Artist Jeff Musser was an artist-in-residence at Pantocrator Gallery in Shanghai, and had since decided to stay in China. As a friend once told him, "Ya know, being an artist right now, in this country isn't exactly the best plan. When people ask you what you do, you might as well tell them, I Run A Unicorn Shop!" which became the name for his blog, where he chronicles his adventures in painting.
China Residencies: You started out in Northern California, what first got you interested in China?
Jeff Musser: I vacationed there shortly after I graduated, and there was just something about being there, more than just the glow of being on vacation. In America, we don’t have the kind of history that China does, in terms of how far back it goes. You can read about the Great Wall or watch a TV program about it, but being there, standing on it, looking toward Mongolia, it's totally different. So when I had the opportunity to return, I took it.
CR: You said you moved to China to get out of your comfort zone, and spent some time teaching English in Foshan, then travelling around Dali and Hong Kong. Tell us a little more about your decision to move to China, and how you set about relocating.
JM: I was bored and going kind of crazy where I was, and there came a moment when I knew I had to move out and do something different with my life. NYC or LA weren’t options because of the cost of living and I thought of graduate school, but again the cost of it... “Six figures of debt for a degree that may or may not make me a better artist and won’t guarantee me a teaching position when I’m done? Yeah, no thanks.” So I decided to explore paintings on my own terms and learn Mandarin.
CR: Did China fit your expectations? Or did the country surprise you?
JM: I sort of knew what to expect from my prior trip, but there were surprises. Like the driving! Jesus Christ it’s terrifying! And the sheer amount of people. It’s sort of the same thing about the Great Wall, “Oh Guangzhou has 20 million people. Wow that’s a lot!” But then you get there and you SEE IT! And you’re there, in it, on the subway at 8 am, wall-to-wall people, no room to even move. All you can do is stay calm, breath, and power through.
CR: Did you speak any Chinese before coming?
JM: No. All I knew were a few words.
CR: How much did you learn while living there?
JM: It’s been very slow going for me. Languages aren’t my thing, but I’ve been making progress. I can hear people talk and piece together what they are saying. And now I can hear the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin.
CR: Tell us a bit about the project(s) you worked on while you were there.
JM: I worked on two paintings while I was there, one massive one and one smaller one. I was exploring putting my life back together through my paintings, and how to convey certain messages without the benefit of the native language.
CR: Your work frequently includes tattoo art, did you get a chance to explore tattoo culture in China?
JM: Unfortunately no. There is so much to do in Shanghai, one month isn’t really enough time fully explore. I guess I’ll just have to go back.
CR: How involved is the residency staff with the resident's daily life?
JM: Very involved, but not overwhelmingly so. They are there if you need something, but otherwise, they just let you work.
CR: What were the other artists who were around while you were there like?
JM: All good people. One was from Australia and the other was from Italy. We all worked well together inside the studio and had a great time outside the studio as well.
CR: You had a show at Pantocrator and also represented the US at the Shandong Biennial, tell us a bit about those two experiences.
JM: Both shows were great. The show at the Pantocrator was nice and mellow, good vibe, not too crazy. In Shandong however, it was a bit more intense. The Biennial was so large, they made seven catalogs just to chronicle all the work! There were huge dinners, press conferences, live painting demos, people making speeches on a stage, ribbon cutting ceremonies etc. Opening day there were probably 2000 people and I was interviewed by a TV station from Beijing. So somewhere out there, there is footage of me talking about the show.
CR: You also did a great job of documenting your residency on your blog and Twitter account -- and write quite candidly about your experience in China and as an artist, on topics overcoming self-doubt at art fairs and learning Mandarin. What motivated you to start your blog and share these stories?
JM: I’ve had the blog for years and initially it was a way to vent. Vent about contemporary art, vent about my practice, and share some of the ridiculous things that have happened in my life. When I moved to China, it became an extension of what I was already doing.
CR: You had a chance to catch Cai Guo-Qiang’s Power Station show in Shanghai, did you get to encounter other Chinese contemporary artists while you were there?
JM: There so many artists, and I’m ashamed to admit I forgot most of their names. But one standout was Zhu Jinshi. He does these huge, thick paint, almost Gerhard Richter semi-abstract, completely overwhelm you type paintings. They’re gorgeous.
CR: What was Shanghai like as a city? Was Moganshan and M50 a good neighborhood to live in, as an artist?
JM: I loved it! I enjoy big cities, and Shanghai certainly is big. It’s easy to navigate, but huge. Like 24 million people huge. And because it’s so large, you need to plan; do I get there by bus, train, walking, or taxi. And how long will it take etc. You can travel in a taxi for 45 minutes or more with zero traffic in any direction and you’re still in the city. M50 is a great neighborhood. Bustling during the day, nice and quiet at night.
CR: You’re living in Southern China again now, what are you up to these days?
JM: Working on new paintings and I just finished up a small work for a group show in New York.
CR: Are you planning to be stay in China indefinitely?
JM: I’m not quite sure. I plan to return to Shanghai after the summer is over and give it a go. As far as how long I will stay, a few years sounds about right.
CR: Anything else you’d like to add?
JM: People can visit the website and check out the blog for more China tales. And feel free to say hello via twitter, facebook, or email!
This interview was conducted via email by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.