Helen Couchman

Interview at Birkbeck College – UK China Arts seminar

The first meeting bringing together those interested in understanding and developing UK China arts exchanges.

Designing and making the most of a residency as an artist.
Negotiations and exchanges between stakeholders and national cultural tastes.
Objectives and realities of running a residency programme.

Saturday 2nd November. 10.30am Registration. 11.00am Presentations. Lunch provided. 4.30pm Drinks reception. Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck College, University of London. Tickets £14

UK China Arts

Presentations by:

11.20 Dr Martin Welton – Senior Lecturer, Theatre and Performance, Queen Mary University of London. With Gisele Edwards – Musician, aerialist, theatre maker
Richard Layzell – London-based artist

13.45 Helen Couchman – interviewed by Bill Aitchison

14.30 Sarah Fisher – Director, Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester. With Zhu Miyi


Untitled (Collecting and Dropping) No.52

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Small ink print/drawing on paper

drawing, print, buildings, parks, urban, space, green, built-up, places, paper

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Dawn. 4th June 2009

Beijing, © 2012 Helen Couchman

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Drawing – rabbits

rabbit, drawing,

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New York City, 5 November – 28 January


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Happy Christmas & Happy New Year 2013


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Mrs. West’s Hats now at the The International Center of Photography shop, New York

_MG_4611 Mrs. West's Hats for sale at The International Center for Photography, New York © Helen Couchman

The book displayed in the shop.

International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
(Closed Mondays)


Mrs. West’s Hats is also now for sale on the ICP website listed under Books, New, Monographs and Portraits. Click the link here

Mrs. West's Hats by Helen Couchman for sale at the International Center of Photography. screen shot s

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Copies of ‘WORKERS 工人’ and ‘Mrs. West’s Hats’ are now in the Art and Architecture collection at The New York Public Library

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WORKERS 工人 and Mrs. West’s Hats at the Photobookshow, Brighton

Thursday 8th November
from 1pm, LATE OPENING till 9PM

Saturday 10th November

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Art.Zip magazine, Issue 5, 2012. Page spreads

pages 90-91


pages 92-93


pages 94-95


pages 96-97


pages 98-99

For .pdf layouts see here

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Art.Zip magazine, Issue 5. 2012, including ‘Special Feature, Helen Couchman’.

As a lone traveller, the English artist Helen Couchman arrived in Beijing via Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian railway in 2006. She arrived into a city that was as familiar to her as it was foreign. Taking a small flat near Gulou, she has since made Beijing her home, making work in her flat and using studios around Beijing and in the UK as needs must. In the spirit of the flaneur, Couchman finds herself walking through Beijing at night, lost in the city that found her. Couchman sent us the following photographic essay from Beijing, arranged “as I would pin images up on my studio wall as I work; to serve as references for my drawings and printmaking.” 

Special edition with guest Editors: Dr. Trish Lyons and Monica Chung

Art.Zip Issue 5 also features: Song Dong, Geoff Dyer, Issac Julien, Margarita Gluzberg amongst others. ART.ZIP is the first bilingual contemporary art magazine dedicated to bringing together the world of art in the UK and China. 

page 90

page 91 (UCCA, 798, Beijing, poster feat. ’Self portrait with long life earrings‘)

page 92

page 93

page 94

page 95

page 96

page 97

page 98

page 99

For the magazine page spreads see here

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‘Portrait with Long Life Earrings’ reproduced in a Beijing magazine this month

‘Portrait with Long Life Earrings’ reproduced this month in a Beijing magazine. Along with an interview on uniforms.

Online page here



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WORKERS 工人 on exhibit at Brighton Photo Biennial 2012

6 October – 4 November 2012

As part of its fifth edition, the Brighton Photo Biennial 2012 invited the submission of self-published, handmade or short run photography books, to be included as part of a photobook Exhibition at Brighton’s Jubilee Library throughout the Biennial (6 October – 4 November 2012) in collaboration with Photobook Show. The only criteria is that the book relates to the Biennial’s theme: ‘Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space.’ All of the books submitted are included here. While the Biennial aims to offer a tightly curated programme of exhibitions, talks and events, the open submission format of this exhibition opens the theme to multiple interpretations.

Each photobook project should focus in some way on the diverse image cultures resulting from recent efforts to reimagine urban spaces through their occupation, and assess a range of historical and contemporary practices in light of the wider discussions they raise. It sets out to probe at the distinctions that separate art and activism, and pose questions as to whether – and in what circumstances – images can serve as agents of social and political change.

BPB12 aims to provide a critical space within which to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images.

BPB 12 will be working in association with Photobook Show (www.photobookshow.co.uk), a Brighton based arts organisation set up to raise the profile of artist-led photobooks, with particular focus on self-published or hand-crafted works. After the BPB12 show all photobooks submitted will become part of Photobook Show’s archive, an ever growing collection of self-published and hand-crafted photobooks that is accessible to the public and forms a part of regular shows and exhibitions held by Photobook Show.


Activestills Collective
Alessandro Rota
Alexander Brattell
Amelia Shepherd
Anastasia Shpilko
Asim Moeen
Barry W Hughes
Belen Cerezo
Chris Mear
Christopher Gianunzio & Jenny Tondera
Clive Rowe
Craig Atkinson
Daniel Seiffert
Dara mcgrath
David Adams
David Galjaard
David Jackson
David Jakelic
david o’mara
Denise Felkin
Diguerher Benjamin
Edgar Martins
Elayne Jude
Elisavet Tamouridou
Emer Mac Sweeney
Ewen Spencer
George Miles
Harry Watts
Helen Couchman
Helen Flanagan
Irena Siwiak Atamewan
Irene Siragusa
John Clayman
John MacLean
Mahesh Shantaram
Marcus Lyon
Minna Kantonen
Mitch Karunaratne
Niobe Syme
Paula Roush
Peter Mann
Philip Anderson
Rick Pushinsky
Rick Pushinsky
Simona Dell’Agli
Steve Poxson
Stewart Weir
Tamara Hussain
Tim Bowditch
Vincci Huang
Wil van Iersel
Zaliha İnci Karabacak


Jubilee Library, Jubilee Street, Brighton , BN1 1GE

Mon/Tues 10am-7pm
Wed 10am-5pm
Thurs 10am-8pm
Fri/Sat 10am-5pm
Sun 11am-4pm

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Thirty WORKERS 工人 portraits in situ + the book. Beijing, Spring 2012

About the exhibition

The WORKERS 工人 book

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‘WORKERS 工人’ on exhibit in Beijing featured in Accademia Apulia News

Helen Couchman’s work on show in Beijing

In December 2007 Helen Couchman, member of Accademia Apulia UK, photographed a large group of Chinese workers engaged in the construction work of the 2008 Olympic park. Couchman chose a specific group of labourers, employed to build the iconic ‘bird’s nest’ stadium and the Olympic swimming pool. 

The 143 portraits that resulted are contained in an amazing book WORKERS. Between 11th of April and 8th May 2012 thirty portraits from the WORKERS series will be on show at swanky Yihe Hotel in the Chaoyang district of Beijing. The portraits will be part of a group exhibition, Heyi 798 Art Project, curated by renowned curatorial duo Wong Jun and He Bing. 

The group exhibition, under the wing of Gabriela Salgado (formerly Curator of Public Programmes at The Tate Modern) will include some one hundred established artists showing an interesting sample of eclectic creativity. 

For more information about the series ‘WORKERS’ see www.helencouchman.com 

For more information about the project in book form see, ‘WORKERS’ see www.soloshowpublishing.com

The Heyi 798 Art Project will be on show until 8th May 2012 at the Yihe Hotel, 9 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Dashanzi, Chaoyang District, Beijing.


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The WORKERS 工人 series on exhibit in Beijing, 8th April – 8th May

Four years ago the book, WORKERS 工人 was very difficult to print and now, finally, thirty portraits are being shown in Beijing in a group show curated by curatorial duo Wong Jun and He Bing.
About the project ‘WORKERS 工人’ -
About the publication ‘WORKERS 工人’ -



You are cordially invited to the opening ceremony for the ‘Heyi 798 Art Project’ at three p.m on April 8th 2012, to be held at the Heyi Hotel.

Address: Yihe Hotel, 9 Jiuxianqiao Lu, east side of the Dashanzi Road junction, Chaoyang District, Beijing.

The ‘Heyi 798 Art Project’ is an art project of a new type and the highest quality. Gabriela Salgado independent curator, formally of the Tate Modern, London has generously agreed act as a consultant for the project. Close on a hundred renowned artists will be in attendance and original works of all types and styles will be on show.  Ten artists have been invited to create special pieces for the show, site-specific works adapted to the surroundings of the Yihe Hotel. In the tradition of art interventions in public space, a venue that is normally traveller’s respite will have a close-up encounter with the world of art.

* * *



“和颐798艺术项目”是一个高规格、新形态的艺术项目,该项目已确立英国泰特当代美术馆策展人Gabriela Salgado担任艺术支持。届时近百名国际知名艺术家将亲临现场,展出各类原创艺术作品。此外,还将发布十多名艺术家精心策划的个人艺术项目。他们会根据酒店现场环境创作与之相适应的作品。以艺术介入公共空间的方式,使酒店这一旅居空间和艺术零距离契合。


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WORKERS 工人 on exhibit in Beijing

8th April – 8th May 2012, 798 Art District, Beijing, China. Invite


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China Daily feature – ‘Globetrotting British artist blooms in Beijing’

Feature in the China Daily newspaper, ‘Sunday Expat’, 25th March 2012.

‘Globetrotting British artist blooms in Beijing’

Work: from series, 'In Beijing' 2011. Portrait by Wang Jing

Taken from the ‘Capital Creations’ feature published in the China Daily European newspaper, 16th – 22nd March 2012

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Images of the talk – ‘The limits of Seeing.’ Cambridge Science Week

The limits of Seeing – Art, Space and Perception

at Cambridge Science Festival 2012


Slide from Professor Carolin Crawford's presentation

Dr Joao Linhares: Lecturer in Department of Vision and Hearing Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, presents

Slide from Dr Joao Linhares' presentation

with Professor Carolin Crawford, astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge

Slide from Professor Carolin Crawford's presentation

Slide from Professor Carolin Crawford's presentation

Slide from Professor Carolin Crawford's presentation

A slide from Professor Carolin Crawford's presentation

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Featured – China Daily European Weekly, People – Helen Couchman ‘Capital Creations.’

China Daily, European Weekly. People 16-22 March 2012 feature, Helen Couchman

Feature in China Daily European Weekly, 16th – 22nd March. To download readable pdf version link here


Capital Creations

By Zhang Xi (China Daily)


Last year, Helen Couchman armed herself with three mirrors and a camera and headed straight into the streets. The mirrors were placed in various positions to “fuse the different elements” of the scenes she took, as symbols to help express her feelings that subsequently resulted in a photo exhibition in the Chinese capital.

One of Couchman’s aims was to showcase the “multiple textures and vistas” of the traditional Beijing alleyways, or hutong, that faced new threats of being demolished to make way for new buildings.

“It has a performative angle: process, construction, dirt, proximity and distance are all evident in these images. This is what I am working with”, she says.

The In Beijing exhibition was one of the latest efforts by Couchman, who has lived in the capital for six years. Her work often explores a popular theme: a fast developing China.

The 38-year-old artist, whose primary medium is photography, sometimes also travels back to Britain to hold exhibitions or conduct research. She expects her In Beijing show to travel to London this year. Last week, Couchman was speaking at the popular Cambridge Science Week in a talk entitled Limits of Seeing.

In 2008, she published her first photographic collection Workers, to illustrate her personal engagement with China.

In the book, she showed photos of 143 migrant workers posed with the National Stadium and other key buildings within the Olympic Village constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In 2010, the artist also produced a linocut collection called Cloud series, Yellow lining, in which clouds and the sky were portrayed as a landscape.

She says her work was inspired by “a yellow line” she saw in the sky as her plane landed in Beijing in February that year.

Couchman, who has travelled to many places in China and produced considerable work here, was inspired to come to China a decade ago.

Images from the Harbin ice festival in northeastern Heilongjiang province on the back of a weekend magazine fascinated her. Even more compelling: stories about the planned flooding of the Yangtze valley. She felt she “needed to come here as soon as possible before China’s rapid changes and development swallowed these places”.

In 2006, she finally got to Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“I first came to China on the train from Moscow in January 2006. I took the train as it was my first time coming to China and I wanted to see the distance coming across from Europe to Asia and I had, since I was a child, a fascination for the story of the last Tsar of Russia and his family’s demise in Siberia.

“I was born about an hour south of London and when I was 8 weeks old, my family moved to a ruined farmhouse in the Brecon Beacons National Park in the mountains of south Wales.

“My parents slowly did it up and learned farming. They bought a ruin because the area was beautiful, but at that time you could not build a new home in the national park,” she says. Now a professional artist and taking her works across the world, Couchman still reviews where she should be working every year.

“This year I have some research to pursue in London and projects to do in China.” But her current focus is Beijing.

“Heading to the parks or walking through the hutong in this city is one of my favourite things, ”Couchman says. “One of the things I enjoy about China is that I learn something new everyday.”

Update 26/03/12:

Article also features in the China Daily (mainland newspaper)

‘Globetrotting British artist blooms in Beijing’


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Talk – ‘The limits of Seeing – Art, Space and Perception.’ Cambridge Science Festival 2012


EXPERIENCE THE LIMITS OF SEEING an art and science panel, part of Cambridge Science Festival. Continuing Visualise’s exploration of the boundaries of inner and outer space we invite all to the second ART AND SCIENCE CIRCLE: a starry, thought-provoking, fun, interactive, public discussion on The Limits of Seeing, on THURSDAY 22nd MARCH at 7.30 pm, LAB 028, Anglia Ruskin University. With Professor Carolin Crawford, Institute of Astronomy Cambridge; Elinor Morgan, Curator Wysing Arts; Helen Couchman, Artist;  Joao Linhares and Matilda Biba, Vision Scientists, Anglia Ruskin University; plus ‘Can You See what I See?’ a new video made specially for the event by Marina Velez and Russell Cuthbert. Don’t miss !! 7.30-9.00 pm. Free event.

In association with Cambridge Science Festival, Anglia Ruskin Science and Technology Faculty and Wysing Arts Centre.


Professor Carolin Crawford is an astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. Her research focuses on the properties of the most massive galaxies in the Universe, using data collected from the largest ground-based and space telescopes. Carolin combines her research and teaching with her other passion – communicating her love of astronomy to as wide an audience as possible. She runs the outreach programme at the Institute of Astronomy, and in addition to giving many talks on a wide range of astronomical topics, is a regular contributor to both national and local radio programmes. In 2009 Carolin was noted as one of the UKRC’s Women of Outstanding Achievement for the communication of science with a contribution to society. See website – http://www-xray.ast.cam.ac.uk/~csc/cv.html

Helen Couchman (born UK) has exhibited widely, both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  Her first book, WORKERS 工人, June 2008 was exhibited in London and in Hong Kong and will be shown in April 2012 for the first time in Beijing. It takes the form of a series of portraits of the men and women who laboured to build the Olympic park for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Her second book, Mrs. West’s Hats (2009) consists of sixty self-portraits, referencing  her maternal grandmother, whose splendidly eccentric collection of hats Couchman wears in the photographs. Later  works include Untitled (Collecting and Dropping) (2009) Cloud series, Yellow lining (2010) and In Beijing (2011). These works address in part her negotiations with the city of Beijing where she has now worked for six years.  She now lives in Beijing and in London. More at www.helencouchman.com.

Dr Joao Linhares: Lecturer in Department of Vision and Hearing Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University. He graduated  in Optometry and Vision Sciences in 2002 from the University of  Minho, Braga, Portugal and was granted a MPhil in 2006, from Manchester University, UK.  He was awarded his PhD doctorate in 2011.  His research interests include hyperspectral imaging, chromatic diversity in complex scenarios and colour vision deficiency.  More at www.linhares.eu.

Joao will be accompanied by his colleague in Anglia Ruskin Vision and Hearing Sciences, Matilda O’Neill-Biba,MCOptom,  who  has a degree in Optometry and Vision Sciences in 2002 from City University, London where she is now undertaking research and currently in the final stages of her PhD.  She is also a visiting lecturer on the MSc Diabetic module, City University. Her research interests include  acquired visual function and colour vision loss in subjects with ocular and systemic conditions (ARMD, Diabetes, MS and Glaucoma); new colour vision and congenital colour vision deficiency and assessment.

Elinor Morgan is  Curator & Programme Director at Wysing Arts Centre which she joined as Operations Director in July 2010. She has been heavily involved with development and commissioning of Wysing’s forthcoming COSMOS residency programme. She was previously Chair of OUTPOST Gallery, Norwich, an artist-run space where she worked with a range of artists and developed various off-site projects. Since its inception Ellie has been keenly involved in the progress of the Eastern Region’s Turning Point network.  She studied History of Art, Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of East Anglia.  More at www.wysingartscentre.org.

Marina Velez and Russell Cuthbert both attained first class degrees from Anglia Ruskin University where they studied BA in Fine Art. Marina is currently completing her second and final year of the Masters in Fine Art course also at ARU.  More at: www.marinavelez.com/

For Limits of Seeing they are in the process of making a new video work ”Can You See What I See?

Artists Statement:

Most important astronomical observatories are placed in high altitude locations such as the Atacama Desert, the Andes or Hawaii,  where visibility is optimal as they are situated above clouds, water vapour and other atmospheric elements. However, scientists working in these observatories have to deal with physical and psychological high altitude related medical problems. When discoveries are made at these sites, assuring scientific rigour is paramount. This is normally achieved through a series of cognitive tests that measure both accuracy and speed of thinking, conducted between the scientists in the observatory and those based at sea level. This tension between what it is gained in vision and what may be lost in understanding highlights the idea that we do not necessarily see only with our eyes, but rather with our brains and our consciousness. This video work uses a poetic and minimal language to express the problematics of achieving universal understanding of concepts and suggests that this process is both visual and verbal. It explores the limits of vision through communication and understanding that is simultaneously inwards and outwards, subjective and objective.



For the website link here

For Cambridge Science Festival 2012 link here


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Radio interview – ‘Helen Couchman – Making art in China’

Interview for ‘Expat Tales’ broadcast on CRI, China Radio International, Beijing and ‘Heartbeat’ broadcast on Strait to Taiwan. Talking with Julianne Page in Beijing it aired at 4.40pm 1st February.


Listen to ‘Expat Tales’,  http://english.cri.cn/8706/2012/02/01/1942s678699.htm 01/02/2012

Helen Couchman is an artist who first arrived in China via the trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow in February 2006.
Since that time she has exhibited widely in China and other countries and published two books.

Helen is based in Beijing and is continuously influenced by what she sees around her.


Listen to ‘Heartbeat’, http://www.strait2taiwan.tw/content/helen-couchman-making-art-china 06/02/2012

Welcome to Heartbeat, the show that gets to the centre of China’s ever-changing lifestyle, yet still manages to discover the country’s rich cultural heritage. I’m your host Man Ling.

Today we’ll introduce you to four people who are working in different fields but contributing to society in their own ways.

First up we’ll hear the story of a retired female worker who has committed herself to the task of cleaning up Tian’anmen Square for the past seventeen years without compensation. Then we’ll meet a young man who specializes in IT technology but chose to give up his reliable income and career prospects to become a farmer.

Later we’ll meet a photographer who hopes to show people the true spirit of China and Chinese people through his photographs. And last but not least, we’ll meet an expatriate living here in Beijing who, inspired by her life in China, continues to make exciting works of art.


China Radio International 1008AM, 846AM, 91.5FM. World service on London 558AM, Nairobi 91.5FM - Mongolia 103.7FM - Laos 93.0FM - Perth, Australia 104.9FM etc.

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Happy Chinese new year of the water dragon, 2012

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First drawing for ‘Untitled (Collecting and Dropping)’

First drawing for ‘Untitled (Collecting and Dropping)’ 2007

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Drawing – Bonhams

Bonhams, Christmas 2011

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Happy Christmas & Happy New Year 2012

Snowman at the wholesale Christmas market, Beijing, China

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Feature – ‘An Artist’s space’ – Agenda magazine, The Art issue

Agenda Magazine 92. The Art Issue Dec. p18-19





An Artist’s Space

Artist Helen Couchman talks about her visual exploration of the capital’s changing landscape
Interview by Jennifer Thomé.

Years ago, Helen Couchman had a feeling that China was changing fast and she knew that she had to see it before it was too late. And so she did. For the past six years, Helen has been exploring her own art, as well as China’s traditional arts, through her exploration of Beijing and its spaces.

You mentioned that you knew you had to come to Beijing. How did your work evolve once you got here? I have always been interested in changing landscapes and how they reveal the politics and the economics of the place, even when there aren’t people in the image. I’ve worked on this reoccurring idea in Armenia, Cyprus, and the States. The reason I worked with fans in my first project was that I wanted to explore the idea of me going somewhere. It was my first visit to Beijing and I had two months to prepare an exhibition of new work. I thought: “What is an artist doing, going to China to work?” I wanted to explore, and understand better how I’d deal with that. What was I to return to England with? Fans bear a historical significance, but are also easy to travel with, which fitted my self-made brief. Their tradition is to be a memento of something you’ve enjoyed, such as a landscape or a poem to a lover. These fans evolved to be a traveling memory in the form of a traditional and oriental gift.

What impressed you most about Beijing when you first arrived? When I first arrived in Beijing, I would go out at night on my bicycle and take photos of huge advertising hoardings surrounding construction sites, particularly on the third ring road. I was impressed with the size of them. I took hundreds of photographs. I have a strong sense of the spacial qualities of my surroundings. You are the sum of all of your parts. It’s not that I go out for a walk in the park and the autumn leaves make me go home and paint autumn leaves. No, it’s that all of these things filter in, and if you keep focusing on certain interests, it comes out of you and your work. This is why buildings have been such a strong presence in my work.

What about your series of “Woodcuts, Cloud Series and Yellow Lining”? What really attracted me to this craft was the way the clouds are connected, and how they end up forming their own landscape. Then I placed things that I had noticed into the landscape – the advertising hoardings, satellite dishes, and the fans. They are all muddled together. The red paper, which is also used in the first project “Gift”, is called thousand year red paper and it’s so saturated with red ink that everything that touches it goes red. It’s a nightmare to work with, but the redness of it is glorious. It’s absolutely velvety, and soaked in color. In my later perfomative photographic series “Untitled (Collecting and Dropping)” I let my fingers become red having repeatedly handled this paper as my feet become black on the dusty floor.

“The key thing that struck me was the power of the people, and the number of hands that China had, and the fact that everything can be moved around or shifted by these people.”

What about your book, WORKERS 工人. Where did the idea for that originate? In a nutshell, it was me looking at how the Olympics was such a particular time for this city, and the country. It seem to me that it was the first time the country had offered an open invitation to the world to come and see what China could do. I felt that it boiled down to a question of rebranding and who was involved in it. I decided to explore the site of the new Olympic park. The key thing that struck me was the power of the people, and the number of hands that China had, and the fact that everything can be moved around or shifted by these people. This is why I decided to put my focus on the workers. I wanted to explore who is involved in the rebranding and is that rebranding for an internal of external market? I told the workers that I would be there for two days, and that I would take a portrait of anyone who was willing, and that I would return to give them a print and to collect their names and names of their hometowns. In the end there were 143 people in the book. Looking at the portrait series there is an element of all 143 being alike – a symbolic worker – and yet they are individuals, which is revealed in their faces and their handwriting. It is also worth noting that hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of these migrant workers are working on things that their families might never see. Their relatives might have seen the Olympics on TV, but never have been able to afford a ticket, even if it had it been legal for them to do so. I like to imagine the portraits now pinned up in family homes across China.  

Helen’s book WORKERS 工人, featuring the portraits of the Olympic stadium workers, is available at The Bookworm and online at www.soloshowpublishing.com



No. 222, 'Untitled (Collecting and Dropping)'


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Talk – ‘Negotiating Spaces’ talk by artist Helen Couchman















First in series of “Visualise’ Public Art Talks in Cambridge curated by Bronaċ Ferran.

‘Negotiating Spaces’ with artist Helen Couchman

The first talk in the ‘Visualise’ series organised by guest curator Bronaċ Ferran features visual artist Helen Couchman, who lives and works between London and Beijing. Couchman has made Beijing her own ‘residency space’. Her projects there have included entering the Beijing Olympic village when under construction and making photographic portraits of construction workers who are otherwise invisible and anonymous in the eyes of the world. Recent work depicts the shifting public and private spaces of Beijing including disappearing hutongs and the mysterious layers of yellow dust which she has perceived from an aeroplane whilst flying over the city.

Couchman and Speakman will lead an open discussion about negotiating spaces for art in changing cities.

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‎’and…and…and…and…’ 1000 postcards, 1996

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Beijing Excavations: An Interview with Helen Couchman – Whitehot Magazine









Beijing Excavations: An Interview with Helen Couchman

whitehot | August 2011
by Travis Jeppesen

The hutongs – or traditional lanes – of the Xicheng area surrounding Houhai Lake in downtown Beijing present a picture of a rapidly disappearing facet of city life. Filled with hidden courtyards and single-story houses, often dating back hundreds of years, walking among them reminds one of what Beijing used to be like, prior to the rapid modernization that has taken place in the last ten years, which has seen the erection of countless skyscrapers, high rise apartment buildings, and soulless American-style shopping centers.

It is this world of “old Beijing,” which is constantly being threatened with extinction, that forms the setting for Helen Couchman’s latest series, In Beijing. The British artist, who has made Beijing her home since 2007, made the interesting choice of using three small mirrors in photographing seemingly random sites among the hutongs. The ongoing series can be viewed as an extension of Couchman’s continual engagement with her adopted hometown, a process that first received international attention around the time of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, in the form of her series of photographic portraits, Workers 工人 (gong ren).

Travis Jeppesen: Maybe we can start with the Workers 工人 (gong ren) project. How did you gain access to the Olympic building site when they were working?

Helen Couchman: I did contact people and hoped to get access in an official way, but no one replied. So I didn’t have any access. I just walked on site one day. More precisely, I had been walking around the premises for a couple of months every now and then. I’m interested in changing landscapes, and that’s one of the reasons why I came to Beijing. Normally, when I’m dealing with landscapes, there are no figures involved in the work. So I started by mostly photographing the site. But then one day, I was photographing two workers right by one of the gates, and they said, why don’t you come inside and have a look? And so I walked on site. They were at the point where it was no longer a massive hole in the ground, so it was relatively safe. Another workman further down asked if I would take his photograph. He didn’t have a camera, but was excited by the idea of having a photograph of himself working on the site.

And so I came back to the site soon after that with a plan. I designated a certain time period; otherwise you can photograph people endlessly. I spread the word that I would wait there for two days and would photograph anyone who wanted to be photographed. I took pictures of 143 people in those two days. And I said I would come back with prints to give out. I printed them and gave any of the workers who managed to meet me again their photograph – because it was all unofficial, there was no chance of meeting anyone again outside of the project, so I waited in the place where the portraits were taken for two days with these prints. I told them, “I’ll return and wait for two days. Come and find me and I’ll give you the print.” Then I asked them for their signature and their home address. I didn’t take any more photos on those days. A couple of people came up and asked me to take their picture later, and I had to say, “Sorry, I was here for two days and I decided before I started that I had to put a time limit on this project.” Looking through the book, you’ll see that some of the people are listed as unknown, and that’s when I didn’t meet the person again. I was sorry about that. But in a sense, it fits the project. Because the fact is with these situations, where large numbers of migrant workers build vast areas of construction in China, you never know who they were when you’re looking at the end product.

I told them that I thought what they were doing was great work. Any foreigner who is familiar with Chinese building sites will tell you that it is a very hands-on process. At a western style construction site, you might have a guy with a crane, but at a Chinese construction site, instead you might have fifty guys pulling a rope. I’m interested in the changes that are happening in China and in this case, form whom this massive stadium, aquatic center and Olympic park were being built? These workers would not have the papers, called hukou, needed to return to Beijing during the Olympics or the money to buy tickets. They wouldn’t be back to see the building when it was finished.

Jeppesen: It highlights the inherent anonymity of the situation.

Couchman: Well, before the Olympics, there were especially large numbers of migrant workers coming through the city. You’d see them sitting at midday eating lunch, and they would be gathered in large groups sitting on the pavement. And you might wonder, where did all these people come from? Where are they sleeping tonight? What are they working on?

I assume that a lot of the prints were sent to their families, who also probably wouldn’t have had the hukou necessary to come and see the Olympics. Though millions watched it on television, along with those around the world. But at least they have a picture of their uncle or their father or their cousins in front of the iconic buildings they helped to construct. It does bring a sense of ownership, I think. And I suppose a lot of the families will keep it as, say, you might a wedding or graduation photo. You know, “This is what I did. I worked on the Olympic Stadium in 2008.”

Jeppesen: “I participated in history.”

Couchman: Yes, it was history. It was very important for the Chinese. Because they hyped it themselves as an invitation to the world to come and see what China could do. The hype was not coming from outside. They made a big deal of it.

Jeppesen: Your latest project with the mirrors, what’s it called?

Couchman: It’s an odd one. Usually a title comes to me early on. With this project, I had difficulty and I think there’s a reason why. My motives aren’t complicated, but there is a lot going on within the images. It’s a lot about found objects. It was hard defining, but I found that whenever I was talking about the project, I talked about an exhibition in Beijing. So I called it In Beijing. At first, I thought it was temporary, a working title. But finally, I think I might stick to it because it ties the series down to a certain location. And it becomes, again, about location.

Jeppesen: It engages specifically with the topography of this neighborhood where you’re living in Beijing. I’m wondering what the genesis of the project was.

Couchman: Usually I have a snippet of an idea and I brew on it for ages until it becomes urgent to do. I have had those three mirrors sitting on my desk since January 2009. I wanted from the beginning to capture nearness and distance in the same image. But then later on, the reason why the project became pressing was because I put the two problems together.

I wonder how to interpret my surroundings, and in this case how the city’s changes can be interpreted. They recently demolished two large areas around the historic Drum and Bell Towers, and they [the government] had said that they were going to demolish another enormous area. Some locals were up in arms about it. So then they decided to curtail the plans, however they had already demolished two large areas to the north and south. I was sorry to see this had happened and that it seemed so inevitable. I live in the hutongs and have walked and cycled around them since I’ve lived in Beijing.

I felt that there was something to be done with what I refer to as the edge – where you have the upturned, demolished earthy site, basically earth on one side and then the hutongs leading away undisturbed from that edge on your other side. I’d been taking pictures recording where they had demolished these neighborhoods and flattened the earth; where it was bare. I walked across it, watching workers, machinery, scavengers, and children digging into it. Bringing the cityscape quickly down to an earthy flatness is quite surreal. Removing all the stuff that makes a city, you are starkly reminded that underneath it is soil and nothing more.

Jeppesen: Regarding the earthiness or even grittiness of the photos, it’s very Beijing, isn’t it? It also relates to the people, too. Beijingers are regarded as being very down-to-earth.

Couchman: I think Beijing is a very earthy place. One of the reasons why I live here is because it is being dug up. Not everyone would make it a destination city – a place that’s being dug up! – but I definitely came here for that reason.

Jeppesen: At what point did you decide to bring the mirrors into it?

Couchman: The hutongs are complicated. Some people think they’re slums, some people think they’re beautiful, some think they’re historical treasures and should be protected by UNESCO. I think there are arguments that fit all those examples. I’m certainly a big fan of the hutongs. But it’s a wrestling match between something beautiful, something ugly, something really old, and then someone will stick a brand new door on it – it’s all mixed together, and in that respect, it has so much humanity. So I decided that nearness and distance play a role, as they helped me to define the “view” more definitely. With the mirrors, I can mix a green leafy tree behind me, further down the hutong, with a scruffy piece of plastic that’s covering someone’s woodpile. The mirrors can reflect those contradictions physically and allow me to place possibly contrary views of the place together within a single image.

Jeppesen: It’s a lot more authentic than what you find on a postcard of Beijing. But in an extremely detailed way, which gives it aesthetic value. And it’s so abstract, because with the mirrors, you get several different images within a single image, almost producing a collage effect. I remember reading that there’s a superstitious aspect to the use of the mirrors, as well.

Couchman: Yes. I didn’t know this when I began the project, but I thought there was likely to be a superstition or meaning with mirrors, and it turns out the Chinese do have this. I read that mirrors were considered to affect the flow of energy, wealth, and healthiness of a space, and had historically been placed outside houses in China to ward off negative forces. I use that myth in the text accompanying the work because it feels very apt, though it wasn’t fundamental to my making the project.

Jeppesen: Would you say that photography is at the core of your practice?

Couchman: Yes, I think photography is a medium, amongst drawing, printmaking, and installation, that I often use, but if you asked me where my instincts lie, I’d say sculpture. I’ve been taking pictures since I was a child. My grandfather gave me a plastic camera when I was eight or so. I always wanted to take pictures. But it has always felt more like note taking, rather than the final item. Now I use photos as my final pieces more often because a lot of my photography has become, not a document of an action, but often, part of that action. So, for example, in this particular series, it was important not to end up documenting the hutongs. I wanted the final images to be active. I think a lot of photography records something seen. This work does by default document aspects of the hutongs, but I imagine the feeling when you see the exhibition is that the pieces are about a particular process of doing something. A sense of place, of being there and getting dirty and dusty. Rather than more of a disconnection – the photographer has disappeared and the illusion is left. I wanted this series to be dirty, dusty, and physical. That’s why my feet are in some of the pictures. It’s about being right there on that physical texture. I wanted this to be remembered as well. It’s about walking around, feeling it, touching it, and playing with it. I think photography is sometimes still too much about illusion. In my practice currently, I think photographic illusion in the traditional sense is slightly irrelevant.

Jeppesen: You’re trying for something direct and almost brutal.

Couchman: Yes, there is that energy in this series, I think. With the Workers 工人 project, I think when you get right down to it, it’s about exchange. The photographs became items that were exchanged. And then they traveled. Exchange – that’s the key.

* * *


Travis Jeppesen is the author of five books, including Victims, the novel chosen by Dennis Cooper to debut his “Little House on the Bowery” imprint for Akashic Books, and Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”. His most recent book is Dicklung & Others, a collection of poetry. He lives in Berlin.

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Beijing Excavations: An Interview with Helen Couchman – Whitehot Magazine

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