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In Depth Interview with M97 Founder and Director: Steven Harris

Founded in 2006 by Steven Harris, M97 gallery is a photography gallery based in Shanghai. For more than a decade, the gallery has been supporting Chinese-born artists working with the photographic medium, and is now renowned as the best gallery of its kind in China. Originally located in the famous M50 art district, M97 has set up downtown in Jing An district a year ago.

ACA project meets up with the founder and director of the gallery, Steven Harris, who shares his point of view on Chinese photography and talks about the challenges of being a gallerist in China.

What brought you to support Chinese photography?

I think it’s a bit of different paths coming together. I studied photography as my major in University, and Chinese language as a minor, just by curiosity. After one year of studying Chinese I went on a summer exchange program for two months in Beijing, and that’s when I got really hooked up to China.

At that time, in 1997-1998, the art scene was beginning in China. There I was making photos and looking to what artists were making. While I was trying to figure out on what capacity I wanted to be involved in photography, I realized I wanted to create a platform to support photography more than being a practitioner of photography myself. What we were lacking was not energy to create photography but energy to support it. The way to represent art at that time in China was a little bit messy, not so well done, the quality wasn’t so great… but the content was amazing! There was a lot of beautiful creative works coming out, popping up in few different galleries but it wasn’t systematized on its own thing.

In the early 2000s, nobody was supporting photography through a platform in China. In 2003, I started to think of a business plan to do it. There was no strategy to it, it started more with idealism, exuberance and energy. I was very much liking what I was seeing around in China, and wanted to exhibit it as it wasn’t exposed, and not even well exposed in the West

Why choosing Shanghai while the scene was more active in Beijing at that time?

It is a total coincidence. While I was looking for a gallery space in Beijing, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Shanghai and I fell in love with the city. It is really a question of feeling, an intuition based decision: as I liked living here in Shanghai more than in Beijing, I decided to do it here instead.

Shanghai was quiet compared to Beijing at that time, more independent in a way. The fact of not being part of 798 [the major art district in Beijing] allowed me to be more alternative and to do my own thing. I think there was too much expectations and pressure, and a sort of bubble in Beijing.

Why not showing Chinese photography internationally if it wasn’t so well exposed abroad?

I think there was too much to understand, to learn and experience here first. When I opened the gallery, it was before WeChat, good Internet and smartphones… Nowadays it would be easier to open something overseas, but I think in those days you had to be close to the artists, to have the right relationship and a great understanding of the work. I still feel that if I don’t know the artist, if I haven’t lived here or be here for a while, there would be uncertainty as a gallerist and a curator. The relationship between the gallerist and artist is based on trust and understanding. I think only being close to the artist and working kind of intimately, that could be accomplished. Also, I thought that a city like Shanghai needed this institution, this kind of structure, and it needed and still needs to be built here first before overseas.

You have been living in China for about 15 years: you have witnessed the development of Chinese photography; can you talk to us about it?

I think of two things: the development of Chinese photography in the Chinese context with regards to the history of Chinese photography; and the second thing is the evolution of the medium globally. These two ways are different but connected.

When we are looking at photography in China 15 years ago, it was quite early and almost pre-digital. People were still using films and making their own prints. There were different demands and opportunities back there, that lead to a more organic photographic style: for example, everyone says photography in the 1990s was all based-on photo-performance as a sort of documentation of performance art. I think around 2003-2005 with the commercial development in China of new printing technologies, large format, digital C-print machines, the use of Photoshop… that brought many possibilities for the artists.

Then, we saw that a lot of earlier creative practitioners of photography stopped making photography, particularly after 2005-2007. I think it’s for a couple of reasons, mainly because photography is a difficult medium to stay creative with. To maintain a high level of creativity in photography is extremely difficult because of the technological evolution and the technical nature of it – it is too easy to look like someone else’s work. It’s very difficult to break through yourself and innovate on your own work, and I think it’s not just a Chinese problem but a common one among photographers internationally. Chinese artist Maleonn for instance has stopped using the photographic medium because he now doesn’t know how to orient his photographic work.

This point is interesting as it reminds us how to appreciate photography. Nowadays, everyone thinks photography is super easy: we all carry a phone with a good quality camera, and have our own concept of a good photograph, we can read a picture… We are all becoming amateur photographers in the post IPhone area. Today photography is ubiquitous, we are living in a more photographic world where photography allows us to document and create a reality we want to design. Everybody can’t live without photography, it has become very close to us in human psychology and life. There is a familiarity and directness to photography that can work to its advantage and disadvantage too.

This also reminds us how difficult it is to maintain a new unique vision of photography, and I think this is what I love about the artists we work with: Huang Xiaoliang using shadows, Wang Ningde completely reinventing a way to conceptualize and construct a photograph… I think it’s this respect I have for the creativity and innovation of the artists that make me want to work with and support them. I think that this whole reality about photography represents both a challenge and an opportunity for artists. I am still optimistic about the opportunity for the artists to communicate with society through photography. I’ve always felt photography is a mixed media: you can create with paper, digital, pure ink, iPhone, you can use antic process, you can print on wood, glass, bronze, Plexiglas, films cut-ups… I think this is the point where innovation is possible. It’s nice and good to remember the richness of photography, and that it is not only a picture took with a phone.

Your gallery is based in China, but you also show your artists in international art fairs around the world (Paris Photo, AIPAD New York…). What challenges do you face showing Chinese photography mainland and in foreign countries?

Exhibiting photography in China is a big challenge as we didn’t inherit an institution supporting photography – there is no photography department nor major photographic collection in any museum here. As we don’t have any institution to rely on here, we have to endorse this role of support. Moreover, the public here is not as confident and convinced in the medium as a contemporary art form because of historical and education reason.

Exhibiting in the West is another sort of challenge because there’s a lot of references and social elements in the Chinese works that maybe is not super clear for foreigners. If the subject is non-Chinese everyone can react to that quickly, if it’s more Chinese specific it takes a bit more time. With Huang Xiaoliang for example, public in the West don’t find a resonance, whereas here in China people are more receptive. Art fairs are difficult because as you can only show few pieces of each artist, it’s hard to create a new experience or a more complete understanding of unknown work.

How do you envision your role, your mission, as a gallerist?

I think that for any gallery the role is to help to find the work that should be seen, processed and remembered by society. Then, there is an important role of helping the artists to survive and make a living of their practice. As gallerists I think we are the frontline of helping things to be possible for the artists to keep creating work, for the public to discover and understand it, and also for society to remember these works.

People often ask me why I only represent photography. It seems strange to be a medium-specific gallery, but I think that if you really want to have a comprehension and appreciation of photography I think it is necessary. Only through that you create a focus and a reference point. I almost see the gallery as a study in a way; every new exhibition is a new challenge and brings new reflections: what is possible with photography, what is possible with Chinese artists with a current framework of photography. As we don’t have any institution supporting photography here by now, to set a framework for history of Chinese photography is one role I would like to fulfil.

Your former space used to be located at the M50 Art District in Shanghai, why did you chose to move from there to Jing An district last year?

After ten years located at the M50 Art District, I was looking for a new space that could offer me and the artists new opportunities and challenges. First, the gallery is now very close to the city centre, which is a very convenient location. Then, the building the gallery is now in, a former factory from the 40’s, offers a different kind of space. At M50 the gallery was a very typical gallery space – a white cube – and I noticed at a certain point that this was not so challenging for me as a curator, nor for the artists in terms of thinking how to conceive an exhibition and show their works. I also didn’t feel that the visitors took their time to walk from picture to picture and to experience artworks. With our new space, quite unusual, the conception and curation of each exhibition take a deeper dimension, and the visitors are invited to experience photography differently.

The gallery is composed of two spaces, one that is called “The Gallery” and the other one named “The Project Space”. What are the differences between the two spaces, are they complimentary?

“The Gallery”, on the first floor, is a more standard space. “The Project Space” on the other hand, is unusual with its composition like a corridor. Here, the artists are invited to create works specially for this space. They are challenged to think the showing of their work in a new way, and this offers them as well as the viewers new angles to experience photography. I think that today, as we are surrounded by images, the photo gallery should offer more than a succession of aligned pictures. Playing with light, space and installation, become now important to offer another way to experience photography.

You are currently presenting two exhibitions: a personal show of Lin Zhipeng, and a group show “Photosynthesis”. Could you tell us more about it?

“The Project Space” hosts Lin Zhipeng (aka No.223) solo exhibition, “223 @ M97”, which is the first solo exhibition at the gallery for the artist. Lin Zhipeng is a leading figure of new Chinese photography emerging in the last decade, popularizing his work originally via social media and other online platforms as well as his self-published zines. He has become famous for his portrayal of unconventional Chinese youth; his photographs act as a collective not-so-private diary of a young generation wishing to escape the pressures from a high-stakes society and play within its limits. The exhibition presents some 50 photographs depicting Lin’s quotidian surroundings through the prism of beauty and emotion, where faded flowers tangled with flesh tones, myriad patterns mixing with an emotional ambiguity of both love and chaos, fantasy and eroticism.

“PHOTOSYNTHESIS” is a group exhibition of 13 artists working in the photographic medium, including works by Han Lei, Dong Wensheng, Michael Wolf, Adou, Luo Dan, Lin Zhipeng (aka 223), and Jiang Zhi, as well as Lei Benben, Cai Dongdong, Shen Wei, Chu Chu, and Hisun Wong. The show aims to draw a parallel between photosynthesis and photography, two processes which essentially need light in order to grow life and shape images. The show gathers photographs celebrating the refinement and symbols of flowers and foliage in general. If Adou creates mise en scene to emphasize their pathos, Michael Wolf almost conceives a documentation on urban plants, while Han Lei explores technics to experiment three-dimensional images. All together, the artists of “PHOTOSYNTHESIS” attest the infinite possibilities of portraying flowers in photography, while alluding to floral representation throughout art history.

What are your future projects?

I look at our objectives in decades; one decade is done, we have just started the second one… We have built a strong basis and defined our mission, now I think it’s time to run the race, to understand the market better, to find out how to grow and develop. This new space in Jing An is the first step to the new challenges and opportunities the gallery is looking for.

By Lou Anmella de Montalembert, Shanghai, China, 2017


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