A Show of Formality Series Q & A
Interviewer: Li Xiaoxi
Artist: Fu Wenjun
Venue: Independent Images
Time: February 4, 2010
Li Xiaoxi: In the field of photography, there are a lot of photographic artists shooting the SummerPalaceor the World Expo. What kind of artistic ideas are embodied in your Twelve Zodiac and Gardens of Nations series, and how they distinguish your work from others?
Fu Wenjun: The wonder of TheOldSummerPalacehas a tragic past. It is not only a historical relic, but also a wound which is always difficult to be healed in the hearts of Chinese people. The site has attracted many photographic artists, including me. However, the idea ofshowing theSummerPalacein art is closely related to an occasion inParisin 2009: It was an action sponsored by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergerac Collection. At that time, the auction included a mouse head and a rabbit head which had been cut off from bronze zodiac statues in Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860 and had been in aboard ever since. I think such thing has gone beyond the economic scope and it has a relation to Chinese history and Chinese national complex, which touches me greatly. This is what strongly prompted me to deal with the theme of zodiac sculptures and the oldSummerPalace. But I didn’t record them like what some news photographers did; instead, I placed the sculptures in a historical context through conceptual photography. In Zodiac series, I replaced computers showing the zodiac animals’ heads on theSummerPalaceruins, and made photographs of those scenes to render a reality of absurdity between image and the real world, thus bringing the historical issues into our modern democratic society and making people consider the tolerance of our culture in a new historical condition. I utilized the retrieval function of the computer, and restored the images of animal heads to theSummerPalaceagain. This borrowing of images undoubtedly represented the distance between virtuality and reality, and I could only come up with the word “history” to describe such scenes. After three years, when I saw various national pavilions being established one after the other in The Shanghai World Expo Center and pondered on the sharp contrast between the thriving construction in Shanghai and ruins of the Summer Palace, some kind of unspeakable and strange mood was lingering. In line with Zodiac series, I created Gardens of Nationsseries. In these series, I changed the ruins of The Old Summer Palace in Zodiac into pavilions ofBritain,France,Germany,Japan,Italy,Austria, theUnited States,Russiaand other countries in The Shanghai World Expo in 2010, and replaced computer image for ruined walls in the oldSummerPalace. I deliberately made two groups of images move between history and present, virtuality and reality. I’m different from most photographic artists who took the same subjects as their theme, because they often used the technique of documentary photography, and put the focus of their works on the meanings of the scene itself. But I regard “history” and “thinking” as keynotes of my creation. I think that rethinking history is to reflect today with the memory of the past, make self-reflection, and review our reality. As a historian Carl said: “History is mobile and has been reconstructed constantly. History is always living among the past, present and future. It not only refers to the past, but also points to the present and the future.” We can not escape from history, because we always live in the moment. Therefore, people often choose to forget. Amnesia has become normal. I just want to use my works as a means of resistance to forgetting. Needless to say, forgetting does not mean that something has never happened. There are many artistic creations in modern and contemporary world, which are based on irony and joking of history. These creations don’t mean to distort or dilute history, they are made to resist the loss of memory. Of course, the purpose of my works of art is not only to revive people’s forgotten memories. I really want to ask why we will forget the past. An aspect of art in the present age rests on its responsibility of carrying history and reality, doesn’t it?
Li Xiaoxi: Indeed, the so-called contemporary art precisely rests on its responsibility of carrying history and reality. With the opening of the concept of contemporary art, political and social orientations become more and more common in artistic creation. Two groups of your works imply a certain political appeal. Does this appeal bring the end of the autonomy of art? How do you look at this issue?
Fu Wenjun: In contemporary artistic creation, political and social nature do have highlights, but the autonomy of art does not fade. Political and social nature of art is expressed through autonomy. Needless to say, today the development of art is more and more limited by the overall social development. Art itself has paid more attention to social issues. I’m living in the present, so my works will definitely be influenced by contemporary society, politics, and culture. Adhering to a right political position, my works will also look up to the autonomy of art. Because the political purpose you said is not the purpose of my creation, it is only a supporting role which appears when I aim to present the objectivity of history and my ideas. Furthermore, the awareness of artists on history and society is definitely not unified. The fitness of an ideology to the mainstream does not necessarily hint a political position. Clearly, the domination of national ideology on the history, in the final analysis, can not hide the objectivity of history, its basic value. I just want to express my understanding of history, as well as the right of free expression by photography, or in other words, my spiritual orientation to the history. Contemporary art is an art with an awareness of questions. The presentation of current issues is the responsibility of both art and artists. It has nothing to with the work’s political stance, and for most of the time, there are many misread political positions.
Li Xiaoxi: You mentioned that in Zodiac series, you placed the computer displaying zodiac animals’ heads on the ruins of theSummerPalacefor shooting, so that there will be an absurd reality shown between images and the reality. Why did you use these two elements to create your theme?
Fu Wenjun: As we all know, in 1860, British and French allied troops burned The Old Summer Palace and plundered countless treasures ofChina, including the copper zodiac animals’ heads in The Old Summer Palace. From an aesthetic point of view, the twelve zodiac animals’ heads sculptures do not have high artistic value, but they represent a period of indelible historical memory of Chinese people, verifying the past pain and shame of Chinese nation. TheOldSummerPalaceis a historical site. The historical facts behind the scene as a support, it is difficult for us to erase them in the present context. If I only juxtapose animal heads and The Old Summer Palace together, the work is only a simple nostalgic work. But I let animals’ heads appear in the search page on the computer. The combination of history and reality, real and virtual objects just express my idea of linking past and present, and bringing the moment to the history. Directly placing animals’ heads in The Old Summer Palace looks very weak. Those objects only exist in our complex and in a certain consciousness. You can not rewrite history no matter what you do, neither can you distort or erase history. As an existence, history is a warning. Because to human beings, history carries emotions, but also, measuring the history by the scale of humans’ values is somewhat limited. In fact, a lot of problems and implications are involved in history.
Li Xiaoxi: Your Zodiac series was created in 2009. Three years later, you created Gardens of Nations. And today, you combined the two series together, making it a Mere Formality Series exhibition. What do you want to express?
Li Xiaoxi: Actually, when I first created Zodiac series, I had the idea of seeking some kind of connection between The Old Summer Palace and The Shanghai World Expo. TheOldSummerPalacewas built in the fortieth years of Kangxi (1709). As a symbol of the Qing Dynasty’s golden age, in the tenth year of Xianfeng (1860), it was ruined by foreign forces and became a humiliation of Chinese people, which has been forever recorded by history. Across time and space, I juxtaposed The Old Summer Palace, the sign of that humiliation and The Shanghai World Expo which represents the rise ofChinatogether, aiming to present a 150-year change inChina. Gardens of Nations andZodiac series are unified in form, namely the architectural background and computer devices. The difference is the replacement of contents: in Zodiac series, I placed the computer showing twelve copper zodiac animals’ heads on the ruins of The Old Summer Palace, and made several photos. While in Gardens of Nationsseries, I replaced the ruins of The Old Summer Palace into the scene of national pavilions ofBritain,France,Germany,Japan,Italy,Austria, theUnited States,Russia,Japanand other counties in 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Mere Formality interprets the two gathering of eight countries inChina. Those occasions brought us infinite reveries and inner pains as well. As a witness of history, the work presents the vicissitudes ofChinain the past one hundred years, and the prosperity of today’sChina. The connection of two series contains a huge change. It is the change of Chinese reality and the transformation of Chinese people’s psychology. The establishment of World Expo means that we have abandoned the shadow of our history, and we have released the heavy cultural psychological burden. At the same time, it ties our memories of the past from time to time. Because each group has its value rooted in history. The value not only belongs to The Old Summer Palace in the past, but also belongs to the World Expo today. In order to face the reality and the future, we need to look through the past. In short, history is a spiral, constantly being interpreted. All history is contemporary history, so the reality has always been a part of history. We have never been out of the history and are always moving in a historical process. As historical presences, The Old Summer Palace and the World Expo themselves witness and experienceChina’s yesterday and today quietly. They also anticipate the future. I have juxtaposed two historical nodes which are meaningful and worthy of reviewing and thinking, thus making such an exhibition. My aim is to lead people to re-examine the situation of our country and the great changes from the perspective of historical existence and variances.