Archive: interview

Feature – ‘An Artist’s space’ – Agenda magazine, The Art issue

30th November, 2011

Agenda Magazine 92. The Art Issue Dec. p18-19

 

An Artist’s Space

Artist Helen Couchman talks about her visual exploration of the capital’s changing landscape
Interview by Jennifer Thomé.

Years ago, Helen Couchman had a feeling that China was changing fast and she knew that she had to see it before it was too late. And so she did. For the past six years, Helen has been exploring her own art, as well as China’s traditional arts, through her exploration of Beijing and its spaces.

You mentioned that you knew you had to come to Beijing. How did your work evolve once you got here? I have always been interested in changing landscapes and how they reveal the politics and the economics of the place, even when there aren’t people in the image. I’ve worked on this reoccurring idea in Armenia, Cyprus, and the States. The reason I worked with fans in my first project was that I wanted to explore the idea of me going somewhere. It was my first visit to Beijing and I had two months to prepare an exhibition of new work. I thought: “What is an artist doing, going to China to work?” I wanted to explore, and understand better how I’d deal with that. What was I to return to England with? Fans bear a historical significance, but are also easy to travel with, which fitted my self-made brief. Their tradition is to be a memento of something you’ve enjoyed, such as a landscape or a poem to a lover. These fans evolved to be a traveling memory in the form of a traditional and oriental gift.

What impressed you most about Beijing when you first arrived? When I first arrived in Beijing, I would go out at night on my bicycle and take photos of huge advertising hoardings surrounding construction sites, particularly on the third ring road. I was impressed with the size of them. I took hundreds of photographs. I have a strong sense of the spacial qualities of my surroundings. You are the sum of all of your parts. It’s not that I go out for a walk in the park and the autumn leaves make me go home and paint autumn leaves. No, it’s that all of these things filter in, and if you keep focusing on certain interests, it comes out of you and your work. This is why buildings have been such a strong presence in my work.

What about your series of “Woodcuts, Cloud Series and Yellow Lining”? What really attracted me to this craft was the way the clouds are connected, and how they end up forming their own landscape. Then I placed things that I had noticed into the landscape – the advertising hoardings, satellite dishes, and the fans. They are all muddled together. The red paper, which is also used in the first project “Gift”, is called thousand year red paper and it’s so saturated with red ink that everything that touches it goes red. It’s a nightmare to work with, but the redness of it is glorious. It’s absolutely velvety, and soaked in color. In my later perfomative photographic series “Untitled (Collecting and Dropping)” I let my fingers become red having repeatedly handled this paper as my feet become black on the dusty floor.

“The key thing that struck me was the power of the people, and the number of hands that China had, and the fact that everything can be moved around or shifted by these people.”

What about your book, WORKERS 工人. Where did the idea for that originate? In a nutshell, it was me looking at how the Olympics was such a particular time for this city, and the country. It seem to me that it was the first time the country had offered an open invitation to the world to come and see what China could do. I felt that it boiled down to a question of rebranding and who was involved in it. I decided to explore the site of the new Olympic park. The key thing that struck me was the power of the people, and the number of hands that China had, and the fact that everything can be moved around or shifted by these people. This is why I decided to put my focus on the workers. I wanted to explore who is involved in the rebranding and is that rebranding for an internal of external market? I told the workers that I would be there for two days, and that I would take a portrait of anyone who was willing, and that I would return to give them a print and to collect their names and names of their hometowns. In the end there were 143 people in the book. Looking at the portrait series there is an element of all 143 being alike – a symbolic worker – and yet they are individuals, which is revealed in their faces and their handwriting. It is also worth noting that hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of these migrant workers are working on things that their families might never see. Their relatives might have seen the Olympics on TV, but never have been able to afford a ticket, even if it had it been legal for them to do so. I like to imagine the portraits now pinned up in family homes across China.

Helen’s book WORKERS 工人, featuring the portraits of the Olympic stadium workers, is available at The Bookworm and online at www.soloshowpublishing.com

 

http://agendabeijing.com/an-artist-space

No. 222,  Untitled (Collecting and Dropping). copyright Helen Couchman c

Mrs West’s Hats – China State Radio website

22nd December, 2010

Click here to see the China State Radio’s web page showing a video interviewing Helen Couchman about Mrs West’s Hats.

The page written in mandarin shows images from the book and a video. The video features clips from their recent hour long interview with Helen about her book and British hats in general. The programme was broadcast live from the CSR Beijing studios on 1st December 2010.

姓名:海伦考斯曼 (Helen Couchman)
来自:威尔士 史塔福郡 肯特 伦敦
现居住地:中国北京

“每天,我都能学到新的东西,关于中国的、关于其他人的、以及关于我自己的。这是一个能够提高我理解力的地方。她经常让人感到惊奇,前一分钟我在一个简陋的餐馆吃一碗2块钱的面,下一分钟我却要为副总理拍照。”

Helen是一位旅居北京的艺术家。她已经在世界范围内展览其作品并且于2008年6月出版了第一本书《工人》。这本有价值的书采取了为迎接2008年北京奥运会建设鸟巢和水立方的男女工人的连续系列肖像的形式。

Helen从祖母那继承了几百顶帽子。她戴上一顶顶帽子,对着镜子拍下自己对每个帽子的第一瞬间的感受和表情。

Interview – Mrs. West’s Hats. China state radio, Radio Beijing

14th July, 2010

Live interview for Talk Box on Beijing Radio, 774am.  14th July, 11am-12noon.
Presenters June Lee and Dominic Swire interview Helen Couchman about her work and her recent book Mrs. West’s Hats. The interview was broadcast with an accompanying live video link.

At the studio in a hat borrowed for the show. Photo taken by the host, June. Listen to a previous interview about living in Beijing and her first book WORKERS 工人 here.

Images of Chinese Migrant Workers in Foreign Artist’s Lens

21st June, 2008

Helen Couchman and her book Workers

Helen Couchman and her book Workers

In December 2007, during her second extended visit to Beijing, Helen Couchman photographed a large group of migrant workers building venues for the Olympic Games. She published the photos in a book entitled “Workers.”

“I think it’s a historical moment for this country, so the people participating make the thing happen. People who are central to the happening should have a record and be sort of proud of what they’ve done.”

“Workers” is Couchman’s first published book. As her subjects, the English photographer chose the migrant laborers who built the National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, and the Water Cube, the two grandest venues of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

There are 143 portraits in her book. She asked each worker to stand in roughly the same spot with the Olympic stadium and swimming venue clearly in view behind them. Each worker looks calmly, confidently and directly into Helen’s lens.

An important feature of these photographs is that, irrespective of their archival value, they were taken without the approval of local authorities. Helen simply asked the workers themselves if they would let her photograph them. She did not introduce herself, nor did she know whether her Chinese was good enough to communicate with them. To her surprise, the workers’ responses were very positive.

Couchman talks about what impressed her the most when she took the photos.

“I was really taken by their enthusiasm. I really enjoyed the positivity. Something interesting for me was I knew that handwriting is important in China, but I didn’t realize in a way how important. People took great pride in writing their addresses and names beautifully. And they felt their handwriting wasn’t good enough. They had conversations with friends who they thought could write them well and asked them to write for them.”

A worker helping to build the Birds Nest

A worker helping to build the Bird’s Nest

Besides each portrait what also in the book are the workers’ signatures and the provinces where they are from. Some are from Sichuan Province, and some are from Henan Province.

Helen gave each worker a copy of their photo for them to keep or send home to their families.

John Pauline from Australia is one of the lead architects on the Water Cube. He has been working on the project for more than three years.

Pauline has seen many publications about the Olympic venues in Beijing. He says Couchman’s book is quite special.

“What impresses me most is unlike other books of the Olympics or stories about Olympics, it’s not about the athletes. It’s not the buildings, and it’s not about Beijing. It’s about people. That’s wonderful to take the shift of attention from the worldwide audience and just focus on the physical hand of the workers who have built these wonderful buildings, who are going to be largely responsible for making the Beijing Olympics a success.”

Wang Kan is a doctor of Laws at the Renmin University of China. Wang has been helping migrant workers on a program arranged by his university. He believes that they deserve respect.

Wang says Couchman’s book gives them that respect. He talks about one photo that especially caught his attention.

“There is a photo about a female worker. She smiles on the photo and she looks very proud of herself. I think for me I like this photo because it shows a construction side. We believe construction is only for men. But you see women there. They enjoy the same happiness as the male workers. That shows more like equal culture between Chinese men and Chinese women.”

As the Olympics is drawing near, Helen wishes that this book will be a great gift for this grand event.

The four workers are on the same page of this page, each of whom with a smile on their faces.

The four workers are on the same page of this page, each of whom with a smile on their faces

A signature of one worker and his hometown

A signature of one worker and his hometown

 

Interview at: http://english.cri.cn/4026/2008/06/21/1901@371406.htm