Jennifer Wen Ma was born in 1973 in Beijing, China and moved to the United States in 1986. She works and lives in New York and Beijing. Ma’s interdisciplinary practice bridges media as varied as installation, video, drawing, fashion design, public art and performance, often bringing together unlikely elements in a single work. Some recent solo exhibitions include Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, and The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. She has had video installations commissioned by Guggenheim Bilbao, 2009; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008; and the National Art Museum of China, 2008. In 2008, Ma was one of the seven members on the core creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Additionally, as the main liaison for the international broadcast teams, she won an Emmy for the US broadcast of the ceremony. Upcoming projects include the permanent public lighting installation for the façade of National Aquatic Center, aka The Water Cube, Beijing.
ZD: Describe your current job; a normal day.
A: My day varies quite a lot depending on where I am and what I'm working on. The only commonality is that I work a lot, no less than 70-80 hours a week typically. So it's important that I really like what I do! In my New York studio, my days are spent making proposals, creating drawings and paintings, corresponding and managing projects, meeting colleagues, and managing my studio. When I'm working on site on an exhibition or artwork directly, then the day can be very unpredictable with both working on making the project, trouble-shooting unexpected problems that arise, meeting with collaborators, fabricators or members of the press.
ZD: What was your major in college? When you were in college, what did you think you would be doing when you finished? What was your actual career path? How did you find yourself on this path?
A: My degree was in Advertising Design, though I never spent a day working in the field, because by my junior year I knew I wanted to be a painter and artist. But it took me a few more years to find my way. After college I spent three years traveling and painting and working to save up money. Then I went to graduate school for my Master of Fine Art degree in New York. It was in New York that I found my voice and path as an artist.
ZD: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? How do you plan to get there?
A: I intend to continue to make art, challenging myself to expand artistic language and testing boundaries, and do fun projects! I plan to do this by choosing each exhibition and project carefully, always staying true to conceptual and artistic integrity, staying focused and hardworking.
ZD: What did you think was the most important thing you learned while in college? Did that help you in your career? What do you wish you had studied or studied more of in college?
A: Looking back, I see that my college degree has been beneficial in my current work, even though I am not in the advertising world. It trained me to be an art director, coming up with concepts and big ideas, being mindful of target audience. It encouraged collaborations with other professionals, and gave me a healthy respect for the design world. I continue to work collaboratively, across many design disciplines. It also allowed me to see the difference between art and commerce, and know where I want to reside.
Graduate school gave me a more direct education on being an artist. Conceptual thinking, analytical viewing, understanding larger artistic, cultural and political context of art making, networking are all important tools that graduate school provided.
ZD: Looking at where you were back in college and where you are now what is the biggest surprise you encountered in the work world and in your career path?
A: I didn't realize how connected my working process would be to the outside world on a regular basis. I had envisioned a more traditional way of working in my studio for weeks and months on end, and showing in exhibitions periodically. But in actuality, in our interconnected global world, it's a much more integrated process and the boundaries are very blurred.
ZD: What do you feel is an important quality to have to do well in your field?
A: Focus, handwork and thinking outside the box.
ZD: Do you have one piece of advice for college students interested in pursuing a career in your field? What worked, what you would have done differently?
A: I'd advise students to take on lots of internships. Be bold and curious and open with people you meet. You never know who will open a door for you and invite you in. But you must be ready, with lots of good work under your arm when opportunity opens up.
ZD: What is the best piece of advice someone has given you in your workplace?
A: A curator and dear friend told me once that if I were to really pursue an art career, I'd have to be willing to go all the way, and dive into the ravine if necessary! Fearlessness!
ZD: What do you do in your spare time, do you have a hobby? What book did you last read?
A: I love reading. I love my cats. I love good eating with good friends. My latest obsession is reading the I-Ching. Amazing wisdom, that will take a life time or more to absorb.
ZD: Can you name one or two essential qualities you look for in an entry level candidate?
A: In my current search for an intern, I'm looking for a responsible, dependable person who has attention to details, and is invested in art, whether creatively, historically, critically, or administratively.