INSIGHTS | Conversation with Qiao Zhibing (TANK Shanghai) and Charlotte Friling (WIELS associate curator)

In Shanghai, the Brussels art center WIELS is collaborating with TANK Shanghai to present Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art, an exhibition featuring 15 contemporary Belgian artists, including Francis Alÿs, Harold Ancart, Jacques Charlier, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, Thomas Lerooy, Valérie Mannaerts, Luc Tuymans and Sophie Whettnall. The selection of works begins with the capacity of Belgian art to make precise, detailed observations of the tangible, everyday world, rather than relying on grand philosophical, abstract and conceptual schemes. As part of Art Brussels Insights, we spoke with collector and TANK Shanghai founder Qiao Zhibing and curator Charlotte Friling about the exhibition and about Shanghai.

Conversation with Qiao Zhibing (founder TANK Shanghai) and Charlotte Friling (curator)
by Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte

How would you describe the vision of TANK Shanghai?
Qiao Zhibing: To let contemporary art influence more people. TANK Shanghai envisages presenting exceptional international contemporary art creations in a pioneering and multifunctional art center, so the public can closely experience contemporary art, art and nature, art and the city.

How did the collaboration with WIELS come about?
Qiao Zhibing:  The collaboration originates from the two art institutions’ mutual passion and respect for the cultures and arts of the two countries. In the context of contemporary art as a whole, Belgium is internationally acclaimed for its many eminent artists and their creations. WIELS is an outstanding contemporary art institution in Brussels, with an excellent represention of contemporary art in Belgium. This exhibition is also a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchanges between Belgium and China.

What is the focus of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art?
Charlotte Friling: The starting point was to find inspiration in a common story in the intellectual exchange between our two countries, which we found in the inspiring career of the 17th-century Belgian Jesuit and scholar Ferdinand Verbiest. Verbiest introduced the Chinese emperor to a series of scientific discoveries, and most importantly to a heliocentric view of the world, which places our planet in an interconnected cosmic reality, rather than at the centre of the universe. This outward-looking prism, rather than an inward-looking reflex, finds a relevant echo in the idea of convex and concave lenses, which would have been central tools in Verbiest’s study of astronomy. Both ways of looking at the world are slight distortions, but both are key to achieving the most precise image of it as possible. We found that this duality resonated in the ways that many artists express their subjectivity and respond to the world around us, resorting to certain kinds of extroversion or introversion. Our choice of artists and works reflects this tension and illustrates a tendency towards idiosyncratic prisms of observation that escape dominating paradigms.

How do you look at the Shanghai art scene?
Charlotte Friling: We have had the chance to visit studios and meet a range of artists living and working in Shanghai. It seemed to us that a major shift is taking place in China, as Beijing is no longer the only obvious go-to destination for contemporary art. Shanghai has become an ebullient place for production and is investing heavily in its artistic and cultural scenes. We have visited impressive, brand-new studio spaces, and private and public art spaces and museums are popping up all over the city. They are shaping entirely new urban areas, such as the Westbund, where TANK is located. Nevertheless, rents are high and younger or less well-known artists are either far outside the city centre or based in other cities around the country. Some of these have in turn become even more fertile grounds for creation, thanks to particularly avant-garde or open art schools, which we hope to discover during our next trip to China.

How do you look at Brussels and WIELS from Shanghai?
Qiao Zhibing: The exhibition is a huge success, and a lot of people are talking about Belgium because of it. Many people had known about certain artists in the exhibition before, and now they have discovered that these artists are all Belgian. That generated a conversation about Belgium. In my case, I understand Belgium better and love it more. Our collaboration with WIELS has been delightful. We have learned from their professionalism as an exceptional institution.

What do you think is characteristic for Belgian art?
Qiao Zhibing: Belgian art is representative of European cultures and their thought-provoking art. The works of the Belgian artists participating in the exhibition are exemplary of the efforts of artists who reform the inner-outer dualism in their creative processes.
Charlotte Friling: For Convex/Concave, we wished to expand on a once-celebrated characteristic that was specific to the art of the Lowlands, which was the precise and detailed observation of the world. Artists at the time developed new techniques and styles which reflected that drive and went against mainstream thoughts and paradigms.

How is it similar to/different from Chinese art?
Qiao Zhibing: Belgian art is more advanced, and it can inspire Chinese contemporary art. Maybe Chinese art will attain the height of Belgian art in the coming years. The creative model of Belgian artists transforms people’s inner world; it broadens people’s outer world and connects those two worlds in such a way that they become mutually inclusive. The cultures of the two countries share similarities in both the internalized self-awareness and the externalized and relationship-oriented world view.
Charlotte Friling: In the globalized world we live in, we can see more similarities than differences in the artistic production of our two countries. Our artists all live in an interconnected world, facing and affected by often comparable realities, practicing their voices while looking back at the great artistic heritage of the past.

The exhibition runs from 31 October 2019 through 12 January 2020.


  1. Sophie Whettnall, installation ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO
  2. Installation view of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO
  3. Installation view of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO
  4. Installation view of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO
  5. Installation view of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO
  6. Installation view of Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art ©️TANK Shanghai, Photograph: JJY PHOTO

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