“Chinese contemporary artists look like their country: alive and creative.” Frédéric Robin and Philippe Gilbert, White Villa Collection.
Frédéric Robin and Philippe Gilbert are the two French collectors of the White Villa Collection. Gathering over three hundred works made by over sixty artists, the collection offers a subjective overview of the current creation in Chinese photography. Thus far, it is the most important collection of Chinese contemporary photography and artists news in France, and a collection model almost unique worldwide.
The desire of drawing up this collection arose in 1999 at the Venice biennale. For them, Chinese artists blew a refreshing wind over this biennial event. Since then, they have been travelling around the world to acquire works from Chinese artists regardless their generation, while sharing their collection with an international audience thanks to their website thought of as a virtual exhibition.
Marine Cabos-Brullé: How did you develop a taste for photography?
Frédéric Robin: I started in the 90s and at that time it wasn’t common at all to collect photography. Then while we were travelling we discovered major artists, such Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky amongst other artists from the Düsseldorf School. They were exploring photography for itself and in a new type of format. Their works utterly changed my vision of photography. Besides, these artists were amongst the first to create limited editions photographs. All of this prompted us to think photography was perhaps a medium we should be interested in.
An important turning point was the Venice biennale in 1999, which encouraged us to visit China. Back in France our first contact with Chinese artists was through photography. Since we were already bitten by the photography bug and that these Chinese artists were chiefly utilizing photography, we decided to plunge ourselves within this field. It seemed self-evident.
Philippe Gilbert: As for me, I developed a taste for plastic arts when I was twenty thanks to an exhibition dedicated to Francis Bacon. I was completely overwhelmed, it administered an artistic shock. This urged me to explore everything that has been done in art. I first became interested in painting, which I collected for a decade. I loved Narrative Figuration and Street Art artists, such Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, and Domenico Paladino. Then I thought I had seen enough.
I saw a new energy in photography, as if photographers could tell much more than painters, with a little more freedom. I immediately liked Erwin Olaf and Gregory Crewdson, I was fascinated by the mystery lying behind their photographs. They are telling a story but without revealing everything, hence we have to use our imagination to complete the image. I also like Martin Parr’s humour and Andre Serrano for his political and violent approach. I like also Nan Goldin’s very intimate and shameless approach. Eventually she captured what we all are, what makes us human. Her photographs can unsettle, as they are rather violent.
I could not find such strong emotions in painting. I still like painters but I know them already. I would stop in front of a photograph, less often in front of a painting. Besides, I thought there were so many things to discover in photography, this field looked very rich. I developed this taste in photography in the late 90s. The first photographers I started to collect were Cindy Sherman, Thomas Ruff, Louise Lawler, and Natacha Lesueur.
As already said, we started to be interest in Chinese photography after the Venice biennale in 1999. If I recollect well we purchased our first Chinese photographs in the early 2000s. Between January and May 2002 we still collected both Chinese and Western photographers. We travelled to Beijing in May 2002, and since then we dedicated our collection solely to Chinese photographers as we thought it was extremely interesting and rich.
M.C: What are your motivations by constituting a collection dedicated to Chinese contemporary photography?
P.G.: Our chief first goal is to constitute a coherent collection. The starting point is photographs of performance art, such artists who lived in the East Village [located in the outskirts of Beijing, this place was the residence of various avant-garde artists imbued in performance art in the 90s], which we discovered in the Venice biennale. These are incredible photos. Although we couldn’t fully understand their meaning at first, they forced us to stop and look at them carefully.
For instance, when we saw Zhang Huan’s performance in Beijing public lavatories - photo taken by Rong Rong - we were first struck by its intensity. Then we discovered the meaning lying behind the image, which deals with notions of human body, the condition of the artist, the tribute to Ai Weiwei’s father who was a poet, deported and forced to clean public lavatories.
A fair number of photos from our collection originate in performance art. Photography was in fact a trace of these ephemeral performances. There is, of course, very interesting Chinese painters but we believe photography is richer and vaster. Today there is around seventy or so photographers in our collection and there are so many others we are hoping to uncover.
M.C.: What is a good photo for you?
F.R.: A good photo triggers a strong emotional response, it makes you think it’s self-evident. Sometimes it is indescribable, sometimes simply beautiful. I remember when we visited the exhibition “FUCK OFF 2” in the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands [in 2013], it was a shock to look at Ren Hang’s photos. His pictures reveal the artist’s nightmare and specific research. I think today everyone has reached consensus about the relevance of his works, they are self-explanatory. Of course a good photo connects up with a certain aesthetic and pleasure.
P.G.: A good photo requires a profound meaning, a strong content. To cite a popular example, Liu Bolin’s best pictures are those who have meaning. For me a good photo should not reveal everything, instead it should somehow conceal something. It suggests more than it shows, implying there is something more to discover, in theatre we call it “subtext”. To me an artist makes a good picture, not a photographer. We are less interested in technical aspects than in content. In fact, the photographs we collect are not necessary created by professional photographers. An artist brings a distance, a gaze, a vision, he does not create a mere picture. This explains why our collection portrays China through a personal and artistic perspective, it is not a frontal portrait.
M.C.: In addition of photographs you are also collecting publications and promoting exhibitions of Chinese artists, which you share via your website (www.chinese-photography.net). What is the role of this online platform?
F.R.: We have wanted from the beginning to share knowledge about Chinese art through our collection. At that time it was one of the first online collection. We also use it as a tool that reminds us which photographs and publications we already have.
P.G.: We have indeed over a thousand monographs, catalogues amongst other books in which photographs were diffused. We are basically collecting everything related to the artists from our collection, including exhibitions and events. As much as we can, we visit exhibitions all over the world. We are hoping to develop the website, but it takes time. For instance we have been taking loads of exhibition views over the years that are not properly utilized yet [In June 2018, Gilbert and Robin opened a Facebook page called “Chinese Contemporary Photography : The White Villa Collection”, which offers information about the collection as well as exhibitions views they personally took]. The goal is mainly to communicate Chinese artists’ works to a large audience. Unfortunately these artists are rarely displayed in France.
M.C.: If you could only keep one photograph from your collection, which one would you choose?
F.R.: I would choose the photo showing Ma Liuming’s performance in which he walks naked along the Great Wall. It is part of a series of photographs we first saw during the Venice Biennale in 1999.
P.G.: I would choose the very first picture we purchased in Paris circa January 2000: Qiu Zhijie’s “Tatoo No.2” showing the Chinese character “no” (不).
M.C.: What is your latest favourite artist?
F.R.: My latest favourite artist is Celine Liu. In total we purchased six of her works. Since the Rencontres d’Arles in 2017 [where Celine Liu’s works were exhibited], we were looking for a gallery that represented her works but we couldn’t find it at first.
P.G.: As for me, it’s Feng Li. I already mentioned the difference between a photographer and an artist, for me Feng Li is an artist. He knows how to seize a specific moment. Although he is very prolific I feel over time we will be able to recognize his style at first glance. His works are filled with humour and striking compositions.
M.C.: Which artworks would you like to acquire?
F.R.: It would be difficult to make an exhaustive list. There are for instance ten or so historical artists from the 90s onwards we would like to purchase, such as Cao Fei, Xiao Lu known for her performance in which she shot her work, also other photographs of performances such as Song Dong stamping the water.
P.G.: I can’t give you any name as I haven’t discovered the artists yet! We are very much looking forward to discovering many new artists. In the end, we are hoping to complete our collection with historical artworks as well as with works from the new generation.
More information: www.chinese-photography.net