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Avant-grade Heart

It looks like any ordinary quadrangle in Beijing.


But behind a washed-out red wooden door, hidden in a hutong near Jingshan Park, there appears to be a small museum of Chinese contemporary art. Works of Chinese avant-garde artists occupy every wall of the rooms; numerous art books and magazines are piled in the corner and a big LCD TV, the only luxury item there, plays short avant-garde films.


It is the home of Karen Smith in Beijing. The UK born art critic, who after years of hard work, has just published a new book, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde in New China, which is claimed to be the first systematic study of Chinese avant-garde art by a foreign critic.


It is really pleasant to sit in the small courtyard, where bamboo and chrysanthemum grow, talking with Smith. Different from the stern looks and serious faces of most critics, the middle-aged woman is mild and elegant, speaking with a soft voice and a warm smile. Only her penetrating blue eyes and the continuous interruption of visiting artists during the talk give away her identity.


"The book tells the story of leading protagonists from the first wave of avant-garde art in the 1980s. It is the story of a changing era for a generation born under Mao Zedong, educated through the 'cultural revolution' (1966-1976), who gained independence in Deng Xiaoping's era of opening and reform and established international reputations through the 1990s, as changes swept the nation," she said.


The book is also a realization of her decade-long dream: to explore Chinese avant-garde art in China as completely as possible. Smith has spent 13 years doing just that.


Fifteen years ago Smith was working in Hong Kong as managing editor of the art magazine Artention. Well-placed to identify trends in the art world, artistic as well as collector tasted, she was drawn to examples of China's new art that were appearing in the territory. Astonished to discover that nothing had yet been written about this new art, by the end of 1992, with Artention under threat of closure from its new owner, she moved to Beijing to study Chinese so she could research material for a book on the evolution of avant-garde art in China, filling what was clearly an enormous gap in the field of art history.


Though today there are literally hundreds of books on the market on the subject of China's new art, her work does ring with a real-life experience, complete recording, systematic analysis and a human touch. Being on the ground in China since the early 1990s, Smith has witnessed all art activities in the first person, and made good friends with numerous Chinese artists like Fang Lijun and Di Jianli.


But she is not just an onlooker. She has established a niche as an important focal point and resource for all involved with the China art scene.


To welcome visitors at her home, she has even made a massive table, which can seat 20 people at the same.


But she has never forgotten her role as an educator of Chinese contemporary art.


"I just try to get people interested in the dynamics of a cultural framework, with a long dynastic and political history, from the 1950s onwards, tainted by notions of repression and constraint."



She has given numerous lectures, many in conjunction with international exhibitions in which she has been involved: a Crack in the Continent, Japan 1997; Representing the People, UK 1998 and 1999; Inside Out: New Art From China, Asia Society New York 1998; Contemporary Chinese Art and the Diaspora, British Museum, 2001, to name but a few.


This year she was appointed to the advisory board of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen, affiliated with the He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen, and is busy with the exhibition schedule and residency program.


But what touches people is her deep feeling for art, and Chinese artists in particular.


When some accuse contemporary Chinese artists of aiming for quick fame and money, Smith argues: "I think at heart, if you want to put yourself on the line to create a work of art, no one ever does that lightly. And I think every time someone creates a work of art, they are actually putting something of themselves out there."


Her second book will come out next year, focusing on the evolution of the art through the 1990s.


"I will not leave China." She looks at the paintings on wall. "Because here I have found the root of my career and the real meaning of my life."


(China Daily December 2, 2005)

A Life of Infinite Variety
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