Since May 2018, the British Dr Simon Baker has been appointed as the new Director of La Maison européenne de la photographie (MEP) in Paris. Simon Baker was the previous curator of Photography and International Art at Tate. Prior to becoming Tate's first curator of photography, he was Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Nottingham, where he taught history of photography, surrealism and contemporary art. At Tate he was responsible for the permanent collection, developing an acquisition strategy, and organising exhibitions. He has worked exhibitions such as Don McCullin (2019) “Shape of Light” (2018) « Performing for the camera » (2016), « Nick Waplington / Alexander McQueen: Working Progress » (2015), « Conflict, Time, Photography » (2014), « William Klein + Daido Moriyama » (2012), « Taryn Simon, A living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters » (2011).
For the future artistic programme, from 2019 onwards, the MEP is designating two distinct areas for their exhibitions. The upper levels of the MEP (+2 and +3) will host mid or large-scale exhibitions presenting the work of established artists, while the Studio, on level +1 (formerly the Salle Henault de Cantobre) is imagined as a gallery with a more regularly rotating programme (presenting a new exhibition every six weeks), offering emerging artists a solo show in an institutional setting for the first time.
True to their commitment to showcase international emerging talents, the MEP has recently presented “The Bliss of Conformity”, a series by the Chinese artist Guo Yingguang combining photography, video, installation and book, which explores arranged marriages in China and the emotionally distant coexistence between arranged couples from both abstract and concrete viewpoints. On this occasion, Simon Baker kindly answered our questions.
Marine Cabos-Brullé: How did you come to know the photographic landscape in China?
Simon Baker: Like many people outside of China, the first awareness was through publishing, seeing photobooks by Chinese artists. Also when I worked at Tate I worked on the acquisition of Martin Parr’s book collection; which included a big collection of Chinese photobooks, both historic and contemporary. Like almost all of my research, I feel it all comes, in one way or another from the photobook world. This is something that is very fluid and moves, you easily find great Chinese books in Tokyo, in London or in Paris.
I also visited China itself a few years ago for the first time. I was invited by Rong Rong to go to the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre [三影堂摄影艺术中心] in Beijing. Since then I’ve been always in touch with him, and always followed what he does, collecting the books he publishes. The last time I was in Japan I also spent time with Rong Rong and Inri in Kyoto [Discover their works here], and I really appreciate what they do; the Three Shadows Photography Award, for example, and it’s a very important contact for me.
I was on the jury of their prize a few years ago with Thomas Ruff and Mika Ninagawa - a really amazing jury, it was a very meaningful experience to be in Beijing with them, and with the people they’ve managed to bring to China and [I was amazed by] the level of work they put forward in both their exhibition and publishing programmes. I saw the archive of Luo Bonian there, from which I was able to include works in an exhibition at Tate. Rong Rong is doing amazing work. Also since then I went to the Photofair in Shanghai, and the really incredible thing is the audience, there were about 10.000 people a day for three or four days. What you could say is that the appetite for photography in China is huge, the interest in huge, the success of the Photofair confirms that in its public appeal. It is something very interesting and exciting to see outside of the sort of Western focussed gallery system.
Then in Paris you have people who have a strong connection and interest in photography in China. But I really regard myself as knowing very little. I don’t speak Chinese, I haven’t been to many parts of China so my interest in it is similar to my interest in Japanese photography, which as an outsider with interest and curiosity, who is very aware of his limits in language and in cultural context.
M.C.B.: What are the chief characteristics of young Chinese photographers?
S.B.: As there are 1.5 billion Chinese people it would be very foolish to generalize. Let’s say the Chinese photographers that have attracted attention and that gained success outside China are often those artists who have questions of identity, those who made works about youth culture, sexual identity, gender politics and broader social issues through a kind of performative approach. In the case of Guo Yingguang, one of her key influences was Sophie Calle. I think it’s not accidental that she is interested in performance and radical, or avant-garde attitudes to the performance of identity and sexuality.
This is really fascinating because maybe what it tells us is that something that is very obvious in art schools outside China. Photography has stopped being something which is a ghetto, or club, for technicians, instead it’s started to become something which is of enormous power to people who are interested in its margins. Sophie Calle is not a photographer but she uses photography in a very powerful way. She loved Guo Yingguang’s show in Arles [in 2018]. We went together, and afterwards arranged for them to meet. I think there is something about the radical part of what Sophie Calle does that you can see in Yingguang’s work. If they have anything in common, it would be the ability to use photography and performance to make quite simple but nevertheless powerful points of our identity, and the performance of identity.
When doing press for our Ren Hang exhibition I found myself talking about Boris Mikhailov for actually the same reason: Boris Mikhailov was a photographer who began his career under a totalitarian regime, and his attitude to performance was created in relationship to these questions of good behaviour and bad behaviour in his context. [Similarly] Yingguang didn’t conform to so-called ‘good behaviour’, standing in the marriage park in Shanghai, where people seeking a partner are not supposed to stand in the park themselves, they’re supposed to leave a sign, supposed not to be there. I found it fascinating in Yingguang’s video when you have these guys saying “but you’re not supposed to be here”, as if her presence is a huge threat to the smooth running of this process.
Ren Hang’s use of parks is also interesting, in that everybody’s naked in the middle of the night. The question which Boris Mikhailov articulates very well is that of good behaviour and the performance of social expectations in a context where one is expected to behave in certain way. Then all kinds of non-behaviour, alternate behaviour become political in a symbolic way. Maybe one of the things that appeals to a non-Chinese audience about Ren Hang is that he conforms to something that we would like to believe of our peers in China - that they don’t behave. Ren Hang said something along the lines of “all I want to do is to show that Chinese people are not robots, that they’ve got dicks and pussies”, challenging the perception outside China of it being a very uniform and conformist society where everyone is studying hard, behaving, succeeding by fitting in.
But maybe what I’m saying could also be a romantic wish of Western curators and experts when we look towards photography in China. We obviously identify with the misbehaving Chinese artists because it conforms to something that we wish to be true about China. I’m not sure that that's not also the case.
M.C.B.: Will works exhibited at the Studio be part of the MEP’s permanent collection?
S.B.: We don’t ask the artists of the Studio to donate to us, actually we pay them for their collaboration and we support the production of the work. The MEP has a principle that production costs towards shows are returned in some way when possible through donation, but for the Studio the amounts are relatively modest so we’re not asking artists at the beginning of their careers who have probably not great financial independence. But at the MEP we feel, I feel, that if the city of Paris supports the production of artworks, then it shouldn’t in this way also end up financing a commercial gallery’s production costs for sales. So we’re trying to make agreements with artists who have major representation for some kind of donation. However, with the artists in the Studio, we’re trying to help them. With do have a limited edition of prints with artists exhibiting at the Studio, which we sell at the shop. The artist receives 20 of the edition of 100 which we sell for 100€, but they can sell them for however much they like; we prefer that they decide for themselves.
We’re also very keen and firm on paying the artists who exhibit in the Studio. There have been questions raised recently in the media about whether the artists are paid in various different festivals or fairs. Our attitude is that emerging artists, people who don’t earn a lot of money from their practice, should be supported by their exhibitions. Although we can’t afford to pay them a lot, we do pay them.
M.C.B.: What role plays photobooks in understanding photographic practices?
S.B.: Everything, for me photobooks fairs and events like Offprint, Polycopies or Cosmos-Arles are about as global as you can get. They (photobooks) totally circumvent the gallery system, you get to see something which has been thought through, which received support from somebody to some degree, a sort of editorial peer-reviewing as it’s called in academia. It’s the best way I think, to properly understand the intelligence or the voice of photographers. If you see a few images online, a few pictures at a fair at a booth of a gallery, it’s very hard to reconstitute anything about the position of the person who’s made it. When you see a book, even if it’s very modest such as self-published book, you understand the sequencing, the context, and if there is a text you can read it. The first great attempt to explain photography was a photobook: “The Pencil of Nature” [compiled by the British William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844-46]. To me it never stops being true.
You can go to a book fair, buy books from all over the world, and go back home with something from Mexico, from Ukraine, from China, from Brazil. It’s super efficient as a way of doing research, way more efficient - if you think about it - than going to an art fair. Because what an art fair tells you is who can afford to be there. But a book fair is a different thing, the sales thing is more of a level playing field, it’s a bit more democratic.
The photobook market is like an art market but without money, because you don’t need as much money to make a book as you do to open a gallery, you don’t need to invest as much, and the return comes back in a different way. Most publishers don’t make money a lot of out of making books, but they’re very passionate about it. Whereas the same is not always true for people selling art, although many people running galleries are equally passionate about it, it’s a more commercial activity. Publishing is a more romantic activity [laugh]. Well, I’m sure you can have romantic gallerists and a non-romantic publishers too....
In the last few years, the huge growth of book fairs and publishing has been very nice to see. When I was at Tate I invited Offprint to be at Tate Modern. One of the most rewarding things, as my former boss Frances Morris used to say, is that: “it’s the weekend when the general public is talking to artists directly about their work.” For three days, without paying, you go to the table, and for instance you go to La Maison de Z and there’s Zhen Shi who might tell you about one of her artists’ books, but she also might show you her own work. It’s an unfiltered one-to-one, unmediated exposure to artists telling your about the work, passionate about it, and by the end you pay like 30€ to buy something. You pay for the experience, the book is a bonus [laugh].
M.C.B.: How useful can be digital techniques for experiencing a traditionally printed medium?
S.B.: It’s hard to generalize, but it could be very interesting. We have just done a virtual project for Yingguang in the MEP, which I think works very well but I think it’s early days. When artists are genuinely involved and invested in this kind of material and process, it makes a lot of sense and it’s extremely rewarding. When it’s something added on afterwards it’s harder, you wouldn’t want to fetishize technology for the sake of experience over content.
We had an augmented reality project in Offprint in London of Lucas Blalock, who did a fascinating installation. People really loved it and enjoyed it, it worked really well. It was a big installation with his images, as you were there you had your phone rang or picture moved or became 3D, that was very cool. There is definitively space for that. For museums you just have to be wary of the gimmick added on to the genuine natural version.
M.C.B.: Do you miss teaching?
S.B.: No at all, but I did teach for quite a long time. I taught for 8 years and I really enjoyed it. I loved teaching, I loved my students, I had really great students, some of them are still in touch with me. But teaching probably has diminishing returns in the sense that when you do it and you’re young you are very enthusiastic, and full of energy. The repetitive part of teaching could become incredibly draining after a long career, but I never got that far. I would say from the point of view of the English system where I taught, it became less enjoyable because of the burden of administration and of fundraising, which changed a lot. It went from a sort of cottage industry to a corporate industry in the time when I was there.
But I still think there are teaching jobs in the world, such as being a tenured professor in an Ivy League university in America, which are truly some of the best jobs you can possibly have; you have the most amazing students, the most amazing resources. I was at Princeton for one year, and I think people like Hal Foster have a great life and do a great job, they are inspiring and their students respond to them.
M.C.B.: Which countries would you like to work with in the future?
S.B.: We’re about to have a big season of the Maison marocaine de la photographie, which will be the new name for the MEP for a few months. We have great ambitions to work with partners in Brazil. The main thing with the MEP is to find partnership with institutions we can genuinely work with. We have an institution partner in Shanghai, the SCoP [Shanghai Centre of Photography, 上海摄影艺术中心]. We signed a sort of memorandum with them so we hope to work with them a lot more. I am also very keen to work with Rong Rong [and the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre]. I think working with these two partners in China will be great for us, more to bring their expertise here, I’m not interested in exporting my point of view to China. We need to have a reciprocal relationship.
We would like also to work with partners we haven’t heard of yet. There are many ways to find partners as an institution. Rather than thinking of a country, you have to find people around the world who are thinking in the same way, who have similar shared goals and ambitions. I think my friend Thyago Nogueira at Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo is really amazing guy, he is very special, very intelligent, his recommendations mean a lot to me. If we find a way to work together it will be because we share common points of view, and he also likes karaoke so that’s good [laugh].
More information: www.mep-fr.org