How André Fu made light work of turning a historic space into the new Perrotin Shanghai gallery
Behind the scenes at André Fu’s Perrotin Shanghai
Over the past three decades, Emmanuel Perrotin has built up a global business based on his sharp eye for creativity and impeccable timing. This September saw the opening of the French art dealer’s 18th gallery – his first in mainland China – near Shanghai’s Bund waterfront. It’s a long way from his first venture at the age of 21, when each morning he would rise early to transform his bijou Parisian apartment into a chic gallery, showing work by then little-known artists such as Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan.
Shanghai is a natural home for Perrotin. Newfound wealth and enchantment with art have buoyed several art fairs, private institutions such as Wang Wei’s Long Museum and Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum, and now offices for blue-chip galleries Lévy Gorvy and Hauser & Wirth. The area around the city’s Huqiu Road in particular has become a new cultural enclave, home to the Rockbund Art Museum and Christie’s auction house.
‘We have been looking in this area for a few years, but wanted to find the perfect space where people would want to spend quality time,’ says Perrotin of the top floor of the Concession-era building, which he has turned into an airy 1,200 sq m contemporary gallery.
Perrotin already had form in Asia, spotting the potential of Takashi Murakami long before he became internationally renowned, and opening a 650 sq m gallery in a Ramsa-designed building in Hong Kong just before Art Basel chose the city as its Asian outpost in 2013. He also opened galleries in Seoul in 2016 and Tokyo in 2017, which exhibit an eclectic roster of artists including Daniel Arsham, Izumi Kato and Paola Pivi.
The gallery’s Hong Kong-based partner Alice Lung discovered the 1937 brick warehouse, formerly used by the Central Bank of China. ‘It was much larger than what we were originally looking for, but it gives us the flexibility of scheduling more than one show at a time, plenty of storage and high ceilings,’ she says.
Renovating a heritage space in China is not for the faint of heart, so Perrotin enlisted the help of Hong Kong architect André Fu to create four large exhibition rooms and a mezzanine above with an office, private salon, meeting room and a terrace. Renowned for his hospitality projects, most recently the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, Fu also designed Perrotin’s Hong Kong and Tokyo galleries. The pair first met after Perrotin stayed at The Upper House hotel in Hong Kong (W*129), one of Fu’s early, career-defining
interior projects. ‘André understood what I was trying to do with my Hong Kong gallery, even though he took my drawings and immediately reversed the entire design. Boom! It worked perfectly,’ says the gallerist.
According to Fu, the context is very different for each of the three galleries he has created for Perrotin: ‘In Shanghai, the scale is much larger and we have introduced a reception space that acts as a central hub, creating a transition between four galleries that are very different in size, personality and experience.’ Fu worked closely with Perrotin’s team, translating their spatial studies and the gallerist’s ‘dreamscape’. ‘I care about every single detail,’ Perrotin explains. ‘When I started in this business I did everything myself, even painting the walls, so I learned it all.’ Fu says the new gallery’s unconventional proportions, high ceilings and natural light from large windows ruled out the classic white cube response: ‘Some spaces are more classic art spaces with a pure white ceiling, while others have exposed beams, windows on one side or a dialogue with another room. However, it all has to act as one space with a sense of integrity. And a bit of tension.’ The challenge, he says, was allowing the gallery’s personality to shine, ‘but not too much’, always bearing in mind that a gallery is ultimately a backdrop for artists to express themselves.
An elevator opens directly onto the third-floor gallery’s discreet reception space. ‘When you come out you should immediately see an artwork,’ Perrotin insists. ‘The first impression has to be the art, not a person or desk.’ Further in are two large rectangular galleries, two smaller exhibition spaces, a storage room and a new staircase leading to the mezzanine. Different parquet floor patterns in each of the four exhibition spaces evoke a traditional Shanghai residence, while, elsewhere, metal window frames are a subtle nod to French Concession-style windows. ‘It is not intended to replicate traditional vernacular, but instead conceived as a modern art space that reflects on its historical context through an immersive experience,’ Fu explains.
According to Fu, the greatest challenge was to create a demarcation between the heritage timber and high beams that give the place character, and the new, open white box ‘insertion’ that offers movement and flexibility. When designing a project of this complexity, he says there is no substitute for spending time on-site and imagining what it will be like to look at works of art of different types and sizes. ‘It is all about asking yourself what if,’ he says. ‘You can’t predict or draw without seeing the space yourself. You have to physically be there to instinctively respond to it.’
Set on creating ‘a sense of comfort and the feeling that you are in a considered environment’, Perrotin also insisted on installing underfloor heating, after discovering that many art spaces are freezing cold during Shanghai’s harsh winter months. ‘It is important to create a personal relationship with clients,’ he explains. ‘That includes having a space to sit and discuss the art.’ He believes the new gallery will provide a personal context in which to experience art, especially since many of their artists create new works for each show.
At Perrotin Shanghai, the layout means the gallery retains a high degree of flexibility. ‘The different spaces will challenge artists,’ Perrotin says. ‘We have to give the artists an obligation to fight with the space.’ And first into battle is Belgium’s Wim Delvoye, with a new body of work that reflects his preoccupation with combining the ‘profane with the sublime’. Known for his unconventional works, Delvoye is familiar with China, having had a studio in Shanghai and a farm that supplied him with pigs, which he tattooed with logos and patterns and whose skin he then sold as canvases. The inaugural show (until 20 October) presents some of these works, as well as new sculptures inspired by the most popular instant noodles in China. November will then see Takashi Murakami enter the ring with his first solo exhibition in mainland China, inspired by contemporary Japan and its otaku sub-culture. It’s clear that Perrotin is adding his own creative twist to Shanghai’s cultural landscape, and it seems that visitors and collectors will be the ultimate winners.
From left, Perrotin’s Hong Kong director Alice Lung, architect André Fu and gallery owner Emmanuel Perrotin in the Perrotin Shanghai during construction
Above, the main gallery boasts an original 6m-high wooden beam ceiling as well as new oak floors
Right, the 1,200 sq m gallery is located on the top floor of the 1937 Amber building, a former warehouse on Huqiu Road in the heart of downtown Shanghai