Cheng Xindong recently took us to his second art space in Beijing’s 798. He entered his courtyard like a boss and passed through his gallery, closing the gate on his way. He was sporting formal dress in preparation for our photo shoot, neatly scheduled between an appointment with some foreigners and another media interview. Fortunately, we got a few minutes to hear this wealthy “vagabond” muse about the details of his work and travels.
LEAP: What have you been up to recently?
CHENG XINDONG: I’m about to go on the road. I originally intended to leave tomorrow for North Africa, and spend some time in the beautiful Moroccan city of Marrakesh for their first annual Modern Art Expo. But because I’ve been really busy lately, I couldn’t make it. So now I will go to London for Frieze on October 10 and spend three weeks in Europe.
LEAP: The Cuba exhibition must have taken a lot of time to organize. How long did you spend on that project?
CHENG XINDONG: That project just recently came to a rest. I went to Cuba for the first time in 2008 and by chance met the director of their National Art Museum. I told him about my rather utopian concept for a mobilized museum and he was quite intrigued. During the Biennale in March 2009, I went once again [to Cuba] and decided to put on an exhibition of Cuban artists in Beijing. Last October, I went to Cuba and curated a major exhibition called “New Contemporary Chinese Art Revolution,” which really took the place by storm. This May, I went once more and in September I did this Cuban exhibition here in Beijing. The exhibition gave the Chinese art world a first glimpse of contemporary art from Cuba, with eighteen artists participating, of which eight came to Beijing with their families. The Ministry of Culture and the director of their National Art Gallery came as well. Beyond the opening ceremony, there was also a huge Latin-themed party held on the night of September 25. Later on, I took the artists to see the Shanghai Expo and Hangzhou.
LEAP: How often do you leave Beijing?
CHENG XINDONG: I generally fly about two or three times a month, and at least one of those trips will be international. I could be going to any place in the world really, but mostly to Europe.
LEAP: Besides leaving Beijing to see shows, what other events do you travel for?
CHENG XINDONG: I certainly have to see exhibitions, and every time I leave Beijing I visit museums, art events, and art fairs, which takes up about 60% of my time. It obviously has to do with this career, but it’s also in line with my personal interests. Though on these trips, I always leave a bit of time for myself.
LEAP: In the art world it’s hard to get any distance between life and work.
CHENG XINDONG: Yes, they’re very closely related. But every so often you have to release yourself from your work. I love to go to the movies by myself. I won’t take my car there or call my driver, I’ll just grab a cab and go, buy some popcorn and enjoy the feeling of being in the movie theater. I’m a little different than some of my friends in the art world. My social life is very broad. Of course, 70% of my friends are in the art world, though I have many other friends as well. For instance, during these past two weeks, I met with the former French Premier, and also had dinner with the Cuban ambassador and the group of Cuban artists. The former Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs just came to see the exhibition, and today I’m hosting the chairman of the Bordeaux wine association at my home for dinner. Two days ago, [Gucci Group chairman and major collector] Francois Pinault came to my home for dinner with some people working in commerce and PR, along with two artists and a politician; it was an eclectic mix. I often find myself putting people together. Among the group of twelve people who are coming tonight for dinner, there are people from the wine industry, people who work in PR, the French cultural attaché, a collector, and two Africa experts. I always hope to bring together all of my social resources, and to create new connections among people through my work in contemporary art.
LEAP: For how many months ahead do you have travel plans?
CHENG XINDONG: I’ve scheduled everything up until next March. I’ll be in the U.K. and France for all of October, as there are a number of exhibitions in the coming months and the Pompidou has opened a new space. In November I’ll go to the Indian coast to spend a week on vacation. And then I’ll start preparing things for my upcoming exhibition in Cairo. Then, the next stop for my museum-in-motion is probably going to be Mexico, so in November I’ll go to Mexico to meet with museum people there. In December, over the Christmas Holiday, I’ll spend two weeks in Cairo. And then in January I’ll participate in Showcase Singapore. In February I’ll go back to France for some skiing, timed to coincide with my daughters’ school holidays. In March, I’ll take a trip to Havana and then Mexico. Then I’ll be off to Los Angeles and San Francisco before I head back to Paris. I should be in Beijing for most of April and then in May I’ll go to Hong Kong for Art HK.
LEAP: How much time do you spend at your home in Paris each year?
CHENG XINDONG: Paris is a jumping off point for me to explore other parts of the world, and every year I spend about two to three months there. I usually spend four months of the year in Beijing, and the other half of the year I’m allover the world. A house can be a burden. You’re always thinking about how to decorate it and really put something into it. I also really enjoy hotels, and wherever I go it becomes my home. Hotels have history and are also places to relax. My relationship to them is very fleeting. I can leave at any time without a worry.