s work and it starts a dialogue that – excuse me, it continues a dialogue that we actually started. The first solo project Damien did in Hong Kong was actually with White Cube at the Hong Kong Art Fair three years ago. It’s something that we’ve been very proud to be involved in – and we’re happy that Gagosian continued the tradition in a very strong way.
Will White Cube Hong Kong cater to the tastes of the Asian market in its programming?
No, it would be wholly against everything that White Cube stands for to simply take on an artist because he would sell. It doesn’t make any sense for us. It’s not what we do and it’s a very, very short-term idea. Looking at the history of our programme, it’s something that we’ve never been interested in doing. We do not want to take on an artist unless we’re sure that we want to do another exhibition with [him] in the main gallery space.
White Cube Hong Kong appointed Laura Zhou [previously director of Shanghai’s ShanghArt Gallery] as gallery director earlier this month. She’s worked in contemporary Chinese art for quite a long time –
She has. She’s incredibly well-respected and we’re very honoured that she’s coming on board.
So what can we read into this appointment?
Laura and I work very collaboratively. She has a fantastic history not just with collectors in China but, very importantly, with museum directors and artists in China. So she’s someone who comes in and brings a very different energy and a much newer perspective – in terms of sensitivities, in terms of discussions with artists, in terms of knowledge of fantastic practices. There’re so many amazing artists in China that are not traditionally represented by galleries and Laura brings an awareness and knowledge to all of that.
White Cube’s inaugural exhibition, London Pictures by Gilbert & George, runs Mar 2-May 5.