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A crusader for modern Chinese art

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

14:22, April 09, 2013

Karen Smith is one of the most important chroniclers of the emergence of Chinese art. (China Daily/Zou Hong)

My China Dream | Karen Smith

She has been documenting contemporary art in China for more than 20 years, but this Western advocate of young Chinese artists tells Chen Nan she has so much more to learn.

Karen Smith goes to hundreds of exhibitions in China every year, but she has developed one rule: Never go on opening day.

"There are often many people at the exhibition opening, all talking to the artists and curators. If you really want to see the art, you'd better go after the opening," she says.

However, when the British-born writer-curator first came to Beijing from Hong Kong where she worked in 1992, things were different. It was very quiet in terms of culture in China then. At that time, Smith spent a lot of time going to exhibitions, just as she does now, although the pace was considerably less hectic.

There were fewer exhibitions and artists, which allowed her time to befriend the artists, understand their art and digest what she saw.

Her first contact with Chinese art was through a traditional medium used in Chinese painting and calligraphy, xuan zhi, mulberry or rice paper, while she was studying fine art at the Wimbledon Art School decades ago.

Before moving to Beijing, Smith worked in Hong Kong as managing editor of art magazine Artention, where she got to know artists from the mainland. The new territory attracted her, which drove her to explore it further.

She started documenting her discoveries of new art emerging from a country she knew little about by taking photographs and notes, and recording her own interpretations of these works.

She learned Mandarin at the Beijing Language and Culture University with the hope that "when my language skills are better, I can go and ask the artists about their works".

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