Media and Advertising

People: Robert Bernell of Timezone 8
by Jenny Niven

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Robert Bernell talking about his books

Robert Bernell shakes his head in exasperation as he describes a recent encounter with a Chinese artist friend. "Of all Chinese art, the Forbidden City is surely our greatest piece of work! The art work of today cannot possibly compare," his friend had triumphantly declared. Founder of art publishers Timezone 8, and owner of the Dashanzi bookshop and exhibition space of the same name, Bernell’s attitudes to Chinese art could hardly be more different.

The name Timezone 8 is part of the key to his artistic philosophy, representing a firm belief in the importance of the contemporary, globalised nature of China and its art. For him, to attempt to define what is or isn’t Chinese art in narrow, contrived terms, is an exercise in futility.

"Contemporary, Qing dynasty, Muslim, Bai ethnicity – how can all of these identities fit neatly under one, catch-all definition? It’s just not possible…"

In some ways, Bernell himself is a man of many identities – businessman, collector, publisher, father, art pioneer. Over the last two decades in China, he’s certainly come a long way from home.

In a random telephone interruption to a meeting with his maths tutor as a student in Fort Worth, Texas, Bernell was stunned to discover his professor spoke fluent Mandarin. Bernell's sudden interest in the language, as yet unmatched in his maths classes, inspired his professor to help him gain a place on a language course at Taiwan Normal University for the following summer. In 1980, Bernell's passport, at that time containing only a registration for Mexico, was stamped in Taipei.

On returning to the US, he promptly changed his major to Chinese language and literature. In 1986, he returned to study at the John Hopkins Centre for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, where he met and married his wife, and began to pursue what would be a lifelong interest in Chinese art. Arriving at the tail end of the New Tide movement, Bernell's art history professors included Li Xiaoshan and Zhang Shaoxia, authors of the seminal Zhongguo Xiandai Huihua Shi which announced a belief in the death of Chinese painting.

Back in the US, Bernell gained his Masters in Chinese language and literature from Stanford in 1989, and in 1990 embarked on a ten year career in business that would take him from Burston Marsteller in Hong Kong, to beginning his own venture capital projects in Beijing. However, his love of Chinese art was never far from the surface, and in 1998 he finally had the time and the money to begin
Chinese-art.com, a bi-monthly e-zine which quickly became rated by at least one US-based art newspaper as one of the world’s top five Chinese art resources. The site was guest edited by a local critic, Leng Lin, with Bernell responsible for the site’s production and marketing.

The site’s first print adventure, the genesis for Timezone 8, was entitled Chinese art at the end of the Millenium, a collation of the site’s content, edited by John Clarke. Chinese art at the crossroads was soon to follow in 2001.

The success of both texts, published through a small, specially created publisher in Hong Kong gave Bernell the capital and the confidence to begin Timezone 8 in earnest. Its publishing schedule has since been aggressive, producing an impressive 22 titles since 2002, and including the work of luminaries such as Cai Guo Qiang and Wang Guangyi. Recent collaborative projects with art publishing giants such as Steidl, and a distribution network spanning London, New York, Amsterdam and Hong Kong have assured Timezone 8’s place among the most important publishers of illustrated Chinese art books in the world.

"In 2001, I was in the bookstore of the Tate Modern in London. At that time, from 3000 titles, there were only 2 on contemporary Chinese art, and both were on artists living abroad. Now I believe we’re reaching something like parity, especially compared with China’s importance in economic and political terms," says Bernell.

Bernell is excited by the energy he finds in the work of contemporary 'timezone 8' artists, but believes strongly in the need for Beijing to be seen as on a par with other international art cities. "Beijing is a global city, and needs to be able to take part in the global discourse. There are artists here with strong messages, and they need to be able to communicate those messages in a viable way." By introducing worldwide audiences to Chinese art, Timezone 8 is helping to achieve just that.

Recent government protection for the Dashanzi district, and funding for the Biennale, according to Bernell, sends signals about a changing appreciation within China of the importance of the country’s home grown talent. Similarly, he refutes the idea the Chinese artists work under any more restrictions than elsewhere.

"If it’s a question of freedom – then whose freedom? The rules and restrictions are no more arbitrary here than they are anywhere else", he argues, giving the recent ‘Sensation’ exhibition, closed in Italy and New York, as examples of curtailed expression in other parts of the world. He speaks enthusiastically of the way Chinese contemporary artists are embracing and reacting to the incessant change they see around them. But, I ask him, is anything lost?

"People here are concerned with living in the present. History and tradition are cultural constructs. I get a thrill out of a nice hutong, but lots of Chinese people don’t. Artists here working in response to change have a value that transcends the locale."

- Browse or buy books at Timezone 8. If you are in Beijing, you can visit Timezone 8's bookstore in 798 Dashanzi Art Factory.

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