Lydia Chen was born in Hong Kong, lived briefly in Brazil, and immigrated to the United States at age five. Her education took place in New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and California. She received her B.A. in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College and her master’s degrees in journalism and Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
She first lived in China in the 1980s, when she met young artists eager to learn about Western modernity and individualism. She returned to the United States in early 1989 and, stunned, watched on television the military suppression of citizen protestors in Tiananmen Square. While in journalism school in the early 1990s, she produced her first documentary, Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. She wanted to find out what happened to the exuberance of the 1980s in the aftermath of tragedy, and how art expressed those feelings.
Lydia lived and worked in Beijing again from 1997 to 2003. She was communications director for the American Chamber of Commerce when China joined the WTO. After returning to California with her family, she became associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University. In 2008, she became associate director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, where she led programs for six years.
In 2014, she began to pursue her dream project: continuing the story of the Chinese artists in search of modernity. With support from a Fulbright grant, she returned to Beijing to conduct research. She shot and edited Art in Smog single-handedly as an independent filmmaker, completing the film in 2018.
Art in Smog is about seeking one’s place in an uncertain world and how art sustains the human spirit.
I wanted to make an evocative work and to make the China experience more than a story limited to China. I hope the film will resonate in different ways for each viewer. I hope the film offers a sense of China’s current complexities but also offers each viewer a way to ponder art, history, and life.