Featured Expat Artist: Crystal Ruth Bell

1. Why and how did you choose to move your creative practice to China?

I was fascinated by this idea that the contemporary creative movement in China stemmed from such a deep history but that the arts experienced such a lapse during the Cultural Revolution. The crazy thing is that this was the same time the West was experiencing modernism in Art. I studied a little Mandarin and got myself over there and working with one of the top galleries as a way of getting close to the action. Chinese contemporary art had already gathered quite a thundering momentum by the time I arrived, and watching the shape it it continues to take has been very exciting. One of the most surprising aspects of being on the ground in Beijing was witnessing the nature of the relationship between the international and the national scene and the possible collaborations that could develop.

2. How does being a foreigner affect the themes of your work?

I realized very quickly that there were no ways in which making art in Beijing as a foreigner wouldn’t affect the nature of the work. Visiting artists to our residency program who found ways to embrace the “otherness” that is apparent living and creating in China was often the most pivotal factor in the effectiveness of their art, writing, or dance. My Cupcake Exchange project developed from an interest in further exploring the cultural exchange that happened every time I came in contact with people from a different background than mine.

3. What has compelled you to use food in so much of your work?

I’m fascinated by food as a material with which we all interact daily and also by how culturally, commercially, and socially loaded the experience is. When I was exploring what kind of homemade cupcakes I would trade on the streets, I came up with a red velvet cake, a recipe that is native to the Southern US but decided to inject it with red bean paste, a common filling for local Chinese treats and top it with sesame seeds. I would definitely consider my project to have been more social than it was culinary, but I do think that there are interesting developments taking shape across the more progressive and innovative culinary arts that compel a similar social evolution as the fine arts.

4. What is the concept behind artist residency programs and why is it an interesting model?

An artist residency is a program that gives time and space for artists to create work. The residency program I assisted in developing in China had both studios and apartments for artists to live at as well as a gallery, which could connect local Chinese artists with visiting international artists. Artists come to China funded alone or by their home countries and can explore a new body of work inspired by their stay or have the time to continue to develop projects they have been working on. Residency programs are located all over the country and often support a wide range of creative fields including dancers, filmmakers, musicians, poets, DJs, curators, academics, ceramicists, painters, and lots lots more.

5. Tell us about an artist or body of work being done in China that you find exciting and why.

I have to lean towards the mega-star of the Chinese art world, Ai Weiwei. The way his creative practice is so essentially linked to his life is fascinating. His blogging, activism, exhibitions, and architecture are all moving forces toward the direction he is pushing China’s cultural development and social conscience.

6. What is your favorite Chinese dish or treat?

I definitely have to go with 地三鮮, “Di San Xian”. Chinese food has the most delish ways of preparing eggplant in the world and after hosting a LOT of dinner parties, I can’t think of a single person to not like this veggie dish.