Karen Smith is a curator and art critic specializing in contemporary art in China since 1979. She has written widely on the subject for numerous journals and exhibition catalogues, and is the author of numerous artist monographs. She has also authored several books on China's contemporary art scene including the series “As Seen”, begun in 2012, and “Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China” published in 2008. She is most recently the author of the China section for Taschen's Art Now Volume 4, in 2013.
Her curatorial work includes numerous group and solo exhibitions for China's contemporary artists in China and abroad, such as “A Potent Force” at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2013), “Fat Art I: Music to my Eyes” at Today Art Museum, Beijing (2009), “Subtlety” at Platform China (2008), “The Real Thing” at Tate Liverpool, UK (2007) and “The Chinese: Photography and Video Art from China” at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2004), as well as solo exhibitions for Liu Xiaodong, Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing in the US and the UK. Karen joined the academic advisory board of OCAT Shenzhen in 2005, and was appointed executive director of OCAT Xi' an in 2012.
This interview was conducted in November 2017.
Marine Cabos: Are there new hot places for art in China?
Karen Smith: There has been a lot of change in general because a lot of people have been moved out of Beijing. Often they move outside of the city centre because the rent is high but also just because the government is moving people out.
I think the key here is really not so much where. Hangzhou for instance has always been a place where there’s an artist community because the Academy is there. But it has always also struggled to evolve museums or galleries, although there have been interesting artists-run spaces there for periods of time. In truth every place can support artist-run spaces before the city becomes too gentrified or it becomes a hot place. As soon as it becomes a hot place artists can’t afford to be there.
Let’s take Xi’an – which is where I spend a lot of time, and where there is actually a strong community of photographers. What I like about Xi’an is that photography retains its traditional qualities and strength. Xi’an istill has a strong socialist feel I would say, perhaps because economic development has been slower. Today, you still see a more gritty realism in photography which matches the experience of daily life, like Beijing was in the 1990s before too many rich people skewed the social demographic.
The photography community has its own network. But any place now in a contemporary society needs to have a little bit of a balance between educational institutions, commercial institutions and non-profit art institutions. Some locations might draw people because of the living standards and artists are going to gravitate towards a local that is cheaper. But how long the community can sustain itself depends on the general economic development of the area. I’m talking about photography in the broader sense not just art photography. People need to be in an area where there are things are happening, where life is being lived and events unfolding.
M.C.: How developed is education for photography in China today?
K.S.: I know there is a photography department in Shenyang for example, that’s probably one of the oldest ones. Xi’an has a good photography department, which is in the film and animation department of Xi’an Fine Arts Academy. Xi’an is actually a conservative place, but the photography department is interesting because it offers a good degree of technical training. What students photograph has a good grasp of realism. They also experiment with technique. In other places where they teach journalism, they would teach a good technique but they would not be teaching experimental practices.
The biggest problem with all these departments is in China I find people are not good at looking; or are not encouraged to look for themselves. I say that with 25 years of experience. When photography becomes a medium of expression in China, which began in earnest from New China [1949 onwards], a lot of the work was done as a process of delivering social economic and political messages. So people became used to the concept that everything that appears within a photographic frame should be clearly explained. This is contrary to traditional art in China the basic ethos of which is to leave you lots of space to contemplate and imagine. Photography has never really been like that, and where it attempts to be like that, it tends to imitate painting rather than actually creating its own aesthetic.
I don’t think people in Europe are aware of the challenge of learning to “look” because most have the opportunity to engage with art from a young age.There is a kind of understanding towards art that is evolved unconsciously, whereas Chinese thinking is embedded by the fact that people are treating like children for the most part and often have everything explained for them. The lack of encouragement for self-reflection and for thinking for one’s self is revealed when people look at things in front of them; something might be quite obvious but unless they’ve been told that’s what they are supposed to see they won’t see it. The brain does not make the connection.
I can give you a good example. In the 1950s-60s, a (woman) photographer from Nanjing, Xiao Zhuang, now in her 80s. Her work reveals the eye of a remarkable woman. She’s probably the only women photographer except of Hou Bo – who was Mao’s personal photographer – that I know was as active as any male figure photographing the Cultural Revolution, China’s changes and political messages. In spite of her following what was the required ideology, her photographs are suffused with an innate empathy, an almost subtle sense of doubt, which I don’t see in many other works. For example, Li Zhensheng who is well known for documenting the Cultural Revolution. His is a much “harder” style, in line with the task he was ascribed for his job.
The difference is subtle and hard to put into words. One needs to look over their entire body of work. But I feel there is a sensibility in Xiao Zhuang’s works, some sense that she felt ambivalent towards what she was photographing. To sense that one has to learn to look, of course to understand the complexity of the history, but also to develop a sense of empathy, and to look for the clues in the photos – sometimes in the very facial and physical expressions of the subjects. This looking is such an important element. Most people assume no difference, accept the topic and composition types as correct for the prevailing ideology of the times. We are told she was doing her job, so why consider the work from any other perspective? But subtleties are there, that’s when things become interesting, learning to read those. It’s really important to use your eyes and look. Which is what historians do, looking at the facts presented to them through the prism of time.
M.C.: Would you say there are trends in Chinese contemporary photography?
K.S.: There are now yes. There are also problems. A lot of people today study abroad and when they return remain locked into a Western narrative, meaning that they come back and use what they have been taught without thinking that maybe China’s cultural framework and social experience and structure has something to offer. Perhaps there is a middle way, an interesting combination of “West” and “China” rather than the dominance of one over the other, which has been the case for so long. Of course, one or two young people are beginning to achieve that, such as the curator He Yining who has a lot to offer. We can say you live in an international world, but China to me is still not international. The fact that you have Starbucks or Uniqlo doesn’t mean that the culture is international, because international is a mindset and the way you live in daily life. It’s not the shops on the high streets.
It’s a process until people have more time to get exposed and more opportunity. There are more Chinese people travelling than ever before but still the vast majority go in groups, which is how most Americans travelled to Europe in the 1970s-80s. Being in a group keeps you locked in your own language environment, so you’re not hearing what local people are saying, you don’t get to hear other people’s opinions or worldviews.
M.C.: Which publications would you recommend to those interested in Chinese photography?
K.S.: I haven’t looked at any recently but I know that Hai Jie wrote one in Chinese that is a good overview [Hai, Jie. Living in screens: a dimension of Chinese contemporary photography since 2000. Beijing: Zhongguo minzu sheying yishu chubanshe, 2016.].
M.C.: Any highlight from a photo festival in China in 2017?
K.S.: I’m really curious about this idea of a festival because this concept is very international, so in that sense it sets a benchmark for what kind of photography should be shown in a festival.
You asked me about trends. One obvious one is the adoption of a very generic type of snapshot as an inferred statement about a topic or subject that is by no means clear. Too much of this is simply (and superficial) image making, relying upon random association that by implication something mysterious or deep is suggested. For the most part, I don’t feel that this is what is achieved. It is to photography what in art can now be described as an international biennial type of art. It has all the components of what appears to be contemporary art, or in this case, contemporary photography, but it lacks the essential concept or impulse that would make it not just really contemporary, but a valid personal statement.
M.C.: What’s next for you?
K.S.: I’m very busy setting up several exhibitions, especially next year OCAT Xi’an celebrates its fifth anniversary and we’re planning some big events. I hope also that next year I will have the time to work on a book again.