In Conversation with Karen Smith

On her new book As Seen 2011: Notable Artworks by Chinese Artists

by Chris Moore

British-born writer and curator Karen Smith first came to China from Hong Kong in 1992, with the express aim of investigating and documenting the new art emerging there.  Based in Beijing ever since, she has been an instrumental actor in the contemporary Chinese scene through extensive critical writings, interviews and exhibitions to promote and articulate art and artists at the forefront of creative developments here — and when few others were on the ground to witness them. Smith is the author of a number of books including Nine Lives; The Birth of Avant Garde Art in New China (Timezone 8, 2006), and Ai Weiwei (Phaidon, 2009), and is currently working on a new book about Chinese art during the 1990s; among the many exhibitions she has curated are “Revolutionary Capitals” (ICA, London, 1999), “The Real Thing” (Tate Liverpool, UK, 2007) and, most recently, “Life Most Intense” (Ma Ke solo exhibition, Platform China, 2012). It has recently been announced that she is to join the Xi’an OCT Art Museum as the managing director.

Chris Moore: Why have you also written a compilation artist book — aren’t there enough of those already?

Karen Smith: First, As Seen is not a simple compilation artist book. It’s about artworks, about looking at artworks in public spaces. It’s about what art does, or about what an encounter with art can be when that art is good. So it’s about how one defines what work is good: about who gets to decide and why. In this case, I get to make the decisions, and instead of having to explain what gives me the right to do so, by focusing specifically on artworks that appear in public spaces in China, I’m also providing an insight into how and why those decisions get made.

As Seen 2011 English Edition Front Cover

Second, I’m interested in what people think when they encounter art — I often get asked to explain what was intended by a particular form or content. I’d like to give (new, young) audiences, if not the tools to unlock possible meaning, then some mechanisms for developing their own ideas. The point is that there is never one absolute interpretation for an artwork, which is why notable works can exist through time and succeeding generations where new times brings new ideas to the process of interpreting or understanding individual works. That’s what I love about art: that it is a “living” entity. I also like the idea that the world changes, views change. It gives everyone a sporting chance of being (half) right.

CM: So what were the key trends in the past year?

KS: What those appeared to be at the time I wrote As Seen were a proliferation of group activity and a plunge into Baroque excess. Painting, meanwhile, was hit and miss; either strong or insipid, with little in between.

CM: What do you think of the increasing popularity and influence of collectives? It’s not just a China phenomenon and Big Elephant was around some years ago, but now we have MadeIn, Museum of Unknown, Double Fly and Waza, to name just a few.

KS: It’s liberating for those involved; the ultimate freedom, in fact, for no one can be at the receiving end of personal criticism for the work that results. Significantly, I find this kind of work often has an energy, a real buzz of life or craziness about it, that seems to make sense, as well as being a breath of fresh air.

Karen Smith at the book launch in Beijing on April 18.

CM: Are collectives a way for young artists to get some air?

KS: Certainly seems that way!

CM: Installations and sculptures seem to be dominating the intellectual sphere, including Liu Wei, He Xiangyu and Zhao Yao, but then there is a completely different aesthetic emerging in video and photographic art, such as from Sun Xun, Cheng Ran, Jin Shan, Chen Chieh-Jen and Chen Wei. Is this simply an effect of the medium or a qualitative difference, one of substance and sensibility?

KS: I guess I have got out of the habit of viewing works by materials used to create them, so I don’t see particular art forms dominating the scene — other than in fleeting phases. (Often too fleeting to be significant, instead merely coincidental.) The differences to which you refer in part relate to the substance of certain materials — as we saw last year with what groups were doing with assemblage, with the use of ready-mades, with sculptural forms. All these are limited to a degree by substance, if not form. The same goes for the surface or film or of a photograph. But in the latter context, artists tend to be much more bound by habitual ways of thinking about a particular medium; even where they are refuting an established habit. In China, even rebellion tends to form certain self-evident, recurring habits. I think that’s why photography continues to be largely mediocre as a general practice in art in China. It’s probably more pertinent to say that each younger generation here brings something new to the table—they are part of the ever-changing socio-cultural landscape that is China today and their experience of the world, the influences and information they absorb is vastly beyond what most of us imagine.

CM: Painting — Dead? Alive? Vampiric?

KS: Very much alive, but in small pockets. There’s a swamp of repetitive and formulaic styles, acres of generic form and content, but that is hardly unique to China.

CM: China is still very short on strong institutions for contemporary art, unless we count the handful of serious galleries that attempt to fill that gap. What are the museums and other institutions that give you hope and why?

KS: There are museums like OCT in Shenzhen, Today Art Museum in Beijing, Minsheng Art Museum and the Himalaya Center in Shanghai, etc, which are developing an important voice, but so are regional museums like those in Xi’an, Guangdong and Wuhan. Progress there is slower but the mindset is changing. Galleries continue to do much of the important curatorial endeavor that introduces young artists—which I firmly believe is not the role of a museum—and discovers ideas, trends, styles, etc. There are also an increasing number of personal initiatives to bridge the gaps—like the Arrow Factory in Beijing, James Elaine’s new initiative. Until there are more so-called “neutral” art centers, then this is where the energy will remain concentrated.

CM: Are we more international now?

KS: That’s increasingly like a trick question: in trying to solve its problems, China works to become more international; whilst to solve its problems the international world seeks to become more Asian.

CM: What’s your next project?

KS: The completion of a book that has been too easily neglected. And this year’s edition of As Seen.

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