Original text and interview are from ACA-project.fr
Founded in 2006 by Steven Harris, M97 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.
M97 Gallery, 363 Changping Road, Jing An District, Shanghai
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.
Exhibition view of Lin Zhipeng "223 @ M97", M97 Project Space, June 2017
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.
"Photosynthesis" openning reception, M97 Gallery, June 2017
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 hadn’t lived here for as long as I have, there would be a bit more uncertainty or unfamiliarity with their work as a gallerist and a curator. The relationship between the gallerist and artist is based on trust and long-term understanding. I think only by being close to the artist and working closely with them, could that be accomplished. Also, I thought that a huge cosmopolitan city like Shanghai could appreciate this kind of institution, this kind of structure, and it needed and still needs to be built here first in China before starting overseas. Maybe it's idealistic, but I believe in a kind of long-term organic growth in the art market and system.
Installation view of "Photosynthesis", M97 Gallery, 2017
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 directions are very different but connected.
When we are looking at photography in China 15 years ago, it was quite early and more or less pre-digital. People were still using film, making their own prints, predominantly an analog world. There were different demands and opportunities back then, that lead to a more organic photographic style: for example, everyone says photography in the 1990s in China was predominantly based on photography documenting performance art. Then around 2003-2005 with the commercial development in China of new printing technologies, large format cameras, digital C-print machines, the use of Photoshop, etc. … that brought even more possibilities for the artists.
Then, we saw that a lot of the early creative practitioners of photography slowly stopped making photography, particularly after 2005-2007. This I think is for a couple of reasons, mainly because photography is a very 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 mechanical nature of it – it is very easy to look like someone else's work. It’s very difficult for an artist to continually break through and innovate on their own work, and I think it’s not just a Chinese problem but a common one among photographers internationally. A very established Chinese artist like Maleonn for instance mentioned in an interview recently that he has stopped making photographs completely because he doesn’t know how to orient the next direction for his photographic work. This is something I can compleltely understand.
This point is interesting as it reminds us how to appreciate photography. Nowadays, everyone thinks photography is so easy: we all carry a phone with a good quality camera, and have our own concept of what is a good photograph, we all more or less know how to read a picture… We are becoming amateur photographers in the post iPhone area (the iPhone just turned 10 years old!). 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, etc. etc. … 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 antique traditional processes, you can print on wood, glass, bronze, Plexiglas, cut up transparency films, play with chemistry etc. … I think this is the point where innovation in photography is always possible. It’s nice to remember the richness of photography, and that it is not only a picture we take now with a mobile phone.
(2013）200cm x 144cm - Ed. of 2
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 any system or institutions supporting photography – there is no photography department nor major photographic collection in any museum here. As we don’t have any institutional support to rely, we have to assume this responsibility ourselves. Moreover, the public here is not as convinced in the medium of photography as a collectable contemporary art form - mainly because of historical and educational reasons.
Exhibiting in the West also presents another sort of challenge because there’s a lot of references and social elements in the Chinese works that maybe is not perfectly clear for foreigners. For example, if the subject of an artwork is non-Chinese everyone can react to it quickly, but if it’s more Chinese specific it can take a bit more time. With Huang Xiaoliang for example, the public in the West sometimes found his new works (East Window) hard to find resonance to the landscape or social atmosphere, whereas here in China people were far more receptive. Art fairs are also difficult because you can only show a few pieces of each artist, it can be hard to create a new experience or a more complete understanding of unknown works.
(2015）120cm x 180cm - Ed. of 3
Installation view of Huang Xiaoliang "East Window", M97 Project Space, 2017
How do you envision your role, your mission, as a gallerist?
I think that for any gallery the role is to help to find and define the important work that should be seen, processed, and remembered by society. Then, there is the more practical but important role of helping the artists to survive and make a living of their practice. As a gallerist, we are really the frontline for helping the artists to keep creating work, for the public to discover and understand their work, and also for society to remember these works in the future.
People often ask me why I only represent and exhibit photography. To some people it seems strange or difficult to be a medium-specific gallery, but I think that if you really want to have a comprehension and appreciation of photography I think to some extent it is necessary. Only by creating a certain context and focus, can the public understand the various reference points and trends in art photography. I sometimes see the gallery as an academic study in a way; every new exhibition presents new challenges and brings new reflections: what is possible with photography? What is possible with Chinese artists within the current framework of photography? As we don’t really have any long-term institutions supporting photography here, this task is up to us ... to set a framework for the history of contemporary Chinese photography is one role I would like to fulfil.
Installation view of "Photosynthesis", M97 Gallery, June 2017
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 for the next ten years. First, the gallery is now very close to the city center, which is a very convenient location. Also, the building the gallery is now in, a former factory from the 1940’s, offers a very different kind of space. At M50 the gallery was a very typical gallery space – a white cube – and after several years I noticed at a certain point that this was not so challenging for me as a curato or the artists in terms of thinking how to conceive an exhibition and show their works. I also began to feel that the visitors didn't take their time to connect and experience the artworks. With our new space, which is quite unusual, the conception and curation of each exhibition takes a deeper dimension, and the visitors are invited to experience photography and the exhibitions differently.
Installation view of "Photosynthesis", Michael Wolf, "HK Flora" (2003-2016), M97 Gallery, 2017
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 complementary?
“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 long corridor. Here, the artists are invited to create works especially for this space and installation. We have to conceive of new ways of showing their work. This offers the artists as well as the viewers new ways to experience photography. I think that today, as we are constantly surrounded by images, the photo gallery should offer more than a succession of aligned pictures. Playing with light, space and the three dimensional installation, are extremley important to offer new ways of experiencing contemporary photography.
Installation view of Luo Dan "When to Leave", M97 Projet Space, 2016
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 [and Sun Yanchu]. 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.
Lin Zhipeng "White Whale"
(2016） 67cm x 100 cm - Ed. of 5
Jiang Zhi "Love Letters No.10"
(2014）180cm x 135cm - Ed. of 5
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, 2017