words Anna BatesIn one of her many houses, Pearl Lam, Shanghai-based design gallerist and billionaire heiress, is holding dinner. She's flown in guests from across the world to demonstrate how - with a few million - you can grow your own arts scene. But Lam herself is missing.
The owner of Contrasts Gallery is notoriously elusive, and we're left to admire her extravagant, inclusive approach to home decoration, a unique disco-baroque experience. There's a celebration of everything from Shanghai Deco to antique Chinese furniture and a dazzle of Western contemporary design. Ron Arad chairs and Ming antiques sit side by side, while the walls are decorated with artworks generally preoccupied with female genitalia. The ceiling is bathed in pink light, and hanging over the table are several flamboyant chandeliers covered in more peacock feathers than a drag act - designed by Lam's own design studio XYZ.
The eclecticism extends to the guest list. Around the 60-seater dining table there are Westerners, Easterners, a prostitute turned novelist, an astrologer, an artist, some local celebrities, the daughter of a famous artist, collectors, some hangers-on and about a dozen journalists. Most of the journalists are here to interview Lam, assuming she ever puts in an appearance, but to be frank she doesn't really need any more press. All the magazines in her penthouse have her face on the cover (May's Hong Kong Tatler has four cover versions of Lam, Andy Warhol style). Outside China, she has been profiled in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Observer, the Times and Wallpaper (to name just a few). But in the abundance of words written on this lady, not very much has actually been said. She is described as a "whirlwind", "a force of nature", and she's highly rated by influential gallerists and collectors including Galerie Kreo's Didier Krzentowski and Swiss collector Uli Sigg, but no one has explained exactly why we should take her seriously, or questioned what her much-touted philosophy really amounts to. That's why icon is here - to find out what she actually thinks, assuming we ever get to talk to her.
Sitting next to me is one of Lam's many "close" friends. Most have known her for three months; this one, an interior designer, has known her for three years. "We're very close," he says, followed by a long, meaningful smile, a tear almost forming in his eye. Then, suddenly, in a hushed tone, "Here she comes."
Lam's presence is first signalled by her voice - deep, and rich as a sax. There's a whiff of perfume that precedes her appearance before us, clad in a short purple dress and wearing voluptuous, purple-streaked hair. She has so much energy you wouldn't be surprised if she flung her arms open and broke into jazz, and she doesn't look late-40s. The two men either side of me jump up, their legs still tangled in their chairs as they beg her to sit. She holds their hands for a brief moment, says a few kind words, and continues round the table.
"She's so human," says the interior designer, once the excitement has subsided. I've asked him what he makes of her as a curator. "She's not afraid of the bad taste mistake. It's all just a mood for her. She'll take one artist out, put another in. She's like a DJ with a song - she knows it's superficial."
Dinner is followed by a few words of thanks. There are utterances of "I love you Pearl" before we leave the table. A problem has arisen with the interview: apparently it takes Lam some time to get her hair just right for the photographer. When the last of the hangers-on have left, I ask if she has the time to talk. It's difficult, because Lam is pretending she can't see me. I ask one of her assistants to approach on my behalf, and there's an eruption of: "Good bye. Good bye. I can't hear you. Per-lease. Fuck-ing hell." Now isn't a good time, the sweet assistant tells me. "Better try tomorrow."
The next morning, we start a four-day coach tour of Lam's five galleries and a selection of museums and artists' workshops. The trip is organised to a ruthless timetable. Lam doesn't come with us, but a group of her high-powered friends do. Anyone who deviates from the itinerary will be blacklisted. Lam has ways of finding out. It's the Shanghai art biennale, and the second ShContemporary, China's version of Art Basel.
Lam has been building up her empire of galleries since 1992. She's also built up her own bespoke theory to link them all together. In her absence, her website states "The PEARL LAM MISSION WAS TO take Western and Eastern influences on art and design and CREATe A NEW AESTHETIC," (in a special mix of cases). The galleries purport to follow the ethos of 15th- and 16th-century Chinese creative practice, which didn't segregate art forms - so Lam places art, design and craft beside each other "WITHoUT PREJuDICE". The ultimate goal is to create a scene of local Chinese buyers. Lam argues that there are no local collectors because China only nurtures "political art", which is made for the export market. Lam has set out to correct this.
We arrive at the first Contrasts Gallery to see a solo exhibition of Shanghai-based artist Wang Tiande's calligraphic ink paintings. It fits Lam's agenda brilliantly, and the leading lady is present to make sure we all get it. "We [the Chinese] are different from the West," she announces. "This work is about the evolution of traditions - the story is the background of traditions."
I want to ask Lam - who was born in Shanghai but grew up in Hong Kong, the USA and London - when she started feeling part of this "we". I also need to talk about that photoshoot. But she's busy, flitting around people in an elaborate display of frantic activity. She isn't actually having conversations with anybody. Finally it's my turn - I ask about booking some time with her, but my coach starts chugging and I'm shooed off before I get a reply.
During the four days, we scurry speedily from Tiande's work to Dutch designer Maarten Baas' artist-in-residence project. We go from a political installation by Chinese artist Qiu Anxiong to London-based ceramicist Peter Ting's human-sized porcelain. We see Zhang Huan's evocative incense-ash paintings, followed by an exhibition of Iranian art. It's hard to find fault with her choices - the artists she recruits are all very good. But as a collection, the work at Lam's galleries is all over the place. There seems to be no philosophy at all. At Huan's workshop (in a rare moment with Lam), I ask why she chose to work with the artist. "At first I thought, ‘How gross'," she says. "Then someone told me to invite him for dinner. I met him, and became addicted." Just like that, the artist made the seamless transition from Lam's dining room table to gallery space. She seems to be curating in a somewhat chaotic fashion - commissioning artists, designers and ceramicists over dinner, then packaging it all neatly under the tidy label of Contrasts.
To add to the confusion, Hongxing Zhang, curator of the Chinese department at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, doesn't buy her theory. "I think Lam invented that tradition," he tells me cautiously over the phone. "This theory that there is a tradition in China for this crossover - that art, design art and craft have no boundaries and are fluid - to me, she invented that. Sometimes it's difficult to pin down what her intention really is. But then there
is something quite exciting about that."
It's 8pm on our last evening in Lam's penthouse and she has a few hours for journalists to share. I find out she was sent to school in London - she bunked off, never saw her guardian and survived on a diet of hard-boiled eggs before her parents found out, sacked her guardian and sent her to a different school. My time is up. It's a washout, and I'm told another meeting would be "totally out of the question". Instead, I hit the vodka - something I would come to regret. By 4am, I was on my way to bed when one of Lam's assistants grabs me. She has a moment. She's in the lobby.
Lam explains through rehearsed quotes that the whole gallery thing started as a devious plan. After finishing her accountancy degree in London, her father wanted her to return to Hong Kong and take a place in his property development business. To buy some time, she decorated her mother's London apartment "as a favour". "I was just a shopaholic when it was the beginning," she says. But through her shopping trips, she became acquainted with Tom Dixon and Ron Arad. She was intrigued by the designers' handmade approach, and hit upon an idea: "I negotiated with my family to have a gallery [selling their work] in Hong Kong. Then I could come back to London."
Lam likes to give the impression that her life has been a series of accidents, but she is a shrewd businesswoman. She saw the potential interest in limited-edition pieces before many contemporary design gallerists. But for her, opening up a gallery wasn't motivated by money - it was about creating something that she could be in the middle of. Lam wanted to create her own little world, following her own rules. It feels like it's a big game for her: "I like to be mad. I like to be chaotic. For me being chaotic is very romantic."
What is most interesting about Contrasts Gallery is Lam herself. She's created a caricature of herself as a person embodying a bit of East and West, and her gallery is an outward expression of her inner contradictions. Where she's failed is in thinking that Contrasts Gallery's philosophy best represents the Chinese arts scene - it doesn't, it just represents her. She hasn't sold anything to collectors in China, but she's a favourite with the Chinese diaspora: "I've got Chinese buyers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore," she tells me.
Lam's achievement is quite remarkable in some ways - she's managed to grow a scene out of nothing; it's a spectacular display of patronage that we aren't used to seeing any more. But she's best seen as a precursor - she's filled the networking machine with enough oil to get things started. Her role is more infrastructural than curatorial - her dinner parties are like the plumbing and wiring of the arts scene. She's created a salon, and behaves as a kind of ambassador for Shanghai - when artists, celebrities or opinion formers from abroad visit Shanghai, they'll find their way to her table, the nucleus of the city's creative scene.
"Shanghai is a bit like America in the 1940s and 50s," explains one of her helpers. "Everyone talks to everyone. But it will be like everywhere else soon." Give it another decade and some of her guests wouldn't be seen dead with each other. But before the scene becomes insular and formulaic, while it's still growing, it needs someone with her energy to pump out the dinners and dosh and get everyone talking. Even Lam describes herself as an "accelerator". It's early days in the city's boom, and as one of her artists Gu Wenda said: "It takes further generations to become more sophisticated."
All images:Julian De Hauteclocque Howe