Bit of an interview

Last May, Karen Smith has given an interview for the official Beijing 2008 Olympic Games' TV Channel, on a talkshow called 'China Through My Eyes', who invites foreigners to talk about the city of Beijing and the Chinese country. This is an excerpt of it:

You have organized exhibitions for many contemporary Chinese artists since you came to Beijing, for example, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaodong. So how many exhibitions have you organized?
More than ten, but not all by myself. In the early 90s, I was more a coordinator than a curator. Most of my work was just to introduce artists to galleries. I started to work on my own around 1998, organizing exhibition tours around art galleries in northern cities of the UK.

Exhibition tours about contemporary Chinese art?
Yes. But back then most of the artists were figure painters or figure photographers.

Early this year, you were listed as one of the earliest "Foreign Pushing Hands" for contemporary Chinese art by Chinese print media. Do you know what "pushing hand" means? It means you've helped Chinese artists become more international -- you've paved their way to the world. So how do you see this title?
I'm really honored. I guess that's maybe because in the days when I first came to China, few people in western countries were interested in Chinese art. Today, we see a lot of young westerners here investigating the contemporary art of China, but back in the old days, there were only a few of us. And to make matters worse, most went back home in the early 90s. I'm among those who have stayed here the longest.

Since there are "foreign pushing hands," there must also be "Chinese pushing hands." How many Chinese are doing similar work as you?
I think there must be quite a few. As far as I know, Gao Minglu, Fei Dawei, and many others have been doing this since the 80s. And today, people like Huang Zhuan have also done a lot of work. Their research, papers, and exhibitions are very important.

Contemporary Chinese art is more and more recognized around the world, and more and more people are starting to notice Chinese artists and their work. Do you remember the situation when you first came to China?
The reason why people tend to keep their distances from "contemporary" or "avant-garde" art is that they never had the chance to understand it. Unknown things always cause insecure or uneasy feelings. Just like if you don't know a person, you may have some imaginary doubts about that person. But after you get closer to him or her, you may find that he or she is not as weird as you thought. Contemporary art is the same. Since the 80s, many Chinese artists have started to study art, and have tried to discover new ways of expressing themselves, their culture, or Chinese art as a whole. Chinese avant-garde art started to take on a fresh new look in the 90s, especially after China's WTO accession. A lot of new media, including websites and magazines, began to introduce art, and people here began to understand that art is an important part of their daily lives.

Did you feel alone when you first came here?
I was not alone, actually. I had partners. But back then, the only visitors to our exhibitions were professionals. Ordinary people or outsiders seldom had the interest or opportunity. But today, we have more and more outside visitors. That's good.

What changes have occurred in the Chinese art circle since you came to China?
Individuals are much stronger today. In the early years, conversations about art were mostly restricted within the art circle, since artists knew outsiders would not be interested in what they were doing. But today, the "groups" have broken up into "individuals," and individual development and positioning has turned out to be very successful. It's very different from the situation in the 90s. There are more and more famous artists today.

How about your work? Is there any difference?
There are many differences, actually. In 1998, when I started to arrange exhibitions all by myself, as I mentioned just now, presenting an exhibition in a foreign country was a very rare and precious opportunity for a Chinese artist. But today, they have more and more opportunities to present exhibitions both in China and in foreign countries. Meanwhile, the quality of the work is better and better, too. More foreign galleries also have come to China. They are very attractive to the artists here, by the way. Besides, the artists have more choices now. They have different themes and come up with different works of art all the time.

So every new exhibition will be a new challenge for you -- to meet new people and learn about new ideas.
Yes, totally. The projects have become bigger and bigger and more and more complicated and professional, since each artist has to think about his own personal development.

Actually, "art curator" is a new phrase for most of us. Only several years ago, we had no idea what art curators did. But today, as avant-garde art becomes more and more popular, people have started to turn their eyes to the organizers of the exhibitions. More and more "famous art curators" are appearing in China. Could you say something about your daily work?
As an art curator, you have to have a good sense of art. For example, since my field is contemporary Chinese art, I have to know what everybody is doing here, and which works are good or bad. Art curators are not as free as some artists or other people may think. Each gallery has its own orientation, you know. And we have to think about this and decide whether it is necessary to cooperate with them. For example, commercial galleries may want something that they can sell, instead of things just for exhibition.
Before I start working, I have to know what the artist has been doing recently and what theme would be the best for his exhibition. Instead of looking around their studios, I prefer to talk with them in person and to learn about their recent concerns, so as to see what kind of new works I can extract from their ideas and how to express them in the exhibitions. [...]


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