Lin Han and Lei Wanwan: 'People need a place like this'

Post-’80s ‘power collectors’ discuss the eclectic assemblage of works on display at 798's M Woods

Lei Wanwan and Lin Han are poster children for Beijing’s cosmopolitan ambitions in the 21st century. The young couple, both born in 1987, were named among ‘China’s New Power Collectors’ in a 2014 Forbes article published one month after they opened M Woods, a museum in 798 designed to showcase their private collection. After a renovation, M Woods launched its fifth exhibition this past March, an inchoate but captivating cluster of works traversing 1,500 years of history and geographical points from South America to the North Pole.

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The show, its patrons hope, attests to the universality of art, prizing abstract concepts of ‘spirit’ over fluctuations in hype and market value. But to understand the show, and the building housing it, one must first understand the architects.

Lin Han’s parents are wealthy investors with ties to elite Beijing political, business and cultural circles. He has said in several interviews that he’s been financially independent since age 18, when he was finishing high school in Singapore. From there, he went on to study animation in England. ‘I’ve been interested in creative pursuits ever since I was a kid’, he says, adding that his school peers saw him as ‘alternative’ since he would draw posters and tinker with music production in his free time.

Upon returning to Beijing, Lin Han rolled his personal network and design acumen into a PR firm promoting luxury brands in China. Helming the firm remains his day job, but his passion for art seems to drive his business ambitions. He began collecting in 2012 with a 1 million USD purchase at Sotheby’s. He’s accumulated auction coups at a steady clip ever since, funding his sideline with profits from his company and the support of his parents, who’ve given Lin a fund for art investment.

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Lei Wanwan was born in Hong Kong and holds a British passport, but she has a deep connection to Beijing. She’s a descendant of Zhang Zizhong, the celebrated Sino-Japanese War general who has a Beijing street named after him. Like Lin, she was attracted to the arts as a child: ‘I studied drawing, violin, piano, ballet… I was always doing things with a creative approach. I really like to be within that atmosphere, but I knew that I wasn’t born to be an artist myself.’

Lei – known to her over 680,000 Sina Weibo followers simply as Wanwan – earned her undergraduate degree in art history at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, at the same time posing as a model for painter Liu Ye and gaining an online fanbase through canny social media management. She continued her studies with a Master’s degree in art administration from Columbia University, which led to a string of assistantships with influential New York gallerists, including David Zwirner. She founded Wanwan Lei Projects in 2012, a floating platform through which she curated pop-up exhibits for emerging artists in New York’s SoHo and Beijing’s DRC.

Wanwan and Lin, who were married in January, have consolidated their shared passion into M Woods. At the beginning of 2016, they temporarily closed for renovations, adding an outdoor space, hanging curved sheets of chain mail in front of the building’s otherwise hardedged, red brick facade and proudly reopening with All Means Are Sacred.

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One hears M Woods’ current exhibition before seeing it. Plaintive classical music wafts through the entire space of the museum, soundtracking the experience. It emanates from a projection on the first floor, a time-lapse video of Dutch artist Guido van der Werve spinning against the earth’s rotation on the North Pole for a full 24 hours. Van der Werve, known for his works of physical endurance as well as his multiple talents as videographer and composer, had a solo show at M Woods last year. ‘He’s been very influential to us,’ says Wanwan. ‘We don’t just adore him; he’s had a huge impact on our lives,’ Lin adds, saying that he plans to collect more work by van der Werve in the future.

Moving around M Woods’ labyrinthine second-floor gallery spaces, the exhibition unfurls in a seemingly random progression. Old, partially destroyed Chinese statues stand next to stark contemporary sculptures and abstract drawings from anonymous Rajasthani artists. In one side chamber, a meteor collected by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in South America dances in air, held in place by a magnet attached to the roof. Adjacent, a granite block covered in bas-relief carvings from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 AD) is lit in high contrast within a small room.

‘You can see that a lot of damage has been done to it,’ says Lin Han of this anomalous piece of antiquity within a show otherwise focused on contemporary work. ‘It’s been buried underground, flooded with water, drilled hollow. At one point it was used to store pig food. The Buddha statue that would have been on top of it is long gone. This artifact has endured all kinds of destruction.’

Rehabilitating ancient art that was neglected or outright destroyed in China’s recent past is another part of the M Woods mission. This piece in particular also has a meta significance, as it depicts wealthy art patrons from 1,500 years ago. ‘We’ve been referring to it that way,’ laughs Wanwan. ‘We explain, “Oh, that’s a donor wall!”’

Despite such historical connections, Wanwan and Lin insist that their collecting philosophy is agnostic with regard to time and place. Indeed, they discuss art in almost mystical terms, speaking of pursuing ‘truth, universality and spirit’. Lately, they’ve been riffing on the philosophy of Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky, whose writings provide the current exhibition’s title. ‘It’s a space independent from the past, present and future’, says Lin. ‘Time doesn’t exist here.’

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Lin and Wanwan view the nonprofit as a public service to the city. For her part, Wanwan wants to culturally bridge established global art centers like New York with the relatively ‘unformed, shaping’ Beijing art world. ‘Huge changes are happening to Beijing, but not to New York’, Lin interjects, the business side of his personality suddenly perking up. ‘People’s lives here are completely different than ten years ago. In a city undergoing such transformation, people have massive needs for culture. It means that the city is facing more challenges and opportunities. Culturally, people need a place like this.’

M Woods’ ahistorical agitprop stands in stark contrast to the smartphone culture permeating Beijing’s youth culture. ‘In this environment, it seems like museums could be challenged by the internet’, says Lin. ‘But no app can replace the function of a museum. It’s like trying to replace a painting with a photograph. Our development is about playing a more important role in the city, being a social glue between people. Putting pieces that have been broken apart by the internet back together.’

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Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child through a sinful world, ca 1525

As for the future of the collection, M Woods’ founders are content to let their instincts guide them. Though Wanwan has a predilection for Flemish Old Masters – one highlight of Sacred is a phantasmagoric 16th-century oil painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch – she’s reluctant to single out archive highlights. ‘A collection can only represent the collector after it hits a certain quantity’, she notes, portraying the M Woods collection as an evolving whole. So far, they’re amassed over 200 works.

Wanwan also admits to a passion for the cave art of Dunhuang, a historical Silk Road stop that holds over a millennium of grotto carvings, paintings and sculptures. Though the in situ art of Dunhuang is unlikely to pass into private hands, its enduring legacy is an inspiration to Wanwan, guiding her ambition as an arbiter of art culture in Beijing. The central conceit at M Woods is that contemporary art always draws from the past, and ancient art with enduring spiritual value automatically translates into authentic experiences in the present. Wanwan puts it more succinctly: ‘To look backward is to better look forward.’


All Means Are Sacred is at M Woods until July 24. 15RMB.
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