It may seem impossibly challenging to do a short magazine profile of Johnson Chang Tsong-zung and his immensely rich life. But one could also sum up the story of the inimitable gallerist, curator and collector in one sentence: Johnson Chang is obsessed with Chinese civilisation and culture.
At openings and press luncheons, he is dressed in Mandarin-collared shirts, regaling audiences with tales of how he met the many artists he knows, or expounding on why he likes or dislikes certain pieces of art. His thoughts tend to flit from one place to another, at times making it hard for listeners to follow. In a meeting in late January, he is in high spirits, having just returned from the new Taipei Daidang art fair, with a skiing trip to Sendai on the horizon. Chang is also in a nostalgic mood as he reflects on the beginnings of his gallery, Hanart TZ.
Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Chang was raised in Hong Kong and educated at Williams College in Massachusetts. He didn’t major in art, though he did take an introductory class and remembers feeling the momentum of the Minimalist movement in the 1970s, when painters stripped their work of any narrative to focus on the shape, colours and lines that made up their paintings. A decade earlier, writer Clement Greenberg had noted that the “flatness” of paintings was something that made the medium unique.
It was in the midst of all this that Chang felt a conflict. He was mesmerised by Minimalism, but he was also “devoted to classical Chinese paintings.” It was an emotional and intellectual tug-of-war that had been in the making since his youth. “Hong Kong was still very Westernised [during the 1960s and 70s],” he says. “And if you want to find your own voice about issues, you have to take heed of what was dominant at the time.”
But Chang wasn’t satisfied with just accepting the dominant discourse, which was—and still is—Eurocentric in its worldview. He wanted to find an alternative conceptual framework to think about the world. He resolved to do that through art. After coming back from the US, Chang started penning art articles, mostly on Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming and Hong Kong sculptor Antonio Mak, but he soon gave up on pursuing it as a career – “I can’t do deadlines!” he exclaims.
So he opened a gallery instead. Hanart TZ was launched in 1983, the first part of its name referring to the dominant ethnic group in China, the Han, while TZ is the acronym for Chang’s Chinese name. Since its founding, the gallery has undergone three geographical iterations, first on Kadoorie Avenue in Kowloon, then in David Tang’s China Club in 1991 and finally on the fourth floor of the Pedder Building in Central.
Located in the basement of Chang’s home, Hanart TZ’s first space was small, completely off the beaten track and staffed by only two people. But Chang still relishes the financial freedom he felt in those earlier days. “There was no cost aside from the salaries of the staff,” he says. “When there is not financial constraint, a gallery is a laboratory, which is the best form it could take. Now with sky-high rents, I’m always thinking, ‘How much am I spending on a show?’”
It was in these early days that Chang cooked up the gallery’s most famous exhibition: The Stars group show in 1989. Founded in a Beijing courtyard a decade earlier, the Stars group was considered the first gathering of Chinese contemporary avant-garde artists. Its members included Ma Desheng, Ai Weiwei and Wang Keping, and they staged exhibitions, marches and public performances, almost always with a political slant.
By the late 1980s, the group’s fame had waned but Chang’s show brought it newfound interest. “It was a pioneering group and I wanted to rethink all these complex movements that happened in the mid-80s,” he says. China had transformed wildly under the economic and social reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and Chang wanted to give the public a chance to see the cultural impact of those changes.
After its debut in Hong Kong, the show travelled to Taipei, where it attracted even greater attention, in part because it coincided with the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Even before that movement was crushed on June 4, 1989, however, Chang sensed a shift in China’s cultural realm. He began working on another show.
The result was China’s New Art Post-1989, which Hanart TZ exhibited in 1993. Whereas the Stars show was about looking back, New Art was an attempt to define the sensibility of the new post-1989 era. Staged at the Hong Kong Art Centre, the exhibition introduced Hong Kong to the likes of Zheng Fanzhi, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi and Gu Wenda – all well known today, but exciting upstarts back then.
The show provided a fresh and exhilarating account of an art world that was contending with two different societal developments: the transition from a socialist to capitalist model, and the sense of helplessness and apathy after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. These forces were manifested in Wang’s satirical paintings, in which he mixes Mao-era propaganda visuals with Western brand names.
“The show was for me to grasp what modern China is really about. I suppose it also means rethinking my Chinese identity through the practices of other people,” says Chang.
New Art went on to show in Australia and the United States. It was something that Chang knew “had to be done” at the time, because Chinese artists “had this inferiority complex about what they were doing as the centre [of the art world] is elsewhere,” he says. “I knew from the start that my work was to put Asian art on an equal plane. I wanted to build a platform for these artists.”
In the 2000s, Chang’s work was to extrapolate the different perspectives of the West and China, perhaps epitomised by the seminal Power of the Word exhibition in 1999. The show brought together artists known for their investigation into language, characters and words, including Tsang Tsou-choi, Gu Wenda, Fung Ming-Chip and Xu Bing. “In Europe, you find all these public figures in the public squares, but in China, one expresses his influence through the written world,” says Chang. “And that’s why you’d see displays of the empress’ calligraphy, or the magistrate’s calligraphy.”
And yet—because we’re in Hong Kong—one couldn’t help but ask, where is Hong Kong’s place in all this? For Chang, Hong Kong artists are the inheritors of both modern Western culture and classical Chinese culture. What he means goes beyond such facile notions as “East meets West.” He gives the example of classical Chinese landscapes.
“I’m much more concerned with artists who can bring forth the spirit, the aesthetic sensibility [of traditional Chinese paintings],” he says. He mulls over his words, evoking the different ways that Chinese and Western painters see line and intensity of ink on a canvas. Whereas the latter’s focus is very much on form and shape, he says, Chinese painters paint their own self and worldview into the landscape.
For Chang, artists who revolutionised Chinese art whilst remaining true to its spirit include Irene Chou, who is most famous for the “one stroke” technique she applies to her abstract ink paintings. “Her work has a personal grasp of the spiritual but it also comes from the language of traditional Chinese landscape,” says Chang.
More recently, Guangzhou-born, Hong Kong-based painter Leung Kui-ting uses broken lines and unusual perspectives—bird’s eye rather than horizontal view, for example—to paint landscapes that appear both traditional and suffused with the shapes and lines of contemporary urban landscapes.
Chang’s mission of writing an alternative to dominant Western narratives of art is no doubt challenging. After all, art is still grouped into different periods and movements based primarily on what happened in Europe and North America. So how does he think he is doing, 37 years after founding Hanart TZ? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I change my mind all the time. I’m glad I did a few things. But new problems always open up, and I constantly have to redefine my scope.”
Perhaps the process is the point. “Growing up, I’ve always been obsessed with the fact that this long, rich tradition [of Chinese civilisation] was suddenly thrown out of the window at the end of the 19th century,” when Europe exerted its dominance over China, he says. “But then I realised that that tradition did get passed on, and is being re-interpreted in many different ways.” The story is still being written – and Chang’s work is far from done.
Photos in slider: Artwork by Ho Sin Tung part of the exhibition ‘Swampland’. The exhibition runs at Hanart TZ Gallery until 29 Feb, 2020. For more information visit here