In the previous post, Carol Lu shared her thoughts on the level of art critical writing in China. This was also one of the topics we were keen to discuss with another participant of Witte de With’s art criticism symposium, Aimee Yu Lin, an independent writer and former editorial director of the Chinese contemporary art magazine ‘Leap’.
Recently (September 2012), Lin left the magazine that she founded with Philip Tinari. Their concept for the magazine was to create something qualitative for Chinese contemporary art by building up a platform on which new Chinese art could be exposed. The first issue was published in February 2010. By publishing ‘Leap’ bilingually, and distributing internationally, the editors also wanted to improve the understanding between Chinese contemporary art and the rest of the world.
‘Leap’ also features fashion-shoots styled by visual artists. “They are looked at for inspiration across the globe”, says Defne Ayas, the director of Witte de With. “Her work sets the standard and continually raises the bar for inter-disciplinary approaches to creativity at large. Aimee is a true firecracker at the cross-section of architecture, fashion, and visual arts. She is savvy, strategic, bold, and always on top of her material”.
We sat with Lin and discussed with her whether the art critic has an obligation to entertain its readers; if the Chinese understanding of art criticism differs from the West; and why the level of art critical writing in China is no longer as good as it used to be.
200%: I gained a sense when we witnessed you in the panel discussion earlier that you are funny, quirky and have a dry sense of humour. Is that also reflected in your articles?
AL: [laughs] I won’t mind if it is. Some people can recognise that in my articles. I don’t do it, though, to amuse or entertain people.
200%: Why not? We once interviewed Adrian Searle, the art critic of the Guardian, and he commented on the role of the art critic: “One does have the obligation to entertain… I am well aware that most of my audience will not see what I am writing about but I want them to read it anyway and to go on a little critical journey.”
AL: Okay, the thing is I hate reading boring articles, and I believe no-one does. If a sense of humour is necessary in writing, for which I am totally, it is because writing is about pleasure of intelligence. I agree with Searle’s opinion on “entertain…” as it is talking about another important purpose of writing – to communicate with people. I will be very careful, though, to use the word “entertain” to avoid that the works or artists I am writing about become a consumption object. I will be happy if I make people laugh, but it doesn’t mean the writing itself is a product for consumption.
200%: When you read art criticism in Chinese and Western art magazines do you see a difference in approach as to how each writes about art criticism?
Aimee Lin: This question reminds me of the panel discussion earlier this afternoon as to whether art criticism is a Western concept or not. The Chinese understanding of art criticism is the same like as that of the rest of the world. There has been art criticism in Chinese traditional culture such as calligraphy artists. The artists practiced all their life just to earn one or two sentences from a critic.
A sentence in English can refer to a ‘sentence’ you write but also to a ‘sentence’ given by a judge. In traditional China, art criticism is about formulating one or two sentences to pass judgement on someone’s work, or whether an art practice is working or not. Also, if someone’s skills are better than others or if the work is a successful reflection of someone’s personality and whether the artist has a free mind. This is what intellectual painting in China is all about: a free mind.
200%: What can you say about your style of writing in your art criticism?
AL:I always believe in what I’m writing. My voice stays very close to who I am as a person.
200%: Do you believe it is the task of the art critic to explain the deeper meaning of the work of the art critic and not the artist?
AL: For me there must be someone translating an art work from the artist’s own language into a universal language that everyone can understand. Someone must do this work. I think, though, that’s changing, as artists are able to translate and explain their own work quite well and they can even provide different interpretations of their work.
200%: Thus, when artists are able to produce a perfect translation of their own work what can the art critic bring to the equation?
AL: I still consider the job of an art critic to explain the work of the artist but his or her main job is to say if it works. That’s what I believe is the core value of an art critic. An art curator can’t do that. They can provide context and they can even be part of the creation, but the art critic is there to pass judgement on the artist’s work.
200%: Do you believe that the enormous prices some artworks fetch at auctions today alter and influence the consideration for the work?
AL: Normally, the auction price has little to do with the quality of the art work itself or the artist himself. It’s about the dealing behaviour of dealers, owners and collectors. The mass public who are not so familiar with the art world, don’t comprehend the truth I just mentioned. These huge auction prices will influence the public’s understanding of art and I don’t think that’s a positive thing. On the other hand, and I can only comment on the situation in China, if these huge auction prices will arouse the public’s interest in the arts, though be it not in the best way, I believe it’s still good: it’s welcomed.
Before you go to your next question I would like emphasize something: I agree with the importance of art criticism but I don’t think it is the only important role in the art world. It’s as important as art curating and art creation and even other commercial parts of the arts. I don’t think you should depend on art criticism to answer all the questions or build up this fighting field between art criticism and other fields. These auction questions are not a concern for me as I believe people should not be exposed and controlled by any single source, not by art critics, nor by auction prices.
200%: We talked with Carol Lu about the booming contemporary art-scene in Beijing and Shanghai that is fueled by China’s new money, as well as record prices people in the West pay for Chinese art. Do you think that contemporary art in China is now in greater need of serious curating, scholarship and criticism than ever before?
AL: That’s a very relevant question. It’s my experience that the money in Chinese art first came from the West. The first collectors of Chinese contemporary art came from the West. In 2005-06, came the new money of China. My observation is that since the market has started to boom the quality level of art criticism in China is reducing.
200%: Why so?
AL: The first generation of independent art critics quit around 2003-04. They were quite active from the late 1990s until 2003-04. This was a very good generation of art critics with people like Leng Lin and Pi Li. What happened to them? Leng Lin is the now the president of PACE Beijing and the founder of Beijing Commune. Pi Li started as an art critic and, in 2005, he founded Boers-Li gallery with Waling Boers. Recently, though, he withdrew from the gallery business and started to work as a senior curator of M+, a museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. Thus, the ‘matured’ generation of art critics are not into this profession anymore and there is a re-start of a new generation of art critics. Their articles are not as good, yet, in comparison with the previous generation as they don’t have that much experience. That’s why good art criticism is really a problem now in China.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers. Image: Martin Dijkstra (published in 200% #3 as the art work for an interview with the Art Critics Adrian Searle, Hou Hanru, Peter Schjeldahl and Matthew Collings).