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Problematic White Cubes: Director Steven Harris on M97's New Space
By May 23, 2016 Arts
Last month, longstanding Shanghai photography gallery, M97 moved from its eponymous Moganshan Lu address to a surprising new spot inside a converted warehouse on Changping Lu. Now part of the Anken empire, it’s all narrow corridors, sloped ceilings, and an enormous terrace -- it couldn’t be more different from the gallery’s former incarnation.

Currently hosting Luo Dan’s excellent When to Leave, director Steven Harris talked us through the new space, its opportunities and constraints, and the problems with white cubes.

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SmSh: Why the move from 97 Moganshan Lu? That was your namesake space!



SH: Well, I did meet my wife Mercedes in 1997 so the name M97 will always be relevant to me! But, really, we were at the Moganshan space just shy of ten years. At the beginning I didn’t even really want to be there; it just became a practical, affordable place when I was looking for space in 2004 or 2005. Before M97, a friend and I partnered in a small gallery in [Xuhui], then a bigger one on Changping and finally Moganshan Lu, just for price and convenience. So, actually, after ten years, I’m coming back to Changping Lu. Moganshan was a great space, it served us well, but there wasn’t a lot of flexibility to it. It just kind of ran its course. I think with galleries, maybe after ten years or so you need a change of scenery, a fresh reformatting of sorts; it keeps things interesting for the curator, for the artists and it makes sure you don’t become complacent.

SmSh: You still have your project space over on Yueyang Lu?



SH: Yes. I opened that two years ago. That gave me a lot of inspiration as to what you can do with space, environment, and how that translates into [a viewer's] experience of the exhibition itself -- and maybe also stimulates the artists. The gallery world has been housed inside this white cube format for 40 or 50 years and part of me feels like that’s now run its course.

We’re so developed now in terms of contemporary art systems around the globe that for me, that old format is just not so interesting anymore...

SmSh: But they’re practical, though, white cubes. Few distractions, easy to reinvent -- no?



SH: What that [kind of] space does is basically de-contextualize everything, it sort of neutralizes the world around you: enter the white cube, then you focus on the art with this sort of religious reverence. That can be a really nice experience, but for what I want to do -- particularly with such a contemporary and constantly evolving medium as photography -- I actually prefer the challenges of this space as opposed to neutrality.



SmSh: Right, let’s talk about the new venue.



SH: I took this space not as a fix-all solution, but more in the spirit of another “Project Space” that could drive exhibitions in a different direction, with different characteristics, opportunities, and challenges. I’m not sure every artist wants the challenge of this space, but there are many that do. I brought all my artists to visit before we signed. They all liked it, but it was interesting to see how some were immediately inspired by the challenge, and only a few saw the limitations. It’s true that it's demanding. You have to conceive of the exhibitions more in three dimensional terms, which is not always the case with typically 2D photography.

This space will be suitable for a certain kind of exhibition within the realm of what I want to show. I wasn’t trying to make it work for everything; I want to stimulate new ideas and possibilities for our artists in a direction I’m seeing more and more -- namely working in mixed media, playing with scale, experimenting with three dimensional works, installation and projection, as well as non-traditional ways of presenting exhibitions. All elements that you can see in this show, basically.

I think everyone around the world in the business of exhibiting and curating art is asking these questions. Coincidentally, just this month, two new photography spaces in the U.S. also opened: The International Center of Photography in New York launched a new multimedia wing; and the long-running Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco opened a street level experimental space called FraenkelLAB. So, it’s not that crazy. Everyone’s looking for ways to take things in new directions -- especially with image-based artworks. Plus, if I’m going to keep doing this, I have to make it interesting for myself, both as a gallerist and curator.


Image: FraenkelLAB

SmSh: What with platforms for buying art online, fair consortiums like Basel and the newly-rebranded PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai, where does that leave bricks and mortar galleries? I mean, whether they’re buying or not, how to get people here?



SH: It’s a good question. I think around the world you’ve seen a slowdown in foot traffic to galleries. That’s a very general, unsubstantiated observation, but I think a lot of people might agree. I think you can attribute that to a few different things: I think internet exposure [has had an impact] -- people can now see things on Instagram or WeChat so they feel they don’t need to come out -- but, of course, those things become mechanisms for promotion, so social media maybe goes both ways. I think there’s also a real competition for people’s attention spans on any level, whether you’re print media, Hollywood movies, a museum, or a gallery. But, I’m not about to ring the death knell of the gallery format -- that’s not the answer. There are challenges and 'disruptions' in every industry.

It’s just something to keep in mind as the platform keeps evolving.

It’s true: Bricks and mortar galleries are one of the less efficient means to drive people to your space when you can use the internet, you can do art fairs, and everything else. A gallery has limitations because it’s fixed and you’ve got to get people to come out to see and experience the exhibitions and artworks in person. But you can’t give up this space and not realize interesting shows. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing this just for the in-crowd either: Contemporary art cliques can be such an esoteric little world. And I’m not particularly interested in turning contemporary art into popular entertainment culture, either. I think you have to keep a level of historical, cultural, social seriousness to your program as well, otherwise what are we trying to accomplish here?

One of the beauties of photography is that everyone has access, everyone has some understanding, opinion or connection, it’s one of the most readable and accessible visual mediums of our times.

I’m just trying to keep it interesting, informative, and relevant.

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The new M97 is at 2/F, 363 Changping Lu, near Jiangning Lu. Their current show is Luo Dan's "When to Leave", on now until June 8. Exhibition information here.

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