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Tale China. Chapter seven. Mathieu Borysevicz

As you enter the old building of the BANK gallery, the light carries you on and softly illuminates your steps. Mathieu and his team are working at an extremely high speed. The gallery is growing by the second. The moment I went in, I was captivated by them, the general atmosphere and, above all, by the choice of artists they have. Let me introduce you to the creator of MABSOCIETY, Mathieu Borysevicz.
Dessislava: Hi Mathieu. Your surname is Borysevicz. Can you tell me something more about your origins?

Mathieu: My father´s side of the family is Lithuanian. The Polish people say he is Polish but he claims he is Lithuanian. I am the third generation American from both sides. My mother is Italian American. The parents of my parents were all born in Brooklyn but their grandparents were not. So typical New York made.

D.: Where were you born?

M.: I was born in Queens. I grew up in Long Island, had a suburban childhood, and then I went to Manhattan to study and live there. Soon after graduating, I came to China for the first time. It was 1994.

D.: Let´s go step by step. You studied Fine Arts. What major?

M.: The last year of studies we had to choose a major. I chose sculpture because they allotted a bigger studio. I particularity interested in installation at the time and I was also making video. Before that, I was painting. Around 1994 postmodern theory and culture criticism was at its apex. I was thinking about focusing more on research rather than physical objects. After graduation, the whole idea was to make art. But I had no money, no space and no time to do that in New York. At the time, I just needed to get far away from New York just like you probably needed to leave Barcelona and Bulgaria.

D.: But why China? China was not a very popular destination for producing art at that moment.

M.: Yes, but it’s cool now. At that time nobody was coming here. I had many reasons. One was that it is really far from New York. There were two options, India or China. I just wanted to be somewhere where I would have no sense of reference. Also, newspapers at the time were filled with current events from China. The culture of the fake and the mass urbanization was leading way to major social shifts. I thought it was real interesting from a postmodern perspective!!! A postmodern destination.

D.: And you came to China.

M.: I first went to Beijing from 1994 to 1998. My idea was go for six months only, on a sort of adventure. Get it out of my system and then return to good ole NYC.

D.: But you extended the six months?

M.: Basically one thing leads to another. I enrolled in a language program to get a visa for the extended period of time and also a place to live. The school became my base. I then also began teaching English to make money, which was actually a good way to understand and access people especially when you don´t have the necessary language skills. Right before I left New York there was an article in the New York Times Magazine section, titled “Their Irony, Humour (and Art) Can Save China”. It was about contemporary art in China and written by Andrew Solomon. Andrew had done a survey of the renegade and mercenary artists living in Yuanmingyuan, the art village on the West side of Beijing. The article portrayed China as a place where artists have been repressed and were doing all this underground art and were all sexy smoking cigarettes. I was just like: “wow, that`s kind of different than the jaded scene in NYC”! So I contacted Andrew and he was generous enough to give me the contact of an artist´s wife who was German. Everything happened very quickly. Every morning I studied Chinese and each afternoon, I was riding my bicycle around the city with my video camera and meeting artists.

D.: Just like me. The first two months here I was walking 12 to 14 hours around the city with my camera.

M.: Yes, and it was really exiting. In China there is a huge transformation going on. A few years ago, that was even more the case and was extremely magnetic. So I stayed a little longer than six months. I also produced a lot of video footage and was looking for some equipment and time to start to process and edit the footage. A friend of mine, Chinese American photographer, introduced me to somebody who was producing television news. He was also a Chinese American producer for ZDF German Television. The idea was to work with him in turn I would be able to use ZDF’s equipment, instead it turned into a long career in television and film. So I began working at ZDF during the day and at night I was hanging with the artists. I began doing more curatorial projects and writing about art. At the time there were no spaces for artists in China. There were no galleries, no museums and no collectors. There was nothing. The only spot for exhibiting was habitually closed by the police on the opening day or before the opening. So people were basically just sharing their art works in their apartments.

D.: This was the life of Mathieu from 1994 to 98…

M.: In ‘98 I asked myself what the hell am I doing here? As four and a half years just zoomed by. I came to make my own art, as originally planned, and finally did have a show in Beijing, but I was mostly becoming a conduit for Chinese artists to the West through publishing and curating exhibitions.

D.: You were making money from the television, correct?

M.: Yes, I was making good money, certainly more money than working in a restaurant or in construction or teaching English. It was much more exiting because we were doing documentaries about the phenomena of China and meeting politicians and Rock & Roll stars. When you are press, foreign press especially, you have access to all kinds of spaces and people. We were always moving, from Tibet to Hangzhou to Hong Kong. I then started my own company and I was doing lots of independent documentaries for the European Union, The World Bank, I did a film for UNHCR about refugees in China that was also great.

D.: Wow! You’ve been in China for four and half years!

M.: Yes, yes, that is another thing. I learned Chinese; I also learned all this technical stuff about television. I made an entire career and I was curating, writing about and making art. From zero to two hundred! It was really amazing. But it was all about China. There was nothing outside. For me there was more to the world than just China. I was coming from New York, a very multicultural city where all kinds of different experiences run in unison. I wanted to make my own work but there was no place in China for a young American artist. There was no place for Chinese artists at the time! There were no venues and there was no platform. So I then moved back to New York in ‘98.

D.: And?

M.: But I never really left China. In 1998, there was a big show at the Asia Society and PS1 of Chinese contemporary art in New York. It was called Inside Out: New Chinese Art. It was the first introduction of Chinese contemporary art in New York and many of the artists that I was hanging out with in Beijing came over and stayed in NYC, some others were already there and I became friendly with them. So although I was in New York I was still around a lot of Chinese artists. There was this community in exile and we had our Chinese New Year parties and other social events. The artists were making and showing art so I continued to write about them and curated shows with them. While at the same time, I continued my own work in film and television.

D.: What happened with Mathieu later?

M.: In 2007 I really needed to leave New York again. I had never really left China because I was traveling here each year for films and art projects. In 2006, I came two or three times to China. Once for curating a show, another time for a film project and again to finish a book project I initiated.

D.: What kind of book?

M.: The book is a study of urbanization in Hangzhou. It is essentially a photography document with three thousand images and was finally published in 2009.

D.: Let´s go back to 2007…

M.: In 2007, I was getting kicked out of my studio. I was going through a divorce. China was on the rise. A mini-party was going on here, everybody was getting rich, champagne and caviar was flowing through the artworld I was just like: “maybe it is time to go back!” I had never lived in Shanghai before, which is more cosmopolitan than Beijing, and I had a couple of friends here so I decided to try it out. I was paying my bills by working on films, writing for Art Forum, editing catalogues and curating shows… and also making my own work. It was too much! Then in 2008, I became a father and thought I have to figure out how to deal with all this. More and more, I became in touch with the commercial art world. Then, in 2010, I was hired as he director of Three on the Bund, Shanghai Gallery of Art.

D.: I know the gallery!

M.: The space is very beautiful but there is no dedication there. I worked a lot to build it up and then had a fight and decided to leave, my assistant and I. Then, got an office and began doing consulting and international curatorial projects.

D.: This was MABSOCIETY?

M.: M.A.B. are my initials. At Three on the Bund I was thinking about the community I had built up around the space besides me and the employees. There was the audience, the collectors, the media, and the artists. It was a small society. I thought what an important thing that was and couldn´t go back to being just Mathieu Borysevicz. It was also a way to make me sound bigger than just me. We quickly thought of a name and created a brand.

D.: BANK, your gallery, is definitely my favourite in town. Tell me something more about it…

M.: We first had an office on the 25th floor of an office building but it wasn’t a fitting place for us. I was free for a while but once we started paying rent I decided to look for another space. I thought that it’d be nice to have a space to incubate some small projects while we continued to do pop-up shows.

D.: The BANK building is very special as it dates back to 1925.

M.: It certainly is. It was pure luck, as if the space found us.

D.: How does it work?

M.: We work as an international curatorial studio. The whole idea was to bring non-Chinese and Chinese artists together and try to unify them within an interesting program. We have had Isaac Julien´s work here, as well as Paul McCarthy’s, Roxy Paine’s and some very established Chinese artists.

D.: Are there a lot of female Chinese artists?

M.: There are but they often don’t get the attention that the boys get. Unintentionally we at BANK have a good balance of the sexes. The Women´s Rights Movement never occurred here like it has in the rest of the world. Here, there is a different sense of social equality.

D.: I can feel that the new God in China is the money…

M.: There is no faith in anything except in the Renminbi.

D.: I suffer because I can´t go to the cinema here…

M.: Shanghai is a cultural vacuum compared to other larger cities in the “developed world”. When I moved here for the first time, I was writing for Art Forum series called On the ground. They profile one city each year and asked me to write about Shanghai. The cultural scene seemed to me to be quite pathetic for a city of 23 million! There are many efforts to boost the scene but there are simply not enough artists here.

D.: How do you feel in Shanghai?

M.: I lived in a lot of different cities and it is difficult to feel totally at home in Shanghai. It is not exactly inclusive.

D.: You seem very included…(both laughing)

M.: Yes but it is a kind of constant struggle