Steven Harris is a gallerist and curator of Chinese photography of long-standing. Settled in China since the 1990s, he witnessed and supported the emergence of Chinese contemporary photography. Harris has been playing a significant role in the art circles for most of the last decade thanks to his M97 gallery space, which he opened in 2006 in Shanghai. The interview below was conducted while the gallery was running a booth at Paris Photo in November 2016.
How do you envision this year’s fair?
We participated in Paris Photo for the first time last year and unfortunately the fair was cancelled half way through due to the attacks. So obviously this year we were quite looking forward to coming back and decided to do an even larger display of our artists’ work. I think as Paris Photo continues to grow (in size) and evolve as an art/photo fair there are many things to be optimistic about. On the one hand most all of the great photography artists and galleries in the world come to Paris to exhibit so it is a great experience for the viewers to assess and become familiar with the enormous diversity of this thing we call “photography.” I’ve always believed that photography is an inherently mixed media and I think we also see this trend in much of contemporary photography nowadays where more and more work is being taken into other dimensions of the materials being used and of course all the various processes we can see over the history of photography as well as in the technological developments of the medium. I think Paris Photo brings together the best of both contemporary artistic practices as well as vintage photographs from the 19th and 20th century.
Your booth at Paris Photo 2016 will introduce the works of several artists, including some by Adou, Shao Wenhuan, Fan Ho, Luo Dan and Michael Wolf. Please tell us more about this selection.
As one of the only exhibitors at Paris Photo representing Chinese artists I feel it is important to show an accurate depiction of the current range of works being done by photographers and artists around China. I don’t just want to repeat trends or cliches of the Chinoiserie that many in the west have come to be most familiar with regarding Chinese photography. Artists like Adou, Shao Wenhuan, Wang Ningde, Luo Dan are all born around the same time (~1970s) and are really the artists in the strongest stages of their careers right now. Most of them have been working professionally for the past 10 years or more as artists/photographers and are some of the best examples of artists addressing the most complicated issues in Chinese photographic practice right now.
Wang Ningde has been very productive over the past 2-3 years with new bodies of works and so we chose to do a special selection of our booth to show new works of his from 2014-2016, namely from his widely acclaimed “Form of Light” series as well as his new works titled “No Name,” both series were very well received by collectors and the public at Paris Photo.
Works from Michael Wolf and Fan Ho I also wanted to bring because they are two artists from Hong Kong that we work quite closely with – Michael Wolf for over 10 years. We have represented him in China and Fan Ho I personally have been collecting and exhibiting for several years now. These two photographers also happen to be the current two exhibitions in our new gallery spaces in Shanghai. Fan Ho’s solo exhibition titled “On the Stage of Life” is currently in our gallery space showing a selection of rare vintage works from the 50’s and 60’s and is sadly the first posthumous exhibition of his after his passing away this year earlier in June at the age of 85.
Michael Wolf’s “Hong Kong: Informal Solutions” is on exhibition in the M97 Project Space and showcases the artist’s 15+ years of documenting Hong Kong’s “back alley” street culture and looks at the improvisational use of limited public space in one of the world’s most expensive and dense metropolises. This is Michael’s longest ongoing body of work to date and really is an exceptional display of what makes him truly a great photographer and documentarian. The “Informal Solutions” project is really something of a visual journal of an urban anthropologist that I think will only become more and more appreciated with time. I would say except for the larger presentation of Wang Ningde’s extraordinary works in our booth, Michael Wolf and Fan Ho’s works really captured the interest of the viewers at Paris Photo.
How do you see M97 placed in the cultural ecology of China?
M97 is celebrating its 10th year of operation this year… I opened the first M97 gallery space in 2006 in Shanghai, and before that I was a partner in another gallery for 2 years prior also in Shanghai. I have lived in China for most of the past 20 years, and in such a fast paced and changing society I see consistency and quality as the main foundations of any institution… When things are moving so quickly within a society, people often become very ambitious and adventurous and are looking to develop new ideas and opportunities. But unfortunately, so many establishments fail or were perhaps ill-conceived to begin with and so they close and something else comes along.
I think for the gallery ecosystem in any country, endurance and perseverance is a prerequisite, which is not too dissimilar from what we as curators and collectors and appreciators of the arts ask from our artists. The artists must endure and persevere in their careers — particularly in emerging markets and economies like China — and I see the gallery’s role as crucial in helping them continue to develop the appreciation and understanding of these artists’ works at both home and abroad.
I first started living in China (in Beijing) in the 1990’s when the early beginnings of Chinese contemporary photography was emerging and so I have a very strong personal connection and interest having watched and been a part of so much vis-à-vis photographic arts in China over the past 15 years. One other element I think worth mentioning is that we have so little institutional support in China. There is not a single dedicated department of photography of any major museum in China, and nothing in the way of any serious collection. The art system as a whole really suffers in China due to this lack of committed institutions and furthering the public’s appreciation of the photographic arts. And so, in this sort of an environment, the gallery or private institutions have to play an even bigger role.
How do you see Chinese photography placed in the local and global art market scene?
Honestly, I am trying not to think so much of global markets or the art scene and more just focus on what I can control and promote from the Chinese context. There is an enormous amount of working photographers and artists using photography in China, but to be fair, only the best of the best can really ever enter the public canon of photographic history or even the contemporary art market. So my job is to work with and support and promote the best group of artists I see working in photography today in China. That means probably 10-15 artists at the most.
As far as the local and global markets, I think that in some ways the domestic market in China is becoming easier to reach than the overseas market, which is sort of the opposite of where things started. China is a big and sometimes isolated country in that it often tends to seal itself off from the outside world. So this can create inconsistencies with the outside world in that a lot of the artists we work with don’t speak English or travel to Europe that often and mainly operate in a Chinese context from Chengdu to Hanghzou, Beijing or Shanghai. This can create a certain type of independence I think from overseas works that might have a more integrated global system of art market and education. I don’t think this is inherently a good or bad thing, I just think it is a reality in such a massive country like China with such a long history and ancient culture.
M97 Gallery supports a fair number of artists who use analogue photography techniques, such as wet plate collodion with Luo Dan or gelatin emulsion in silver halide with Shao Wenhuan. They echo other Chinese artists who have been exploring such processes over the past few years. Why do you think they have been exploring such processes?
I’m not really sure who you are talking about when you say they “echo” other people’s works in Chinese photography, I personally have not seen anyone use collodion wet-plate in China like Luo Dan has done, or in the world for that matter. Collodion is a very special process for the artist, its extremely demanding when making pictures and there is a large amount of time and chance that can be involved as well, so I think for an artist like Luo Dan he truly enjoys and connects with his practice when using this particular process and it shows in his photographs which are very striking.
Shao Wenhuan studied mixed media in university at the Hangzhou academy and through that became extremely interested in photography. So for his work I think he is always thinking in terms of combining materials and different media. Photographic emulsion for him became like a certain type of light-sensitive paint or material that he could work with on various media and also integrate the work into traditional darkroom processes and painting.
I think process-focused work is not really unique to China, I think you see it around the world right now in American and European photography as well. My thought on this trend is that its related to us being in a post-digital world now where new technologies are now old and the convenience or utility of new technology is no longer helpful or relevant. Also, artists are always taking inspiration from the history of photography and the early roots of experimental photography by scientists, painters, artists and innovators that helped contribute to the evolution of all the various techniques and processes throughout the history of photography.
What is your curatorial strategy?
My curatorial strategy for M97 is to create the most interesting and accurate exhibitions I can with the spaces we have. We have now two exhibition spaces at M97 and both are quite different in nature. I am working together with the artists in combining exhibitions and planning for ways that we can reach out further and better communicate the artists’ works to the public. Let’s not forget that today’s world photography can be very boring for people so we have to find new ways of communicating with pictures in our gallery spaces. We will continue to work with the core 10-15 artists that we have worked with over the past 10 years and also gradually use both our spaces to expand and introduce other artists works that haven’t been seen before in Shanghai.
How do you view your relationship to China?
I’ve lived here most of the past 20 years first in Beijing in the 90’s and in Shanghai since 2003… Nowadays Shanghai in many ways feels like my home. It’s a wonderful place to live and work with constant challenges and opportunity. Of course as a Westerner there are always going to be parts of society — particularly in Asia — where you are not able to integrate or assimilate but on the whole I find Shanghai to be a very open and egalitarian place. I think in Shanghai perhaps more than anywhere else in China, people are valued and promoted based on their ability. In such a large and competitive city like Shanghai where the stakes are high and the speed is fast, if you don’t know how to perform or operate in a critical position the system will spit you out due to your own inefficiency or inexperience.
Shanghai is a city of some 25 million people… And China somewhere around 1.5 billion… It would be crazy for me to think that we can represent all of Shanghai or China in contemporary Chinese photography, but I think we certainly try! Also in China people do respect such things as persistence and hard work. M97 has been a lot of hard work and of course persistence over the past decade, and I find we do get a lot of respect from the greater community at large in China for having tried to pioneer a trail in the photographic arts in Shanghai/China.
Are there any photographic works that have held more resonance personally for you?
In the end what holds the most resonance for me as a gallerist and curator and even collector is authenticity. I don’t care what the subject matter may be or even what kind of process the work is, but if the work is authentic from the artist’s standpoint then I think any viewer will be moved. Of course this can be quite obscure and difficult to measure, but working as closely as I do with artists I can see very clearly when works lack that certain element of genius or power or perhaps we can say authenticity.
What’s next to come for M97 Gallery?
We have just this year relocated to our new gallery space closer in to the city center in Shanghai’s central Jing’an District. This new space is in an extremely convenient location and gives the gallery lots of new opportunities. We have a gallery space on the 1st floor and what we call the Project Space upstairs where we give artists the space to create a three-dimensional vision of however they want to realize their exhibition. The building we are in was originally a light manufacturer’s factory space from the 1940’s… So somehow it also feels historically relevant to photography and being in the heart of downtown Shanghai is fantastic. We have lots of opportunities for our artists here and that’s currently what we are working on. Up next are two solo exhibitions by young artist Huang Xiaoliang in the upstairs Project Space and downstairs we will exhibit new black and white works by Sichuan-based artist Adou. I’m very much looking forward to both of their new exhibitions!
Learn more about M97 on its website.
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic trilingual blog about photography and photographers in China.
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