Painter, sculptor, installation artist
Interview on January 6th at Daily Routine, Wudaoying
KL: How do you define yourself as an artist? Is painting all that you do?
TP: Painting and collage has become my primary mode but I dabble in everything. Anything I can get my hands on, whatever I have the opportunity to work with, I work with. I have a Bachelors degree in studio art and I have a Masters degree in sculpture so from the beginning I was doing installation work sometimes incorporating sound and video.
KL: Do you get much opportunity to do sculpture here in Beijing?
TP: No, I don’t have the space. That’s kind of how I’ve been working and I think that’s what defines artists anyway – someone who has a creative mind-set who wants to work creatively with whatever opportunity and resources that are given or available to them. My apartment or whatever work space I have dictates, partially, what I do. Recently I was reflecting on this idea of being an artist and not working, not creating art and get really depressed and saying, Oh, I’m not working. There was a period between my Bachelors and Masters when I spent so much time in the kitchen, daily experimenting and creating stuff. So I had an on-going hobby and obsession with food and creating dishes. Looking back, I realise that it’s all the same thing. For me, it has to be process-oriented creativity. If I could go back to the idea of doing installation work, I like to set up a scenario and processes where the viewer participates and gets involved so I don’t really have a projected outcome that I demand the viewer sees. It kind of just evolves into whatever it is visually to them as they interact, which may be different to me. I’ve done that several times before but I don’t really have the opportunity to do that now.
KL: So now you’re just painting?
TP: Primarily painting. I take a lot of photographs as this is another genre that is very appealing to me and I pick up knick-knack things I see on the ground every once in a while and think I’m going to do something with it.
KL: So you hoard?
TP: No, I don’t. In fact, I’m very selective about what I’m picking up. If I had a space, I’d be grabbing all of this stuff and working with it. I don’t have the tools that I have at home. I don’t have the space, basically but I have the same ideas in my head and I’m like, Argh! It’s a bit frustrating. But I think sometimes having limitations is good. I used to paint but I was really sloppy about it. I wasn’t really considering myself a painter even though I’d been painting for almost twenty years. I didn’t see myself asa “painter” painter because some people are really meticulous painters. I guess it’s really about your own definition of a painter. I really like the physicality of paint or the physicality of materials and the interaction with materials so I was more like a science lab kinda guy. What does this do? If I mix this with this and see the reaction I get and playing with visual elements. I’m good with composition.
KL: You’re saying you used to be a messy painter so your process has changed now?
TP: Now my painting has actually evolved into something that’s more painterly. I teach art history which has hugely influenced my painting. When I was in school my mind-set was, I’m only interested in contemporary stuff, things that are more fascinating and different. In art school you are around all these people and you start doing these really heady type projects and you’re so involved in being clever, your audience becomes the school. You start thinking, Who am I playing to? There’s no visual aspect to it. It becomes too conceptual. People would ask me what I’m doing and I’d try to explain it and realise it’s lost something for me. I had developed this attitude of, I want to be progressive and you know, this is old school stuff’ I’mnot really interested in. Now I find the process of teaching art history and going back through these old artists and movements really fascinating and some of these artists are badasses. I realised I’d glossed over people who were doing all this crazy stuff, they were often being radical.
KL: So who are they? Who rocks your world?
TP: Oddly enough, I like people like Goya and Manet. Even though I’m not painting like these people, I like the fast application of paint. I like the cleverness of Manet at the time putting together different genres that didn’t jive, which now seems to be no big deal. Putting together landscapes with nudity and a portrait and still life all at the same time was kind of radical. I like to pick and pull from things that I see. It’s like a folding in of itself. Contemporary art or contemporary painting is now taking the best of everything that went before and it’s kind of like a car parts place where you go and pick and pull what you want.
KL: Mash up.
TP: Yeah, mash up. So I’m a collage artist literally and then I also collage painting styles together as well. I think probably my strength is that I’m able, after spending a little time, to match a style. I’ll think, Okay, this is applied flat, I understand it. Then mix that with something else, like mix it with something that’s pop arty over here or ancient or medieval, it’s flat, and juxtapose with something that’s renaissance and a little more in-depth Now the collage approach had are kind of evolved further in my work for example I’m mixing in mythologies with modern day issues. The painting I’m currently working on [Yen Codex] has a mixture of street graffiti background and classical figures that are Romanesque with these strange mythologies that have references to religion. It’s part of a series I’m creating where each painting includes certain representations that flow throughout, one being the Chinese zodiac animals. This is the monkey one.
KL: Are you trying to represent what the monkey is supposed to be in the zodiac?
TP: No. This series that I’m doing is called Metamorphose but it has kind of metamorphed out of another series I complete called Phantasmagoria. It’s a dream-like amalgamation of items that I was putting together. Kind of a mix of personal stories or things I’d see on the news, anything that was around me, particularly the idiosyncrasies of Beijing from a westerner’s point of view, just mixing them together because I think that’s kind of how your world is. You get up and start your day and you’re watching all this news. You’re seeing earthquakes on TV and then you’re riding the bus with a thousand people and people are telling you stories, you’re talking to friends on the other side of the world, so life in itself is so kind of surreal.
KL: What do you want the viewer to take from it?
TP: I want to set up something that’s a pseudo narrative and I want the viewer to fill in the parts and interpret the painting according to their own influences not necessarily according to mine. I like the idea of setting something up and letting stories evolve in somebody else’s mind. I have my own process of making up a story.
KL: It sounds like you have a rather fractured narrative. Are you expecting they’ll put something more linear in it?
TP: It’s not a fully evolved narrative but there is a narrative in each painting. If you talk about the different parts of what’s in this painting I can talk about how the monkey relates to different things or what the apple relates to. There are so many different stories like Snow White and Adam and Eve. The viewer may see the references or they may not.
KL: The immediate thing it brings to mind is Adam and Eve. It’s like she’s offering the apple to the monkey and the monkey is Adam. I can see that.
TP: All the paintings have female figures of strength, change or oppression in there, it’s one of the other representations flowing through the series.
KL: I thoroughly approve.
TP: So I’ve created limitations for myself and by limitations I mean the visual criteria that are in each piece. The Chinese zodiac animals I mentioned, are one such criteria and then I’m pairing them withfemale entitiesand I’m creating different environments or environmental factors in which they relate. There are other common factors but I don’t want to spoon-feed my audience. I’m using my experiences here as a way in which I can connect these things together, the zodiac, the position of women and the environment are all issues that have caught my attention since living in Beijing. Also I’m using, everyday objects I see in China and the art history that I teach just all crammed together. China’s a very… almost claustrophobic environment, people are going everywhere, there are so many things happening, just driving here today on the scooter it was absolute chaos and it’s a wonder that I can get from one place to the next because I’m so interested in looking at the things around me. I’m trying to look at things and also trying to dodge people jumping out into the street.
KL: You’re the second artist who has mentioned to me about the feeling of claustrophobia in China. You’re just so hemmed in all the time.
TP: I like things to intertwine, there’s an “intertwining-ness” that I see everywhere in China. I have an affinity for creating art that overlaps and weaves like the Celtic illuminated manuscripts, which relates back to my wife, she’s Irish, and so I can appreciate this kind of intertwining of ideas and real life. I like organised chaos. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since the beginning. Even when I was messy with the paint I knew how to organise it and so it’s like, I want it messy but still kind of sophisticated. Layered would be the word, right?
KL: With all of your mish-mash of stuff going in there, how deeply do you devise the concept? Is it something that’s fully formed when you start?
TP: It didn’t use to be. I used to just start painting something or sometimes start with a background. I never painted narratively. Now I usually start with either an idea or an image that I have in my head, a general image and go, How am I going to work this into this painting, into the composition? It needs to be interesting in the frame of the canvas and sometimes things work their way in there balancing it. I might just throw an object in there. Sometimes it’s just intuitive. Recently, in making the Metamorphose series it’s been more of an idea for a story or series of stories, or mythologies mixed together around the core criteria. I often start with an idea and I’m like, Okay, I’m going to work it some way into a collage. Icut out interesting things Isee in Chinese magazines that are relevant to the idea and work characters together, seeing how they fit and then start from there. That’s my source material. It’s all a collage. My head’s a collage.
KL: When you speak about using the Chinese magazines are you interested in China in a pop-cultural way or have you researched Chinese art history or mythology?
TP: I do research on mythology, for this series mostly characters that are female heroines in Chinese mythology as I’m interested in the position of women in China. Take my dragon painting from Metamorphose for example, I start by thinking, Okay, let me look up mythologies that have to do with women and have dragons. And I’ll go through these stories and sometimes I get the ideas and that’s how it starts evolving. Sometimes you make really cool connections just by typing, the internet is a great thing. You just punch in “woman,” “dragon,” “Chinese,” “story,” “mythology,” and I’ll get these great stories about this Chinese deity who finds three snake eggs in the river and they grow into dragons and she’s the mother of dragons.
KL: I think that’s the khaleesi you’re talking about. Isn’t that Game of Thrones?
TP: I know it’s amazing, I told this to my wife. It sounds just like Game of Thrones. She’s called the mother of dragons. So I’m thinking that might be where they got that from, who knows.
KL: Maybe. I mean we’re all thieves these days, right?
TP: Of course. It’s pick and pull.
KL: As far as the Chinese experience, did you come here with intent? Some people fall into China and others fight to get here.
TP: I’ve always wanted to travel and this seemed like a very interesting place to come and out of nowhere it did fall into my lap. A guy I used to work, asking him what he did his previous summer, he told me he went to China and I said, Oh really! That’s awesome! He also told me he went to Nigeria to work for the Nigerian president and I was like, What?! And he told me he could get me into China if I wanted to go for the summer. There was a summer programme. So I said, Alright, I want to do it. So the next year I signed up and I went. I was here for eight weeks with no intention of staying and happened to meet somebody here who’s now my wife. So in that process I went home, I had an art show that was pending in November and I quit my job I worked at for seven years, applied for a job here and I’ve been here for the last two and a half years.
KL: That’s a great story.
TP: It is. It’s longer than that but I’ll just give you the short version.
KL: What do you think of the Beijing art community? Are you very involved, do you find it supportive?
TP: I’m not connected enough to be honest, I think that I’m a bit of a recluse to some degree because of time limitations, I’m going from work and going home and still trying to maintain my other job which is painting. Although having said that I was lucky enough to to participate in a group exhibition in 798 last year and I am planning a solo exhibition for this year.
KL: Is it isolating? Do you wish that you were more involved?
TP: No, I don’t think it’s isolating. It’s the life of having 2 full time jobs, my paying job and my art. I have a great dialogue and banter with my wife and actually even with the art show I had prior to coming to China we had that relationship, a long-distance relationship where we were constantly having a dialogue about the names of the works and how they evolved. It’s really exciting you know, to come up with ideas and words and what they mean and sometimes the words would start to kind of manipulate the artwork as well, it started to change things as well. Thinking, that would work really well, and relating those ideas back to the work or bouncing ideas off each other. It doesn’t always work in relationships, sometimes one person is telling you to do one thing and you’re like, No! I’m not doing that.
I think you should change that.
I’m like, No! I’m not doing that.
KL: So is she your muse or are you a two person, self-contained art community?
TP: Most definitely my muse.
KL: Oh that’s nice.
TP: I incorporate her into the work as well.
KL: You know that’s every woman’s dream, to be a muse.
TP: Is it?
KL: No. It’s a horribly sexist thing to say. [laughs]
TP: Yeah I don’t think she’d appreciate that. I don’t think the muse thing is offensive.
KL: No, it’d be great to be a muse, but just not passively.
TP: She’s definitely not in a passive way, not just somebody I’m gazing off at, that’s it, she’s a muse in the sense that she can inspire me through ourconstant dialogue and banter whichchallenges me to think in a different direction. Which, actually, has kind of led me to painting in a more narrative fashion. I didn’t paint like this before.
KL: Being created like that do they cease being a narrative and become a dialogue?
TP: Our dialogue is the narrative that makes the paintings occur and it has to do with several things, it has to do with the ideas I have from reading and observing and mythologies and the mixing of things. Sometimes I have an idea that sounds funny in my own head, you know I think something would be visually funny even though I’m not trying to make it super overt and sometimes people look at it and say, Oh that’s really beautiful! And it’s like, Oh, I thought it was going to be funny. I can’t control people’s reactions to whatever it is but I like reactions whether it’s disgust or delight. Getting a reaction as an artist is good. Getting an “eh” or non-reaction is the worst thing. I like when somebody comes in and starts to tell me their interpretation of my work. They’re like, I get it! They have this epiphany about whatever it is they see in the painting, and I don’t provide a hard-edge story for any of the paintings, but they’re telling me how things are connected as they see it and I’m kind of sitting back and watching it like I’m seeing the painting for the first time. It’s wonderful being able to see my work through the eyes of others and interesting how different that can be from what I had originally seen when creating it. And I kind of like that, it’s fun.
“As a kid I helped my Dad build our house, I have been creating ever since”
Thomas Potter is an American contemporary artist living and working in Beijing. He received a BFA from the University of Texas and a Masters in Fine Art from the University of North Texas. Having participated in a variety of shows both group and solo for almost 20years in the USA he he became intoxicated by the vibrancy and curiosities of Beijing after spending a summer in in the city. Thomas is now fully immersed in the daily life of the Chinese cultural and political capital where the beauty and idiosyncrasies of Eastern culture observed from his western perspective has a huge influence on his art.
Thomas uses an array of mediums including paint, collage, photography, drawing, installation and video. His art reflects an amalgamation of clustered interests, personal experiences and the peculiarities of everyday objects when their context is altered. It combines conflicting facets such as spirituality and conflict, dreams and reality, history and present, overlapping them where they become appendages of each other. His art is a mesh that acts as a counterpoise, bringing about a desired balance between fantasy and reality and allowing the unlikely layers to collectively create surface and depth.
Thomas has been part of group exhibitions here in Beijing and is looking forward to his first solo show in the capital later in 2016.
Photographer, Manager of Instagramers Beijing (#igersbeijing)
Interview on January 6 at Más in Beixinqiao
KL: This is the first interview I’ve done about a collective. Do you want to start by introducing Igersbeijing?
UP: Igers is a global community of instagramers so Igersbeijing is one of those communities that are part of the global Igers community. The community has been here for about three and a half years and was founded by a guy called Rashiq an architect who worked here. I never met him but I knew of him. He started the group because he wanted to get the photography community together. So that’s how it started. And then they had a few Instameets, people just met to socialise and have drinks and then it slowly moved on to photo walks and then after that he left and some other people took over, like Jimi Sides, Frank Yu and another called Wu Di. They all ran the group for a while. After awhile they started using a hashtag called #igersbeijing. So they encouraged people to post pictures with #igersbeijing and they selected pictures from that. Every day they had a category – Monday for food, Tuesday for street photography, Thursday for celestial photography – all different topics from Monday to Friday. They used to select the best pictures and at the end of the week put together a “best of.” Apart from that they used to do a lot of photo walks, photo events, competitions and stuff. The group was actually very active for a while but, unfortunately, Instagram got blocked and that’s where the community went silent for a bit. So people eventually lost interest because there has not been much content on Instagram lately for Beijing. The group got silent for a while in between. Then later on Frank left and Jimi got really busy with his restaurant and his other stuff. That’s when they asked me if I was interested in managing the group and I said I was because I love photography. I’m a street photographer myself. Then, ever since I took over, I’m managing the group with another Chinese guy called Lucas, so Lucas and I post some content every now and then. We’ve been trying to do it every day but things get a bit busy, we have a lot of other things to do but we try to keep the group active. Last summer we did two events that were hugely successful. One of the events, Humans of the Hutongs, was hosted here [Más]. One day, with a group of twenty photographers we went around the hutongs and we spoke to people and took their portraits and I invited them to come here. Then we gifted them with their portraits so they were really happy they got to spend some time with us. Then we did another exhibition called Beijing Belly or Beijing Bikini that was a competition. We got a lot of pictures submitted through hashtags and in the end we made an exhibition in Guanghua Lu, at Caravan. That was also a very interesting experience but, apart from that, we did three Instameets last summer. Just to get together for drinks or brunch. We also did two photo walks where you just meet up and go around and take pictures. That was what we did in summer and we haven’t done anything in winter so far. I think that as everyone is coming back from their holidays we might host an event in the next week or so before the Chinese New Year for people to get together and go take some pictures again.
KL: Does the group have an ethos or manifesto in respect to how they want to represent Beijing?
UP: On the whole, it’s about the community getting together. You meet a lot of like-minded people. You meet a lot of photographers who are really good or who are just beginners. We use our mobile phones to take pictures, beautiful pictures. So in the end it’s all about meeting some nice people and you get to learn a thing or two from them. I’ve met a lot of people. One interesting story is, Jimi, the guy I was talking about earlier, he recently got engaged and he met his fiancée at an Igersbeijing Instameet. Those are the kind of stories that we have. I did an engagement shoot for them. That’s one of the main focuses of Igersbeijing, we try to not make photography a very serious thing. When you’re meeting in a group, there are various types of people, for example, someone who takes pictures of food, someone who takes selfies, someone who likes to take pictures of people. There’re all kinds of people so we try not to make photography a very serious thing because when you get into photography some people are more creative than the others, some people are more technically sound than the other people. So when you go into techniques of photography, it’s a big group and a lot of egos, so we try to keep it low-key, try to do things as a community together. That’s the main manifesto of Igersbeijing.
KL: There is a certain stigma attached to taking photos on your phone, or so I have noticed from some artists I have interviewed, that they are less artistically valid than using traditional cameras. What’s your take on that?
UP: That’s an interesting question. I think in the present day everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Anyone can take photos and that doesn’t exclude them from being a photographer, they’re all photographers. There are only good photographers and bad photographers. So I guess everyone has a device in their pocket they can use to take pictures so it makes them a photographer. Maybe back in the day a photographer was only the guy with the big film lens, or film camera but now things have changed. The way I see it is that there’s only good photographers or bad photographers. There’s also an interesting discussion about what makes a professional photographer, if you call someone a “pro,” in the present day it doesn’t actually mean that they are using photography as a means of supporting their livelihood. “Pro” is also someone who has skills. Some people say, you’re really good so you’re a pro, so that’s also a kind of interesting thing. But for me, a professional photographer is someone who makes a living through photography. In the end everyone’s a photographer.
KL: Do you consider yourself a professional photographer?
UP: I do street photography. I do a lot of photography. I actually did a few paid assignments a few years ago but I didn’t really enjoy it because I enjoy photography as an art. I do a lot of street photography and travel photography but I never make any kind of income from my photography so I don’t consider myself a professional photographer. I’m more of an artist or a photography enthusiast.
KL: The group obviously operates with the sense of community at the forefront but, when you’re talking about featured content, are you looking for artistry above all else or does the community still come through? Like if someone everyone’s fond of takes a photo that is an in-joke, would that be featured?
UP: We try to select from topics but when we feature a picture we pick the pictures based on what’s happening in Beijing, for example, this winter we have been having a lot of polluted days so there’s one Chinese photographer, he’s an actual photographer as well, he took a picture on one of the bridges with huge amounts of smog and stuck his middle finger up in the middle, like saying, fuck off, smog! So we just like a very interesting picture, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good picture but normally interesting pictures are good pictures. On the other side as well, we do feature food pictures. We never feature selfies unless it’s something really, really funny, like I think we featured some selfies during Halloween because they were really interesting. We try to pick pictures based on what’s happening in Beijing.
KL: What’s the potential for Igers to make a political statement, considering pollution is such a big issue in China right now? Is there some amount of political activism through images, even without intent?
UP: I think we try to stay away from it but pollution, I think, has become a non-political thing now. Everyone speaks about it. Even the Chinese government has monitoring set up now so Chinese know all about pollution. It’s not as political as it was before and it’s not a sensitive topic. We do stay away from any kind of sensitive topics.
KL: Are there any other times when Igers has strayed into that territory? I know my photographer friends love taking pictures of the hutongs being pulled down near Qianmen. Essentially what I’m hinting at is, are you guys to blame for the blocking of Instagram in China?
UP: I don’t think so, actually. We did a project about two years back that was about the changes that were happening in the hutongs around Gulou with a hashtag back when Instagram wasn’t blocked. We displayed the pictures in A Spoonful of Sugar Café on Dashilar Hutong. There were some really cool pictures that people shot during that time. You know, those kinds of things I think still are on the borderline. We don’t really make any statements. It’s more of a visual statement. We try not to write anything negative about it just have the picture there. That’s the only situation I can think of where we came close to subjects that were a little sensitive.
KL: Do you think there’s an element of anthropology or documentary in the collected works?
UP: For sure, when we organise competitions there is definitely an element of documentary based photography like the hutong changes, when we documented the lives of the people living in the hutongs or the culture of men pulling up their shirts and showing off their bellies. I think these are all part of documentary photography. Everything that we shot made a statement. For Humans of the Hutongs it was more showing that people are happy and together in the hutongs. By the looks of it, all you see is randomness and messiness but behind that there is always people full of joy. Particularly if you consider places like these somewhere in South America people would be afraid to go alone in the night but, as foreigners, we all walk freely. There is no sense of any harm so that’s one of the things that we tried to convey through Humans of the Hutongs. The artwork wasn’t anything crazy or anything beautiful but it was showing people and what they do around here, the same thing with the belly thing as well. We hear so much negative stuff about China, and not that bad things don’t happen but I feel like it’s blown out of proportion when people write about China, particularly in the Western media. But you can see a sense of freedom in certain things like seeing some random dude with some friends sitting outside a shop having a drink and some barbecue. These are the things that you can’t really do in other places. So those are the kind of things that we try to showcase. We try to keep things pretty positive.
KL: As far as Igers creating a counter-narrative to the Western media’s take on China…
UP: I’m not denying that what Western media writes about China is true, obviously there’s a certain truth in it but they never show the opposite side of the coin. There’re always two sides to a coin so that’s what we try to show. Not necessarily trying to make a statement but, as a group, it’s nice to do things that are positive. Personally as a photographer I like taking pictures of negative subjects. I never take pictures of beggars or homeless people on the street but I think art becomes more powerful when you’re dealing with negative subjects. But as a group it doesn’t really work so when we do things together we need to keep things positive and keep up the spirit.
KL: How much do you interact with your subjects? Do you try to just record what you see or do you have conversations with them?
UP: It’s both actually. I like taking pictures of people and when I talk to people I do take portraits of them. When I don’t talk to them it’s more of a scene that is happening at the particular time, something interesting or something unique or bizarre. Those are the situations I do not try to contact or talk to those people because it stops the moment and those moments are really, really difficult to capture so it’s very challenging you always have to keep looking out for things. But when I do speak to people I take mostly portraits of them. I’ve had some great experiences speaking to people. I’ve been invited to people’s houses for tea or lunch so I do both things.
KL: What do you see in store for Igersbeijing? Is there a possibility of publishing a collection of your works?
UP: Yeah. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, Jimi had the idea of doing a charity event at Café de La Poste but we couldn’t really find a suitable charity for various reasons. His idea was to publish a calendar and a book but that didn’t really work out. I’m really planning to do that this year but we all have been very busy with things other than Igers. We all have fulltime jobs and other side projects but I would love to publish something of Igersbeijing - a collection of some great pictures that people have contributed to Igersbeijing. I’ve also had the idea of doing some workshops. Basically when you see a good picture, a normal person, he’ll start to think you have a really good camera, you must have spent a lot of money but a good picture is totally possible just with your mobile phone. A lot of people are not aware of how to take good pictures with their mobile phone so I have this idea of doing a two-day workshop teaching people this. These are my two plans for this year.
KL: How do you feel about the idea that we live in a culture that now experiences life through the lens rather than using their own eyes? In this media equipped age where everyone has a camera in his or her pocket, what do think of this compulsion to record?
UP: It’s an interesting question. I often think at times rather than enjoying the moment we end up taking pictures. I normally avoid doing it, like when I’m having a good meal I normally try to avoid taking pictures of any fluffy things that are happening around me, but that’s me. You see people doing it everywhere but there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m no one to judge, if people are happy they’re happy. For me, when I normally take pictures it’s mostly that I’m documenting something interesting. I can tell you, I have about probably a million pictures on my computer now that I have to go through. I don’t have time to go through them. When I take a photograph I have a certain idea in my mind. I’ve been doing a couple of projects, one is on pollution, documenting masks of people and the other one is a very stupid idea, I’ve been documenting only heads of people with blue skies which is like a contrast. So I’ve got some interesting photos. I don’t know when I’m going to finish them because it is an on-going process. I’d love to have an exhibition when I finish them.
KL: Do you ever get hashtagged images that are insensitive, racist or offensive in any way? Are there certain things that you wouldn’t publish? I guess I’m asking if you ever censor anything?
UP: I normally don’t, actually. I think the moment you censor you do lose some important aspects of art. I think art speaks for itself. Art is more powerful. If you look at the history the most powerful images every year, the awards for the best pictures, they are all sensitive subjects. So I think I do not agree with it. That’s how I feel.
KL: Here at Loreli we’re really interested in the idea of collaboration between artists in the community and between different artistic forms, have you considered collaborations with any other forms such as writing or music?
UP: So far I haven’t but we are always open to collaboration. We’ve collaborated with Más and had a couple of exhibitions with a few other bars but if people have any ideas, we always keen to develop and execute it. We’d put our hearts into it.
KL: You’re doing a shout out right now.
UP: Yeah, sure. If you have any ideas just let us know. We have a group. We can bring people together. Just come have a drink with us next time we have an event or come take pictures with us. Do follow us #igersbeijing and do check out my stuff as well even though I never post anything online. That’s pretty much it.
Uday Phalgun is from India and has been living in Beijing for about 4 years now. He works in the Tech Industry working as an engineer for a startup IT firm. Photography (street photography in particular) is one of the things he does outside of his work and he has been working on various photography projects such as Masks, Hands of God and Into the Skies. Uday has been active in the photography community in Beijing through a couple of photography groups he started on wechat. He helps co-organise meet ups, photowalks and events with Igersbeijing.
You can find all the info about igersbeijing in this blog post below:
Interview on December 21 at Dandelion Café, Gulou
KL: So your plan is to create a series on reflections?
SEW: Yes, I’ve been working on my “reflecting China series” for a while now. I have both photos and videos in the meanwhile.
KL: Do you always use the same bodies of water or do they differ?
SEW: No. I go and see them everywhere. When it’s raining, I see them everywhere and this the best time [laughs]. There is a huge pond on a particular cross and I always find really good reflections and the water stays for a long time. Even after days it will still be there.
KL: Is the plan to put it together as an exhibition?
SEW: Yes, I want to put it together for an exhibition one day. I just need to bring them in order and find the right place to exhibit them.
KL: Some artists have a strong artistic statement or mission statement before they begin a work and others wait for a concept to organically grow out of the process. Which order do you work in?
SEW: I usually think conceptually, but this series started by accident. I was working on my kaleidoscope series, where I was capturing different places in Beijing through my kaleidoscope. And as I was working on that and was turning my images in different angles to see how to hang them, so I did that also with a reflection I took before and suddenly I realized this reflection turned into a mystical world that captured me.
KL: Do you have a preference for water or window reflections?
SEW: I have no preference on surfaces as long as they reflect. I prefer clear days though, then the reflections are more vivid and show more contrasts.
KL: What’s your artistic background? Has it always been photography?
SEW: No, I’m a fashion designer specialized in handcrafts and I’ve been working in a small couture studio here in Beijing for the last four years. Now I quit my job and I'm excited about new challenges that will come this year.
KL: So that’s what brought you to China?
KL: And that’s the job you’ve just quit?
KL: Do you feel like you’ve come to the end of that chapter or is it just the end of that job and you’ll still be doing fashion design?
SEW: Now I want to explore myself. During my work in the studio, I realized that I’m a very visual person. Of course you have to be when you are working in fashion or generally in any artistic field. I never knew that I could capture pictures but as we didn’t have the possibility to involve photographers for our shoots, I started to try it out myself. So this is how I got more and more into photography.
KL: Do you think that your background in fashion influences the way that you see the world visually and therefore has an impact on the photographs you take?
SEW: Yes. When working in fashion you learn to develop a sense for proportions, textures, colors and forms... So in photography it works the same for me. A picture is like a piece of clothing that is sewn by my eye.
KL: Do you think that you’ll pursue any formal training in photography or any other creative arts or are you happy to feel your way through as it comes instinctively?
SEW: Hmmm. I understand the light, I understand the image but I'm training myself to understand the “camera- machine” better. Photography is similar to the way I'm studying a dance: I can feel the rhythm, I just need to learn the foot-work and let the music lead me.
KL: How important do you think that sense of community is in your work?
SEW: The creative community here in Beijing?
KL: Yeah, the photographers you know, the fashion designers and I’m sure you know other artists. How does interacting with that community affect your experience as an artist?
SEW: Hmmm. It took me a while to go out and join the community. I was hiding till I realized that everyone is just doing what they love to do.
KL: So you think this is a better environment for expressing yourself in this way?
SEW: Yes, in Germany you have a saying 'everyone cooks with hot water'. So I got more confident concerning my work in certain ways. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where you're from, what you have done so far or how well you use your tools, it's the picture that counts and the emotions you bring up in people.
KL: As far as getting to know all the ins and outs of the tool, is that something that you enjoy, the technical aspect of it?
SEW: Yeah. Because now that I understand it better I’ve started analogue photography some months ago and it definitely peaked my interest.
KL: When you’re shooting on film do you find that to be a completely different process?
SEW: Totally. We all know how it was back then when we didn’t see the result right away and we couldn't wait to see it, right? Nowadays people are not interested in traditional film developing anymore, but for me waiting for the film and seeing it for the very first time after a while is really exciting.
KL: Do you do your own processing?
SEW: No, maybe some day.
KL: Do you put a lot of consideration into film stock?
SEW: I bought some that were five years expired and I figured that the colors are much nicer and the result more surprising. And also I’m working with different formats. So I have one camera that is small and doesn’t have a battery and it shoots 72 pictures so one picture is half-size. I’m just playing around now with formats. And you wind it, like a clock.
KL: Does the tactile difference of carrying a big cumbersome DSLR compared to a little camera like that affect the experience?
SEW: The feeling is a little different. You hold an analogue camera and it feels like every picture you take is very precious. Knowing about digital photography is very important because it's contemporary but I've been always more drawn to handmade things and since my fashion design work was out of any industrial or commercial line, I feel like I found a home in analogue photography that I'm starting to decorate it now.
KL: Are you interested in digitally processing your digital images using Photoshop or other software?
SEW: I don’t do that normally. Because whenever I shoot a picture, I have to like it as it is otherwise I'm not very motivated to continue with it.
KL: You were talking earlier about creating an installation with the photos and videos, are you willing to give me more detail?
SEW: I want to create a live installation but I need to work on it before I reveal too much.
KL: How long have you been working on the series?
SEW: I started these images two years ago. You can never really say when it’s going to rain or when you’re going to see a good reflection. You cannot influence that. And also, this is why almost all of the images I’ve taken of reflections were taken on my phone, these are always captured spontaneously. So there is no camera involved in that series.
KL: Does that make a difference? I hear this a lot – But I just took it with my mobile phone. Yet recently there’s been a fairly highly acclaimed film that’s come out shot purely on iPhone and we are moving towards legitimising it as a medium. Do you feel psychologically, when you are shooting on your phone, that you are doing something less artistic or creative?
SEW: I, myself, am in the process of trying to figure out how I feel about it. I would also introduce this project to other people and I would say, it’s only shot by iPhone. In the end, I think again, that it’s only the image that counts. Maybe it would help if there were more artists exploring with this digital medium and transforming it into something that has a wider acceptance in todays creative world. I guess there would not be this feeling of stigma using a phone in an artistic context.
KL: What’s more important to you, is it purely the aesthetic or, is it also what you’re trying to express through the image?
SEW: Its a combination. I am always more dragged to aesthetics and I cannot break out of that. But my images always have a thought behind it. People who see my images might not understand the meaning behind it but I leave it up to them to built their own story about it.
KL: You mentioned that you haven’t decided yet how tight the parameters of this series were going to be, whether you were going to focus on architecture or portraiture.
SEW: I would like to have more portrait pictures in the “reflecting China series” but I'll have to hope for more rain to turn Beijing into a great reflection zone. But in general I like to take portrait pictures of people in the hutongs. I am especially inspired by old people and their style, especially when the mix western elements with their traditional Chinese clothes.
KL: And there’s an element of reflection in there, too!
SEW: Yes, sometimes.
KL: Are these taken on your phone?
SEW: No, these are taken with my digital camera. It gives me the freedom to be more anonymous and hidden since I can zoom in and don't disturb the person in their actions. Also I can frame it better which completes the portrait as I believe the background is equally important to the person portrayed.
KL: Do you tend to be a stealth photographer or do you go up and speak to your subjects?
SEW: It depends. I’m more of stealth at the beginning and then when I realize they see me, I ask, but I usually don’t want to interrupt their actions because this is what makes it beautiful to me. I don’t want to have a “stood-up” photo so I usually don’t ask.
KL: You avoiding any posing?
SEW: Usually yes, but I have to say I had one woman, she was posing for me and I went to do a series with her.
KL: This is a stranger or somebody that you know?
SEW: She’s a stranger. This lady here in front of the hutongs, she was so beautiful and she would let me take her picture and as I showed it to her, she was like, No, no! Take one more because my hand is in the wrong place.
There is something beautiful in her face and I liked her reaction towards me so even though I don't understand her language I would like to see her every day and capture her mood in a series.
KL: Are there any other series that you’re working on?
SEW: Yes. The series is called My Other Self. I met Nick in summer and he was wearing a Lana Del Ray T- Shirt and at first sight I thought it was him wearing his own picture on his shirt.
KL: So he was randomly wearing this t-shirt?
SEW: I think it was one of his favorite shirts and many people were confused seeing him wearing this shirt. So this was very inspiring.
KL: There is a strange resemblance.
SEW: Yes. There is. Strangeness is always inspiring. We had to try it out so we just met and decided to transform him more into the artist on his shirt and see what evolves out of that.
KL: I love the idea.
SEW: Yes, it was very interesting to see what happened. We went out to the hutongs and after a while of discomfort and a lot of Lana music he started to feel more and more like her... His moves started to flow and he became sexier and more female with each pose. It was nice to see this transition and feel the power behind the shirt and seeing him become one with this person.
KL: Considering the fateful way in which this guy turns up looking like a doppelganger of the celebrity on his t-shirt, do you think it’s going to find other people who will work as well? Are you going to manufacture it?
SEW: I will have to manufacture that. I love the concept behind it and I think people will cross my path that inspire me with their looks. You cannot force it so there is just the chance of waiting for the next doppelgänger.
KL: What’s important to you conceptually when it comes to this series? Obviously with him, he really cares about and identifies with this celebrity, to recreate it are you purely interested in the visual effect or do you think you will try to find people who do have an affinity for a celebrity with whom they share a similar look.
SEW: I think it is interesting to see people’s looks and then get to know their characteristics... I don't mind if the person has an affinity to his doppelgänger already or not at all. In this case I think it was interesting, because the genders were mixed and you couldn't tell anymore. But in general I think each picture is an experience with the person photographed itself and you can give it a direction but it will always find its own way and feeling somehow that you cannot influence entirely.
KL: Is it important to you how you are seen as the artist behind the works you create?
SEW: I don't like to call myself an 'artist', I have too much respect of this word in an old fashioned way. I just have a certain view on things and like to capture them my way and eventually show them to the public.
Nowadays people like to call themselves 'artists' and its a very commonly used word, very commercialized. I feel as soon as you call yourself an artist there is a feeling of accomplishment. Most of the times accomplishment brings self- confidence and lack of curiosity with it... So therefore I'm missing the magic in all of it...
Sarah Euthymia Weber is a fashion designer currently based in Beijing.
After her apprenticeship in the state theater in Mainz, Germany and a fashion design diploma, she worked in Ethiopia and Shanghai before coming to Beijing in 2011.
In Beijing she is concentrating on her work as a fashion designer for an independent couture studio, collaborating with venues on creative events and their visual realization and her photography projects.
Interview on December 20 by LOOK & Hannah Lincoln (interpreter) at Ramo, Fangjia Hutong
KL: How long have you been doing stencil work?
SHUO: Since 2010. I was about 18. I am from Henan and was living in Beijing. I felt like I was more emotionally sensitive than most people and I didn’t really know a good channel to express my sensitivity so I started to get into stencilling around the city because I felt like the city had a lot of problems and that was the best way to express my frustrations. In China, because people don’t pay attention to the shit that’s around them, I know that when I do these things on the walls, of ten people, maybe one will pay attention. Even then, I feel that society is very cold and so there’s really no point but I like doing it so I do.
KL: What was the inspiration? Obviously someone like Banksy shares similar themes so what inspired you to share what you do?
SHUO: I got the inspiration by first walking down the street and seeing the environment and looking at the iPhones and thinking, What’s actually happening here? If there were people around how would they be interacting with it? It looks like they all want to catch one. Everyone wants an iPhone so they are all in a crowd like, Give me! Give me one! So I had my friends line up and I took a picture of them and then I just made it directly from the picture.
KL: How did you create the stencil?
SHUO: I printed out a huge image from A4 sheets of paper and taped them together them stencilled from that.
KL: A4! That’s hard work!
SHUO: That’s only because I didn’t have a big printer. There’s no other reason for that.
KL: Does China have a Kinkos equivalent to help out stencil artists?
SHUO: Yes, but it’s expensive. A4 is much cheaper.
KL: How important is humour? Obviously a lot of your work is very playful, an ice cream cone on a dog poo, is that something that’s really central to your art?
SHUO: I use humour because it makes things more interesting. Irony points things out in society that you might not have realized before. This is a subway ad. I hate subway ads because I really feel that they are pushing us to consume. The person behind it is pushing for profits and I think this is bullshit so I like to make fun of the whole system by drawing on them.
KL: Is this something you’ve always done? I remember my mother used to give us pens when I was a child and encouraged us to deface catalogues and magazines. Did you do that too?
SHUO: When I was a kid, I just thought it was more fun to draw beards on the girls and stuff like that. In my textbooks, that is.
KL: IS there inherent danger in doing graffiti work in China, especially using images of Xi Jinping. If you’re caught for that, it’s not just defacing public property but it could be perceived as a political statement.
SHUO: I’m not really afraid of the police catching me. And in terms of themes, this image is not directly expressing anything. If anyone asked me, I’d just say I’m having a little fun, I’m not criticising. I had the idea for this one because when Xi Jinping became president I never really paid attention to the news but it’s always playing in public areas so I’d see it when I was eating lunch or whatever. I noticed that there was always clips of him shaking hands with foreigners or important looking people from other places and I didn’t really know what else he did other than being super busy meeting people and shaking their hands. I did this line up of random people shaking his hand while he told them how busy he was.
KL: Do you still create many stencils?
SHUO: I do, as an amateur.
KL: What’s your opinion of the graffiti and stencil scene in Beijing?
SHUO: In terms of stencils, I think it’s still pretty immature in China. It’s something that’s so easy to do that anyone can do it so when people do it they just do it for fun and they don’t have very mature concepts about it. At least I haven’t witnessed much maturity. Since I’ve started noticing it over the last few years, I haven’t really noticed a mature scene develop or seen anything really impressive.
HL: Can you give us any examples? What does it mean to you to be mature or immature in this field?
SHUO: When I started out I was really immature. I’d do things like a picture of Osama Bin Laden with “LOVE, PEACE” written next to it. I was just copying Banksy or copying things that I’d seen overseas that I didn’t really get and had nothing to do with my life. Overtime I thought, If I haven’t something to express it’s gonna be in my own words and in my own context. It has to make sense to me as a Chinese person. So then I started to find my own way of expressing the tensions in my life in the context of China. This one is a good example. This is a QQ account where you can talk to the government – the official China account. You can log on and ask a question about taxes or something and they’ll reply and it’s supposed to be like, We’re open to talking to citizens! But I put the red virus alert next to it. It’s subtle rather than simple and foolish like “LOVE, PEACE.” It makes sense to me and it makes sense to Chinese people. This is an example of how my work has matured but I don’t see it much from other people.
KL: How political are you?
SHUO: Very little. The way I see it, it’s not like a political commentary and that’s how my generation sees it. It’s not like he sees the government as bad or doing something wrong it’s more because society is changing in this way therefore we don’t have time to stop and think about the consequences. For instance that website, http:china.com, it’s not China – our government, it’s China – our society. The reason it’s on this wall is because it’s something that’s getting destroyed and being removed. Where I grew up in Henan, I mean it’s happening a lot, it happens all over China, basically what happened was things got destroyed and they said, Oh but we’re gonna give you a nice house outside the city. Then they move you outside the city and it’s kind of a bullshit place to live and then, all of a sudden, there are advertising billboards everywhere that say, You can by housing for a thousand kuai per square metre! And it just leaves me feeling, What has happened to my city?
HL: What exactly is missing that was there before?
SHUO: I don’t feel like we had culture when I was a kid. I don’t know what Chinese culture is but I know it’s not this. And I know that, the more commercial we become, the further we move from what we should be.
KL: Obviously you have a sophisticated worldview and an idea of how to use art as a personal statement. Where does that come from? Is it taught or innate?
SHUO: I dropped out of school in middle school and I was spending a lot of time walking around because I had nothing to do and I noticed that there were cars everywhere and there weren’t when I was a kid. And the cars were always parking in the biking lane and the cyclists were always riding on the sidewalk and I just felt like society was getting so messy. So, it was from those moments when I felt I needed a way to express this and I knew I can start drawing in these public areas where I’m feeling this dissatisfaction, this is natural where I should express this. At the same time I started going to art and design school, a specific training school, so I didn’t take the gaokao [university entrance exam]. I went there for a few years in my home county and then I came to Bejing when I was 19 and did one more year of training here before graduating and doing animation.
KL: So you work as an animator?
KL: I’m really impressed. Seeing the world as you do usually takes some kind of guidance or education but you have come to it very naturally.
SHUO: Because of some things that happened in my childhood with my family were kind of unusual compared with most families so I think I from a young age I was forced to see that things aren’t always conventional. That unexpected things happen so I think from young I was trained to look at all sides of a situation and be more of a critical thinker. There is this phenomenon in China called fenqing 愤青 [angry or cynical youth] which was very popular in the early 2000s and it’s still a label that exists now. I pretty much had a very short stage of that because I couldn’t be just simply angry all the time because I knew that being angry wasn’t… it was too simple just to be an angry youth. Perhaps this is why I use humour so much because I was angry for a short time as a teenager but I very quickly realised that being angry wasn’t enough. To be able to express different emotions and different sides of a situation just showed more sophistication.
HL: Again, can I ask for some examples?
SHUO: This is a love heart I made of pubic hair. It was in Guomao. There was no particular reason, I just thought it would be funny to frame it and put it up and know that everyone is walking by not noticing it at all. And then eventually someone will take it down and notice what it is. I wrote on there what it was in very small letters. After a month, I went by and it was gone and I thought, Haha!
SHUO: Me and my friends were hanging out and we put this extension cord down so we could plug in our mobile phones and play on our phones and we were doing it and I looked up and said, It looks like we are attached to an IV drip and it’s powering us up. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to mix those ideas and paint them. So this is an example of my more mature, or just better, more thoughtful art that is just stuff that I see immediately around me that could be made ironic instead of the earlier cruder stuff.
KL: This [points at collection of drawings] is Fritz the Cat. The guy who made this [Ralph Bakshi] made lots of adult cartoons with socio-political themes. My question is, as an animator, do you aspire to produce something like this?
SHUO: I don’t think it has really influenced me. It’s just something interesting I’ve seen. It’s so foreign to me, it’s the 70s in the US and I recognised that the pigs are the police and the crows are black people but for me it’s just too foreign. I enjoy playing with it but I prefer to do 3D animation and when I do this kind of drawings I like to do everyday life and keep them simplistic.
KL: As far as this series, the paste up sticker art, explain it to me.
SHUO: It’s just for fun. Me and my friends got drunk and I took pictures of them doing strange poses and I just did it for fun. And this one was an idea I had that was a hip hop pose but looking really stupid. I gave him a triple chin and he just looks like a dork.
KL: Is SHUO an artist’s pseudonym and this little creature here your tag? How do you want to be described on Loreli? Do you have a Banksy-esque moniker or is this just your name?
SHUO: My name is Wang Shuo but I do the pinyin rather than a Chinese character to emphasize the other meanings of shuo. You know in Chinese, shuo means to say? It doesn’t directly mean that but I like that it reflects that my work reflects what I have to say. Like logo-ising my name. When I was in middle school I liked to doodle so I’d draw this bandit dog and I think it’s something that represents me. It doesn’t have a deeper meaning, I’m willing to change it but I feel comfortable with it.
KL: How often do you sign your art?
SHUO: I’ve never signed my work before because I didn’t want it to influence what I’d draw. I wanted it to be pure. But when I see things that people have drawn he wants to know who’s done it so I’ll probably start signing things now to leave a bit of a legacy.
KL: So being on Loreli will be the first time you’ve taken ownership of your art?
HL: If you’re premiering yourself on our site, how do you want to be portrayed?
SHUO: I’ve no idea because I’ve never done anything public and I’ve never gotten feedback on anything, I’ve just been doing it so it’s up to you guys.
KL: How important is community as far being an artist? Do you work as part of a community or do you work alone?
SHUO: I don’t really have an art community because I don’t really consider myself an artist. I just do these things when I feel like it. Young Chinese people and Chinese culture in general has a culture of labelling things and, as soon as something’s labelled, you don’t want to be associated with it. Certain labels, as soon as they came out, people said, I’m not that. Like in the West you have hipsters. I’m very hesitant to use this term “artist” to describe myself because one, I’m not a professional and two, why would I give myself a label like that? I’m just me.
KL: I noticed with the photography you quite often like to juxtapose two images to tell a story. By putting two photos together it creates a narrative. What’s the inspiration for that?
SHUO: Look at these. I took these over four days. This is a process I was just photographing a friend, and at first they thought, This is cool, I don’t know what you’re doing. But then they started to get pissed off. And then they were like, What the fuck? And on the last day they just didn’t come. Yeah, it’s just to express a story, I didn’t get the idea from anyone in particular I just realised that I could tell a story with two or more pictures.
KL: It’s very effective. I do have to go back to what we talked about before because, of course, on Loreli we do label people. We have their name and what they do. So we need to decide what to write there.
SHUO: You can call me an artist.
KL: Artist, photographer?
SHUO: Just call me an artist because I’m not a photographer. I just take pictures with my phone so I’d feel weird being called a photographer. I don’t want to be known as a graffiti artist, just an artist because I use a lot of different mediums. In terms of graffiti, it’s great because it’s cheap and I don’t do anything with it after. It’s not like I have to go buy canvasses or craft something. It’s just free canvas so I paint on it and move along. I’m not especially attached to one form of art. I’m just doing what makes sense.
KL: You say you do this unprofessionally and part-time, how often do you do it?
SHUO: Three to five times a year I’ll do a stencil or graffiti.
KL: And the other artwork?
SHUO: Because I use so many mediums, I can’t really count what I do the most. I do the stencilling the least actually because it takes effort but in terms of this kind of stuff, I’ll be drawing all the time in my notebooks and stuff. I was born in 1992 and I just started working recently so there is pressure, I don’t really have a lot of money and free time so I’m kinda hustling at work. I don’t make the time to go out and stencil but I have pages and pages of ideas. It’s like I have an order sheet that I’ve made with all of these ideas and when I’m more stable, money-wise and time-wise I do plan to go out. There’s a tension in my life. A lot of my ideas come from the complicated fast pace of a big city life but at the same time I know that, because of the complicated fast pace of big city life, people won’t notice my artwork. For instance this phone booth, I think that it’s really cute and really appropriate for the big city but, at the same time, no one is going to notice it.
HL: Will that prevent you from doing it?
SHUO: No, that’s just the nature of it.
KL: So many of the artists that I’ve met create art compulsively. Could you ever stop?
SHUO: Yes I have the compulsion. I’ll never stop, it’s part of my life. I have this problem that every time I take a picture of what I’ve done and put it online, everyone that comments just writes: Banksy. Just the word: Banksy. And I’m like, Dude, it took me ages thinking of the idea, I’ve finally had time to go paint it, can you not appreciate it?
HL: I read an article by Ai Wei Wei from a few years ago. He said he sells his artwork but people don’t even know how to appreciate it.
SHUO: This is definitely a big problem in China, they see it and say, Oh Banksy. They don’t even care what it’s about and that he did it. If people paid attention they’d notice that this has nothing to do with Banksy. All this stuff I’m expressing couldn’t possibly be in another country. In the south, closer to Hong Kong, where it’s a little bit more developed in terms of international cultures, people are a little more open-minded about it. They don’t jump to conclusions. But in Beijing people are so unaware.
KL: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
SHUO: I plan to print these ones out really big and paste them up around the city but in China, if they recognise that something has meaning, it will get destroyed so I always take pictures and put them on my portfolio online. [See link below]
Please note: This interview took place in Chinese with answers for SHUO translated and paraphrased by Hannah Lincoln and Kerryn Leitch. For the original Chinese audio please feel free to contact Loreli at: email@example.com