Saturday, April 13th, 2013

The Early Developmental Stage: A Dialogue on the Contemporary Chinese Art World with Author Karen Smith

In 2009 artcritical carried my review of Karen Smith’s Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China. That account of Chinese art starts in the mid 1980s, when the country was emerging from a period during which it was cut off from full contact with the outside world. Most of the artists in Nine Lives are now well known in the West. Her new publication As Seen 2011: Notable Artworks by Chinese Artists takes the story up to the present, describing recent work from 40 artists. Because most of them are younger figures, almost all of them are little known outside of their country, I thought an interview would be more suitable than a conventional book review.

Detail of an installation of Zhan Wang at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2008.  Zhan is an artist featured in Karen Smith's book discussed in this article
Detail of an installation of Zhan Wang at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2008. Zhan is an artist featured in Karen Smith’s book discussed in this article

David Carrier: Karen, what is the relationship between these two books?

Karen Smith: There’s no direct relationship really. Following Nine Lives I had been working on a second volume (Nine Lives was about the big picture, the birth of the new art movement; the second volume, Bang to Boom, follows a year by year account of the events from 1989 to 2002. I had spent an awful lot of time looking at art in 2010 and 2011; unconsciously it seemed. I realized when I discovered how many images I had been collecting of works I had seen, and when I found myself lamenting all the interesting new developments that I was not able to write about for being preoccupied with Bang to Boom. As I reflected upon the inordinate amount to time that Bang to Boom was absorbing, I realized too that my procrastination and the difficulties I was having in arriving at a confident take, was that the art itself, key iconic pieces, that I had seen all those years ago, were now disappeared from view. I had photographs I had taken of exhibitions but which were tantalizingly restrictive in the views they offered, especially the details necessary to write comprehensively about them. I felt trapped by the absence of these works. That’s when I decided to take a break from Bang to Boom and to use the responses to the new developments in art that I could see as the basis for As Seen.

Unlike Nine Lives, As Seen 2011 includes a number of female artists. When I taught at CAFA and Tsinghua in 2009, the majority of my students were female, but almost all the faculty was male.

The premise for Nine Lives was to identify pioneers, founding fathers (how we are trapped in the trope of language…). The absence of women reflected the real situation of the 1980s. Bang to Boom begins with the women Xiao Lu who fired her gun into the installation Dialogue in the China Art Gallery. It also features a number of women artists: Yu Hong, Jiang Jie, Chen Yanyin, Yin Xiuzhen, Lin Tianmiao, Zhang Lei, Shi Hui, Cai Jin, Peng Yu and others. The proportional rise in the number of women artists at work in China today reflects the changes in society. Women are no longer primarily home-makers and mothers. They also have support from mothers and mothers-in-law to free them from the daily chores of motherhood. They also receive more support from galleries and institutions. But all of these advances are predicated on the fact that society here has evolved and matured to arrive at more open-minded attitudes towards women, which had has a knock on effect on the way that women approach art and the content and subject matter they explore. They have been liberated from the box of feminism.

Recently the Asia Society Museum in Manhattan had an exhibition of Wu Guanzhong. He died recently– and his sensibility seems extremely distant from that of all your artists. There are, however, younger figures doing traditional ink on paper painting in China. Do any of them interest you?

They do, where their work seeks to engage with the present. I have always been interested in the progressive end of art, rather than just what is good art; looking at ideas that will change the face of what is understood to be art, or at least push the boundaries. If this is done in ink—as with the work of, say, Yang Jiechang, Zhang Jianjun, or Qiu Zhijie—then I am looking at the field.

There is a great deal of translation into Chinese of the more esoteric English-language art writing? What role do such translations have?

This type of esoteric writing encourages Chinese readers (artists and critics) to see it as a standard to be matched, followed etc. All ideas, the exchange of ideas, are useful in developing a dialogue or new trains of thought. However, in being written for a Western—European or American—audience, I think that a great deal of this writing presents a challenge for the Chinese reader since its frames of reference lie outside Chinese cultural experience. Thanks to “globalization”, in time, those references will be less “different”, but to date they still exist even though in light of change in China many Chinese readers might feel they are on the same wave-length.

Cover of the book under discussion
Cover of the book under discussion

Your focus in this book is on individuals, not on broad sociological trends. Is it possible, however, to generalize? What are the shared concerns of Chinese artists of the present generation?

I am not sure it is possible to generalize. Given the framework of the As Seen project, which is do complete a similar volume that highlights works shown in public spaces in China each year for at least five years, I hope that through this approach to documenting a prominent or influential slice of artistic activity, that at the end of this period, certainly in years to come, it will be possible to extract some kind of overview of what the social undercurrents were within the concerns of this generation.

Some of the works in your new book could be by Western artists. Liang Yuanwei’s oil paintings, He Xiangyu’s Man on Chairs or Shi Qing’s Plant Republic are examples. The same is true the paintings of Aniwar Mamat, though your account of their sources might change how we see them. Except when figurative art shows Chinese people or recognizably Chinese street scenes, or uses calligraphy, I have the sense that the ‘Chineseness’ of this art is hard to identify. When, for example, you discuss Zhang Enli’s paintings of utilitarian objects, they don’t look obviously Chinese to me. Often as when you associate Song Dong with Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Bridget Riley, the frame of reference plays to the Western reader. But perhaps this is a concession for the English-language readers?

I think you are correct. But I have been in China for twenty years now and I am aware that my take has acquired a degree of localness, meaning that my points of reference relate to ideas abroad in Chinese society/the art world. Also, I find it easier to reference neutral examples as opposed to Chinese contemporaries—this is less for reasons of inciting criticism than of the volatility of artistic careers here. Styles change fast, and at times dramatically. Even those artists who established a recognized motif as their “brand” in the 1990s have moved far from it today.

In the West, Chinese artists seem caught in a trap. On one hand, they must speak in our up to date terms. (No ink on paper paintings.) But they must appear to be Chinese. Hence the tendency of the figures who exhibit here to Sinify familiar art forms- installation, performance, video. Is this an issue for your artists.

This was very much a topic of the 1990s, but it is increasingly less of a consideration today. Conversely, courtesy of the focal point Chinese art has become under “the art market”, China’s artists have a sense that they are beginning to lead; that the days of following are behind them.

Philippe de Montebello has spoken of how very much art is a cultural hybrid. The Chinese Silks of Zhuang Hui & Dan’er are a great illustration of this thesis, for while they are Chinese, they are based upon products designed for the international monument. And Gao Weigang shows imags of the Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley! Could we generalize: are your artists oriented in part, at least, towards the international art market?

That’s true nowadays everywhere! I think the market hit China like a tsunami, a phenomenon for which nobody can ever be prepared. It knocked everyone for six.  Having said that, the majority of artists who are included in As Seen 2011 veer towards the less commercial end of the spectrum. I have been asked repeatedly by artists and interviewers here why such and such an artist is absent from the book when they are ‘so famous and sell so well’. To which my answer is that when that artist has a good show or shows a good work then they will be represented.

When I was in Beijing in 2009, I certainly saw a great many art galleries. But how well developed is the domestic market for art in China?

It’s not. It’s very much at the early developmental stage. A real market, buoyed by meaningful collections can only exist when potential buyers have access to quality information. I think there is still too little of that available—hence one reason for doing As Seen and the approach to describing the art rather than simply locating it in theory.

We see a great deal of contemporary Chinese art in Chelsea’s galleries and in the New York museums. But I have the impression our view is highly selective. In the Foreword you speak in a personal way about why you chose the artists. I wonder, then: is it possible to generalize about the situation of art in China today? In New York, it’s very hard to find trends—there simply are lots of diverse individuals. Your new book deserves comparison the big Phaidon volume Defining Contemporary Art—25 years in 200 pivotal artworks which also reveals the extreme difficulty of identifying trends. From As Seen 2011 I infer, the same is true in China.

That’s rather amusing since it was a similar volume, which provided the original spark to As Seen. I was together with an artist, a curator and a gallerist. Phaidon’s Vitamin P had just arrived in China. They were excited to see a number of Chinese artists included, but we were asking when China would have a quality publication to match Vitamin P, and that reflected the real situation of the Chinese art world. I figured an entire volume on Chinese painting would lack dynamism, but that the approach brought to As Seen might temporarily fill the gap.

It’s impressive to me that you, a foreigner been able to develop this remarkable close-up record of contemporary Chinese art.

I have moved from being student/contemporary to curator and “critic”. The things I have been able to do are things that were made possible by the special characteristics of China, as it changed and matured along the way—by this I mean meetings with important people, with an extraordinary range of art world figures, politicians, tastemakers and industrialists. I can’t imagine having been afforded those opportunities in Europe or in America. There has also been the involvement with artists on a personal level, in being able to further careers through making connections for them in China and abroad, and to contribute to the building of a scene here—working with ascent art spaces and galleries, curating exhibitions both here and abroad, and with the voice that writing about art affords. To be in a position to participate in the activities of this new scene and to make things happen, has been a privilege. The strange thing is that having been involved in so much, having done so much, in China there is always a sense that this is only the beginning. There’s so much more to do.

Lin Tianmiao, Badges, 2011-12, White silk, colored silk thread, painted stainless steel embroidery frame, sound component Installation dimensions variable.  Installaed in the artist’s 2012 exhibition at Galerie Lelong, New York.  Courtesy Galerie Lelong
click to enlarge