Video and performance artist/video installation and performative video art
Interview on 29 October at A.Omen coffee shop, Gulou
KL: So what was the path to here? How does one become a video artist?
ES: I guess I always wanted to be an artist and then I went to design school out of high school. Then I did a Master of Fine Arts after, I kind of crossed over.
KL: You're from New Zealand, right? Did all of your study happen in New Zealand?
ES: Yeah. I studied graphic design in a small town called Wanganui and Master of Fine Arts in Wellington.
KL: Seeing your show the other night at Temple bar, everybody was amazing with the multiple projections. The different images being displayed on the back wall and also the painted cymbals. How is it done?
ES: Did you come to the Orchestra of Spheres ones, as well?
KL: No, I missed that.
ES: We did a similar thing at that show where I projected onto balloons so at the Temple show Marshall was like, I've got broken cymbals! Let's project on them!
KL: How does it work technically?
ES: I use a programme that does projection mapping so I can just have all of the different video clips and I can mix them live in time with the music as well as position them. You project onto the things then position the images so they fit. I find with live shows that things move around so you constantly have to be repositioning them. Spinning cymbals or the balloons would float if there was any wind.
KL: As far as the footage that you use, do you make it yourself or is is found video?
ES: It's a bit of both. I do create my own content. I'll film things or I play around a lot with creating liquid light show things and filming that and I play around a little bit with glitching things in various ways, such as data-moshing videos where you purposefully corrupt the frames in the files, and filming things off TVs and just distorting footage to make it visually interesting. And I also download things or I'll rent or buy old VHS tapes and then watch through them and find interesting bits. Or old DVDs or whatever. Trying to find obscure things. And I find that part of it really interesting because you're totally changing the context of things. Like if you're in a bar situation and you're mixing it with other things and I find the culture of sampling quite interesting.
KL: How often do you collaborate with your visuals? I noticed there was a strange little animation on Thursday night. People kissing and then they flew off into the sky.
ES: Oh, I think that was from an old French cartoon. Visually collaborate? Not so much. I collaborate on installations and things. More just collaborate with musicians. I really like working with specific bands or sound artists to create a whole kind of environment or experience that goes with their music.
KL: How do they collaborations usually occur? Are these friends, are they people that you meet when you go out. Do you approach people? Do they approach you?
ES: Usually, because Wellington or New Zealand is pretty small, all the collaborations organically happen. I'll like someone's music or they'll like my work and then we'll start working together and trying out different things. The same way here, I guess. It's been really cool. I've just been welcomed to do lots of different things which is great.
KL: How do you find Beijing as a collaborative environment? Is it different to Wellington?
ES: I've found it really welcoming which is really cool. That's a question I need to reflect on. Yeah, I think it's really welcoming and really fun. Lots of interesting ideas from people. I got to do a really cool collaboration the other night in one of the underpass gigs. Have you been to any of those?
KL: No. I don't seem to have the right connections to know where and when those are happening.
ES: That was really cool. That was quite different.
KL: Explain it to me.
ES: From what I understand, lots of those alternative, experimental sound venues have closed down in Beijing recently so they seem to sporadically organise these gigs in this underpass which is beneath what feels like hundreds of roads with cars going at high speed so you get to play along to this drone of traffic which is really fun. I did a little sound piece with my friend Dan Beban from Wellington from Orchestra of Spheres. He's a sound artist. We found some robotic toys, along the street actually, that record sound, and we cut them up and played with them along with drone violinist A Ke, which was really cool.
KL: So you do sound artist as well?
ES: A little bit. More visual art with some overlapping sound art collaborations.
KL: Orchestra of Spheres, are they from New Zealand as well?
ES: Yep. They're from Wellington.
KL: So did you guys come out together?
ES: No, I came out on this residency and then they were approached to play a festival in Chengdu, and then they booked a tour around that. We work together all the time so it was just an awesome magical coincidence.
KL: I'm sorry that I missed that. Tell me a bit more about this residency. Is this the first residency you've done?
ES: Yeah, it's my first. It's funded by the Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. So each year they've booked out this three month Red Gate residency, the same three months each year and they send one Wellington artist. I got it this year.
KL: What's the process of applying for it?
ES: I had to come up with a proposal and create an application based on a specific project that I wanted to work on here.
KL: And did that need to be China related?
ES: I did a lot of research into things that I'm interested in here and discussed as to “why Beijing, why that project.”
KL: If you don't mind me asking, why Beijing?
ES: I have this ongoing project. I have two facets of my practice, one being the audio-visual collaborative installation performance, and the other one being these solo performance art pieces I create for video. And the overall project is about exploring ideas of contemporary feminism. That's what I do in my solo work practice so I looked into some feminist art based in Beijing and found it really interesting and I've been trying to make connections with people there. And also, I was just really interested in the sound art scene here. There's some really cool stuff going on. There's also quite a few female artists in that scene, which is great. So it was about collaborating as a way of communicating and finding out more about people's experience and those issues.
KL: So are you looking at feminism just within the art scene?
ES: Just in general because I find performance art and music is a good way to look at people's social and political viewpoints.
KL: So what's your take now that you've been here for a little while?
ES: I still can't work things out. I've found it hard to talk about feminism with people which is interesting. It's been hard to have those kinds of discussions with people. I did meet a band that I've been collaborating on a music video with, South Acid Mimi, and we talked a bit about feminist type stuff without using the title feminism. We spent a lot of time talking about how women are represented in music and owning that image for yourself. Not for anyone else's gaze. So that was cool.
KL: Have you had the opportunity to speak to many Chinese women outside of the art scene?
ES: No, I haven't. It's all been within arts and music. I haven't been here very long. The residency is three months. It's going so quickly, it doesn't seem long enough. I had all of these lofty questions that I wanted to work out and write about but I haven't really made much progress there. I'm just getting more and more, well not confused, but there's a lot that I would like to do.
KL: Is that a conclusion that you're forming about China, just how opaque and complicated it can be?
ES: Yeah, everything is really complicated and just structured differently to what I understand.
KL: Did you make any preparation for coming here? Any language or cultural research?
ES: I read about arts and things. I wish that I had learned some more language because I kind of didn't realise that would be so difficult. And I emailed people and tried to make contacts before I came.
KL: So were you trying to acclimatise before you got here?
ES: I was really just too busy right up until the second I left and then suddenly it was just like, woah! I'm in China! I was touring around the south island [of New Zealand] with another band and then I was packing my bags and leaving.
KL: How does your career as an artist work in New Zealand? Do you do it full-time?
ES: I teach part-time as my way of surviving and then I do a lot of shows. A lot of collaborations with bands and get to tour around with them and other little projects that come up. Like we got funding to make a live children's show with Orchestra of Spheres earlier this year which was awesome. We just made a big psychedelic extravaganza. It was great. The kids got crazy energy off it and were buzzing out. It was really cool. We did it for two weeks, three shows a day, with about 300 children at each show. I've never heard 300 children scream in one place. It's a pretty amazing sound. And then I just try and work on other projects and exhibitions and get funding where possible.
KL: We started to talk about your education, going from design to moving into the masters, did you know it was going to be video art all along or performance art?
ES: I kind of just got into video when I was studying graphic design. I thought I'd really enjoy graphic design but, I was like, I don't enjoy creating brands for people or advertising things or creating packaging. I'm glad I have all these skills but it's not something that I'm passionate about.
KL: Is it the corporate nature that's the turn off?
ES: Yeah, I think the corporate nature, the selling stuff, and all of the ethical problems that come along with that. So then I started making weird videos and then just got really interested more in video art.
KL: What kind of weird videos? Was it originally more narrative driven?
ES: The videos that I was making in design school were like a direct reaction to having to design things for products that I didn't agree with. So, at the time, anti-consumerist video art. And then, when I did my master of fine arts, I moved more into looking at feminism and comedy and creating these self-deprecating humorous videos. And looking at comedy as a subversive tactic.
KL: So you consider your work is quite political?
ES: Yeah. I was interested in the idea of slap-stick comedy, really just physical comedy that's super accessible to anyone. And the idea of the character being this character that is really striving to do something right and be a good citizen and be good at what they're doing but they constantly mess up and they're constantly failing and that's why its funny in this self-deprecating way. People like watching that, I think, because they feel better about themselves and it kind of absolves you from the pressure of struggling to do what society wants you to be or whatever, I guess the post-feminist cosmopolitan woman that has to do everything and have everything and be it all.
KL: So the idea that, if your failure is comedic, if people are amused by it, then it's okay to fail?
ES: Yeah, I liked the idea of the awkwardness of that making people feel better about not living up to expectations. That was the thinking behind it. I wanted it to be accessible to people.
KL: So where does the feminism come from? Has it always been an intrinsic part of you?
ES: Yeah, I think so. Where does that come from? Interesting question.
KL: Born angry.
ES: Born angry, yeah, I think so. And I found it really interesting working in the VJ, techie industry which is quite male dominated and really having to fight to get people to realise that I do know what I'm talking about. It's not a problem anymore in New Zealand because I've been on the scene for so long but I always find that really interesting, being dismissed when you're talking about something technical.
KL: Have you experienced that at all here?
ES: I'm not sure because it's really hard to tell with the language barrier. I was arguing with a guy recently because I knew what the problem was with the projector, I just couldn't reach so I needed him to wiggle with a cable and it would have been fixed and he's said, I know, I know, I know and just wouldn't do it. I was like, I don't know whether you're just being a dude determined to do it your own way or if it was a language thing.
KL: Are there any other themes running through your work? You've mentioned anti-consumerism and feminism. Are there any others?
ES: I guess pop culture is a recurring theme. It's really hard to summarise what I'm actually currently doing. I can talk about that other stuff because I've thought about it and written about it. I'm pretty interested in the whole collaborative thing because I'm interested in people's experiences and sharing them and the relationships that come out of that. I really enjoy connecting with people and making work that gives people an experience.
KL: Do you think that the work that you do is more overtly social than other types of art?
ES: I guess so, yeah. Particularly with the video work because it's all about taking that work and putting it into an environment which is usually a bar or a venue where a lot of people are experiencing it in a different kind of way to a gallery situation and it being social. I like the way it influences people's night and how they feel and what they think. I really enjoy hearing people's feedback about that.
KL: Does it become somewhat ephemeral in a bar setting like that. Are people going to watch it or is it something like occurring in the background?
ES: Just something occurring in the background. I don't like it to be like the main thing. I like people to be there to see the music and this is like something that enhances that experience, works along with it.
KL: So what do you hope to achieve before you leave?
ES: I've got a few ideas for some performative videos that I want to make around this area [Gulou]. I'm going to work with Yi-Project space to do a show before the end of the residency. It's a really cool artist-run space, or off space as most people seem to call them here, I've always called them artist-run spaces, run by two girls from Germany and Hungary. They have really interesting projects there. It's only open by appointment and they do residencies. They organised the first independent artists festival that was a couple of months ago. The show we are working on is a site specific show called Dì’er 地二. I'm also involved with creating a stage installation for China Drifting festival in both Shanghai and Beijing, as well as playing support for QT with my audio visual project Kolya Z Lazerlight. We are also putting on a multimedia show at fRUITYSHOP with some local artists, and releasing a cassette tape. So I'm hoping to wrap up with those last few little projects as a conclusion because this whole time it has been pretty chaotic. I've just been saying yes to everything and running around and not having much time to reflect and figure out what I'm doing. Just kind of reacting. Participating. So it's really been a time for performing and meeting people and I really would like to spend this last month creating some stuff based on those experiences.
KL: Do you think you'll be tempted to more residencies after this?
ES: Definitely. I have loved doing residencies overseas, it's pretty great and I really want to come back to China as well. I'm trying to look at some options for that.
KL: Another short stay or for longer?
ES: Probably short stays, maybe longer depending on what there is. I'd have to learn Chinese. There's some really cool stuff happening in Chengdu. My friend Kristen, who organised the Orchestra of Spheres tour and has been collaborating with me on this music video, she runs a site called kiwese which is about New Zealand and Chinese culture and bringing them together. Like music and art and things. It's really cool, you should check it out. She is involved in an organisation in Chengdu who is hopefully starting a residency programme too. They're doing really cool stuff. There's cool stuff happening everywhere. On the tour that we did I just had one night in each city and I thought, I have to come back for longer.
KL: Which cities did you go to?
ES: We did three shows in Beijing and then Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Dali, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Wuhan. It was quite a big trip around.
KL: Was there a standout?
ES: I had a really good time in Kunming because it's beautiful and I met the South Acid Mimi girls, who are awesome. My awesome Chinese sisters. They make this really great almost MIAesque electronic music. They are just really interesting talented girls. It was really awesome working with them. We just hung out for a couple of days and they had some initial ideas like they wanted to tip milk on them or some kind of gross substance. I'm interested in that idea of, they were all gorgeous and, messing with that idea of femininity and music. So we were trying to figure out ways to do that and they were like, how about yoghurt? So we ended up tipping yoghurt all over them. Which was awesome and it's cool because the song that they wanted to use after I'd already presented these ideas is written in one of the girls' ethnic minority dialect and a lot of it is swearing and stuff but then the other half of it is a folk song in their language about a baby wanting its mother's breast milk and about how hard working mothers are. It's really attitudy “ups” to mums as well. Which is quite amazing because all of the imagery that I'd been talking about had been like, I'll let you guys pop balloons and blow bubble gum and tip milk on you. It was all this kind of breasty imagery and that's what the song ended up talking about. Which I love. Communal consciousness.
KL: Maybe you're all just lactation obsessed and it's there in the subconscious at all times. It sounds like you, as far as coming here and being interested in feminism in China, that sounds like an incredibly great experience that you got to see some feisty feminist women doing what they want to do but also being in Yunnan as well. This residency, being located in Beijing, could have exposed you to only the majority, Han Chinese, rather than seeing underrepresented minorities.
ES: That was really cool we talked a lot about ethnic minorities and things there. It was great.
KL: Did they feel at all political about it?
ES: They kind of avoided using language like that, it seemed. They talked about it but said, it's not what our music's about. It's not the image we're trying to put across. It's just part of our experience. Super interesting.
KL: Was there any fear that you wouldn't enjoy it?
ES: I don't think so. I've been wanting to come to China for a long time, as this mysterious entity. I didn't realise how difficult it would be for me to contact people back home. My internet didn't work for a long time, my phone didn't work, my VPN didn't work. It was an interesting experience because I didn't speak the language and I couldn't contact anyone. And being quite far out of the city as well. But the residency programme offers really great support. It's been totally fine.
KL: Well that's certainly a good advertisement for the residency. Do they deal with people from other countries as well?
ES: Yeah. There's people from all over. There's eight resident artists at one time. So Austria has one of the studios booked out all year round and bring a different artist out every three months and there's other countries that have different contracts and then some people are self-funded as well.
KL: Is there anything else that you want to add?
ES: One of my coolest experiences that I've had was on the first day I got here I had a phone call from the residency director saying, you have to get down to the Space Station gallery in 798 now, because I'd been emailing them but just getting these one line responses that weren't very... I didn't know what was going on. So I find my way down there really jet-lagged because I'd arrived at midnight the night before but hadn't been able to sleep until four a.m. I'd only had like four hours sleep and so finally somehow found the gallery and found out my name was on the line-up for this international performance art festival and that I was performing in two days. And I was like, what am I gonna do? So I got to do a performance of a piece that I've done in the past called Only Girl in the World where I film myself and then use open source software to glitch myself into the exact place of the female character in climactic moments in romance movies. So I'm kind of nerdily stealing the moment in a creepy way. So I got plunged right into the art scene not really sure whether people here would find that funny 'cause it's meant to be a humorous work and people in New Zealand like it. I was really nervous but people got it. I think they were a bit unsure whether to laugh or not but I like that about it. It was this bizarre experience of having hundred or so people, all with cameras, filming me do it, while I'm filming myself.
KL: There's definitely a culture here of cameras in the gallery, even if they've got the signs explicitly asking them not to take pictures.
ES: It's great. I haven't seen any of the photos though. I need to track down some. There must be all these photos out there. But that was great because I got to participate in this week long performance festival and see a lot of, some international but mostly Chinese performance art. Which was super interesting. I just really appreciated seeing performance art en masse. There were some really cool works.
Erica Sklenars works predominantly in the mediums of performance and video, creating both solo performative video art, and collaborative audio-visual performance installation.
Her solo work is an ongoing series of personal performative videos that reconfigure contemporary understandings of objectivity, gender and contemporary feminisms with the subversive tactics of marginalist comedy. Many of these themes also overlap into her collaborative projects involving live video performance, where the artist uses sampled and re-contextulized footage combined with original content. Here the artist works with various musicians and sound artists to create immersive performance installations under the name Lady Lazer Light.
Illustrator, toy maker and musician
Interview at Shuangcheng双城 Cafe on 10th October 2015
KL: Tell me about your current projects.
NG: Right now, it seems like almost three years since I started a new work. It's like I have my own brand and my brand is a toy but it's not a toy. It first started as a toy but right now it's a character. She's a deer, her name is Ruby. Right now, me and all my friends and my boyfriend too, we work together on this little deer.
KL: You're creating a personality for her?
NG: Yeah. We want to make a film of her story.
KL: I'm interested in how your work has progressed. You were saying that Ruby started as a toy and she's grown into her own little character and personality.
NG: Yes, I've worked on this thing for almost four years but this year I want to have something come out. Many people in China or, at least, some people in China know my painting so I made this last year. It's a stop motion. Me and my friend made it together.
KL: How is she made?
NG: She is made of polyester resin. Do you know BJD [ball-jointed dolls]? It's not a Japanese invention but they have a lot of brands that make toys like that. It's the same thing. There is a ball here [in the toy's elbow and knee joints] so it can move around. It has a very old history. In Victorian times they had this kind of thing. But right now these toys have developed a lot so it's not just human-being shapes there are a lot of animals or aliens. There's a huge amount of information you can find on the internet.
KL: Is the film still a work-in-progress?
NG: No, it's not. This is just a test. So if we want to make a movie we need to find people to work with and people to give us money to do that. Right now we want to bring all of the parts together and show it to the audience and, if some people are interested, maybe they can help us.
KL: Are you thinking of crowdfunding on something like Kickstarter?
NG: Yeah, I am thinking about that. Before I never thought about it because I thought I could make money by myself and support these things but now me and my friends want to work together and have a company. Before, I started to design this and I asked another of my friends, “do you want to make a toy?” because his job is making toys. So I connected with him. I was painting a deer and I thought it would be very interesting if it could become a toy. So we thought let's try and we made the toys and then we had a toy and thought, maybe we can sell this. So we limited it to fifty but during that time we didn't connect with other countries, it was just in China, but some people in other countries found out about it. If people are into these toys they will look for information on them. Now it's been three or four years and a lot of people want it, so, the price before was lower but now it's higher because so many people want it. You buy the toy and, if you sell it to another person you can make the price higher.
KL: Will you issue another release of Ruby Deer?
NG: I will make more different things but not the original one. The original one is limited because I think it's kind of like fate. If you have the original toy, maybe you are one of the first people to know my work. The next one you have is like the next life. If you have the first life it's like you are connected to each other. I won't do anything to change this.
KL: Are you going to stick with the same character. With Ruby?
NG: If Ruby wants to have a story, it won't be just herself. So Ruby will have a huge web of things connected to each other. So, right now, we are working hard on her story. Some people will think, let's make a movie, let's find someone's story, but I won't do that so right now I'm just looking deep to find myself, what I need and what I want to show to the world and what the world is showing to me. I work very hard at this. It's like you find yourself inside. It doesn't come from outside.
KL: So you're trying to work out what character Ruby is? I'm interested because, of course, I've seen you around Beijing, you play in a band and you seem kinda rock'n'roll but Ruby seems so sweet. Is that true? What is Ruby's character?
NG: Actually, I can show you Ruby. This is the first time I drew Ruby. She seems very cute. I should say, I've always believed human beings, no matter how old you've grown, inside you're... do you know yoga? If you do, you'll know we have seven chakras. This one is at the top. If you can open it you will feel all the love in the universe because all human beings, all nature, all souls start from here. So even if you grow up you'll feel you are a child. So even if you're evil or you want money or you want social recognition, on the inside you are still a child. You'll still feel like you like trees, you like flowers, you like the beautiful things. It's natural for people to love beautiful things but what kind of beautiful things depends on how you grew up, your experiences. It's different. So even from the outside, when I'm looking goth, or death metal – the anti things – inside you want to find truth.
KL: So Ruby's like your inner-child?
NG: Yes, the inside child. I just use very simple language and want to tell people, not all people, the people who want to listen. I don't want to push them. I want to use Ruby to connect with people who are fated to each other. It's like they know me because we have a connection. All the people in the world, you can't have a connection with everyone. So maybe some people who are on the same level, you have the same fate, you were meant to connect. I want to say something about art. Art is something you put all your energy into, all your experience into one thing. Painting, music even this cup of coffee, this is art too because they put a lot of energy into it. So if you are a good cook or a good painter, you will think this coffee is good. But if you can't feel that, maybe you are on a different level. So I never push anyone to know me, I just want to connect with people on the same level.
KL: By showing your inner-Ruby you attract the people who she appeals to?
NG: Yes. That's why people always say, just be yourself because if you be yourself you can find people like you. Then you don't need to be afraid of other people, what they say to you, if you just be yourself you can find the right people and everything that belongs to you.
KL: As far as Ruby being you inner-child, does that mean she's always been there or have you developed her? In your life as an artist, did it take awhile for her to evolve?
NG: Your inside child is always with you and, I should say, your inside child belongs to your childhood memories – something we can't escape. Maybe someone grows up to have a lot of money or fame but they always want to be with people, this could be because, as a child, she or he felt alone. So they always want to find love from other people. That's a very normal thing in society right now. So my point is, no matter how far I go, when I grow up, inside I'm always the same. As you grow up, it feels like you die many times, but each time you die a new person is born.
KL: So the people attracted to Ruby share the same inner-child?
NG: I should say, Ruby is me but from a parallel universe. It's a parallel world I create but it's not just something I hope for, I believe the world really exists. Kind of like when we're dreaming we have so many different things. Scientists say we dream because in the daytime we're collecting all this information and it goes through your brain and some is left and it becomes a dream. You can describe it like this but I don't think it's that simple. Our inside potential, we only use ten per cent so we're left with ninety per cent we don't use. So how could it be this simple? Every year we find another star. Every year we find something new inside our bodies, so you can't just say that the world is like this. That this is our real world. Nothing is real and nothing is fantasy.
KL: It seems like you are very in tune with yourself and with the universe...
NG: I have to tell you that, before, I didn't have this knowledge.
KL: So you believe in fate?
NG: I don't believe in fate, I believe that everyone has their own trajectory. If you've ever played the game, The Sims, you have people and you can give them something to read but you can't tell them how much to read or what to do with information. Everyone has potential and we can choose to use it. I believe there is a design.
KL: So these kindred spirits...
NG: All the people who are around me, my friends, they all have the same feelings about things. They have the same feelings about art, this coffee, this computer. We understand each other. That's the most important thing in communication - understanding. Sometimes I think, you're a foreign guy, I'm a Chinese girl. How is it that we can talk to each other and understand each other? We have different culture, we have different skin colour but all things become one. If I was to talk about this to a hutong ayi they won't understand it. Even though I'm Chinese. I live in this hutong. I eat the same food as them but in your spirit, inside your mind, things are totally different. I always think people need a revolution of the mind. It's not that you'll become more rich, you'll become more powerful, you have to go deep and find the place where you understand each other. That's why art and artists never disappear. Through art you show your inside mind, your inside spirit.
KL: So when you show your art it's like a beacon to draw other like-minded people to you?
NG: I just show my inside mind and, if people get it, I'm thankful. If people don't get it, I'm thankful too because I know I can separate this person from this person. I can connect with this person. That they will choose by themselves for me. I never choose. Many artists are not very good at socialising or talking because they know they already use their inside language to talk to people. They don't need to use their mouth or their body. But artists need to use the media to get their work to the audience. But do you think artists really need media? I have my phone, every day I use my phone, you know facebook, twitter and also Chinese Weibo, WeChat. For three days I haven't used my phone to do this. I haven't posted any words or checked out any friend's information. For these three days I've felt really happy, much happier than before. Why? Because when I read that she said this or that I feel these things influence me. It will influence my emotions. For the whole three days I just focussed on work. I learned more and I created more and I communicated with my boyfriend more. Every day I post like ten WeChat moments and each has nine pictures. For every picture I have to use another app to make the photos look good. It takes a lot of time. You spend all this time just to prove to people what you've done today. I always focus on the audience and I worry that if they look at me and I don't look good that they won't like me. We need people to think we are beautiful and we need people to think they can respect us, but you have to respect yourself. Then you don't care about fashion, you don't care about how people see you.
KL: As far as Ruby, as your childhood self, is she more self aware? Is she less worried about what people think?
NG: Before, my inside child was always like that. The time I was born, in 1987, was the age between nineties and eighties. I have to say, the children born in the eighties and the people born in the nineties, in ten years, they are totally different. The nineties kids are more focussed on the internet. The eighties kids are more focussed on work. Before, when we're young, we just want to connect with the world because we have the internet. It's fucking interesting. I have to say the people born in the nineties, I don't want to talk about other countries only China, they don't have respect for people. They don't have any responsibility and they always want others to give them love. Their parents will give them a lot more money than when I was a child. Many parents think, because we have money, my parents didn't have money, they think the good thing is money so we should give that to our child. Many parents think we'll just give them money, we don't need to stay with them, we don't need to care for them. So many children don't feel like they've been with their parents so when they grow up the way that they deal with responsibility, they will escape. They will have many excuses for this. It's totally different between eighties and nineties people. When we grow up we want everything, now I just pick the things I need.
KL: Do you think your generation has the luxury to think about artwork and the inner self and communicating with others than your parents who had less money and opportunities? Do you think your generation has more freedom to explore these parts of life?
NG: I think about that a lot because it is a huge topic. I don't know about other people, I can only talk about myself. So when I grew up, my parents divorced. That shocked me a little bit because I was six when they divorced. I'd just started primary school and all of the other students, their parents were still together. In the whole class you are the first child whose parents divorced. So many children will say, you don't have a dad. They'll make jokes. So in my mind, it's like, I'm different and maybe they don't want to hang out with me. When I was young, I still laughed, I still hung out with people but my inside child was hurt. Even though my parents will give me money, they are still different. This month my mum will give me money, that month my dad will give me money. If my dad gives me less money my mum will yell at me, why did you only get this much money from your dad. But I'm just a child. You divorced so why do I have to have the responsibility of this? But the good thing is that my parents are not like other people their age. My dada is a doctor but he is always open-minded. When I was very young, like five, he listened to the Jackson Five. He listened to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. He was very different to other people in the nineteen-seventies and sixties, your parents generation they smoked a lot of weed and were fucking hippie style. Our parents were... not traditional... it was fucking chaos. During that time to keep your mind like this is very difficult. My dad is very clever but too clever. He doesn't respect others he always thinks he is the most clever. But a lot of people have a lot of self-confidence because they feel inferior. Both my mum and dad have this and I do to. Sometimes I have a lot of self-confidence because I want to prove that I'm not feeling inferior. My mum is a musician and plays traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa and the guzheng but my mum's mind, even though she plays traditional music she always wanted to leave this country. During that time many people had the American dream so she wanted to go to America to show the audience the Chinese things and live overseas. So that is why they divorced. My mum wanted to go overseas but my dad had to stay in the Chinese system. Even in their minds they want to go to another country together but they can't leave together. Before I couldn't communicate with my parents but now we have a good relationship.
KL: At what point did the artist emerge in you? At what point did you realise you wanted to communicate with the world through art?
NG: Because I felt that I was different than other children but at that time I thought, am I really different. If you can always hang out with other people you will go outside to play together but, at that time, for me I'm not really into playing with other children because they made me feel different. So I thought, go out and play by yourself, I will stay here and play by myself. So I had to think, what can I play by myself? So I tried lots of things like painting and building sculptures or maybe writing. So during that time I just create by myself. So other people at fifteen or sixteen start to think, what should I create by myself but, when I was six or seven, I learned to create and think by myself.
KL: So from six years old your art is a way to deal with being alone and now you've come to a point where art is a way of connecting with other people?
NG: It's different. Kind of like just being yourself or being alone. People always think being yourself is being alone. Lonely and alone is different too. I felt lonely when I was being myself when I was young because I couldn't find people to connect with but I never felt alone. It's totally different. Like other people will always hang out with others but they'll always feel lonely because they're never being themselves. Every time they are alone they want to find people to be with them.
KL: At what point did you start to connect with others?
NG: For the last four years I am always being myself. Time is relative to where you are. Before I found I would always copy others' work and I'd think, why do I like this? Why does it attract me? But after that you find everything you like, everything you feel, those become your experiences. Everything becomes you. You find out you are the most important thing in this world, not anybody else. Before I had a very bad experience, a very bad relationship. Last year totally changed my life. I went to Bali. I went to a meditation place. How do you say that some things are like fate? Before I didn't really believe in destiny but after that, it's like yin and yang – Taoism. Like you choose this, I decided by myself but everything goes through yin and yang. I can't say I decided myself but I went to Bali and I met someone who taught me this. Maybe you could say it is destiny but maybe, in my words, I say that I choose this fate. The meditation place taught me a lot. I know a lot about the universe now. I don't have any religion but I believe all religions are about sharing. Sharing the love, sharing the knowledge.
KL: So what's the secret to happiness?
NG: Be yourself and be with nature. My hometown is Guilin. When I was young I'd always go into the forest and play with monkeys and fight with snakes and I think this helped me a lot. So right now, my paintings are always of animals. I just like to paint two things – women and nature. I never paint men. I don't know why. Every time I paint a man it just looks like a woman.
KL: So do you think gender comes into your paintings?
NG: I don't know. Maybe I'm a female painter. I paint women because I want to know myself but, right now, I have a lot of knowledge and think a lot. I'm not a feminist but I respect it and understand it because the world is controlled by men. Even though women live in society we don't feel respected by men. So when I paint women it's not because I want to show men that women are beautiful, it's because the start of life, creation, is women. Like the Earth. Why do we always call the Earth “her” and not “him?” That's natural. A lot of societies are matriarchies so, in history, in Egypt and further back. Do you believe history books tell us everything? I don't trust that. I want to find out by myself. Before I want to believe myself when I see something. Now I want to believe my mind.
Nanguazi 南瓜子 is a Beijing-based artist and musician. Her brain-child, Ruby, is a deer who has made the leap from sketch to doll and, in the near future, film star. For further information check out http://www.rubynan.com/ or follow her antics at http://ruby-nan.tumblr.com/ and watch local venue listings for upcoming Gui Gui Sui Sui shows and watch a film clip here.
Photographer, writer and musician
Interview on 28 October at Beetle in a Box, Beixinqiao
KL: Before, when I met you, you were really focused on the band photography but it looks like now you're branching out and doing a lot more street, almost fashion type, photography.
JONY: The girls are my friends and I would like to take photos for some special girls. I think they are special. The girl is a singer in a band.
KL: Which band?
JONY: 八仙饭店 Baxian Chophouse.
KL: So did she ask you to take these portraits or did you offer?
JONY: I asked her.
KL: Do you feel shy when you're taking photos?
JONY: Sometimes. In the beginning I felt shy and the model felt nervous too. But during taking photos we talked with others and then we all felt comfortable.
KL: So it's part of your job as the photographer to make them feel comfortable.
JONY: Yeah, it is very important.
KL: Do you think you're good at it?
JONY: Yes. [laughs] My father bought a camera for me in April this year. And I brought the camera to Beijing. Last year I worked at Old What Bar and there I met Nathan [Borofka previously featured here] and then he told me to take photos of him and Robin [Koob of Remedios the Beauty]. They were the first band I took photos of. I think Nathan helped me a lot. Without him, maybe I wouldn't have taken photos of bands.
KL: So you think that collaboration is important in Beijing?
JONY: Yeah, because in Beijing many people have his or her talent and we can chat with each other and we can grow together.
JONY: This is from my first show in 69 Cafe.
KL: I've seen some of these photos but I didn't know it was the first time you'd done it.
JONY: Before April, I'd never taken photos so I called some girls and some bands and asked, “can I take some photos for you?” to improve myself. And they said yes so I practised my skills. So the photos were all free because I asked them.
KL: So you give the photos to the bands you shoot? Do you think you'll move into taking photos for magazines or other websites?
JONY: I've never done it. I hope I can do that.
KL: Did you build relationships with the bands that you asked?
JONY: We're all friends. These pictures from Mushroom Music Festival, I am not friends with them. I think if we knew each other, their photos could have been better. Because we would have been emotionally connected.
KL: Do you think when you know somebody, you know their personality and you're looking for it in the pictures you shoot?
JONY: Yeah yeah yeah.
KL: Do you still work with Nathan a lot?
JONY: No. I don't know, lately I've become a little busy and I don't have time to take photos for his band now. It's been a long time since Robin's farewell show. I really miss her.
KL: So have you been working with other bands between then and now?
JONY: No because I've been working on this book since July so from July till now I haven't taken any photos.
KL: So working on the book has taken up all of your time?
JONY: Not really, do you know the band The Paramecia? I'm Su's [Zixu苏紫旭] assistant to help
with his work such as taking photos of him, helping with the shows and recording albums. It also takes up much of my time.
KL: He's quite famous, right?
JONY: Maybe. He took part in a TV show, Song of China.
L: Did you meet him through Nathan or did you know him before?
JONY: No. He searched for an assistant on a website and I like his music so I applied.
KL: Are you still going to see a lot of bands?
JONY: No, I have too little time. Last year I saw many bands play.
KL: Do you think your photography will change now that you have less time?
JONY: Yes. I have started a project. The photos are taken by me and my boyfriend. The project’s name is tricky. There is a famous dish in Sichuan, the Chinese name was 夫妻肺片(fu qi fei pian),it literally means Couple Lung Slices. But it was actually made of guts of ox invented by a couple. The “lung slices” has the same pronunciation as “abandoned photos” in Chinese. We used 废（abandoned）to take the place of 肺（lungs）in the name of the dish to name our project. So its names means “the abandoned photos of a couple”. That is how my boyfriend and I came up with this project. We aimed to recycle the photos that are not attractive at first sight and use some method such as cutting, zooming out and combining, in order to find something interesting or revealing something.
KL: What are you trying to say about Chinese life?
JONY: I don't know. Sometimes I still explore.
KL: You're exploring and finding your vision? Do you ever go out looking for something in particular?
JONY: Yeah. When I'm on the subway, always.
KL: Are these places that you go to often or do you really go out exploring to find them?
JONY: No, not often.
KL: So you put some of your band shots in here as well.
JONY: They are all taken with my phone.
KL: Is there a reason you've chosen black and white?
JONY: Because black and white gives people a feeling like restriction and serious. They also make photos simple.
KL: Even from the first time, looking at those first shots of Remedios, you've always taken really beautiful detail shots. Instead of showing the whole scene, you cut into something closer.
JONY: Yeah. I like it. Some people don't like to take some close shots but I think, like a mouth, it can, oh my English is letting me down.
KL: I should be better at Chinese.
JONY: Because sometimes people don't notice these things. Maybe a big picture has surroundings which can give people some feeling but a close shot can give a different feeling. In closer shooting, the details become the main body. You will focus on them. Besides, details give an index to people’s character.
KL: Your detail shots are definitely what stand out in your photography. Particularly with the band shots because people consider the celebrity of bands and the idea of taking unrecognisable photos of them isn't what they're looking for. They always have to display them in the context of their fame.
JONY: Yes, maybe for the celebrity, a recognizable band’s photo is better. I think both the photos are necessary for the band if the photos are nice. However, everybody has his own taste. For example, the first time I took photos for Su, he didn't like them because they were too close. He likes surroundings to create atmosphere .
KL: He likes that better? Su and I have different taste in photography. I guess for him it's a different game, I'm looking for some visual aesthetic and he's looking for ways to sell himself. Do you feel like the work you do for Su is more like commercial photography?
JONY: It is really a job but I like these photos too. I also enjoy it.
KL: Is that start of the reason you started the new project?
JONY: Yes, and I want to search different ways to express myself. Through many things, not just photos. Some poetry. Do you know these things?
KL: Oh you've been making stencils.
JONY: I like to make stamps.
KL: The way that you've cut them out makes the actual stamp quite a beautiful artefact itself. What material are they made from?
JONY: It's like an eraser.
KL: Oh, of course, rubber. Do you feel influenced by people like Andy Warhol?
JONY: I like Andy Warhol. I wrote an article about him. A school assignment.
KL: What do you think of him as an artist. How does he inspire you?
JONY: In the beginning, I knew him because of the Velvet Underground and I liked his pictures. But I didn't know the meaning, I just liked it. But then I read some of his books and... some people say Andy Warhol pictures are useless but I think he started a movement, pop art. I think pop art has his meaning. It has a social relationship with people.
KL: And that's important for you in your art?
JONY: Yes, I also adore a Japanese photographer, 荒木经惟 [Araki].
KL: So his photography is a big influence on you as well?
JONY: Yeah I like his photos. I think he is a person who can chat with people easily in the street. He is an interesting old man. Some people might think he is wild.
KL: Well it's important that art is challenging, right?
JONY: I really like his photos but I don't want to shoot a girl without clothes. Maybe some people like it but I like social things. Because now I am still very young, I am nineteen, so maybe I don't have many of my own ideas. I think maybe I should listen to others and accept others' ideas, I have time to grow up.
KL: So right now you feel more like a student of art rather than an artist?
JONY: I'm not an artist. I am student learning to do things.
KL: Do you ever get to use your work for your university degree?
JONY: No, they don't like this kind of thing. I showed some photos to one of my teachers and she said I take photos for a bar but I take photos for a live house which is different, I think. But she doesn't know that.
KL: As a young woman in China doing this kind of work, do you often come across people who don't approve?
JONY: In the beginning my parents didn't like it but they knew that I liked rock music so we talked and talked and talked. And I also gave the book to my parents. They don't like the girls smoking. My mother said, if that girl was holding a book in their hands rather than a cigarette, it would be great!
KL: You're not from Beijing, are you?
JONY: No, I'm from Zhejiang province.
KL: Do you think if your parents lived in Beijing they would understand your lifestyle more?
JONY: I don't think so because some of my Beijing friends, their parents don't like it too.
KL: Is it just because you are a woman?
JONY: My parents think that a girl is not safe and also they want me to be a woman who works in an office and has a stable job. My mother also thinks that taking photos is dangerous because if you take photos at night you're alone. In my childhood, although I learned to draw traditional Chinese painting and play the piano, my parents still thought that I should study hard to go to an excellent college. Until now, they thought those things, too. Sometimes, my family enters into endless arguments about my future. I am the only child in my family, they put too much of their hopes on me and want me to be the person who they adore , like some posted people in society. I understand them very well but I still want to listen to my heart and build myself. Anyway, I am proud of myself that I have courage to try things..
KL: What do your parents make of your friendships with people like Nathan?
JONY: My mother is very traditional but she understands it. I told them about Nathan and that he is a really great friend who helps me a lot.
KL: They gave you the camera and you started doing this, do you think when they look at the book they trust you more and are proud of you?
JONY: They're proud of me, I think. Although they worry about me sometimes, they support me to do the things I like. My grandfather takes photos too. He is a person who likes culture and arts, he writes down or cuts down some things from what he read. He also knew how to play a Chinese music instrument which called ”Xiao”. However, it broke when my father fought with his sister when they are young. I have a photo I really like. I really adore my grandparents they are really in love with each other. My grandfather only takes photos of my grandma. She has a lot of books and they are full of pictures that tell their story. My grandfather has been taking photos for a long time but he never told me about it. Last summer he gave me a very old camera.
KL: Have you tried to use it?
JONY: It's broken. This is my grandma.
KL: What a great picture. He obviously understand how to frame things.
JONY: My favourite photo. My grandma is young. When they retired they went to some foreign countries to travel. I think they are so in love. They have a romantic life. My grandfather is now 82 or 83 and he still drives a car. My grandparents, after they retired they learned to search for things on the internet. I think they are very fashionable. They are on WeChat. I also gave them the book. They liked it.
KL: Did they think the smoking was bad?
JONY: Of course, but they didn’t mention that.
KL: You told me earlier that you are interested in screenwriting.
JONY: I want to write stories for movies or theatre.
KL: So you study writing and in your spare time do all of these visual things...
JONY: Yeah I think it can help me to grow. I also do music. I think all the art forms are related. I think doing all these things can help to reveal Jony.
KL: Do you want to become expert at these things?
JONY: Yeah, but I'm busy and I'm lazy sometimes. I have too many things to do. At first I was confused because I was working at Old What and also taking photos and also studying for my major, and now I play music shows and became an assistant, too. Finally, I realized that I am a person who enjoys a busy life and I adjusted myself. I can hold onto this. To be honest, to be an expert in one thing is enough.
KL: You're happiest when you're busy?
JONY: Yeah I'm really happy. I think when you are young if you are busy it is good for you. You should learn many things. And finally you will find what you're really good at. I'm still finding out what I'm good at. I'm not sure. Some people say, you're only 19, you've got a long road to walk, you needn't think of too many things, you just need to stay in university and study, but I don't think so. I think, if you stay in university for four years it is useless. You should go out into society to know more things like relationships between people and also to promote some skills to find what you are really good at and really like.
19-year-old Jony 周宁 moved to Beijing from Zhejiang province to study Chinese Language and Literature at China Youth University and began toying with a newly gifted camera. She proved an instinctive and talented lens-woman and has taken photographs for several local and international bands including Su and the Paramecia and Remedios the Beauty. Her artistic curiosity has led her into new creative endeavours and the publishing of her first book. For more information or to get a copy of the book contact her on Weixin: zn_27_v
Interview, no scratch that, burrito muffled conversation on 15th October, washed down with beer, at some Mexican restaurant inside Indigo Mall, Lido
KL: How about we go through your photos and I pick some that I like and you tell me a bit about how and where you took it?
BA: This is from when I first got a camera and I was just so impressed that I could get such photos. I didn't even stop, I just kept walking with the camera at chest height. I would barely adjust the lens just pause and snap and never stop.
KL: So that was your first experience as a street photographer? So you always try to get the photos when people don't know you're there?
BA: Yeah. Definitely. Ideally to get as close as I can, head on, without them noticing. Which is the new challenge. What I do now, rather than quickly snapping and leave, is sitting in the area for awhile, choosing a spot I like and just hanging out. Then eventually I'll take the camera out and take a few. You usually get people looking at what you're doing and asking you questions. I've got a few pictures on there of me being a teacher and if they see that, they know that I'm not up to no good. Then I'll show them some old photos and then they just start to ignore me. I'm just a guy with a camera.
BA: When I went to Hong Kong I wanted to try to develop more and think more as a series. And here I snuck into an apartment building to get on the roof. I had to break through the fire escape (Ha it was harder than it sounds) and was on private property. There were people in their gardens watching me as I was climbing over the gates. Just to try my best, because what I noticed about Hong Kong was the different architecture, the lines and its all very claustrophobic. But, any time I tried to take a picture looking up, it just never looks good. It never looks the way you need it to be so you need to get on a level where you can look through it. This one is still too high so I had to manipulate it. This was really my first attempt at taking landscapes because it's not something I'm really interested in.
BA: This one's funny, it's not a good picture but I went into the store, as I was walking by in Hong Kong and he was just sat on the bed like this and I had to take his picture. So I just went in and said, excuse me I work for a magazine called The Beijinger (I could of said anything and Beijinger was the first thing that popped in to mind) [LIES!] and I'm taking pictures of the different shops and architecture and you just caught my eye with the colours and style. And he said, no problem. So he sat there and posed. Afterwards he gave me his card and said, can you send me it when it's been published?
KL: And did you? No wait, of course not.
BA: Well, I'm hoping, if you put this picture in, we can kind of live that out and I'll send him the link.
KL: Haha! Alright, we'll do it.
BA: Yes! So not really the picture but I do like the moment that I'm capturing though I do like the colours.
BA: This one I love because there was just a group, they just appeared on a busy street, it was like a celebration. But no one else seemed to be bothered that they were there. So they look really intimidating but no one has noticed that they were there.
KL: They definitely look like they've been practising how to look badass though, don't they?
BA: Except for the guy taking the cheeky swig.
KL: It looks like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
BA: This guy is just smoking and reading and doesn't even look at them. Can't imagine it would have been like that a few years ago but, then again, maybe it's always been like this. I didn't really get the clarity I wanted.
BA: This one I waited for thirty minutes for on a busy street but it was so bright, and the lights. Just as it cleared out and the traffic lights were done, the guy just appeared and it was perfect. I was there for twenty minutes just trying to get the lighting right. You can just see the back of someone here so it took that long just to get a clear path.
KL: It's like the Wong Kar-Wai film, Chungking Express.
BA: Again I'm seem to always be attracted to the solitary figure. The working man, the working woman, working alone at their tasks. Never anything moving or exciting just the slow pace of reality. Just in their moment thinking this guy is there day-in, day-out and all the hustle and bustle around him. This man is working away in this pharmacy.
KL: Isn't there a wonderful sense of order in that pharmacy, though.
BA: Yeah, everything is stacked so orderly but despite the street being so busy his shop was empty. So I'm guessing he's got all the time in the world to do it. So yeah, for some reason I'm drawn to older solitary figures who mostly look like they are in the moment of deep thought or expressing a feeling of either being content or a feeling of thinking 'how did I get here?'.
BA: Here I was trying to get a series of the lights and just how many signs you're exposed to. Again, I'm with Juno [girlfriend extraordinaire] so I don't have much time. I'm literally stopping for a second. I know it's a complete mess but, when I was in Japan, in this bookstore I found a book of just signs on every page. And I thought, I just want to try something like that. And there's not an empty space. The whole crop and composition of that is not what I anticipated.
KL: What is going on with this series that you took here? Are these posed?
BA: No, this is really cool. They are in Dalian by the coast there's this huge skateboard ramp. The thing's massive. And it goes up and the sky was completely white with pollution and the boys had gone to get a beer.
KL: That's the sky?
BA: Yeah, so she's at the top of this ramp and her boyfriend, and the contrast of her dress and the hazy sky drew me in. Her boyfriend was getting her to go to the top while he took pictures of her with his phone. So I just went behind him. The wind was blowing through, it looked like I was in the studio photographing a hair commercial with wind machines blasting. Yet, It's just a girl on the top of this ramp with the a white sky, a yellow dress and the wind. I just felt so lucky. Right place, right time. This is probably my favorite photo I've ever taken. I don't know why but there is just something about it. Also for some reason this photo makes me think of Björk.
KL: How did you go taking photos on a beach where people feel more vulnerable or exposed?
BA: You've obviously got that big rock that is the centre point. So they all think I'm taking a photo of that. They don't really know that I'm interested in the guy with the beer gut crawling out of the ocean.
KL: Oh that one's excellent! How long did you stand here waiting for these shots? Are you in the water or on the beach?
BA: I'm right down low because Vega [photography mentor] told me, every time you take a horizon shot, the horizon should not be over their head. We were next to the bar at the top so I just kept nipping down if I saw someone interesting. I'd run down and shoot them.
BA: Same as these guys. Just from nowhere this bunch of army guys came down. And they weren't there training they were just enjoying their day off. I was thinking are they not allowed to wear something more causal on a day off? They were just like, before me, Andy and Scott were throwing rocks in and next thing you know, these guys, who looked a little intimidating, just became playful boys, playing in the ocean.
BA: This is about five so the sun is shining through the trees. Again, I love that photo.
KL: Great reflection. So what's this guy's story? Had he been sitting there for awhile?
BA: He looks so stern and serious, he's uptight and everyone was out there doing something. It wasn't like a quite area. He was just on his own in the shadows and this light just came through and hit him, and I just thought, I've gotta get it.
KL: Again, how do you take that photo subtly without him noticing?
BA: I'm sat on the end. Most of the time he's looking the other way so I pretend that I'm taking a photo in front of me. I'm getting my settings ready based on something else so I don't have to waste any time preparing it looking at him. Then I just rested it down on the wall, tilted the screen and then just took a few.
KL: Oh my God. He's awesome as well.
BA: I had a really good day. I was buzzing off these guys. He's literally next to where we're eating now [as mentioned above, fancily decorated mall restaurant], these photos. You can see the two different worlds. But I just had some sort of confidence that day. I just sat and watched them dance. There was only one guy who told me to go away. I was right up close, it was really weird, I'm used to going up and taking a photo and legging it. But this time, I took a photo and no one said anything so I just stayed.
KL: This guy's like serious gangsta. What's he up to?
BA: They're all playing cards but the focus was him. Everyone seemed to be around him like somehow he was the alpha male in the group.
KL: You can tell in the photo, it comes across.
BA: The lighting on that day and the characters in that park. Just everything they're getting up to.
BA: I sat and watched these dancers for ages. It was strange because everyone else was just having a laugh but these two...
KL: They're in costumes.
BA: Really professional.
KL: Were they good?
BA: I don't know enough about dance.
KL: Did they seem to be graceful?
BA: Yeah, look at the body lifting out. It's like, where did they learn to do that? What do they do? Are they part of competitions? Is it part of their school programme, they've just always danced?
BA: He was my favourite. He looked like the Terminator or Sergeant Slaughter from WWF. His aviators, so serious, upright everyone was dancing and all you could see through the dancers was him with the light shining. I just took so many photos. Again and again. Just trying to get it. So there's all this movement going on around him and he's just solitary. Probably one of my favourite photos as well.
KL: He's got a kind of Nick Cave charisma about him. Like you get the impression that, if you waited, maybe once a year he gets up and dances and when that happens...
BA: Everyone gets off the floor.
KL: And it's the most memorable amazing experience anyone has ever had.
BA: I think this was the turning point. Juno just went off for the day and I went to the fish market. I thought it went all day but I got there late. So the thing is, to get there five in the morning, all hustle and bustle, everyone gets there. I get there just as it's closed. So all the public have gone now and I sneak into the warehouse. I shouldn't be there. I get round the back and I go through the worker's exit and now everything's been shut and I'm just in the biggest fish market you've ever seen. Fishermen cleaning up, counting their money. It's just the after hours. I think everyone else who's ever been there has just taken photos of the crowd. So I'm the only foreigner there and you can hear my footsteps as I'm walking through. And it's these big scary Japanese fishermen with their big knives cutting tuna for the next day. And I just felt spoilt because you see the holes in the roof. It's midday, it's sunny, there's light and there's shadows and there's no one else there and everyone looks so interesting. I just, I could have just stayed there for hours.
KL: Do you have some more of these?
BA: How close i got to them. I think as a photographer you feel like, the more you get in, the more adrenaline you get from it and then it's afterwards you feel rude. Maybe it's not morality right but at the time, it's like, I'm here, I hung around these guys for ages as they were cutting it. Can you just imagine in this scene, behind the camera, is a tall, white, foreign guy, in their world, taking their pictures as they cash up for the day.
KL: They explain it away in their head. If you were a Japanese guy, you would have probably got kicked out. You should definitely put these together as a series.
BA: Japan, you are just so spoilt. All the little restaurants. Japan felt like two different worlds separated by day and night. By day, it felt like a lonely place built for solitude and political correctness. You would see men dressed in the same white short sleeved shirts, black carry bag, working long hours , everything's designed to be fast. Even the McDonalds there, eating the burgers in solitary compartments. You eat quickly, you move on. This part I found fascinating. It's just off one of the subways, all the working men at the end of the day just getting these beers from the vending machine, sit, get drunk then take the subway home.
KL: So it's just a vending machine with an awning over the top?
BA: Yeah. As you can see, they're all sat round talking about their day.
KL: I've seen that in Japanese movies before. Isn't that weird, it's so incongruous, you've got this society where everyone's so go, go, go, no social interaction, eat, work. Everything's so polite.
BA: I think that photo sort of sums it up. Guy, black trousers, white shirt, brief case, going into a bar at the end of the day. And with the pink light it makes it look a bit...
BA: Yeah. Another one. Guy brief case, white shirt, black trousers, going to get a quick meal. Without even knowing it, there's a series there. The guys are just on their own from A to B every day. During the day it's everyone on their own, nobody talks. If you didn't have someone in Japan, it really must be one of the loneliest places on Earth. You see, I never really take photos of the fun or the rich side. I am generalizing but this was the feeling I got. However at night it became a different place and I look forward to going back someday.
BA: Oh I love that photo. It tells a whole story. She's with her boyfriend on a date, sees the cool skater, has a cheeky look over.
KL: You look at that photo and you go, your days are numbered, son.
Ben Ashley went from happy snapper to compulsively photographing the world around him. His work covers everything from nights out with the boys and tourist adventures to engaging series on the isolated worker and the lives of retirees in Beijing. He hails from England and stands out from the crowd with his height, blonde hair and Kettering accent. Ben is a perfect example of the artist who does because he must rather than he does because he's been trained to do it.