Since opening the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in 2007, co-founders RongRong and Inri have been supporting contemporary photography by hosting a full program at the Three Shadows. The centre, designed by the artist Ai WeiWei, is widely regarded as one of China’s leading spaces for the research, education, and display of contemporary photography.
Marking the anniversary with the exhibition “40 Years of Chinese Contemporary Photography”, which is divided into the following four sections: “The Rise of Unofficial Photography (1976-1979)”, “New Wave Photography (1980-1989)”, “Experimental Photography (1990-2006)”, and “The Development of Experimental Photography Organizations (2007-present)”, the exhibition takes a look into Chinese contemporary photography from the 1970s to present day.
We spoke with RongRong and Inri about their own collection of contemporary photography, how being a photographer impacts their buying decisions, and why opening the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre was vital to China’s art landscape.
Being successful photographers yourself, did you find that you were you always drawn to collect photography?RongRong & Inri
Yes, it was inevitable.
How did you begin to collect?RongRong & Inri
It all began when collectors started paying us for our own work, and it was then that we started to collect works from fellow artists.
Was there a conscious idea about building up a collection when you first started or did that come later?RongRong & Inri
Works that we enjoyed came first, and then from there we started building up the collection step-by-step.
Your collection currently includes over 330 artworks with the two focal points: New Wave and experimental photography of 1980s China and also influential international photography. How do you make sure to dedicate time and energy equally to both parts of the collection?RongRong & Inri
We feel that we must help maintain the power of creation. We are involved in the day-to-day operations of Three Shadows, and to really do this, we think it is also important to understand the broader environment, keep an open mind, and observe and learn from international trends. You will find your balance – photography is like a pass for this, and I view it as a way to help others understand art.
Is it important for you to live with your collection? If so, how does living with the artworks impact your life on a day-to-day basis?RongRong & Inri
This is the lifestyle we choose and it’s one we feel proud of. Accompanied by the artworks, our lives are full of hope. We cannot imagine our lives without images surrounding us.
How do you find artists that you want to add to your collection? Do you work with galleries or do you prefer to find the artists yourself?RongRong & Inri
First of all, the key is that the artwork reaches out to us in someway. If this is the case, we’ll consider adding it to our collection. We rely, of course, on several ways to find works such as art fairs, working with galleries, and also contacting the artist directly.
Is there a particular artwork in your collection that stands out for you, either on a personal level or because of how you acquired the work?RongRong & Inri
It is hard to pick any particular one. We love them all.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, the first non-for-profit art space in China. Can you tell us about your decision to open the centre and what highlights there have been since the opening?RongRong & Inri
Before the founding of Three Shadows, Inri and I had each been taking photographs for quite some time – both alone and together. We were gradually gaining international attention, and we started receiving more and more offers to hold exhibitions. But we each felt that we didn’t just want to remain photographers. Around this time, we also noticed there were a lot of outstanding artists in China getting overlooked by galleries, and we wanted to provide a space that wasn’t market-oriented for them. In that time period, before the birth of Three Shadows – the early- to mid-2000s, Chinese contemporary art was in a period of booming development, however, there wasn’t really anywhere dedicated to the research, collection, and display of photography in particular. Chinese museums and art galleries had a lot of gaps in their collections and exhibitions. Photography needed its own independent space.
By founding Three Shadows, we hoped to spread knowledge of photography and photographs themselves – this is also the original intention of establishing it. We have established a special photography art literature research and cataloging system, and The Three Shadows Photography Library now has more than 5 000 books, including artists’ monographs, exhibition catalogs, photography journals and photography history and theory books. The Three Shadows Educational Project invites outstanding artists, academics and theorists to provide lectures and workshops for photography enthusiasts and teenagers learning the craft and we are also dedicated to holding world-class academic exhibitions, bringing the works of international photography artists to Chinese audiences. For example, we’re grateful to have been able to collaborate with the Arles International Photography Festival early on and put on the Caochangdi Photo Spring Festival in Beijing alongside them for three years – from 2010 to 2012. We’ve continued this collaboration at our location in Xiamen, where we now co-host the Arles x Jimei Festival. We also promote excellent Chinese photography artists to the international arena, especially young Chinese artists. Finally, in 2008 we created the annual Three Shadows Photography Award or TSPA. We invite an international jury to judge work from Chinese artists around the globe and give the next generation a platform.
Collecting is often a very personal passion. What is it like to present works from your collection to the public at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre? Do you ever get nervous about the public’s reaction?RongRong & Inri
We are excited and very happy to share our collection with the public. We are trying to really do something and believe the charm of art can serve as a guide for people.
The Three Shadows Photography Art Centre is seen as one of the “most professional and comprehensive” platforms for photography and video art in China – are you also interested in changing the perceived idea of “a collector” and how one can start their own collection?RongRong & Inri
We don’t care about the title people give us. The important thing is the choices and decisions you make. Anyone can start their own collection as long as they like it.
What’s in store for the future of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre?RongRong & Inri
Three Shadows, as non-profit organization specializing in photographic arts, is an emerging organization in China, and we face great challenges and uncertainties. At the same time, this is also a great potential space for art. Ten years have passed since its founding, and as an artist-run organization we have gradually created an independent team. We hope this team is getting more professional and mature as time goes on. And we hope that Three Shadows will present better and better exhibitions, continue to introduce exceptional international photography to China, and support young Chinese artists and bring them to an international stage.
Dao begets One, one begets Two, two begets Three, three begets all things. Three Shadows gets its name from this saying. We hope it will continue to develop and create infinite worlds through photography.