Artist, Painter, Writer
Interview with Transmigrant Flow
TF: Can we just start with the story of how you became an artist from a young age to where you are right now? It's alright if it's a long story.
FF: Well, from a young age, I was born in the 1980s, in that time we didn't have so many phones or iPads from outside. I remember my toy was trucks, drawing on the wall all the time, and hanging out with your friends who live around you. It was a lot of fun and a happy life. My grandfather is a calligraphy artist so I'm naturally holding the brushes to do something. And there are some kids they ask for a painting and say, I want a cat, or others say, I want a fox, I want a cup. So I do those for them and I feel so happy like a god – Okay, what do you want? Like that. I give them to them and I like to cart all the papers. At that time I even like to sing and dance like a natural. When my grandma got cancer and I feared I was seeing the nature flowing out so I think art is a natural thing in kids. I'm very fortunate, I didn't follow the social trend, I kept it going even when I'm in school, I'm one of the best students in math and something that my family asked me to do because I fear only that you can get freedom. Whatever anyone says to you, you are the good one. So you can do something you like. I like to hang out playing with other kids who the schools says are not good. I like them. I think they are kind of natural and interesting people. I'm kind of naturally like those characters. My parents have funny characters too and, when I was five, I was in school, and my father had a chance with work to travel around half of China so, I don't know what he said to my mum, they just gave some reason to my teacher and took me out from school and had a vacation that I shouldn't have had. When every kid was in the school, my parents, like kids, took me out to travel. Then I realised travel really gave me a lot of things. Gave me an open vision, more than in school, sitting there and following what people ask you to do. And I liked to talk to people at that time, to talk to all the people on the train. I naturally ask, like a journalist, I naturally like to ask people, Hi, how are you? where are you from? What are you doing later? I naturally like to make friends with all the people and ask more words. I know these words are big, they're not only my words.
TF: How old where you then?
FF: At that time, five years old. And another thing I can say about my character, when I was three years old, I was separated from my parents because a lot of the time in China, the parents, they have to work and they are young. At that time they are twenty something. They had me pretty young and they want to have fun, they want to have friends and they have jobs so they just put me in my grandma's. That was before I went to school. So the story is that, before I went to school, my parents just dropped me at my grandparents' house and they are in the countryside, like a little village, not so much a village but at that time in China everywhere was like a village. Growing up with my grandparents for those few years and every weekend my parents will take me home so I'm waiting for that moment. But one weekend I think they forgot and then I took my umbrella and pretended it was a horse I'm riding back. So I was a little girl riding my umbrella horse back to my parents and I say “hi” to every person I saw on the way. That was a safe time in China. No people would steal me. I was safe. Outside of my parents door, I knocked on the door and my father opened the door and says, where is your grandfather? He thought he had brought me so I said, I came alone. So he was very shocked. Because even if you're riding a motorbike it takes ten or fifteen minutes driving so I don't know how long I walked. He put me on the back of the motorbike and drive to my grandfather and asked where I was. My grandfather said, Outside, she is playing with those kids. Then my father was angry he said, You're not watching my daughter and she just ran back to my house. That's my character. I can take risks. I am open and I like risk and especially risk for some kind of love. I did a lot of that for what I think are my feelings.
Then my middle school was kind of okay. When I was fifteen a very early relationship started. It was my first kiss with a boy. We had grown up together since I was three years old. And I wanted him to be at the same middle school and high school as me but he was not that good at maths and everything. I was a student sent to high school and didn't need anything. I didn't need to pay because I was very good and the school wanted me. I used a lot of charm to give him some teaching.
TF: You taught your boyfriend?
FF: He was not my boyfriend at them time. It was very limited. I just stayed with him in this little room and tried to ask him to work harder so we can be together in the future or something like that. And we had a kiss in the Moon Festival. It was very sweet, first we had the sweet rice made with sugar and then we had a kiss that was really sweet. He was like flying that night. He told me later that he was flying that night and said, I really want to be with you in the future. And then, of course he jumped up, he was good. Not that good, he just got this and I am much better. But his mum asks, she said, I'll take you two traveling together, and my mum was thinking and thinking and thinking, and said no. Because she didn't want us to have something unexpected at that age. So she kept changing, she agreed and disagreed several times and then she said, okay, you cannot go with him but I will give you some money and you can do whatever you like, just not with him. Then she gave me money and I didn't know what to do so I went to a mountain area that had a lot of universities and I met some very, very good friends, even now. And those people, they were high school students. They are going to university. They are going there to prepare something for the art examination. And so they are painting and they made me feel so relaxed I just found another passion. I don't just want to be a good student, just because I'm good that doesn't mean I like it. I feel art makes people so happy and there's friendship and it's so relaxed. I feel so good. I thought, oh they have a school, you can learn art. I didn't know which kind of art. Then I went back to my high school but I knew this little thing, the seed was in my brain. And then I told some of my classmates, they are not good at maths, they don't like school, I said, You can find another way, you can do art. You don't need to be so good at maths or something. So I took a few people with me and I asked for an empty room at the school president's office. I said, We need an art classroom. We need an empty room to paint in. The president gave this special thing to us and said, Okay. So they had an empty room on top of the president's office and we would paint in there. So I felt good but we didn't have a professional teacher and I taught them a little and we'd teach each other and sometimes we'd go to that mountain area to Hunan university to learn something. And in the three years of high school, I was very fortunate, the third year I felt it was a waste of time to stay in high school so I just totally ran off like a horse and stayed with all of these kids and we would paint all day and all night. It was really good to escape from from your family so I felt so good. Then I took some exams for a different art school. I didn't go back to high school and prepare for English, Chinese, history, politics, all this stuff and I felt very, very passionate at that time because every kid, every year they keep learning and I was like crying because I totally forgot what I needed to do. I had only two months I needed to do the tests for the university. So, one day, a teacher asked me some questions in the class and I was totally empty. I was so far outside. It was like, what to do? So many books! So many books! I was really crying and I said, I can't do it. And then I took a deep breath and said, I have to do this so I can jump out. In China, if you jump out without university you have difficult times. Especially your mum will say a lot of things. So I knew I had to get through it and as far as I can. And then after two months, I think I did really good, I got the first in our city and then I came to Beijing.
I didn't know what art to do I just followed the girl I first met at fifteen in the art place in the mountains and she said “hi” to me and I looked at her eyes for about three seconds and thought, she is my friend. She is two years older than me. She went to university in Beijing in a fashion institute school and she was doing fashion stuff and I said, I don't know what school, I'll just follow you to your school and I took the test and went to the same school as her. Two years later, in that time at school, I didn't know what to do, you know, I think art is a happy and free thing, not about something you have to paint, you have to do. It's just a feeling. So I got to school and I had seven room mates including me. There's a girl, one day she asked me to go with her to the school's reporting centre, she wanted to be a reporter, and she said, I don't want to go alone. Follow me and stay waiting for me. And I said, okay, so she went to do the reporting test and I was sitting outside and the teacher asked me, What are you doing here? And I said I was waiting for my friend and she said, Why not join our editors test? And I said okay. I went to the other room and took the journalist and editors test. I think that really helped me. But I think she failed, she didn't pass the test but I became a journalist for our university paper. I really found my start and I was so hanging out everywhere and riding my little bike and traveling around huge Beijing city. From the north first road to Qinghua university riding. I don't know how far. I didn't feel so happy riding this bike, going everywhere and then I went to a bar and they liked a photograph that I'd taken and he [the owner] was also one of the first people who started Nanluoguxiang. After Qinghua the government asked him to change location so he had to move. So, in 2000, I think, I went to his place and I knew another kind of life outside of university. Not the school life. I felt so happy. Every weekend I went to find my friends. I like people who are older than me. I think they're a lot of fun so I went together with them to shoot some stuff. And they've got those fifty kuai old cameras and I started to use a camera to film so a lot of my money was used to make prints. And a lot of the time I was outside the school traveling with them to do some shooting somewhere. I think after ten years, they all became famous artists. That's the future. At that time, when we were friends, I didn't know that was art I thought it was just a lot of fun. Then I realised that I don't like fashion. I like fashion but I don't like fashion to be an industry. Everyone copies, copies, makes a lot of the same thing and I hate it. So I'd rather be a reporter and a journalist to find something to talk about with people and to shoot photos and just to see, not to make something. I prefered this way.
I started to travel around on some weekends. I'd leave on Thursday and come back before Tuesday morning. Sometimes I have one day that I don't have lessons so I'd take four days to travel to some beach and to somewhere to see some sculptures or some stones. Natural travel, like a backpacker. Also I earned money as a reporter and I also tried to work in an advertising company in my vacation time, writing ideas for advertising. Doing a lot of work and I think this life involves a lot of risk and I like to try a lot of things. Also, I met some people, some producers and the first winter I didn't go back to have Spring Festival with my family because I think I just escaped from my mum. I want freedom and I got a job, I was the best in my university, and I got a job at a newspaper. They sent me to the Morning Beijing as a journalist for two months. My winter vacation I went there and then I realised the winter is cold. And the society even more cold and nineteen years ago, I think I'm kind of a hero, if I want to do something, or write something, I will write. But I tried to do something, and at that time we don't have internet. Some people that are sick need a lot of money and they don't need money, and I tried helping them, I talked to the newspaper to makes some advertising for them but it is impossible because my leader told me, so many things like these, that's society, you don't understand. Then I was crying in the winter and outside it was snowing. A big snow that year. I felt I couldn't hold up, as a journalist, I can't do anything. It's not like, you report the things you find. You're not even allowed sometimes. I felt I couldn't do it and I was crying and I felt, fuck it, I don't want to do it. I'll go back to hiding in my art. Art is beautiful and I realised at least I can warm myself. I can't help outside, I'm too young, so I went back to school the next year but I still didn't like the industry. I just bring my camera and hang out with my friends. I go to the coffee shop and meet different people. Even had a boyfriend. Not serious, school life. I don't know, I did so many things. I risked, you know? I was a fashion designer, shoe designer, reporter, photographer, journalist and I met a producer here in the first winter. He promised to give me my first job when I graduated from school. It was funny, when I graduated, my masters, I was a good student actually, he asked me, Do you want Beijing hukou? I said, What is your condition? He said, Well five years you'll have to stay in Beijing in the factory. I said, No! But I didn't know what to do. My mum can't control me, she can do nothing to me and I felt a little afraid. I had nothing to do. I had a girlfriend, she went to a southern university and she got a PhD as a water colour painter. She is really good. She paints really well. She was doing that and I had nothing to do and we hung out all the time in school, playing with skateboards, hanging out with a skating boy. We hung out together and had a lot of fun. I didn't fear the passion from society. I wanted to just do this. I didn't want it to be different after school. The boy went back to his hometown. He was one year lower than us and the girl was preparing her PhD and I was alone. Then I drank a lot and at that time was very confused. I didn't want to go into society because I had done that and knew what it was like. I didn't try to do anything. I just stayed in school. There are a lot of stories.
Then a girl one year lower than me called me and asked if I wanted to go to her hometown in Sichuan, a very beautiful place. I'd never been so far. I'd always travel around Beijing, like Shanxi or Dalian. Not too far. I think the west is super too far for me. I don't have such a long time but when I graduated she asked me to go so I said, Woah, cool. So I took two hours and bought some fabric pens and made a little bag. And I wear Converse shoes. I'm not like a backpacker, I don't wear the professional shoes. I just wear simple shoes with a big bag and followed her to her hometown. And then I stayed three days. Eat super, super spicy food. I got a very painful stomach. It's a white soup but you get super stomach pain. I took some pills and said goodbye to her because I felt I wanted to go so I left her and went back to Chengdu. Then I stayed in Sichuan university, a girl doing a PhD left me her key and I stayed at her place for ten days and just traveled around and looked around the university and some beautiful places in that city. Then I didn't know what to do so one night I decided I wanted to go so I went to the train station to get a ticket for some other place and it was an over night train so I could wake up in the morning. I wanted to go to Shangri La but I just followed my map so I thought I could go there and I got the ticket. When I got to the station and told them I wanted to go to Shangri La, the people laughed at me and said, there's two big mountains, after five years there will be a highway but now you can't get the bus from here to here. So I asked where can I go? And they pointed to some other place so I bought a ticket to another place. But for me it was all fun and all risk and a beautiful place and the people I remember, they just made you feel interested. I went on to travel for one or two years. Why I did that was because, I told you before I had a boyfriend, it was kind of, if I hadn't broken up with him, life would have kept going and we would have married and had kids and stayed in Beijing, get a hukou, get a house and get a car. But, unfortunately I met another person, with the same birthday as my boyfriend. He was doing art, he's a crazy guy, my girlfriend's teacher in the school. Then I am very confused. I have two people with the same birthday. The relationship got very weird and I just wanted to run away. And they asked me to choose one. They are in front of me asking to choose one, I said, I think freedom is more important so I ran away. I didn't know what to do, you know? So for about one or two years I am traveling and then the first boyfriend, he kept contacting me, he said, You should come back. We should marry. I was just very scared about going back. I didn't want to go back and be forgiven by him because I did something wrong, I am responsible. I don't need people to forgive me. So I just kept running away.
Then I came back to Beijing. The first job, he really promised, the producer, when I was in Yunnan I totally used up my money and my girlfriend, who is two years older than me, and she was going to Italy in luxury and came back to China in a very famous company as a designer. She has a lot of money but no time and I phoned her and said I was traveling and didn't have any money and she sent me money to the bank and I kept going. But I couldn't ask her for more. I still had no money and after a few days when the money arrived I was thinking what to do. Then I got a phone call from that guy, the producer, he said, We have a movie that will start, we need a designer for the clothes. He asked me if I wanted to come and I said, Oh, good, but can you pay me half the money before I go back because I'm super, super far from Beijing and I don't have money. So he sent me money and I came back. I did the job and, after two months, the film was finished and I got the other half of the money. Then I did different jobs. I wasn't in a stable place. Then when I don't have another choice, I stayed in my classmate's home. Now they are running a famous games company in the top ten in Asia, she and her husband. During that time I was staying with them for free on their couch. When I felt cold, I went to stay with other girlfriends, like the luxury designer and I cooked for her. I'm a very good chef. I have nothing to do, I just cook for her and she goes to work every day and comes back. And then my mum married another man and sometimes I spent time with them. In 2007 they broke up again so I didn't want to go home after that. I thought I belong to the world, not a small family that keeps hurting, I want to open myself. They have a story like a broken jar, how to make it fill with water? Three months have a test in the temple and the third monk just puts the broken jar in the water and then it's full. Do you know this story? It's about wisdom so I think I didn't fuck up my life, I just threw myself into the society but I have my rules and I have my feelings like what I should do, what I shouldn't do. I don't take the rules from society or from the family. I think testing myself is what I need to do, what I shouldn't do. A lot of the things. Then I met some art people. In 2007, in Nanluoguxiang there was a rich lady who bought a yard, its' totally all fixed and I was allowed to use it as my studio for free. In 2008, the Olympic times, it's so popular on Nanluoguxiang. Before that, I stayed in my friends coffee bar with my friends just sitting there and talking with writers and I could make some little job living in a small room for those few years and then I got a studio and a lot of people came to me and talked to me and I improved my English.
I set up some exhibitions with another girl, a photographer, we set up parties and exhibitions and it's a kind of a life start. More and more open it's just the nature of growing in a natural way, not a weird way. And I made a lot of friends just out talking like you're Japanese you're from America and you're from Iceland. I like people from everywhere talking. All the cultural stuff mixing. I have this feeling that I'm not myself that I'm part of the world. Then I was painting t-shirts to sell for one hundred. I bought them for five kuai, it was ten kuai to paint on them then selling them for one hundred. At that time some people asked me to make some art to sell to the professional galleries and I felt I was not prepared so I said I didn't want to sell my art if I don't feel something is prepared. So I kept doing different work to survive my life and I got a three year designer job, very stable for a shoe company. I got paid and gave them the stuff, I didn't need to go to the office for two or three years and then I felt I didn't like doing it anymore. Then I started to do painting as an illustrator for some magazines, for fashion magazines and Chinese National Geographic. What you see on the website, the maps, that's for them. I got some different jobs and am painting more. I get very good skills and think, that is good. I also, you know, since you are trying so many things, you know what you don't like to do anymore so, I think painting, is quiet, is myself. I listen to myself. That could be my work so I get some jobs people give me and then, one year later, I thought I don't want to work for the magazine, I don't want to get a job. I have a little money, I'm hoping I can get money in a different way and start traveling again to Thailand and then I feel, Oh yes. At that time I lost two cameras, people stole my cameras. I can't take photos and it's too expensive to buy another one and the phone cannot take photos at that time. So I really wanted to do something. I really wanted to remember something, so I have written diaries since 2000 or 2001 so I started to draw on my diaries, the people like you, I remember you. I don't have a camera so I have to make documentary portraits and write the story as the simple version I remember. That is my time. Otherwise I feel I'm gone, I am empty, I feel like, who am I. I write a diary and document it. That's natural. I just don't know whether it's art or not I just feel that I want to do it.
Then one year later, I got an iPad as a gift and one month later it was stolen and one year later I got another new one and then one day, I met a monk and he was sitting here, I was here, I felt something and I wanted to draw his portrait. I didn't take paper because I thought it would be noisy. I opened my iPad and made a quiet peaceful portrait of him. Then I felt I wanted to make one more so I made one more and asked him to sign it. I felt like that was getting touched, in my iPad I did more and more portraits. I just wanted to do it and talk to people and do documentary portrait. In Beijing, in New York, in Thailand in Tibet, everywhere, something from the diary book, something from the iPad. I was doing a lot and also some paintings. Then the girl, who I'd followed to university, she had begun to get famous in the design stuff. She is running her own brand, an independent company. She introduced me to the leader of one of the chains and said I did portraits on my iPad and that I should be introduced to the Apple company. So the chain's leader sent my information to Apple and gave them the information. And they sent that on the to big Chinese marketing director and he contacted me and we had a meeting with the marketing, PR and education centre of Apple in Guomao. They gave me a free iPad. And I was so happy. At that time I was helping a school in Tibet, I'd been doing it for two years before that, and I took the iPad and one new phone and went to Tibet by train, and I also got some free clothes for the kids. Some friends saved the money and they brought the crates super far from Tibet, I know someone who works as a doctor there. And together they're talking to the kids. I think it's kind of useless if you're trying to give clothes, they need people to stay there for their education. They need people to be with them. I go two or three times in two or three years, collecting my friends old clothes or new clothes. Then I don't have the energy to do it. Then I start art, anyway naturally, two years ago. I got a place to live and started some loose thing, you need a quiet life. The iPad is quick, talking to people and making things. Also, the portraits, when I make one of you I show you some of the others so I called this project, Everyone meet Everyone. That's it.
TF: Your work is both traditional and then you use the digital and you've shown in your life how that happened, but does it give you a different feeling when you're doing the digital or the traditional art? What are the differences and what are the same?
FF: I think life is like a tree, it's growing naturally. I think it's not different it's just some materials.
TF: What kind of work of yours gets the most attention from other people?
FF: I think every person is different, every artists is different so I think it is more information or energy. I'm just a part of the universe and I throw me into something. Throw me to cooking, throw me to writing, throw me to painting and I'm just a part. I don't know what is different.
TF: If you were talking to yourself when you were younger, what would you say to that little girl?
FF: So many dreams, so many dreams. Like I'm a good ping pong player so I used to think I could be a ping pong player or a mad scientist. Or so many things. I never dream about being an artist. Because who you are is a social state. I don't like any of it.
TF: So do you not like to call yourself an artist?
FF: I don't know what I would call myself. Now for this moment, an artist. Also, like the news, sometimes they call me an artist so I am an artist.
TF: You're not from Beijing originally so what do you think is different between being in Beijing and doing art here and when you leave, what do you see outside?
FF: Well Beijing is totally different compared with my hometown. That place, life is a little more leisurely. Beijing has more choices, you can go deep, you can go wide, you can stay in Beijing and meet people or you can jump out. For me, at this moment, I think I can feel the world, even if I'm in Beijing or in any place. I have my world, this world is the universe. Before I didn't have this idea, I feel I am so small. There's a song by Dido, [sings] a little, little girl in a big, big world. I'm a big, big girl in a big, big world, like this. I like this song and I feel that I'm big but I'm small. I'm in this huge world. But September in 2009 I asked myself, first I feel China will need more and more culture and art because we already have the buildings, the stuff you can see, we need something you cannot see. Those years the government gave the culture it follows my feelings. And I feel, what is the universe? I really want to know it so I have to know it from myself so I even try to know myself by writing the diaries and training in kung fu, writing calligraphy, anything to feel myself. Then my feeling is I can feel all the universe so not only myself.
TF: I wanted to ask a question about that, the blog we're looking at is really for foreigners so, what do you believe a Chinese artist should say to foreigners or why are Chinese artists important now in China's history?
FF: I think China's 5000 years really have a lot of things I need to know more about. Like today I have tea lessons this afternoon. Yeah, you feel this culture go back to your nationalities to feel what is good. Those things can help you be a better person. Like the tea stuff, making the tea will be peaceful and slow like making kung fu. All those traditional things will help you be a better person. For the foreigners, I think some foreigners even think those things are more important than a lot of Chinese. They accept our culture sometimes more than Chinese people know our culture. For me, I jump out, I jump in, I jump out, jump in so I have a distance to see ourselves and try to learn more and make friends with the world. I don't want people saying the financial things we get. I'm not a financial person, I'm not a political person. I think art is no edge. It's a friend and people can make friends by this way that is.
TF: You were talking about relaxing and art...
FF: Feeling by the human being, human feeling not like nationalities, of course we have differences but we also have some similar things. Art is the complicated and the simple. Art is to feel something sensitive, different and to make something to let people feel common. To feel the same feelings. Yeah. Of course it's different but in the art world they have tong pin gong zhen, how to say that? Like you feel the same way.
TF: You mentioned especially with your iPad art, that series is about connected people because you do a portrait of someone and then you show them other people's portrait so it's a way of connected people, what about your paintings? How do you hope to effect people with your paintings? Do you think all art connects people or is there a difference in what you achieve with the paintings?
FF: It's easier to carry, it's easier to make, it's easier to show people. It's like my mobile studio. I remember one day in India, I was at a table with people, different people everywhere. They would point at me and say, everything's made in China, bowls, cups, everything's made in China. The Indian person is a little angry. Well, when I'm not in China, I know I'm Chinese. Well I am made in China what do you think I want? So that's why art is important. Chinese are not only making something you sell we also have the soul and have the art. So I show him all of my works and say this is what I feel and I make the art. And then he felt surprised. He said, you're the first person I've seen who is not only making products, you are making art, you're making those things and he felt different. So making a friend be soft, not everything made in China! So art can make people feel relaxed.
TF: So do you hope that's the direction China goes in with showing more of that side?
FF: Yeah, of course. And also I feel the tea and the kung fu, a lot of things, are about human beings, for every person in the world. It's not only for Chinese. And medicine and a lot of things, people should share the good things, I think.
TF: Is there anything else you want to say to us or our audience?
FF: I think it's a wonderful world. My family name is Sun, but I prefer if people pronounce it sun. I think the sun has natural energy it gives people. It's not asking like an animal asks for something. The sun, I feel like the sun I want to make energy by myself. That's it. And I think art is about to warm, to fix, to give
SUNRONGFANG (fangfang) 孫蓉芳 (China. 1981)
Fangfang is an independent artist,painter ,writer , and social activist . Currently based in Beijing,China .