Moving Things Together (BizArt, Shanghai, 1998-2010)

BizArt Art Center along Huaihai West Road. Image courtesy of BizArt.
A Conversation with Davide Quadrio on BizArt
(Shanghai, 1998-2010)

In 1998, BizArt began to be conceptualized before it was officially established in 2000 with a solo exhibition by Zheng Guogu at a space along Huaihai Road in Shanghai curated by Hans Van Dijk. Founded by Davide Quadrio, with Xu Zhen and Vigy Jin later becoming mainstays, BizArt was the first cultural not-for-profit organization in Shanghai, China. In 2007, Davide created Arthub, a production and curatorial proxy active worldwide. After having organized over 800 events since 1998, BizArt ceased its operations in 2010. During one of Davide’s online classes with 60 students from the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV), we discussed with him the contemporary art scene in Shanghai in the late ‘90s to the late ’00s, the Intra Asia Network and other attempts for independent initiatives to connect, and the liberating effects of ending a space.

“62761232 (Express Delivery Exhibition),” September 2004. Image courtesy of BizArt.

“62761232 (Express Delivery Exhibition),” September 2004. Image courtesy of BizArt.

“62761232 (Express Delivery Exhibition),” September 2004. Image courtesy of BizArt.


Davide Quadrio (DQ): Just before we go on with this conversation, this is a sort of private-public webinar on cross-cultural curatorial practices and I would like to thank you for agreeing to have my 60 very talented students from the [Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV)] join us; working with them in the last few months gave me a lot of joy, I must say. I thought that having a conversation with some of the people who were working in Asia around the same time I was would be a very interesting way of transferring not only some knowledge but also the energy that we’ve been sharing at that time and continues to flow now even after almost three decades. I feel it is now the time to try to inspire and give testimonies to the next generations entering this crazy world of creativity, culture development, and art practice. So, again, thank you.

I’m quite happy that you guys are working on this project and, before we start, I hope that you also will talk to other people about this period because there are very different and interesting narratives I will be unable to describe in the full spectrum. In China, I feel that in recent years there is this will to create a particular historiography. It is very complicated for artists and curators in China to acknowledge the fact that there were many foreigners who were really at the forefront of artistic development in the ‘80s and ‘90s and were there to bring ideas or technical knowledge, energize the scene, or even collect and support the fragile art economy of that time. Hans van Dijk is one of them and so is Alexander Brandt who was extremely fundamental for the group of artists including Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong in developing sensitivities and knowledge that brought back their individualities as artists into the picture. There are many others of course but I think it is not the situation to get into more details. It’s not however a frustration for me that this attempt of homogenizing history is happening. In fact it does happen all the time because it’s simpler, superficial, and instrumental to convey systems of power and control of information. It’s interesting how there is this need to create and privilege only one line of art history, so please try to complicate this history and make it complex as it in fact was. 

You can see this tendency to oversimplify with statements like, “Contemporary Chinese art started in 1989.” Why? Which kind of contemporary art are you talking about? There is this need to oversimplify, cut the story short, and create this idea that artistic development is linear. I think we can all agree that, in our experience, nothing was linear and there isn’t a single, possible interpretation. A lot of this kind of writing is done completely from an outsider way of looking, a particular Western perspective with values and ideas on what art and culture are. I think there is a huge need to rewrite part of this in a way that actually makes it much clearer how beautiful that moment was, where things were happening not about ethnicity or ownership of things but intuition, generosity, naïvete, and constructing relationships between artistic and cultural production not based solely on economy or Western structures of artistic development.

“Bourgeoisified Proletariat” exhibition, September 2009. Image courtesy of BizArt.

Asia-Europe independent art centers meeting, September 2004. Image courtesy of BizArt.


DQ: I was explaining a bit to the students earlier how Asia was shaping up a contemporary culture in the late '90s. Basically, somehow randomly, there was this new sort of need to gather energies and do contemporary art projects throughout Asia — like Sau Bin [Yap] in Kuala Lumpur and Norberto [Roldan] in Manila — and, with China, it was somehow “the awakening of the dragon,” right? 

I was there from the beginning of the '90s as a student and then, when I graduated, I started playing with artists in Shanghai. Most of them were actually working in the university and they were really into abstract painting, and I was invited a lot to these kinds of saloons that were somehow organized inside universities or sometimes in bars, private locations, or temporary spaces. That was basically my introduction to the art scene in Shanghai. 

At the time, ShanghART was the only sort of contemporary art gallery. It’s now one of the major galleries in China, but back then, the gallery was located in a gift shop at the [Portman Shangri-La Hotel] and they would sometimes do exhibitions in apartments. That moment was really about all these kinds of underground things happening in a sort of unprofessional, instinctual way. 

A very young generation of artists wanted to differentiate and distance themselves a bit from the Cynical Pop and the Political Pop of the ‘80s and beginning of ‘90s, of artists like Wang Guangyi, or artists who were already working on a sort of global platform like Chen Zhen, Xu Bing, or Huang Yongping. There was this need for a sort of rupture but also a need to enter this way of thinking about artistic mediums and getting into a much more individual and radical way of approaching contemporary art. So, what happened happened in a very organic way and it’s amazing how the occasion arose and you either accepted and entered that or you just let it pass by.

The changes Asia was going through during those years, the urbanity Manila, KL, and Shanghai were experiencing, and that kind of speed is very difficult to express to people who didn’t experience that. It’s very complicated to explain the speed, intensity, and optimism or the fact that you were on a tabula rasa so whatever you were doing was somehow new and immediately historically-charged in a way; if you had that kind of vision, you could actually feel that you were doing something that did not exist and that you were creating this platform. So, the idea behind BizArt was a sort of practical response to what Shanghai was lacking: an independent art space that was not commercial nor institutional but a space for experimentation. 

“Art for Sale” exhibition, April 1999. Image courtesy of BizArt. 

“Art for Sale” exhibition, April 1999. Image courtesy of BizArt. 


DQ: Of course we all had intuitions but none of us had any idea of what it meant to create an economy around it as we were not trained as such. I was an art historian who graduated from Ca’ Foscari University, Venice and was studying the new developments in monasteries in eastern Tibet following the Cultural Revolution. 

At the time, I was working part-time as an officer in the Canadian consulate and then I inherited 20,000 USD from my grandfather. I decided to put my money into this disused garage we found in a factory coming from the ‘50s along Huaihai West Road, one of the main commercial roads. We used the money to create a little office and repaint the 300 m2 that we rented. 

Before that, we had been experimenting in temporary spaces like the back of a famous restaurant called M on the Bund and also above a bar-restaurant, Bon Ami Cafe. This was not only happening in Shanghai but in all of Asia actually; alternative spaces were using spaces that were abandoned or not used properly so they were basically sort of ghost places. A lot of the independent spaces in Asia had this feeling of being alone, this very strange feeling that you were doing something but you couldn’t compare it or have references that would give you information on how to develop things. 

Before we moved into the warehouse, two things happened: the first is that Alexander Brandt, Xu Zhen, and Yang Zhenzhong did several exhibitions, the most important of which was “Art for Sale” (1999). That exhibition invited artists from everywhere and it really reconnected Shanghai to the art scene in China. It was closed down by the authorities but it had an incredible impact on the art scene in Shanghai and on BizArt. 

The second is that I met with Hans van Dijk and Ai Weiwei in Beijing and I went to their independent art center called China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW) which is one of the most important places run as a hybrid structure between an independent art space and gallery. It was founded by Hans van Dijk, the Belgian collector and entrepreneur Frank Uytterhaegen, and Ai Weiwei was a curator basically. Hans van Dijk was a Dutch curator and an incredible archivist who was much older than me. He had been working in the contemporary art scenes of Shanghai and Beijing since the middle ‘80s and he was actually the only one at the time who was really conscious in archiving things and putting everything in a sort of picture.

So, it was in 1998 that the idea of building a center first emerged, but the real moment when everything came together was towards the end of 1999, when we found the official location at Huaihai Road and created the logo. In the beginning, there were other people involved but they very quickly disappeared from the picture; they somehow rotated around the idea but didn’t really get involved in it professionally. 

We, together with Hans van Dijk, opened the Huaihai Road space in 2000 with a show by Zheng Guogu, an artist from Guangzhou. [1] That show was striking because I think Shanghai never had such a professional exhibition put together, and I remember that when we opened the show, there were like thousands of people at the opening and many were queuing outside. Everybody was so impressed with how everything came together and it was beautiful.

After that, we showed the private archival collection of the CAAW as a parallel event to the first Shanghai Biennale. It was a fantastic show that brought in Wang Xingwei, Meng Huang, Liu Wei, Zhao Bandi, and all the major figures of the art scene in China during the mid-’90s. It was called “Portraits, Figures, Couples and Group” (2000) and it was first done in Beijing at the CAAW building and then in Shanghai and Belgium. With Hans, we were trying to work out a way to create and put in together resources — the content and the money — to do things and that was a very rare thing to happen at that time. Unfortunately, Hans got ill and died a few months later; something that probably nobody knows about is that we talked about having him move to Shanghai and work in Bizart but this never happened. I talked to him on the phone for the last time only a month before he died. He still stays as my mentor and dear friend.

At the time, Xu Zhen lost his job so he came and said, "Do you mind if I come to work here?" So, he started working with us especially with engaging young Chinese artists and working on solo exhibitions of Chinese artists. I was working not only on the financial side but also on communication and reaching out to other partners in Asia and the rest of the world. 

Norberto Roldan (NR): When you started BizArt, were you under the radar of the commercial, mainstream art scene or the state? Were you creating your own kind of public and developing your own community? What was the kind of crowd that you had during that time?

DQ: Basically, there wasn’t an art scene in the sense of a commercial art scene. ShanghART, which is now becoming a powerhouse, was the only major gallery but at the time it was a very tiny shop. There were a few very commercial galleries that were selling very figurative or decorative paintings and sculptures. There wasn’t really a contemporary art museum in Shanghai until 2000 and that was also the moment the Shanghai Biennale was launched.

The amazing thing with BizArt is that we built our own crowd of young people. In the beginning, we were all very young; we were in our early to mid-20s. There was a need for a platform or space that wasn’t just like an apartment show. It was incredible because — in a year — we were doing two or three exhibitions a month and there were like thousands of people attending because nothing else was happening or there were only a few scattered cultural events.

Things changed very rapidly when our first space was closed down and we moved to 50 Moganshan Road. There were around several artists studios with us there and ShanghART and EastLink Gallery also moved there along with other artist spaces. We were able to find money to rent 2,000 m2 worth of space, with half of it subletted to commercial enterprises, and that’s when BizArt became a different thing.

It was also the moment when we became visible and started conversing with institutions and politicians. They didn’t understand what we were doing but at the same time, all the international curators who came to Shanghai would ask to have meetings with us. The Shanghai government couldn’t understand why because they didn’t see any value in what we were doing but what’s interesting is that, despite not having any tools to understand what was going on, they felt that something was happening and so understood that there was something of value there. 

To answer you, it was really like building skills and understanding how to do things and creating an economy which was very much about sharing. For instance, some artists lent works to us that we would then rent out to corporate buildings to earn money to support ourselves. Each of us had part-time jobs and also, a lot of our income came from graphic design commissions and such. It was really based on one’s will, stamina, resistance, and, at the end of the day, collective sharing.

This kind of economy was really about moving things together, conscious of the importance of what we were doing. It was a very social and emotional economy and it was about creating an ecosystem of collaboration and sharing resources. For instance, older artists would keep buying works from younger artists to support them. It’s very difficult for people from New York, London, France, or Italy to understand the complexity of these emotional linkages and the fact that we were working together to be something that still was not a system, and thank God it was not based on a Western system.

In 2006, there was still that kind of incredible energy that was not simply related to professionalism but really about doing things, learning from that, having the possibility to make mistakes, return, and find solutions. That is very difficult to explain to people because, I mean, how many moments did we have to close, move, and reopen? How many times have we lost people and been betrayed? The list goes on. I hate this feeling of trying to simplify when writing about complexity and it just becomes about finding the gossipy side of things. That is not the important part. What is important is that there was this commonality and this amazing consciousness that you were doing things that had not existed before. It was about pushing boundaries, finding ways to create spaces for something that institutions didn’t even understand.

Every six months, I would meet with the head of the Secret Service in Shanghai just to have a conversation — not because they wanted to control us but just because they wanted to make their lives easier. It was like they would tell us what will happen in the next six months so that we won’t do certain things because it might be too complicated for us and we wouldn’t want to face it. How would you explain this kind of negotiation to people who didn’t live through that? Some would say, “You’ve been supporting the evil power” which is this judgmental, racist, and imperialist way of thinking about cultural, political, and social systems in a flat line, as though it is the only possible way of understanding our reality. I am not justifying non-democratic values; I’m just saying that it’s so different, and just because it’s different or “evil,” it doesn’t mean that you cannot operate inside that kind of system in a responsible and ethical way. 

“Fan Mingzhen & Fan Mingzhu” exhibition, November 2002. Image courtesy of BizArt.

“Fan Mingzhen & Fan Mingzhu” exhibition, November 2002. Image courtesy of BizArt.

Poetry night. Image courtesy of BizArt.


NR: I appreciate what Davide just said as I can also relate with all the frustrations, betrayals, and heartaches in running a space. But in the end, it's really about the community that you've built together, connecting people, and producing knowledge in the cultural sector, which is more important than personalities. 

We actually thought of this [Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT)] project because, as we were closing, I was trying to think about what could have happened had the Intra Asia Network (IAN) succeeded in the networking effort it started in Taipei in 2005 and continued in Seoul and Gwangju in 2006. We wanted to investigate why it failed to continue, hence the project’s title that Sau Bin suggested which we thought was very appropriate: it could be that the people who started IAN were the right people, but it could have just been the wrong time. 

As we tried to get in touch with people who were part of IAN, of course, Davide’s name was the first that came to our minds. I think it is very important to look back and see how the cultural directors of independent spaces in Asia were trying to come together as early as the late ‘90s.

DQ: If you remember, even before that, there was already SPACE21 and Videotage in Hong Kong, Project 304 in Bangkok, and The Substation in Singapore. I remember I was at Videotage for this informal network meeting in the beginning of 2000. And then in 2004, with the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), BizArt invited 38 people from Europe and Asia to come together and create these amazing presentations. There was this intense psychological need to talk to each other and make friends.

I like this kind of failing or “wrong timing” that you’re saying because the first publication that we did in 2002 was called “BizArt: Failed Art Center” because BizArt was a place that was on the verge of closing down every two months not just because of the money but of the fragility of the ecosystem as well. Within three years, we moved to three different locations. The money was never something you had coming in but it was always something you had to look for. It’s really entrepreneurship, in the very pure sense: it’s not that you are forced to do what you do but it’s that you do it because you want to. It’s not like you had a gun to your head with someone saying you have to do this, but it’s about your will to get into a certain condition which I don’t think is very different from being an entrepreneur.

With IAN, I think the “wrong timing” is correct because that's exactly what happened. Basically, it was the acceleration after 2006 that took all of us; instead of being able to control that, it was so powerful and so strong in our respective places that it was basically impossible to concentrate on the relationships in a healthy way. At that point, it was much easier to meet occasionally on the big things that were happening like the big biennales that weren’t happening before. 

I think the last time that happened was really in Gwangju [in 2006] because Kim Hong-hee — the director of the Gwangju Biennale then — wanted to have that as part of the show so they put money and effort to do that. After that, the attention Asia was receiving made it all impossible somehow. We’ve been eaten alive by the global, political, and artistic bulimia that was entering Asia in a devastating, very unstructured, and violent way, like look at how Art Basel Hong Kong basically silenced everything else.

NR: We also shouldn’t forget that Kim Hong-hee was also the director of Ssamzie Space which was a leading independent space in Seoul, and that might’ve been why she was interested in the IAN and decided to support it alongside the Gwangju Biennale.

DQ: Yes, we also collaborated with them with a cross-cultural residency project that was really a temptative way to sustain collaborative efforts. 

Exhibition space at BizArt in Moganshan Road. Image courtesy of BizArt.

Office space at BizArt in Moganshan Road. Image courtesy of BizArt.

Diagram showing “experimentation in exhibitions and their genealogy in Shanghai since the late 1990s.” Image taken from the book “Shanghai Contemporary Art Archival Project 1998-2012" (2017) published by Mousse Publishing. © Lu Mingjun.


DQ: It was actually always very clear to me how organizations have a time to live and a time to die, especially when they become related to very strong personalities which somehow become the soul of the organization to the point that it could no longer surpass those personalities. There are also other aspects which I think are very important like how you would like to develop, what are your private and professional needs, and a curiosity you want to follow.

When we closed BizArt, people didn't understand why because it was so successful: everybody had been so supportive of it, and artists were so involved and wanted to be part of it. You have to imagine that, from 1998 to 2010, BizArt did over 800 events at the space or in connection with the space alone, without considering other projects we had been doing. So, the experience felt like it was basically on fire. It was not only consuming energy but it was also responding progressively to the situation in Shanghai wherein, in the beginning, it was relatively provincial and self-contained before suddenly becoming a global city. It was an incredible moment of excitement and everyone wanted to be there and have a slice of it. 

It was extremely clear how, a year after the first Shanghai Art Fair in 2006, the international art market slammed into China in such a violent and imperialistic way as prices rose by like 100 times in six months. There were artists who were selling paintings at 5,000 EUR and after six months it became 1,000,000 EUR. That created a frenzy that was absolutely shocking and it became so violent as well. I remember there were a couple of times when obscure collectors from the States came to BizArt and wanted to buy the full show we had on, regardless if they had any kind of commercial value. It was very strange.

So, at that time, the role of BizArt became less and less interesting. There were like five or six museums opening up and many important galleries were opening up with beautiful spaces. I thought there was no longer a need for this, or at least, no need for me to be at the forefront of the organization. I was so tired and by 2008, I had burnt out to the point that I couldn’t stand up for a week. It was a bit too much. When your brain works but you can’t move, it means that something is very horribly wrong. So, I decided that it was time to leave, to have a bit of distance and a different perspective. 

When I left BizArt, we kept half of the space, thus we sub-rented two-thirds of the original space to a company. I stayed in Bangkok for three years to do a bit of research on Southeast Asia and, around that time, I decided to move my energies into a platform that was more about curatorial production than having a space. The moment that BizArt came to an end, of course, was very sad, but Arthub became a much more flexible tool as it is not geographically determined and it is able to work more on productions rather than a structure. It all stems from its circumstances, like having Defne Ayas who moved to Shanghai after working with Performa in New York, Qiu Zhijie who is an artist from Beijing with whom I had started thinking about collaborations more, and Charles Esche from the Van Abbemuseum. Most importantly, the Prince Claus Fund got involved and wanted to support us because they were very interested in the way we were working with this kind of communality and collaboration that was more about mobility: the network we built.

Green Papaya will come to an end next year, and when you end something like that — something you’ve put all your energies into for over a decade — it’s very painful, and it took me more than two years to recover. I also remember the sense of betrayal that Xu Zhen had over how I withdrew myself. After a few years, we talked, and actually, the pain is also a process that you need to go through. When you have to finish it, it really becomes a mourning thing and it's also important and liberating in a way because it's also a way to somehow overcome the egotism that our profession can actually give us the moment that your institution becomes you and then you are perceived as objects or tools of power. It's actually very good to withdraw from that. 

Can I ask you a question, Norberto? Why end Green Papaya now after so many years? 

NR: There are so many reasons actually. One of the reasons is that we’re in a situation where we’re not in total control of writing our own history. So, two years ago, I decided to allow the next generation to take over. I think we have overextended our stay. 20 years is too long and Papaya will continue to run until next year, its 21st year.

We want to end Green Papaya on our own terms in the same way that we opened Papaya according to our desires and objectives. As you mentioned earlier, there is time for death and birth, so we will just have to acknowledge that there’s a time to start something but also a time to end it. I’ll take it from you that ending something is liberating and that there is liberation in ending. We are looking forward to that. We are ending happily, having the time to gather our stock and archive our history so that we will have something physical and tangible to leave behind for the next generation.


[1] “More Dimensional” (多维在上海) by Zheng Guogu opened on 13 September 2000

The online interview took place on 20 November 2020. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Davide Quadrio is a Visiting Professor at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV) in Venice, Italy, the producer of the 13th Gwangju Biennale (2021), Korea, the founder and director of Arthub, and an honorary member of the International Cultural Association, Shanghai, China. 


Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.