During a busy Art HK week in late May, amid the myriad exhibition openings and talk events, long-time Beijing-based critic and writer, Karen Smith, was in Hong Kong to launch her latest book, As Seen 2011: Notable Artwork by Chinese Artists, just published by the Commercial Press. We met in a cavernous backroom at the Kee Club, to talk about how the book—a collection of 40 individual exhibition reviews of shows held through 2011, in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou—came about, and on shifts in the Chinese art scene.
The month-by-month format of As Seen 2011 does not try to update the monolithic narrative of “Chinese contemporary art.” However, through the exhibitions selected, and Smith’s reading of the works, one senses a pervading search for a relevant, critical “newness” that is aware both of its position in a globalized world—and marketplace—and connection to recent art, and history, in China. The selection reflects a diversity of media and experience, from stalwarts such as painter Ding Yi, textile installation artist Lin Tianmiao, and multimedia pioneers such as Zhang Peili, Wang Jianwei Zhang Dali and Song Dong, to artists born from the late-1970s to mid-1980s, now attracting attention—including Gao Weigang, He Xiangyu, Ma Qiusha, Li Ran, Yu Ji and others.
How does the Beijing art world see itself, and how has this changed in the last 5 or so years?
[KS] I think that they are becoming increasingly confident about occupying a rather important place inside the art world, perhaps it’s possible to say that Chinese artists feel now that they really have joined the world. For a long time in the 1990s there was a slightly uncomfortable way of viewing how people from outside were engaging with Chinese artists, and particularly the type of art that got selected to go abroad and be representative of “Chinese art.” In the 1990s, there weren’t that many publications in China that were able to discuss the art in its own context. That’s changed a lot, there’s a huge range of publications now, and they are increasingly sophisticated. These become very important platforms I think.
Now Chinese young artists speak and read fairly good English. Artists in the 1980s and 90s didn’t have the same command of English, and it was a bit of a struggle [for them] to try and gauge exactly how to communicate with people, and also to understand first-hand how art was being appraised outside of China—and of course, in the 1990s that was important because there were limited opportunities for showing art within China. That all changed in the early 2000s, since . . . Well, it does come down to China joining the WTO in a certain way, because there are conditions that go along with that: the sort of transparency your law has to have, the things your society has to be supporting in order to come online with the international world. So culture has become something the government supports, albeit in slightly odd ways at times, that are perhaps not comparable with ways in the West.
There is a kind of a optimism amongst artists in china that they are seeing at least the growth of gallery areas where art can be shown fairly freely, and the rise of some very strong galleries in China, able to operate at an international level.
Then of course you’ve got collectors, for whatever reasons they get interested in the art—it might be an entrée into society to begin with, but there are people spending an awful lot of money on art, and it is an indication of a passion. I think one of the reasons why it often appears to be a little more investment-driven than it is, is because it’s very hard for a lot of ordinary people to get information about art. Which is why I hope things like this book will be important. There are a lot of catalogues that get produced, but if they’re produced by museums they tend to be a little too academic; if their produced by galleries they tend to be seen to be, you know—how do you objectively gauge a book that’s produced by a gallery? Of course it’s going to be selling the work to the public. So that’s why magazines have become more important. Then, of course, there are magazines that are sort of the “fluff” type, which support the galleries that advertise in them. But it’s a very exciting period, because all of these things, they still follow Deng’s famous phrase [praising experimentalism], “groping stones to cross the river”—bit like the blind feeling the way. But at a certain point that is necessary, because of the experience—the lessons learned are important.For the book, you’ve selected a number of artists who you describe as exceptional, both familiar names and very young, emerging artists. What is your criteria? Do they share materials or themes, or is the scene too diverse now?
I’m always being asked “Who are the ten most important artists?” [In China] they rank artists according to who has the highest auction sales. China’s very fixated, in a way, on ranking people according to things which we sometimes think are completely outside of art. So when I began this it was really a little bit tongue-in-cheek, saying, “OK, this is the best-of.” But I didn’t necessarily want to do a “Best of.” You might find these kinds of reviews in the New York Times or London Times; it’s aimed at a broader audience, and not necessarily an art audience—it’s an intelligent and interested audience.
Well, when I left England in the 1980s, I used to go to museums a lot because I was an art student, that’s where I spent most of my time; and I would very often be the only person in there. If you go back now—I was just in London, and the Damian Hirst show is on at the Tate, and on a Friday evening at six o’clock, there’s probably about 500 people queuing to get in. I also went to see Lucien Freud, something completely different, and more traditional, and it was just wall-to-wall [with people], which is difficult with [small] drawings. So that radical change has happened in England within the last 20 years, and I imagine that is what’s starting to happen in China.
When I arrived, the art world was very much about putting on shows for other artists; that’s already changed. Many of the shows that are put on are still maybe for young people, art students—if you go to 798 it’s crowded with young people—but of course you are getting a more interesting, middle class audience.
But again, how do you break out of art magazines for art people and try to get some information into a wider public sphere That’s perhaps where Time Out and listings magazine have been useful in China—Time Out was the first to launch in the Chinese language, it wasn’t just for expats . . . Since they’ve got the Grand Theatre in Beijing and theaters all over China, now you’ve got this nation-wide “ticket.com” [website], and that is doing a tremendous job of letting people know what is going on in the performing arts. And I think it’s only a matter of time before you start to get far more of that information [out]. A lot of art magazines in China have quite strong websites, and the way people send information around, like Weibo—that’s a tremendous source of information. But it takes time.
The other thing you have to remember of course is that, we’re talking about contemporary art, and we talk about it today as though it’s something that people should be interested in but there’s no reason why someone should be interested in it. It might be perfectly reasonable for somebody else to be interested in golf, or playing darts or something. I think we just have to find a way of rationalizing it.
How did the book come about? Were you approached?
No, I’ve been working on a book about history, only about the 90’s. I’d gotten to the point where I was a bit bogged down in it. Last year, partly because I was working on the history book and because I was worried that all these events were taking place and I would forget about them, I took lots of photographs as visual notes for myself. So I was looking through a year of images from exhibitions and I just thought, “There are so many great works that were shown last year and I haven’t had the chance to write about them.” I asked a publisher friend, “Would you be interested in doing this?” and they said yes. It was literally decided and started in the beginning of January, and we’re now in May—and here we are. That’s the fantastic thing about China though, you can do that.
Yeah, I guess it is. And I guess that’s why I chose to focus on the individual works because somehow wanting to marshal things into trends and categories seems to me a bit like herding cats. Certainly, that’s been my biggest impression, working on this history of the nineties; we’re so fixed in our habits, how we want to make everything neat and straightforward. China of the 90s wasn’t like that, and it refuses to conform to all those neat things. Even when we look back to things like Cynical Realism, Fang Lijun is considered a major representative, but looking back on some of his works, that real cynical [aspect] passed very quickly. People like Wang Jinsong and Song Yonghong passed quite quickly into other things. If you really look at the work there’s quite a different nuance that emerges in all of them and they go in different directions. Liu Wei went in a completely different direction, Yang Xiaobin did too. Then you can say Yue Minjun was the only one who continued, with that laughing motif.
And if anything some of those motifs were held up by the market, really.
Sure, and I think the way that Yue Minjin did it—because, he spent a lot of the late 1990’s sort of copying Western artworks—again, was not a cynical realism about what was happening in China, in the way that Song Yonghong or Wang Jinsong had begun, with looking at real situations in China. It [Yue Minjun’s work] was much more about where the art sat vis-à-vis international art and international attitudes. I think there’s always that momentary thrill when something appears to be emerging, but it certainly seems to disappear, or evaporate a bit. So it’s a good time for a reappraisal in a way, where maybe you can just discuss artists’ careers and see how that’s shaping visions of China.
Going back to this question of standards, of what makes something, or somebody, famous, important, or enduring. There’s a sense of self-importance in China now; the country recognizes its own successes, and this is played out in nouveau-riche circles for example—wine, cigars and all those accoutrements—and many artists are a part of that too. I wonder, what do standards mean if we’re going to talk about China in a global context? Is it really a dialogue or conversation, or is there now a dynamic that is self-sustaining, that might actually mean very little beyond Beijing, beyond China?
That is a very interesting question. We launched the book in Chinese first, and immediately people were saying to me, “How come so-and-so is not in here? They had a big show!” But the point is that sometimes this idea is, as you said, not exactly a dialogue at the moment. There are very different tastes, for one thing, and that’s natural . . . I always have to say that I’m trying to look for something that’s a bit innovative. So sometimes the things might be a bit quirky, but I just think that they represent a diversity that’s potentially there if people want to see it. Of course, the market and the view in China, all tend to focus on certain things—normally the painting, the products, which will be the things that perhaps people feel they can hold on to, or they can “flip” if necessary. But, having said that, it’s a mentality which at a certain point I can understand, because the prices for some work are just really beyond belief.
Now you have artists who have never had a show overseas, never had that critical level of scrutiny, and yet are commanding almost mid-career prices because of the “heat” at home in China.
I think that is particularly difficult because the other thing is that you might have an artist like Jia Aili, who was born in 1978-79, and he’s had one or two solo shows that have been tremendously influential, and other people have absorbed his influence rapidly. Also, because he’s then been quite careful not to repeat himself, very caught up in how to move forwards in a good way, it’s allowed a lot of younger people who are, perhaps, just genuinely enthralled by his work, to paint in a rather too similar style and suddenly it’s everywhere. I think in the last six months I’ve seen a number of exhibitions where you do a kind of double-take. Wang Xingwei is another one who’s incredibly influential. So you see whole kind of schools of younger artists following those two stars, to the point where it’s really quite difficult to tell the difference. I think at a certain point, some of the smaller galleries might actually trade on that similarity.
I’m glad that you see that because I see it a lot and it’s kind of frustrating sometimes when you see curators coming in from abroad, or even galleries, who find a young artist, and they [the curators and galleries] can’t help but be unaware of the older artists. And then, somehow, they feel that this younger person is a “genius” and collectors overseas will speak to them, and if I happen to meet them they’ll say to me, “You must know so-and-so” and if I say “No I don’t,” “but they’re so important!” and there’s this sense that “I thought you were the expert?” But, I always say I’m only looking at the people who are trying to move our art history forward, rather than just the ones who are staying on a certain level. I think that’s the thing that’s not yet very clear in China, there’s no distinction between the sort of “Sunday painter” category right through to the people who really are fairly avant-garde, they’re all put on the same level at a certain point.
Is China going to do the “twentieth century 2.0”? What will innovation mean?
I don’t believe that Chinese artists “copy” the West in a sort of simplistic, reductive sense. I do think that there are a lot of influences that are absorbed. China somehow struggles with innovation. Britain, for example, likes to brand itself on being innovative—and it’s very hard to describe exactly what that is. But I don’t think that spirit exists in the same way in China. I don’t know whether it’s to do with this idea of being afraid of the craft aspects of things, being afraid of the actual hard work aspects of things, that there’s this almost literati sense that one lives in the world of cerebral ideas, and that can be enough, without actually having to do something, you get other people to do it. It’s an odd thing.
Now there are so many younger artists, all trying to work out how to move forward—without saying that China has to follow the Western museum route. It’s very difficult, if you are a young artist, to work out how you want to move forward and what’s going to be your career path. How do you get yourself in front of a gallery, how do you get new ideas, your own ideas?