Karen Smith

What a difference two decades makes. When Guy Ullens, the man behind the UCCA, put part of his collection under the hammer earlier this year, collectors scrambled over each other like kids after birthday cake. Paintings went for three times the asking price, the top lot, Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Forever Lasting Love’, setting records at a cool 64 million RMB.

The scene in the early ’90s could not have been more different. Many of the artists who are now darlings of the auction world were then living in squalor among the ruins of the Old Summer Palace. ‘It was grubby and dusty,’ remembers Karen Smith, the art expert who has been an integral part of Beijing’s art scene for two decades. ‘Their small brick houses were higgledy-piggledy, unattractive and grey. Few of the artists had running water and Fang Lijun [whose paintings now fetch around 10 million RMB] didn’t even have any glass in his windows.’

Smith was the editor of a Hong Kong art magazine until 1992, when she came to Beijing to study Chinese. Here, she would hear about new shows by word of mouth, then hop on her bike to see them. Like the city’s artists, Smith has come a long way since then. Today, she curates shows for the likes of Beijing’s Today Art Museum and her native Britain’s Tate Liverpool, and is writing a book on  Chinese art in the ’90s.

Her courtyard studio home, near Jingshan Park, is filled with works old and new, from a sculpture by ’90s cynical-realism pioneer Yue Minjun to a piece by Gao Weigang, who won this year’s Art Futures emerging artist award at the Hong Kong Art Fair. Her house will be opened to visitors for one night as part of the UCCA’s new ‘At Home With’ series of dinner talks, but the real draw will be her encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s artistic history. While many paintings from the ’90s have survived, Smith can recall ephemeral works now lost to posterity.

She was present at Ma Liuming’s earliest cross-dressing performances and Zhang Huan’s pieces, the most notorious of which – ‘65kg’ – saw Zhang suspended from the ceiling, hanging for an hour until the chains supporting his body etched into his skin.

Few saw these experimental works. In 1989, the National Art Museum opened and closed its China/Avant Garde exhibition on the same day, after an artist added drama to her work by firing a revolver at it. For much of the following decade, such artists were largely unable to exhibit in official spaces.

‘Without funding or curators, communities of artists would come together to put on performances in universities,’ says Smith. ‘They held exhibitions in apartments and would even hang their pictures in the woods.’

While she isn’t nostalgic about these small-scale, artist-directed shows, she is uncomfortable with developments that have taken place since. ‘Today, some galleries encourage artists to make pretty, decorative works, so that they can say to buyers: “Here’s a neat little piece you can take home and put straight on your wall.” It’s a shame; I like art that’s a bit rough round the edges.’

While some artists have embraced the market, others, such as Jia Aili, find the demand disturbing. ‘He became worried that people just wanted his work because they thought it would become the next Zhang Xiaogang and not because they actually liked it,’ explains Smith. ‘For a real artist, it’s a tug on the heartstrings to say goodbye to a piece you love. Then to see someone buy it at a low price just to sell for profit at auction – nobody wants to be manipulated like that.’

The result of such a situation, says Smith, is that artists like Jia have started to create works that no one can take away from them. ‘For a show we did at Platform China in 2008, he drew directly on the wall. Now, he’s working on a painting that’s 5.5m tall by 18m long – you can’t accommodate that in most galleries, let alone someone’s living room.’

Smith has seen big changes in the last two decades, but what does the future hold? ‘I can’t imagine,’ she says. ‘I’d like to think there would be some sort of backlash against commercialisation, but for the next 20 years, at least, it will keep going. What artist doesn’t want to be rich and famous, or at least financially secure, especially as it’s becoming more expensive to live here?’

First appeared in Time Out Beijing on April 16, 2012.