Brian Michael Reed is an artist working across a multitude of media who turned a sub-par residency experience into a stepping stone for establishing a successful career in Asia.

China Residencies: What first got you interested in getting to China?

Brian Michael Reed: I think some idea on China lives in most foreigners’ imaginations. My wanderlust to explore China came from looking at National Geographic magazine when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. I remember looking at scenes from the Yangtze River, like the Giant Lushun Buddha and men pulling giant junks up the rapids. I think this is a typical way in which foreigners romanticize China.

Over the years, China and the world changed, and so my ideas of what China was also changed. Along with globalization came China’s rise in influence economically, concurrently, the accessibility for foreigners to visit China was made possible.  

When I was invited by the Galeria Arteaga residency program in Songzhuang on the outskirts of Beijing, I had so many ideas of what I might find and want to create. However, nothing prepared me for what I actually experienced. Now three years into living and working in China, I have learned something extremely important; China always changes and changes very quickly. For me, it is an exciting place and a fascinating time to be apart of all this churning and transformation.

As I have constructed my studio practice over the years, the participation in artist residency programs has been an essential part of my creative process. I can’t stress enough the importance for artists of making the effort to participate in cultural exchanges and residency programs. However, beware, not all programs and experiences are for everyone, and I’m sure that’s what the team at China Residences can tell you.

CR: Do you know if the Arteaga residency program is still going?

BMR: I don’t know if it’s still going, they used to have a Facebook page. [Editor's update: in May, we heard the residency was in the process of changing hands.]

CR: What was that program like?

BMR: I really had a lot to figure out on my own there. Basically, when I showed up, I met a former participant of the program who was still living in Songzhuang. She gave me the key to an empty building that hadn’t been occupied for quite some time and said, “Welcome to Songzhuang” and then went back to her home.

I had to explore places to eat, buy supplies and all that, all on my own. I learned to deal with the local landlord coming by, claiming “[the residency director] hasn’t paid the rent, she hasn’t paid the power, where’s my money?” I was living there and really wondered what was going on.

Brian in Songzhuang - 2013

CR: At the time, did you speak any Chinese?

BMR: No, not back then. But I had a Canadian friend who came to assist me and he spoke some Chinese, and he was able to facilitate communication. It was a place to live and create, and I did that, I was determined to work. I had an exhibition at the gallery space within the residency program. And from there, I ended up getting a few exhibitions in downtown Beijing.

Exhibition at Beijing Arteaga Gallery in Songzhuang - March 2013

CR: How did you get the word out about your show? Songzhuang is so far away from the center of Beijing. How did you meet people when you there?

BMR: There are local organizations in Songzhuang that promote tourism, and invite people to come and see different studios. There were around five other foreigners living in Songzhuang at the time. The local government art relation’s board came to interview me, and started inviting me to participate in talks and dinners with other artists. I started going to fashion or art events in Beijing, started talking to people and forming my own network.

CR: And what kind of work did you end up making in Beijing?

BMR: The work was called Lotus Desert. I came to China with so many ideas of what I was going to create, but as soon as I got there, everything changed. You have no idea until you get there.

CR: That’s actually one of the questions we usually ask — what were your expectations of China and how did they change once you arrived?

BMR: Everything changed. I wanted to work right away, so I did a simple work inspired by the sugua [loofah], a plant growing everywhere, including my garden. Originally, I wanted to loosen up, and learn something new, like ink painting, but everyone in Songzhuang was using oil paint, so I went with the flow. As I settled, I wanted to create a question through which to filter all my ideas, and that’s when I started asking people “What does the lotus mean to you?” This question has become my theme for the last three years.  

Sugua in Songzhuang - 2012

CR: Tell us more about your lotus works:

BMR: Lotus Desert was about my time in Beijing. This first body of work is a kind of reflection on coming to China and struggling to let China in. You’re still holding on to your Western ways in China and how to produce art is even in a Western style, and you can see that reflected in the works. It’s sort of like a foreigner who knows nothing about China, but recognizes some special Chinese elements. I used these Chinese elements in my work before I really knew the depth of their meanings.

CR: Did you find it easy to switch between media and were you able to work in the same processes? Or did you have to adapt your practice to work with whatever was on hand?

BMR: It’s a little bit of both. You realize that certain things aren’t available or are very expensive or that is inconvenient to create in the way that you are accustomed to. I had to modify my ideas and production completely. It pushed me to realize what’s available to other Chinese artists and it becomes a more accurate representation of the feeling and life of being a Chinese artist. For example, in Zhujiajiao, I wanted to create these papier-mâché lotuses, but I couldn’t find any papier-mâché, I tried making my own, but gave up, then I thought — I could order it, but it would have been expensive due to being imported.  I reworked my idea and by chance happened in this local craft store where I found crinkly paper that was made of Chinese elements. It turned out to be a very beautiful problem for me to have been originally constrained by materials then working through it to create something precious.  

CR: And did you stay on from that first stint in China or did you go back in between?

BMR: I was only supposed to stay four months at the Arteaga gallery residency program, but I decided I would come back after Christmas and wanted to experience Chinese New Year, then stayed another four months in Beijing before relocating to Shanghai. Shanghai had a lot more opportunities for foreign artists, and now I’ve been here almost four years.

CR: How did you hear about the Zhujiajiao residency and museum?

BMR: I met the director of the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University and Creative Space 99, Ma Lin, while still participating in the Arteaga gallery residency. I did a show in Shanghai and later talked with her again in New York. She liked my works, and wanted to curate the work I had done in Beijing and Shanghai, I travelled there and had an exhibition in the M50 art district in Shanghai. Her husband actually works for the Himalayas Museum and I met the director Wang Sun-Kit and from there, they really liked what I was doing and saw an opportunity for me to go to Zhujiajiao. After the exhibition, they invited me to create work and live there.

CR: Did you continue the lotus work on this second residency?

BMR: I wanted to figure out how the lotus fits with the water village. I discovered the longxia, the little lobsters everywhere. I also noticed the hanging and drying fish, which inspired me to hang and dry the lotus. I created several bodies of work, four or five installations and several paintings series. They’re all different techniques, watercolors, and rice paper — letting the longxia crawl around in the Chinese ink. Since I didn’t have any formal training in ink painting, it became a research and learning process, but in a way, not knowing what you’re doing can invent something new and different, and that was the fusion that everyone really responded to.

Lobster Race - 2014

CR: One of the first exercises in ink painting, after learning to paint bamboo, is learning to paint shrimp. And I love that instead of painting the shrimp; you let the shrimp paint for you.

BMR: Qi Baishi, the famous master who painted shrimp, had such a spiritual quality in making works. I wanted to paint shrimp too, but I felt the small crawfish could be a stronger metaphorical character in my works. Instead of these beautiful shrimps, I’ll do these lowly crawfish that everyone eats by the bucket. It was kind of my subtle social commentary on the lobsters, as they almost become like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they take on more and more human characteristics — they start smoking, they start wearing shoes, they start getting out on the boats and doing things that the humans would do, and there’s this blackness that starts to surround them in the series of paintings. It becomes so dirty, so black that eventually a few of them realize they need to transform into the dragonflies. And that was the inspiration for the next body of work about Lotus Mountain, the dragonflies flying away from the water village. And I started hiking on different mountains throughout China and I created paintings about each experience. That’s the next body of work that I’ll show this fall at the Baoshan Folk Art Museum in October of 2015.

Lotus Mountain Series - 2015

CR: Do you have a permanent space in China now or do you find a different space every time you go back?

BMR: I have my own studio now. I also started teaching at an international school. It’s the SCIS; it’s an American-based school for middle and high school students. They have a whole floor dedicated to the arts and many unused studio spaces, so I have now set up shop there temporarily for production for the next show. I’ve become a contributor as an art writer for an online magazine, I do speaking and lectures, and often am invited as a key opinion leader for forums and events. I’ve been in China for four years now, and this gives me a platform to go out and engage with what’s happening and what other artists are up to. Before, I kind of became a hermit in the studio and focused on my own experience, but now it’s becoming more of a whole life, and being a part of Shanghai’s art community.

CR: That’s such a full trajectory, and it seems like you’re not just focusing on what you can get done but how you can be part of the community through your writing and teaching.

BMR: It’s fun, and I’ve also done some fashion cross-over, I’ve taken some of my designs to make fabrics for suits, pants, shorts, even some shoes. I think the first steps into something new are to just generate good ideas.  I see myself more as an idea generator; it’s the best use of my skills.  

CR: Those suits are fantastic!

BMR: Thanks, they’re based on my paintings, and the cut for a classic fitted look. I’m also collaborating with Swarovski; they picked the little lotuses with the meanings inside to let me cover them with crystals. They’re sponsoring me with free product to make things out of their materials and will eventually work on opportunities to showcase the works. They’ve got a foot in the door in China through fashion, and are starting to support the arts. And then H&M recently asked me to design their store windows using my fabrics and art. Their theme this year is renewable resources, and they reached out because I use organic materials. It’s just really weird that you start getting your stuff out and big brands like H&M get in touch out of the blue because they saw a write-up in the Global Times about my Lotus work. It’s part of what’s happening in China, and makes me feel like I have a sense of purpose and a reason to stay out there for the time being.

CR: It seems like you really invested the time in getting to know how things work, and now one thing is leading to another. You’re branching out so seamlessly and taking advantage of everything that’s going on in China.

BMR: It’s exciting; it keeps you fresh and helps you understand how you can be more effective in your life.

CR: I think there’s an incredible amount of opportunities for people who are willing to spend time there. You can’t expect things to happen immediately, but for the artists we’ve met who stayed and set up a studio, China is a place that can really give a lot back.

BMR: I met several artists in the Zhujiajiao program, and also now know a good cross section of both Chinese and foreign artists working in China. There are so many new things to get used to, so many obstacles that will drive you nuts, but you have to be a very adaptable personality, just roll with the punches. What I find is a common complaint among the artists I know is the huge cultural differences in logistics and organization. Also agreements in China are purely based on the relationships you have with the organization or person, so many people have complained about the lack of accountability and how things change so quickly without notice. I experienced these frustrations too; I would gather that many other artists you’ve talked with have also this same impression. Some people can deal with it better than others, many people go home and don’t come back, but there is a small group of artists thriving here.  

CR: Things can be much more difficult, especially if you’re used to everything going smoothly — getting catalogs printed and translated, and just dealing with different standards for how things are organized. It’s almost a question of personality and whether you see these things as challenges to surmount or simply unpleasant experiences. Your first residency experience sounds like what others might consider an absolute nightmare, showing up to virtually no support (or even heating!) but I’m impressed with how you dedicated yourself to making it work. Looking at where your practice is now, it seems it was worth it!

To backtrack a little bit, what was Zhujiajiao like as a place to live and work?

BMR: There are all these little water towns around Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. Zhujiajiao is one that’s pretty popular and easy to get to from Shanghai. The town has a lot of historic areas preserved, and the local government seems to be investing a lot into new housing and commercial areas. It’s primarily a commercial tourist attraction, with lots of shops selling candy and trinkets. There’s still a local presence, mostly sustained through fishing and traditional crafts, and lots of bed and breakfasts and teahouses in 500-year-old structures. But when you’re living there and you’re not just a tourist, you have to make a life for yourself. Every day, I would run, early in the morning to explore new parts of the surrounding countryside. Little things would give me inspiration. I also had access to the downtown, and could visit if I wanted to get a taste of a more social setting, but there’s no movie theatre, there’s one KTV [karaoke bar]. It’s a small town.

Exhibition at Zhujiajiao -2014

CR: What was the residency experience like?

BMR: As an artist there, you have to be someone who will be intensely focused on work. The working spaces are beautiful and the local museum staff was very helpful. The building was almost 800 year old — it was beautiful, but in the rainy season, it also had 800 years of mold. I’m allergic, so I had to move to a different spot. It’s not the museum’s fault; it’s just the reality of an ancient building in a water town. Oh yeah, and there are a ton of mosquitos! But it’s so special and unique; the residency experience was really great. You can sort of organize your own residency there, you can just come to research and explore, or you can really make work and have an exhibition, though that was really a nightmare. It was a complicated process. The end result was good, but the process is something I would not be willing to repeat. Three other foreign artists I got to know at Zhujiajiao also faced the same problem when it came to organizing exhibitions, so that’s an aspect they could improve. I have a lot of comments on how I would improve their program, chiefly, I would have a director of the program who was motivated to do more, someone more present at the museum, and to have someone who has organization skills, all of which lacked during my stay.  

Exhibition at Zhujiajiao -2014

CR: After Zhujiajiao, what came next?

BMR: I had a few exhibitions around Asia, in Hong Kong and the Philippines. I’m thinking of coming back to Beijing, and I’d like to be able to split my time between New York and Shanghai, but you know, plans change all the time in China. You can have opportunities as a young artist in New York, but how can you really do the projects you want and get exposure and affect culture and people, and be a part of something? In China, you really can do that. It’s a peer group thing, the directors of the programs and magazines and in positions of authority and power, they’re the same age, they listen to the same music, you can connect with them. In New York, you have to pay a PR agent to go out and put your work out there because the agent has known people in the scene for thirty years or more… I have all these ideas of what I want to do, and I can do them in China. In New York, I’m fighting to meet people, and then you don’t spend that time working on your projects. I had a lot of success in New York, and that helped me in China, but I want to do more, and in China, I can. I think any artist now has to become global, and each artist finds his or her own path to do that, for me, China is an important part of my journey now.  

CR: Well there are many more residencies in Beijing and artist-run spaces since you were there last.

BMR: I would love to go back to Beijing, especially now that I’m a bit more China savvy, but I want to go back with a purpose. I will go to Beijing this summer and work with Shang Wenjie and MTV on a music video.

CR: On a technical note, do you keep your work in China?

BMR: Yes, I’m actually preparing for another show that will be a retrospective of the work I’ve done in China so far, including documentation of the several residencies. It will take place this fall at the Baoshan Folk Art Museum in Shanghai in the middle of October. I hope you can come.

Blood Lotus - 2015

CR: Any future residencies on the horizon in China?

BMR: I have always thought about Western China, and what it’s like away from Beijing and Shanghai, so I’m very honored to be an artist in residence this August for the He Shun International Art Festival as part of the Xu Cun artist residence program. It’s a small village in Shan Xi province where the entire village was designed to be a living work of art. I’ll update you on how it goes this fall. Until then, keep letting people know more about China through your great platform at China Residences.

CR: Thanks, Brian!

This interview was conducted by Kira Simon-Kennedy via Skype and email for China Residencies.