Sunday, February 11, 2007

Art Space Talk: Karen Patterson

I recently interviewed artist Karen Patterson. Karen is a conceptual and documentary style photographer. She focuses on looking at culture through film and photography.

Since August of 1994, her life has centered on living, working, and studying in China. Most of her free time in the beginning was spent walking around the streets of China as a way of trying to understand and see where it was that she was living.

She decided to “capture” and communicate with the world around her by utilizing her 35 mm camera. As a result she produced a substantial body of work that continues to expand.

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "The society that I live in is mainly made up of Chinese mainlanders and a sprinkling of foreigners who have decided to make China their home for the time being.
When I first came to China, I did not think that I would be much affected by those around me, at least not in terms of creating photos, I just went about making photos of almost everything that I laid my eyes on. That, I suppose, was a way of dealing with what I was feeling and seeing in the mid 90s, but that feeling has since vanished.
Believe it or not, the incredibly interesting fruit seller down the street or amazingly ornate alley/street scene today in China is no longer something that I want to capture on film.
After 10.5 years here, I am more interested in gaining a deeper understanding as to WHY it is that I am still here (besides having married local and set up a home here), and how it is that I am able to express myself in a language and culture that was not familiar for the first 26 years of my life.
Therefore, many of the works that I do now are about being an outsider living on the inside of a very homogenous community, both physically and socially.
So, while most contemporary Chinese artists are making works about the crazy pace of the economy and how it impacts their lives, I am looking at the how I fit into this puzzle. Hence, I am an outsider inside.

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "Too long. I sometimes can get into the mood of making photos on a daily basis, but this is very rare. It depends on the project. If I am not physically snapping photos on the camera, I am otherwise thinking of a concept or project to work on at a later date. In the past, I have gone as long as 8 months without picking up my camera. I was working out the logistics of a conceptual piece of work that I completed 4 years later."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "Yes, in a local art review magazine here in Beijing, and a thick, historical/pictorial book that is an introduction on the Dashanzi 798 Factory Art district here in Beijing, which was very close to being demolished in exchange for -yet another - shopping mall in China!

Concerned citizens, artists and supporters of the art scene got together and one of the things they did was put together this book (available on line from, and thereby saved the space from the wrecking ball.

My photos of a factory emitting steam (samples above) on a very cold November day survived the editor's final cut, making me proud to be part of such an important project!"

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "The most important exhibition I have been involved in is one that I actually curated and participated in simultaneously. DNA: A Visual Exhibition ran for 3 weeks during Beijing's first contemporary art biennale in September 2003.

How was it special? I had been involved in the art scene for about 3 years prior to this event, and felt that I wanted to give something back to the community. I managed to organize 53 artists, 7 of who were foreign and the rest Chinese, into submitting works no larger than either a 5x5 or a 5x7.

My point was to challenge the current thinking among many artists/photographers that photos can sell just like oil paintings, meaning the bigger the photo, the heftier the price tag.

I wanted to make these artists and the viewing audiences realize this by returning to the original use of photographs - something that can be easily held in ones hand.

Furthermore, the space for the exhibition was an old granary located in the middle of Beijing, built during the 16th century. This space was managed by a Hong Kong development company, who decided that it would be a win-win to invest in my exhibition- hopefully attracting young, well-heeled Chinese and foreigners to take an interest in several residential and office spaces that they were also managing on site. As a result, they paid for everything, including a 100 page glossy catalogue of the show, right down to the snacks and refreshments!"

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "My education background is in Visual and Ethnographic anthropology, and more recently in teaching English as a second language. Photography is something that I have tried to develop alongside whatever career I am pursuing, as I am not one who wants to make photos in order to survive. If I have to do it for money, I quickly lose interest."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "I try to update my website on a regular basis, I have been working on a new series called Biracial Doll Project, but it is not yet on the website. It is an exploration into the stereotypes and physical features of kids who are 1/2 Chinese. I organized and photographed 19 such kids, ranging in age from 1.5 to 14 years old. It was amazing."

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "If someone at some stage of your life has told you that you are not artistically inclined, don't fret, as anyone can learn to be an artist. It isn't something that one is necessarily born with; it can be nurtured and developed. It's just that some people might have a head start­ (I don't consider myself as belonging to the latter, as I had to be convinced that I could learn to see creatively!)."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "I presently live in Beijing, China, with my Chinese husband who is also an artist (, and our 2.5-year-old daughter, Hannah. By the nature of what we do and who we are, we are constantly surrounded by contemporary artists- be they photographers, oil painters, sculptors, performance and installation artists, we interact with them in some way on a daily basis.

I consider myself lucky to be able to readily access such a richly textured and dynamic sub-culture of China. However, this isn't available to everyone, nor is it FOR everyone. To be sure, anything 'Chinese' is hot, and Chinese contemporary and avant-garde art is no exception, alongside fashion, the Olympics, tourism, cheap labor and manufacturing, an overheated economy and an incredible cuisine, and people are now more than ever interested in purchasing Chinese Art.

As a result, many artists who were literally starving on one bowl of noodles a day not so long ago, are now driving fancy cars and living in Western style villas and condos downtown. This is not only a new China, but it also characterizes the art scene in my area."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Karen Patterson. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

No comments: