On Friday China meets Norway in a Bookshelf arranged a panel that were to discuss questions of book culture and working conditions for artists in the respective cultures of China and Norway. On the Chinese side the panel consisted of Xiong Liang (the artist we visited on Wednesday) and Momo who runs Meridian. Book designer and illustrator Tian Dongming was the moderator. On the Norwegian side, participants were Kay-Arne Kirkebø, Åshild Kanstad Johnsen and Fredrik Rysjedal. We also had two people translating, Calvin Quceek who is an architect, designer and good friend of Momo, and Ben from Northing.
The panel was first asked to describe tendencies in their countries within the field of picture books and comics. Then they were asked to talk about how you support yourself as an artist in Norway versus China. Both questions are in themselves very interesting. But when discussed, I think they also reveal the enormous gap between our two cultures.
To start with the first question, it seemed to me that the Chinese were discussing visual style and the meeting of the traditional and the modern when describing tendencies. The Norwegians on the other hand, were struggling a bit to describe stylistic tendencies - and I think that is because in Norway artistic books and comics are not rooted in a long, consistent artistic tradition the way they still seem to be in China. In addition to this, I think some were confused about the term «picture books» (at least I were). Were we talking about all books where visual content is important, also including artists’ books? If so, it would make sense as a Western artist to discuss conceptual, material and social tendencies as well as visual style. The Eastern and Western concepts of art has historically been very different, and I think it is hard to discuss tendencies in art (or design, I mean, the borders between these are blurred, specially in the field of books) without directly addressing this difference.
As for the second question, our points of departure are miles apart. In Norway we have exceptional support from the government compared to almost every other country. In China they have more or less no governmental support economically. In Norway it is quite hard to make money as an artist, even if you are an acclaimed one. In China this seems to be different: once you make it as an artist there are chances of making good money. The panel ended up discussing the benefits of these conditions. For example: When you can’t apply for grants, you have to be creative and persistent. Or: when you get funded as an artist, you have the opportunity to deepen yourself in projects that are interesting but not necessarily easy to make money off.
I apologize for not being more specific when retelling this. But a third challenge of this discussion was that so much information got lost in translation. Having very skilled yet not professional translators, and participants with a lot to say, the translations were often brief summaries of what was actually being said. And my version is yet another layer of interpretation (where probably even more of what was actually being said gets lost).
Despite the challenges, the debate lasted for 2,5 hours, and even after that the audience had many questions. We were no doubt very curious about the other country's culture and conditions for art and bookmaking.
I think it is very important and beneficial that we try to have these conversations, even if it is difficult to understand each other. It's during these attempts that we can get an impression of what subjects that are challenging to discuss, and why. Then after the first round, we can continue our conversations being a bit more informed.
(I also know that the panel discussion was being transcribed in Chinese. I have a hope that I will eventually get these transcriptions translated, perhaps by Ben and Yilei, once we are back in Bergen.)
Puh! Ok. Now I am heading off to the book stands - looking at the actual books of matter before everything is being packed away.