Conceptual Photography is the Card Reader of History-Photography
Speakers: Wang Shuo (Art critic, art reporter of Modern Weekly), Chen Xiaofeng (art critic and chairman of Songzhuang Art Festival), Zhang Qikai (distinguished professor of Oil Painting Dept. of Sichuan Academy of Arts and academic commissioner of Chuanmei Contemporary Arts Research Center), Tang Keyang (architect, art critic and planner of China Pavilion in 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale), Fu Yuxiang (renowned artist, working in Chongqing Art Gallery), You Yang (art critic and columnist), Zhang Changcheng (president of Huaya Art Foundation), Cheng Xiaobei (director of Shangyuan Art Gallery), Song Xinyu(curator, founder of Lapu Gallery)
Wang Shuo: I have a special question, wondering the original intention about this work.
Fu Wenjun: First I will introduce my basic creating ideas. Actually, it includes two series of works. Through conceptual photography techniques, I combined two historical, thought-provoking moments together, aiming at expressing my choice and persistence in front of history. This is my purpose.
In “History is a Show of Formality”, “ Twelve Chinese Zodiac” came out earlier than “Gardens of Nations”. But their form is the same. When I created the former one, my ideas were not very mature, but it touched upon the relations between the OldSummerPalaceand theExpoGarden. Then I spent along time thinking about this motif. When theExpoGardenwas built up, I went there many times. Then in a chance, I discussed it with Professor Zhang Qikai, he inspired me that my new works should come down in one continuous line, so I made them in accordance with my past works.
Wang Shuo: Is there an irony in the title “History is a Show of Formality”?
Fu Wenjun: No.
Wang Shuo: Why do you consider this topic?
Fu Wenjun: About the title “History is a Show of Formality”, I discussed with curator Hu Jiujiu many times. I think the title itself is telling a truth. From 1860 to 1911, and to 2010, the past decade has witnessed earthshaking changes in our country. All we have undergone in the past and presented now are the flow and reconstruction of history, from where came out various memories, especially those about the big changes in our country. It is a long process.
Chen Xiaofeng: I am going to say two points. I went to see the World Expo inShanghaiin the past few days, and I thought Fu’s work is very interesting, which has the ability to construct a new reality between the visual and history. It reminds us of how to think about history, and what is happening in today’s world. There is a strong sense of time. I am also thinking of how we, as a group of artists born in the 1950s, can present our understanding of time in a new ear. Liu Pengfei, a young artist who was born in the 1980s, has an artwork named What History is. His technique is different from ours. He deals with history with a way that we are not familiar with because of his different conception of history. Yet we are living in the same period. I think it is worthwhile for artists to think of different possibilities in their works.
I think if history is a static noun, then artists can transform it into a dynamic one to raise more attention. Why Fu would like to make a comparison between theOldSummerPalaceand the World Expo at this time? I think it is because both of them are outstanding representations of history: one is the symbol of the past, and the other is the progressingChinatoday. Their existence constitutes a very sharp contrast, yet they are combined together in a laptop. The combination gives us many hints, and makes us think about the space we live in today.
Secondly, we are made to think what kind of card reader the artist has provided for history. We will further question what kind of technique, transformation and platform are engaged in activating the static past. I think this work is a good try, which has made connections possible via new media and provided various changes in the future.
Interviewer: Professor Zhang Qikai wrote an article “The Game of Memory in History”.
Zhang Qikai: Yes, it is a 3000-word essay. During my writing, I found that human minds had two functions, one is to remember and the other is to forget. And both of them are essential. If we have no memory, we cannot pass down our experience and history. But we also need to forget something, because once we remember every detail, we get pains. So we’d better make a balance. The process of forgetting is the process of making decisions.
Fu Wenjun’s work aimed to initiatively find what we have forgotten. He used photograph to present his ideas with nationalistic methods. In history, the Eight-power Allied Forces attacked and occupiedBeijing. But theOldSummerPalacewas burned down by British and French allied forces in 1860. Forty years later, Eight-power Allied Forces robbedBeijingagain. This period history is a show of formality. Why? I think many people and events have presented themselves in the stage of history, and they are bound to be remembered by us in different ways.
This work recalled the event in the past, and now the ruin still exits there. It seems that many Chinese people have forgotten it, which shows the positions, attitudes and the loss of memory of Chinese people. However, the work reminds us what has happened in front of our eyes—the burning, the robbing, etc. People’s nationalistic emotions will be easily aroused at the mention of theOldSummerPalace. I think Fu’s recent works are colored by nationalism more intensively. The eight counties who used to invadeChina, seem to have forgotten their sins. Now they came over again with gentle smiles. But should we forget the past or not? It is a very serious question. For our nation, such memory is necessary. But the point is our attitude. That is exactly what Fu has dealt with in his works. We need to find out the answer by ourselves.
Interviewer: Just now Professor Zhang referred to an important question, that is—there are too many views about the exhibition theme. I can’t fix two works’ position, because there are so many symbolic meanings. So I am rethinking the title of “History is a Show of Formality”. In other words, it hides away some reality. Hence the most painful problem to be a curator is to think about a good title. But at the same time, it means that only the curator can fully explain it, and there might be no other explanations. It is not a good result. Yesterday we talked about the bronze heads which cannot come back. It is the same as if the kid has no candy, he will draw one. The way that Fu Wenjun moved the image of bronze heads in his works is similar to that of the innocent kid. However it is hidden in his subconscious. If I use “History is a Show of Formality” to explain that, then it might hide the personality, subtleness and some delicate things in Fu’s works. So today let’s speak out freely, and don’t be confined by history.
Tang Keyang: I am specialized in architecture. I’m very interested in the architectural background in this work.
Interviewer: His house is near the OldSummerPalace.
Tangke Yang: Firstly, this piece of works is closely related with the architecture. Secondly, the meaning generated is not from the architecture itself. Most people have never been to theOldSummerPalace, nor World Expo. They get to know the architecture in those areas through photography. This piece of works and its significance are very relevant to their conception. The image of the ruins of theOldSummerPalaceis known by all for a long time. The Great Fountain Ruins that people first get to know is only a small part of numerous gardens in theOldSummerPalace. The Qing Dynasty has leftBeijingwith “Three hills and five gardens”, a general term used to describe several imperial gardens in Haidian District. A large area in theOldSummerPalacewas burned down by invaders. And when Fu combined the symbolic ruins with images, he is presenting his crucial role in promoting historical memory and expressing certain significance of a place. His role is not without history. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there were thirteen photographers promoting the images of theOldSummerPalace. Or we can say that it is the photographer who has shaped the image of it in Chinese people’s minds.
In this sense, it is just right for Fu to express his ideas through photography, because this is the tool for the formation of meanings. In his work, he displays a netbook screen at the bottom, which might show that contemporary tools are upgraded. There are tensions and meanings hidden in this design. Many expression levels illustrate many ideas, but Fu may not give a specific definition. He tries to divide levels in his works, with reference to tensions and meanings. Twelve bronze animals, which used be placed in Hall of National Peace (Haiyantang), signified time themselves. On the screens of netbooks, twelve animals’ heads are shown with variations. But the relics in the picture have been in a static state for a long time and they will keep that timeless gesture forever. So is the case with theOldSummerPalace, a relics park. There are eight photos on World Expo, and the number has something to do with Chinese traditional paradigms, for example, the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang. Fu’s arrangement meets with people’s expectation of sceneries and the government’s purpose in constructing the Expo buildings. It is feeling of assembling beautiful sceneries and it has embodied traditional Chinese ideas on the world and the space. Maybe I am doing an over interpretation. What is interesting in his works is that you can not find out meanings at a first sight. There are many possible explanations. I am not sure whether I am true or not. What I provided is only one perspective.
Interviewer: Fu Yuxiang is Fu Wenjun’s younger brother, who is also an artist specialized in oil painting.
Fu Yuxiang: Seeing this show, I have a feeling of association. One hundred years ago, the Qing dynasty government protested against the British-based western powers, and told them not to sell opium toChina. Not long ago, I saw news reporting that our commodities, such as cigarette lighters and toys were consumed largely in the European Unions, so that they protested to us. They would like us to pay attention to production safety for the sake of children’s health. I think there is a saying inChina, which is “The geomancy turns by turn”. Three decades of reform have brought aboutChina’s rise. And this has been mentioned by several speakers just now, so I will not say too much here. After I saw the scene today, I feel that everyone will have his own thoughts. The imagination and the feelings aroused can be very different.
You Yang: I’ll speak briefly about my feelings. I always think that contemporary artistic creation should find a cut-in point to reflect the issues of today. The two units of pictures of Fu use two different symbols with strong orientations. The first unit of selected scene in theOldSummerPalacerepresents a run-down imperial power, or a ravaged imperial power. While the second one is mapping out a strong power. There is a strong sense of contrast. If I put this creation together with other conceptual works that we are familiar with, such as works of Miao Xiaochun and Wang Huaiqing, I can find a similarity in aesthetic clues, which lies in Miao Xiaochun’s genesis series and the a recent international sensation “AES + F”. All those works embody certain kinds of religious or political meanings. Someone just mentioned the term “Collection Photography”, I think now most of the conceptual photography have inherited the merits of collection photography. Create in the 1930s, the collection photography by Lang Chingshan made use of toning and exposure to form pictures. Of course, the creations of contemporary artists are basically manual, too. Today many creations can be done on the computer. Actually we are going back to the question of how technology can affect the creation of art.
Conceptual photography, in philosophy level, now embodies a post-modern nature. It’s different from Lang Jingshan’s works. Lang Jingshan presented the aesthetics and the esthetics in a traditional way. But now things are different. There might be nihilism, an anti-rationality thinking. In addition, I found an interesting detail, which happened just because I work in a media circle. This might be irrelevant to the art, but it has a revolutionary sense to the form of our exhibition. Today I saw a piece of news that in the world’s most important art fairs, each gallery has been equipped with iPads, which have become important tools. People think that since Apple Company invented iPad, it may become more appropriate for exhibitions. It brings about the convenience of introduction and the easy accessibility to artworks. Fu’s exhibition is where I firstly saw the usage of iPad at home.
Interviewer: It is the recommendation of my colleague. In our meeting, one colleague took out a white iPad to show off, and another colleague took out a black one to show off, too. Then I was inspired.
You Yang: This could be a trend in the future.
Moderator: As a sponsor and a cross-border art critic, Zhang Changcheng is the president of Huaya Art Foundation, the head of Juchang Arts Centre and the founder of “Beijingbystreet 798” in Fang’s Bystreet. He does art promotion in many areas, and has done a lot of projects. He also won many international awards.
Zhang Changcheng: In You Yang’s speech, I am concerned about a few interesting details. The netbooks used by Fu are the third-generation products with touchable screen from Fujitsu’s company. The searching engine is Baidu, not Google. There are both occasionality and the process of making choice, which also happened in the photography of Expo pavilions.
Zhang Changcheng: This exhibition reminds me of Venice Biennale. In 2006, when I had coffee with the president and talked about the theme of next Biennial, one of the important themes we discussed was “the influence of scientific development on arts”. I try to make myself read this exhibition with reason rather than emotion, because too much emotion will confine me in nationalistic thinking. To the Chinese people, the OldSummerPalacewas a symbol of shame. In history, many more beautiful, spacious, and culturally and artistically important palaces were burned down, includingEpangPalacein the Qin Dynasty andDamingPalacein the Ming Dynasty. What matters is that theOldSummerPalacewas burned down by foreigners, so we regard it as a shame and cannot forget it. Therefore, we always talk about with national sentiment.
It’s very ironic in another point of view. We have established World Expo, and with pavilions of other countries, it has become a symbol of our strength and pride. But few people would think about the impact of construction on local residents, as well as the demolition on local environment. So I think that the title is very appropriate. Every viewer can interpret the symbols in the works in a nationalistic way, or he can find technologies in those works and abandon personal bias, because we cannot neglect the deep influence of technology on art. In fact, we no longer regard that creation is only the interaction between the artist and the world, because we all have to admit the power of technology. I believe that Fu has also thought a lot about the choice of cameras, aperture, as well as the photometry.
Interviewer: Changcheng is a photography enthusiast, too.
Zhang Changcheng: Therefore, photography involves a lot of technical consideration. The choice made by the artist has much to do with his motives of artistic creation. We must admit that it is technology that makes the improvement of photography possible. I think the title “History is a Show of Formality” is very good, because it has multiple meanings. We can ask that why the audience came here today? Whether they are sincere or not? I think everyone can have his own answer and judgments on this show. And many things will happen here. Contemporary art has no definite end, and there might be no meanings in it. That is my opinion. I personally think that the experience of participating in this “show of formality” is cheerful.
Interviewer: Every time Changcheng makes a summary, there is some truth in it. Xiao Bei is a photographer, too. She is also the curator ofShangyuanArtGallery.
Cheng Xiaobei: Photography is my hobby. I will feel a pressure when I look at Fu’s works. I think his works are presenting the alternation of disappearance and growth. What is growing now will disappear, and what has disappeared will grow up again in another form. This is a circle. Of course, I know there is a nationalistic sentiment in his works. But what I see more clearly is the disappearance of the creation from a generation. It is the feeling of flesh being crushed upon. I strongly feel that the pictures are pressing me from top to bottom. The form itself shows the relation between disappearance and growth. InExpoGardens, the pavilions of those eight countries will be demolished, which is also a kind of disappearance and a “show of formality”. We as human beings are tiny traces in history. All powers, no matter how great or mighty they are, including the eight-allied forces, treaded on human’s blood and flesh and made their way forward. That is history.
Song Xinyu: Let’s talk about something relaxing. All we talked before were too oppressive. I would like to talk about the absurdity shown in Mr. Fu’s works. We tend to think about history, nation, shame,China’s fall and rise in a decade when we think of theOldSummerPalaceand Shanghai World Expo. I think in fact, the pictures present a lot of absurd things, for example, the combination of Fujitsu, Baidu, bronze animals’ heads, and the ruins. They are irrelevant to each other. In my opinion, Fu’s works may not be so oppressive. Let’s look at the Chinese contemporary art: there is a very interesting phenomenon that when people appreciate artworks, their senses of heaviness and history are likely to exceed the feelings of the artist during his creation. I feel that the existence of theOldSummerPalaceis a show of formality, so is the case with history and what we call a nation. We human beings are probably presenting a show of formality, too.
Interviewer: I would like to share with you my thoughts on this exhibition. I am actually a fruits picker. Mr. Fu is the man who grows the tree. When he had an idea, he put the idea into practice, and finally the idea took root and grew into fruit trees. I am a beneficial owner. In associating with Mr. Fu, I feel that the artists who were born in the 1950s have a good quality. That is something many contemporary artists do not possess. For example, they are “stubborn”, namely, to do things absorbedly and earnestly. We can hardly find that in artists who were born in the 1970s and the 1980s. Because for them, the world has too many temptations and distractions. They seem like monkeys picking corns and watermelons. Being of two minds, they finally get nothing at hand. This is the story on children’s textbooks. Fu’s diligence and attentiveness is unparalleled among artists. He took picture of theOldSummerPalacein different time of the day, so as to express the symbolic meanings of twelve zodiacs. It seems like an easy work but in fact is time-consuming. We should learn from his seriousness toward his art.
A work’s birth, presentation and its influence on the audience are associated with opportunities and the artistic conception. It took Fu almost two years to finish this two series. From 2009 on, he has been shooting theOldSummerPalace. In 2010, he took advantage of the World Expo and made another work. That is how opportunity matters. Another factor is the artistic conception. It brings out the crucial point in his works. Let’s see their scale: at first we think it might be better to present small works, say 1.1 meters or 1.2 meters. But what we see now are works with a size of 1.5×3.7 meters. It raises a high standard on the quality of pictures, and it is impossible on most works.
Zhang Changcheng: It is no easy work. First it is expensive. Second is the high standard on quality.
Interviewer: Art is the game of the wealthy. I suppose this will become more obvious in the future. The other day I was chatting with Liu Xiaodong. He asked whether or not we had to stop our creation and abandon art when there was no electricity. Then we found we couldn’t. Our aspiration to aesthetics is inherent. We need music, dance, and painting even if there is no electricity. This is what I have discovered from Mr.Fu’s works.
Then the Expo gardens were constructed, few people could came to see it. And when I visited the finished pavilions, there were people and installations everywhere so that you could hardly find the purity, the neatness, as well as the charm embodied in Fu’s works. Fu was very lucky to be granted to shoot in the first few days of the opening since May, 1st. Moreover, there were good weathers, too. When he started his work, the day was clear, but when he stopped, it began to rain. So I feel that he was helped by an invisible power, which contributed to the formation of the exhibition we see today.
During my preparation for this show, I learned a lot. One thing was the sincere attitude of this artist who was born in the 1950s. I used to turn down Mr. Fu’s request of planning an exhibition for him, because at that time I know nothing about photography. That was also why I turned down Yuxiang. I was still an amateur now, for example, I even don’t know what kind of camera Fu used in his works. But I am confident that I could grasp the spirit of Fu’s works although I know little about its form and technology. I am trying to make a progress by learning from our academic advisors of this show. We have a photography critic Wang Chunchen, as well as a renowned philosopher Wang Mingan. They have offered me with much help.
My heartfelt thanks also go to my colleagues in New Weekly. They came up with many good ideas, like the application of iPad. This is rare inChinabut common at abroad.
Zhang Changcheng: Because we are still making fakers today.
Interviewer: It was Zhang Runjuan who arranged the on-site exhibitions. She used to work with Gao Minglu. Zhang Linlin was responsible for the media report. I have also learned a lot from our staff. What impresses me most is that they are so specialize in their work that everyone was doing better than me. I cannot contribute more ideas. For example, it was my colleague who helped me to operate the media player on iPad, about which I know nothing of. It was like a relay race. I am the first runner, passing the stick to my partners so that we could make today’s exhibition altogether. I believe that there will be more people coming around next week. They will definitely have their own understandings on those exhibited works.