It is only time that tells the true value of art: Interview with Ms. Karen Smith

TIME: 2020.4.17

Ms. Karen Smith, a British art critic and curator who has been settled in China since the 1990s, is one of the earliest group of Westerners to chronicle contemporary Chinese art, discover and promote contemporary Chinese artists and their creations to the world. From an independent and objective perspective, she presents her rigorous understanding and research on developments of contemporary Chinese art at various stages. From Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China to As Seen series, she has been working and thinking hard. Meanwhile, Ms. Karen Smith has also worked as the Executive Director of OCAT Xi’an and Chief Curator of Shanghai Center of Photography(SCôP). The sudden impact of COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of 2020 has suddenly made everyone “slow down.” Taking this opportunity, CAFA ART INFO has conducted a special interview with Ms. Karen Smith to talk about her epiphany and inspiration for the time being from her experience.

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Interviewee: Ms. Karen Smith | Interviewer & Editor: Sue Wang  

Interview Date: March 17, 2020

CAFA ART INFO: You have been the Executive Director of OCAT Xi’an since August 2012 and 2020 is the eighth year that you have worked there. Thanks to your endeavors, more contemporary art exhibitions can now get involved in the traditional cultural environment of Xi’an. What do you think is your biggest achievement during your time there? Do you have any regrets?

Ms. Karen Smith: What was achieved was to put Xi’an on the map for contemporary art. There is still a long way to go to make that a sustainable fact. The community in Xi’an is small – most artists with ambition and the means to support themselves would leave Xi’an to settle in Beijing, Shanghai, even Shenzhen. They feel they need to do this to develop their career because there is not enough interaction with artists, curators, institutions and collectors in their daily lives. There are few opportunities to see exhibitions.

From 2013 to 2018, OCAT Xi’an created a focal point, a nucleus around which other spaces could take shape. During those years in Xi’an, we have seen a number of project spaces, and independent exhibitions, salons, and collecting activity gain momentum. Our exhibitions, as well as the discussions that were generated around them, provided an affirmation of the value of contemporary art, and of that value being shared by a serious community. Evidenced of this community was demonstrated by the number of visitors we welcomed to Xi’an from institutions, galleries, and as individual artists, curators and scholars from across China and overseas during these years. That was very important for OCAT Xi’an’s success.

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  OCAT Xian Fifth anniversary exhibition talk

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OCAT Xian Fifth anniversary exhibition performance

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OCAT Xi'an team at fifth anniversary

Mainly, what I regret is that we had to pause so suddenly in the spring of 2019, when we lost the building that had been home to OCAT Xi’an since it started. We had one or two projects that had to be cancelled entirely which was a shame. But there will be other opportunities in future I’m sure. And we have one coming up this year – if all goes well in the world’s recovery from the Coronavirus.

I also hoped to do more to see some of Xi’an’s artists and curators have opportunities to be seen outside of Xi’an. We achieve this in part – helping curators Wang Mengmeng and Yang Xi to have exhibitions in other cities, like Shenzhen and Anren. I feel we were less successful in helping the artists.

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OCAT Xian exhibition Secrets, curator Wang Mengmeng

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OCAT Xian exhibition poster (curated by Yang Xi)

CAFA ART INFO: Since 1998, you have become an independent curator and one of the earliest international curators of contemporary art who has been active in China. Based on your experience, how do you identify the artistic value, collection value and market value of contemporary art creations?

Ms. Karen Smith: Nineteen-ninety-eight seems a world away from today. In many ways it is – materially, economically, socially, and in terms of the culture available to the public in China, or of the world that could be accessed via the internet, which in 1998 was still a new phenomenon in China.

What seemed most important to me then, as a foreign national living in Beijing was finding the means to present, to have, a better discussion about what was happening in art in China. What did this mean? At that time there were limited publications, and those that existed operated under a limited framework for expression. There was, as a result, a lot of theory but less discussion about the art itself. For a long time, this created a habit among critics of not really engaging with artists or looking at their studios, their works, but being content to work only with theory. This early generation of critics and exhibition organisers did not yet speak very much English, which meant that they had limited opportunities to engage in international dialogue. Mostly, it meant that a lot of the most dynamic qualities of the art scene in China, the impulses, narratives and “context” within which art was created, was not quite appreciated. That has changed greatly today with the emergence of a younger and much more global group of writers, critics and curators.

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I did not set out to be an independent curator in 1998, nor to assume any other title in particular, but I was determined to find ways to open up the channel for discussion and understanding. This impulse underscores most of the things I did from 1998 through to 2012 when I joined OCAT officially to launch OCAT Xi’an.

In the earlier 1990s, I had also spent endless amounts of time writing and preparing exhibitions proposals and writing about exhibitions in China for art magazines abroad. Few exhibition projects came to fruition. It was also hard to get published abroad as there was so little context in which to understand the review of an exhibition in China. So you would be asked to do artist profiles, which was fine, but usually of artists who were “dissident” in some way. I resisted that because it was a wholly “foreign” way of looking at what was going on in China.

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Yang Fudong at OCAT Xian 2017

After 2012, the impulse to find form for China’s contemporary art within its own context is encapsulated in the work we did in Xi’an from exhibitions, to talks to performance events and film/video screenings. You could say that this path has been entirely about finding ways to identify and present artistic value in the work of Chinese artists. In this sense, I spend most of my time looking at artistic value. Everything else is secondary to that.

I see artistic value as being the ways in which an artist is able to capture the pulse of the times, and where the artist does that by means that expand what was previously understood to be art, or artistic practice. An important point here is that the critic, curator, even the viewer, doesn’t have to like an artwork to be able to see and respect what the artist has achieved. [“like” today seems to be much more of a value judgement about whether an artwork fits with the décor of a home, or the owner’s lifestyle than the artistic value of the piece.] In fact, some of the most extraordinary and influential artworks are not close to being beautiful. We might even describe some as ugly; as the opposite of the art you might feel comfortable living with. But that is rather the point – the true artist here is not interested in trying to impress you, certainly not worried if you don’t like their art. They just need to do it, express it. Such works have a magnitude that extends beyond the moment and place in which they were made. That is what is so compelling about art, and engaging with the minds’ of artists who live in the same world you inhabit, more or less, but see it in such different ways.

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OCAT Xian exhibition poster

Beyond this, I don’t know how to answer the question about collection value and market value. I know what I would collect if I could. That is based on what I see as being those brilliant works that capture the pulse of the times, and really say something about the artist, the moment and art in one extraordinary piece.

I also know what I would collect if I were building a collection for a museum or institution. Each museum, institution, and individual must set their own agenda with a collection. That is essential for making the right choices at the right time so that the collection maintains its historic importance over time, no matter who is making those collecting decisions. There are always objective criteria that are defined for making choices in these situations.

But I think your question refers more to the very recent phenomenon of individual collector activities which drive “the art market”. Value here is far more nuanced – determined in the margins between the history of a gallery, what can be measured as a commitment to the artists they serve, and the marketing skills of the people who are tasked with selling the art – or the gallery that they work for.

I have never had much money so to me almost all art seems expensive “now” – although in hindsight it always seems as if it ought to have been affordable “then”. But in terms of how China’s art market sits vis-à-vis the first world, I have often heard it said that China had a long way to go to catch up with the pricing levels of leading western artists. That may be true, but at the same time, I know a number of artists in the UK, in Europe, today, right now, who are impressive in their dedication to their work, the materials, the craft, the concept, but whose work cannot command anything like the prices that most recent graduates of China’s academies expect as their right. I find a lot of this type of work being produced – manufactured in China – to be too decorative to have much influence upon the evolution of art in China, or to be of too much value to art history.

I continue to believe that it is only time that tells the true value of art. One of the main problems about that vis-à-vis the way art is valued is that we live in a world in which everything has become “instant”, “immediate”. We have no patience to wait, which clouds judgement about the real value of anything.

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OCAT Xian exhibition poster

CAFA ART INFO: During the Chinese New Year in 2020, the new coronavirus pneumonia suddenly broke out in China and currently it affects some art events and exhibitions in Asia and Europe. Where were you when the outbreak occurred? Has the epidemic affected your life? How does your work progress now?

Ms. Karen Smith: I was in Thailand on holiday. I returned to Shanghai at the beginning of February, immediately after the Chinese New Year, because we never thought that the situation would continue for so long, and there was work to do preparing for exhibitions and events scheduled for this year. I have been here since.

Life has become focused inward. Staying at home to work every day requires a routine or you get lost in time. There is no reason to get up at XX time, or to eat or sleep at XX time… Yet to drift for too long is to lose a sense of direction, of how everything is connected; your perspective becomes distorted. Having said that, at the same time, other things fall into focus that you never really see when you’re busy rushing around – as had been the case in recent years right up to January 2020 when the virus struck. In the last 6 weeks or so, my daily routine has been simple, narrow, rotating around the same few activities every day, and the very few places that it has been possible to be. I have never really had to work a 9-to-5 in an office, but it has been quite strange to find myself feeling so disconnected and disoriented.

Still, work goes well as I am using this opportunity to write a book, or rather to complete work on a book that I have been developing for years now, for which I could never find the right approach, or the right voice. Now in this strange moment of enforced “silence” I seem to have arrived at something in terms of style and content that I feel to be the right voice.

And, other general institutional work continues. We have exhibitions to organise, to reschedule. I have found it useful to have a distance from the previous relentless treadmill of tasks that was the usual day-in-my-life before the virus.

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OCAT Xian exhibition poster

CAFA ART INFO: In the face of sudden epidemic and disasters, have they inspired your thinking? What role do you think art can play?

Ms. Karen Smith: Unfortunately, this is one situation in which art has proven rather impotent. Or has been made to feel unimportant. Art cannot “live” or survive on WeChat alone. But this sense of impotence is also a reflection of the mainstream trend that has evolved in art in recent years – the decorative, the easy-to-live-with type of painting that blends in with the wallpaper after a while. This is where I have enjoyed seeing what artists and photographers have been doing, for example of the OCAT Xi’an WeChat platform with a series titled “What are artists up to?”; and the SCôP WeChat platform series “Home But Not Alone”. There are many other good examples too, which bring art back to human experience.

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OCAT Xi’an WeChat platform series “What are artists up to?”—Guo Haiqiang

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OCAT Xi’an WeChat platform series “What are artists up to?”—He Tianqi and Ren Zhao

CAFA ART INFO: Some pessimistic observers believe that the outbreak of the new coronavirus pneumonia in 2020 will cause a sluggish period in the Chinese art market and exhibitions in the remaining months of 2020. What do you think of this prediction? What measures will OCAT Xi’an take to respond to it?

Ms. Karen Smith: The whole world is experiencing an economic crisis due to the effects of the virus and the people’s attempts to control its spread. Nothing will be unaffected. We just have to follow government guidelines on all things related to this issue, and ensure the health and safety of staff as well as the wider community. Without our health we have nothing so the situation will put life into perspective for a lot of people. We are responding via social media platforms for the time-being.

CAFA ART INFO: As a senior independent art critic, you have published monographs such as As Seen Series. Compared with the artistic environment and the artist group when you wrote the books, what changes do you think have happened in the contemporary art environment and artists in recent years? What has made you feel happy and worried?

Ms. Karen Smith: The biggest change from the time that I started working on the “As Seen” series is that there is today so much more going on. The number of artists has increased rapidly and to the point that it is hard to keep up. But also, the number of galleries and dealers, art fairs and other promotional events – brands working with artists etc – has increased too. The issue is that this increase has been in some ways, arguably very democratic. There is no central narrative, no single way to make art and a whole range of platforms upon which to gain exposure. But the situation is far from perfect.

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As Seen 2 cover

But as we see in society in general, there is a widening gap between the very large, successful, international galleries and the sales of the artists they represent, that dominate art fairs as well as auction sales and, by default, the collections of new collectors, and the more dynamic younger and smaller galleries that function as nurturing spaces and relationships for emerging and younger artists with the opportunities for exposure these galleries provide. Today it is almost impossible to survive as a project space, or a small gallery. Because the economics of the art-market-world, it is now very hard for them to survive. Also, the whole thrust of this world, as controlled by a small number of powerful figures, is having a demonstrable effect on the type of art being seen, being discussed and being collected,. There is no central narrative or trend, but because there is so much busy collectors rely on a handful of trusted agents to provide them with art, because they don’t have the time to do all the research they would like, nor the mental bandwidth to remember every new name and detail of artwork etc. This means that the type of art that gets preserved and that will represent art history for future generations is being impacted, constrained – I hesitate to say “controlled”. Don’t forget that in the past, museums were not buying directly the work of living artists. Certainly not very young artists.

The problem too is that with so many art fairs and gallery events that people are weary of the mundane tasks of presenting and “seeing” art. Via a handful of mega galleries, private museums and big collector money dominates the art scene such that there is almost no room for even the slightest criticality. The one or two art magazines that hold out for their credibility in seeking to preserve the freedom to review what they see as the best exhibitions find themselves losing advertising revenue to publications that offer better support of the advertisers’ activities. We can say that this is natural, the common effect of market forces, but it’s so much more rewarding to receive praise from people who have high standards and judge by what they see rather than as a trade-off for taking fees for advertising. More rewarding still to have a genuine discussion, a channel by which new things can be discovered, new things that are genuinely interesting.

At the same time, there is so much need for sponsorship and support for institutions. Those responsible for running the institutions often end up fearful of speaking truths about the direction they are forced to take, or the shifting attitudes towards the arts that this encourages, for fear of offending patrons and seeing them take their money elsewhere.

You might say, so what? The world never really changes, it’s always been this way to one degree or another. I just find it ironic that today, in comparison to the time in which I discovered art, you can see more, in a far wider variety of places and spaces, and have far greater access to information about art and artists via the internet etc, yet the conversation seems less and less varied, and the general population less engaged beyond the sociability upon which art pivots today. At least, that is how it feels in China, where the art world and its system are still evolving.

CAFA ART INFO: There have been comments and reports that referred to you as the “observer”, “recorder” and “promoter” of contemporary Chinese art. What do you think of these titles? How do you position yourself and decide your direction?

Mr. Karen Smith: I don’t really think about titles – they are something that other people need to pin on you when they can’t quite get what you do. Although I do recognize that here in China, a person is often only as good as the job title they have, so I appreciate this is a serious issue.

At the same time, I really never thought about it. I have been fortunate to be able to follow a sequence of opportunities that came to me, often one as the result of another. I never had a plan for my life, a clear goal and benchmarks to achieving it. You can say mine has been a slightly irresponsible attitude towards life, but it was always possible to say to myself, that seems interesting, why not give it a try, see where that takes me.

But of course there is an underlying pathway I was definitely pursuing. As I said at the beginning, I have always been only interested in seeing great artists find their way into good career tracks and for more people to be able to discover for themselves what is great about the best art being made in China today, and from yesterday. I like writing; I am never happier than when curating and installing an exhibition for and with an artist. I prefer to work behind the scenes rather than in a spotlight; to be an observer rather than an actor. But I do like to make things happen – like OCAT Xi’an, and like exhibitions abroad (I did one in Istanbul in March 2019 which was a real pleasure to do. To show something of China to an audience that was expecting something else entirely, but were surprised to find they liked what they saw even more.) Titles can’t give you this. They are a starting point perhaps; that make people willing to give you five minutes of their time to say something and win their interest and support.

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 2019 Out of Ink, Pera Museum, curated by Ms. Karen Smith, opening

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2019 Out of Ink, Pera Museum, curated by Ms. Karen Smith, installation

I do feel privileged to have reached a position which allows me to choose what I do. I don’t like to repeat – be that exhibition styles, content, themes, or approaches to writing. As Seen was a special project that worked in a particular moment (the idea being to record the best or what I was seeing of art by Chinese artists in exhibitions in public spaces be that gallery or museum, in China within 18 month of time). But that moment passed – because I could no longer truly see 90% of the exhibitions taking place. So who was I then to say honestly “the best of works on public display”?

CAFA ART INFO: What are you most looking forward to seeing in upcoming art activities in 2020? Why? What new ideas and work plans can you share with us?

Ms. Karen Smith: Only my hope that the virus subsides and life gets back to normal. And that I am able to successfully complete work on my book. That’s been long overdue.

Also, we have a sound installation project scheduled to take place in the summer for a London-based woman artist who will be doing a residency in China. The work will be produced here and then shown in Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenzhen and, hopefully, Beijing too.

SCôP has its fifth anniversary this year. I am assisting with several major exhibitions there – one a solo for Alec Soth; one on the creativity of Polaroid photography. Also a solo project for Wing Shya at Kyotographie that was planned for April but is now rescheduled for September.

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2020 SCôP exhibition poster Alec Soth

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2020 Kyotographie Wing Shya poster

I am also happy to be working on a solo exhibition for Beijing-based artist Shi Guowei but that’s for 2021.

Mostly, I’d like to get back to doing more studio visits, or discovering artists.

CAFA ART INFO: You once said in a report that, “Around the year 2000, art schools began to increase enrollment. There are 50 students in a class and less than 5 can become artists…”, what do you think of the current art education in China? Do you have any suggestions?

Ms. Karen Smith: Spend more time in the school of life! Stop living vicariously in the false world of social media opinion. Never take what you have now for granted. Always question. Be curious.

Photo Courtesy of the Interviewee and Related Organizations.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CAFA ART INFO and its employees.