“Consumerism and over-consumption is something we face every day, but it is also the fundamental driving force of our modern-day economy,” says Adrian Cheng. And he should know.
It might sound counter-intuitive that the scion of Chow Tai Fook Holdings, a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that made its fortune selling diamond necklaces and luxury apartments, should be highlighting over-consumption.
But third-generation Cheng is bringing the family business into the 21st century through corporate social responsibility and, in particular, environmentally conscious art. “Being a socially responsible enterprise, we are trying to inspire our customers and visitors to think about the true meaning of their consumption,” explains Cheng. The Harvard-educated 37-year-old is now executive vice-chairman of his family’s real-estate arm, New World Development and executive director of the jewellery arm, Chow Tai Fook Jewellery. Along with his younger brothers and sister, he is due to inherit a large part of the empire built by his late grandfather, Cheng Yu-tung, whose assets were estimated at over US$16 billion before his death last year.
But what really fires him up is cross-cultural exchange. In 2010 Cheng set up the K11 Art Foundation in 2010 to promote Chinese art, groom curators and incubate emerging Chinese artists. In the seven years since, Cheng has been ranked on ArtReview’s Power 100 as one of the contemporary art world’s most influential figures. He is a board member of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and the National Museum of China Foundation, as well as being on the committees of the Royal Academy, the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou.
“I see myself and my K11 Art Foundation as a bridge that connects China and the West,” says Cheng. “There are a lot of great young artists and curators working in China, and what they need is to be seen outside of the local scene. We are building a platform, a complete art ecosystem and creative hub for our generation; we work closely with millennial artists and curators, and many of our visitors are of around the same age. They are the new voice of China, they are creating works very different from their predecessors, they talk about the world, about their identity, about authenticity. We will continue to provide such a platform for young creative minds to show the true Chinese identity of our generation,” he adds.
K11 has joined forces with activist and fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood to launch art and fashion installations in China that question the way people think about spending. “[Vivienne Westwood] has spent many years tirelessly speaking out about the effects of climate change and overconsumption, and has mobilised international attention around ecological crusading,” says Cheng.
In December, Westwood and Cheng co-hosted an exhibition titled ‘Get a Life!’at Cheng’s Shanghai K11 Art Mall. The exhibition highlighted Westwood’s work as an activist and environmental campaigner. “The title underscores Vivienne’s message to ‘Get a life for yourself and for future generations’to engage with the world, through art and culture, and to inform yourself on matters relating to climate change. It criticises a series of problems related to over-consumption and the global financial system in connection to the environment and importantly climate change,” explains Cheng. “We enjoyed the work relationship with Vivienne and thought it would be fascinating to bring her works to Shanghai K11 in a different context, one that crosses over with contemporary Chinese art. She and her team loved the idea and voila! Here we are today.”
The exhibition included 60 portraits of celebrities who took part in Westwood’s ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign for Greenpeace, photographed by Andy Gotts MBE. Key looks from Westwood’s latest fashion collections went on display, demonstrating how her political and environmental campaigns translate directly to her runway shows.
Running alongside the show, contemporary artist Song Zhenxi curated work of seven Chinese artists, including Sun Xun, Wu Junyong, Zhang Ruyi, Yu Honglei, Wang Congyi, Nathan Zhou and Zhu Xi, as a tribute to a famous Chinese poem, a dream-like recounting of the chance discovery of a utopia untouched by humans. “It echoed and underscored Westwood’s message of climate change, challenging viewers’ definition of people, nature and society,” says Cheng.
For Westwood, who recently opened the first Vivienne Westwood Café in Cheng’s Mall, China represents a vast audience hungry for a mission. Chinese millennials are an increasingly powerful consumer group, making up 31 percent of the population, equating to a spending group of 400 million consumers. Investment bank Goldman Sachs calls them “the single most important demographic on the planet today”. A recent report from public relations firm MSL Group showed that Chinese millennials “are frustrated, worried, and want immediate climate action”. It added: “[They] want to hear about greener products and expect businesses to collaborate with governments to address climate change.”
The time seems ripe to inspire a veritable army of potential followers who will vote with their wallets in the most powerful way. “It’s a war for the very existence of the human race and that of the planet,” says Westwood. “The most important weapon we have is public opinion: go to art galleries, start to understand the world you live in. You’re a freedom fighter as soon as you start doing that.”