Karen Smith on Taking the Reins at OCAT’s Frontier Outpost: Interview

by 作者:Liang Shuhan 梁舒涵

As a participant, witness, and initiator in contemporary Chinese art, Karen Smith, an independent critic and curator from the UK, is recently appointed the executive director of OCAT Xi’an. This is also the first time in her career to take on core duties within an art institution in China. After the opening of the inaugural exhibition “Between Character and Calligraphy” and the first Xi’an Dialogues, “What is the Use of Contemporary Art?”, randian interviewed Karen Smith and asked for her thoughts on the prospect of contemporary art in Xi’an as well as the operations of the OCAT Xi’an branch.

Liang Shuhan: Can you talk about your experience as Director at OCAT Xi’an?

Karen Smith: That’s a big question—one we might discuss again in a year’s time. Thus far, it has been challenging but rewarding. Getting a building ready to a deadline is always a complex process, but we managed it. The main elements of my experience with OCAT Xi’an to date are twofold: the first my relationship with the OCAT group; second, through the relationship built with the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts in the last five years.

I’ve been on the academic advisory board of OCAT Shenzhen, since the art center was founded in 2005. I was also involved with helping OCAT Shenzhen’s founding director, Huang Zhuan, shape and articulate the concept, including the artist residency program. That experience was very helpful for thinking about our approach for Xi’an. An important element of that experience is seeing how through the existence of the OCAT in Shenzhen, the area has gone from feeling peripheral to becoming a real hub of activity. OCAT Shenzhen is a very good example of a form of urban renewal in an area that originally had no focal center, and a group of buildings that had no life around them—now, there are cafés, design stores and restaurants, and artists know this is the place they can come for art and music—it’s fun, but a place where people can discover art. I think they managed the whole development in a very good way. By comparison, M50 in Shanghai and 798 in Beijing have become almost too commercial. OCAT Shenzhen is a good example of healthy development—it’s a nice balance. That provides a good model there for me to aim for in Xi’an.

OCAT Xi’an Exterior View, 2013 (photos courtesy OCAT Xi’an)
OCAT西安馆外观,2013 (图片:OCAT 西安)

Second, I have been working with the (Xi’an) Academy for about 5 years on a project that gives scholarships to the students. I’ve really got to know the director, department heads and professors at the Academy, and have begun to understand their feelings about the art world here. They have a lot of ideas that have been hard to develop: to do an event of an exhibition in isolation makes it difficult to get a dialogue going and to sustain a discussion about art, or a particular type of art. Many people in Xi’an feel that the rich traditional culture that surrounds them is enough, but at the same time, some feel marginalized, suggesting that all the interesting opportunities gravitate towards Shanghai and Beijing, but not to the interior regions.

LSH: In your time in China you’ve cooperated with many institutions, but this is your first official post. Why?

KS: The main reason is that I have never felt that I could work in a local institution. First, we have to remember that institutions like OCAT are a relatively new phenomenon—as a non-official art institution. It takes a certain kind of ambition to want to work in the mainstream. Previously I preferred to focus on one project. If you work for an institution, it requires a different mentality. There’s a lot of administration, for one thing. It’s a different challenge. But that’s the appeal of the OCAT group. There is a great foundation in Shenzhen upon which we can build in Xi’an. We have something of a head start in this regard: to build this kind of a contemporary art center from scratch in a city with no comparable institution would be more of a challenge. Instead, with the OCAT name behind us, Xi’an becomes a good opportunity to give contemporary art a foothold in a rather conservative environment.

LSH: As a curator here for over two decades, you not only became involved, but also helped bring the scene up. What is your perspective on doing contemporary art in a city like Xi’an, in the western part of China?

KS: One of the reasons I could take on this job is because I have been an independent curator—I’ve never been a museum director. When you think about it, it’s almost as if it’s only in China that somebody without specific training or experience could become a museum director—that’s the fantastic opportunity and craziness of it, in a way. Of course, I have experience working with museums and with different institutions both within and outside China, as well as with a few galleries. But the reason I felt a little more confident of being able to do this in Xi’an was that it almost felt similar, to me, to when I first came to China 20 years ago. In Beijing at that time, you had artists who really wanted to do something, but there was no real infrastructure. Here in Xi’an 20 years later, we have the same situation—a small artist community who really want to do something, the academy, a great new media department, great print making department and a great design department. There is a need for the infrastructure that can help take it all to the next level. We can do this because OCAT has experience and a solid base; it uses a non-profit model to do this work, so there are no complications regarding collecting or the market. It’s about putting on interesting exhibitions and developing a program. Here, we have a fantastic opportunity to be the first to do something.

LSH: Is there an artist residency program here that is similar to that in Shenzhen?

KS: Not at the moment, because these things take manpower to oversee and require broader logistical connection to the place than we have yet established; if you want to bring foreign artists in to stay, you have to be able to provide them with the required visas. You have to be able to take control of the logistics in order to do it seriously, so we need to spend time developing connections. It doesn’t happen overnight.

OCAT Xi’an Exterior View, 2013 (photos courtesy OCAT Xi’an)
OCAT西安馆外观,2013 (图片:OCAT 西安)

LSH: So will OCAT Xi’an be running like OCAT in Shenzhen?

KS: Yes, in a way. We won’t be quite as expansive in our program as they can be, because they (OCAT Shenzhen) already have a very strong base in terms of their local audience and a bigger space where they can do things like performances; here, we don’t have that kind of infrastructure, but I hope we will find our small model able to do something interesting. If you think of OCAT a bit like TATE (in the UK)— OCAT in Shenzhen is like TATE Modern, in Shanghai it’s like Tate Britain, and we’re like Tate St. Ivesthat is, we are a little bit on the edge, but still able to do interesting programs on a small scale.

LSH: The opening exhibition is about calligraphy—were you involved in the decision? Of course, there must be a lot of serious thought behind this selection. Why calligraphy?

KS: Well, partly because there was a connection there; this “Shufa” (calligraphy) exhibition was first shown in OCAT Shenzhen. As a group of institutions, we have resources that we can use. Those resources include taking exhibitions on tour between our different spaces. Also as this was for our opening we faced the dual problems of completing an extensive refurbishment of the building as well as designing a program in the absence of a space in which to work. We had to a) open a brand new museum, so there was a lot of work involved, including marketing our identity, and b) we also had to put on the actual exhibition. With a completely new team, none of them had experience of working together or of putting on an exhibition of the kind of standard that OCAT has set itself. It was a natural choice to take “Between Character and Calligraphy”. The team in Shenzhen knew exactly how to present the works and were on hand throughout the installation to train up our new staff in Xi’an. This kind of hands on training experience is invaluable.

Importantly, I thought it was a brilliant exhibition to bring here. It covers various aspects of creativity that OCAT aims to present: one, yes, it’s calligraphy—I am not an expert in calligraphy but I think this is a very impressive visual show. It demonstrates the professional approach OCAT strives for. But it also demonstrates that we care about what the local audience is interested in: we want to find a way to show them an art form with which they are familiar but of a type they might not have considered. It provides an opportunity to show that I respect tradition, but also want to encourage a questioning attitude towards art in terms of all the terminology (including “contemporary”) that are in vogue today. I wanted, through the exhibition, to show this idea of how we can question “what is contemporary?” Is it something that is being done now, or is it an attitude? Yesterday, somebody suggested to me that calligraphy has nothing to do with the contemporary, and that it’s therefore impossible to talk about it in the same sphere. But that is not something that concerns the artist Qiu Zhenzhong, who thinks profoundly about what he does as calligraphy and ink painting, and in a very contemporary language. And where does Xu Bing fit into these discussions? I think this is a really great start.

LSH: Talking about moving forward, do you have future plans for this whole project? And will this mean more opportunities for artists in Xi’an?

KS: Not necessarily—not in the beginning. We need first to establish the kind of benchmark that is the OCAT approach—we need to show that we’re looking at and developing ideas. But I hope that people will understand as they see the program develop that we’re really trying to establish a clear standard for our exhibitions. There is a municipal museum here, Xi’an Art Museum, which wants to develop a platform for local artists. In that sense, we can be complementary.

Our next big show will be in spring 2014. That will explore painting. In the summer of 2014, we’ll do some smaller programs which will primarily be about education, in which I want to bring an artist group here to do crazy stuff with kids. We will also make a project with Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts), perhaps with students of the new media department—they do amazing work—alongside another artist project; then in November next year, the first international artist. I hope you’ll talk to me again in a year and see how we’re going.

See also our coverage of the OCAT Xi’an opening

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