Chinese contemporary artist Fu Wenjun is no stranger to CreativPaper. Graduated from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, he creates through the medium of conceptual photography, installation, sculpture and oil painting. He has also put forward the concept of "Digital Pictorial Photography."
In our conversation with him, he talks about his participation in the upcoming edition of The Photography Show and what we can expect from him at the event.
Could you tell us a bit about your upcoming exhibition at the 39th edition of The Photography Show?
At the 39th edition of The Photography Show 2019 presented by AIPAD (International Association of Photography Art Dealers), BOCCARA ART, an International art dealer with a global network of galleries and exhibition spaces, presents a solo booth project showcasing my Digital Pictorial Photography works. Most of the pieces are the last two years’ creation that continue my rethink on contemporary photography art. It is the time when photography should change itself by getting away from conventions and ideas conceived commonly, and embracing new possibilities on photographic approaches, process or practice. I think I have found a way of working with the medium to express the philosophical reflection on the issues concerned clearly.
What can we expect to see from you at the show?
AIPAD as the longest-running and foremost exhibition dedicated to the photographic medium, thought-provoking ideas, new trends and unique processes involved in the medium of photography are welcome. I appreciate having the chance to communicate with my photographic style and works. This time I bring pieces from four series: “Misplacement”, “Ask Tea”, “F1”, “Human Nature for Food”.
“Misplacement” I bring the aesthetic nature of ink art into photography, presenting abstract images with philosophical thinking towards our changing world in this critical moment.
“Ask Tea”, inspired by the colours and geometric composition used by Impressionists and Abstract Art; I tell the viewers an old-style teahouse still existing in my hometown. Drinking tea, talking about the world is always a way of life in the corner of the ever-changing city. The world is changing so fast, but maybe not for everything, for everyone, for everywhere.
“F1”, another exciting and fun piece of music written by reality and illusion, success and disappointment, expectation and surprise, which people will never get tired of.
“Human Nature for Food”, under the familiar surface, it is full of often overlooked details, intriguing and shocking, so is the food, people as well.
Could you tell us a bit more about what Digital Pictorial Photography means to you as an artist?
Every artist is searching for his/her way of artistic expression, even for a lifetime. Digital Pictorial Photography is the one I found until now. I take pictures with my camera; at the same time my eyes are also "shooting". From time to time on quiet nights, the shot scenes emerge in the mind. Different times, different places and different people are intermingled with each other. This disorder makes me feel harmonious and peaceful, which seems to be an essential and deep “beauty”. From my own and others, I have seen too many complexities and contradictions in human nature. There is no straight road in our world. People always come and go with hope and bend around. The so-called correctness is only a relative statement at a certain time and in a certain situation. "Misplacement" is a normal state. The reaction made is only the human brain’s momentary decision. "Wrong" could be "right", “right” could also be "wrong". In front of conflicts and crises, pessimists are desperate, and optimists have hope. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do photography; tradition is defined and could be redefined in the new age.
How do you find a balance between aesthetics and narrative in your work?
The "beauty" is an artwork’s indispensable part; it is the key to unlock the message delivered by the artist.
Do you think it is hard to stay motivated as an artist? How do you tackle this common obstacle?
It’s not easy to be an artist. To create a work of art from zero, the artist must be innately courageous and persistent. No matter how old am I, I insist on excavating the beauty of life, connecting with people by art, touching the mind. Having an obstacle is common. When I cannot work as good as I expect myself, no matter how hard I try, I know I have to leave, walking for a while, talking with others or even having a journey to see a strange place.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
In the first three months of 2019, The University of Hong Kong and Chongqing Art Museum presented two solo shows of my works. After getting back from New York in April, I need time to think and create, perhaps on the relation between nature, human and society. I believe nature can speak, just not in the language designed by humans. I like to listen to the sounds of nature, as the ancient Chinese literati who explored the meaning of life among the vast landscapes. Water is invisible, but it can be transformed into many forms; the water is weak, but its accumulation could be powerful; the water reflects reality and illusion too.
What elements of exhibiting your work excite you the most?
I like to listen to different opinions on my exhibited works, especially negative ones. They push me to reflect on the choices I have made while creating and on what to do next times.
Mr Wenjun’s work has also been studied in depth by Professor Mao Qiuyue of Tongi University in Shanghai who offers a unique insight on his work and creative process.
“In recent years, Chinese artist Fu Wenjun is getting more attention. Through a large number of works of art, such as After Fresh Rain in the Mountain, East Wind Blew Again Last Night, Ask Tea, F1, April, Red Cherry, etc., Fu Wenjun gradually made the concept “digital pictorial painting” into a precise form of artistic expression. Digital pictorial photography is a combination of painting elements through digital post-adjustment and multiple-exposure photographic images to reveal unique visual effects. It emphasises the rediscovering and reuse of image resources. Fu’s works not only appears in critical international exhibitions but is appreciated by many contemporary art historians.
Fu Wenjun himself once said: “I incorporate a lot of experience of traditional Chinese art in my work. Many people say that my work is ‘not like photography’, but ‘unlike photography’ is a new way of presentation. We can change anything.” Fu Wenjun uses photography to express his artistic ideas and integrates the essence of modern and contemporary art such as Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, conceptual art and pop art. While getting rid of the shackles of documentary photography, Fu’s digital pictorial photography captures painting elements, embodying a touch of freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese art. They offer people with unexpected innovations and new visual experience. Rosalind Krauss, a contemporary American female critic, once pointed out that artworks after the modernist paintings have greatly broadened the connotation of “medium”. A medium can be something solid, or it can be a behaviour itself. In other words, artists’ medium is no longer tied to specific things; it exists in the field of communication with the audience. With the purpose of challenging people’s inherent ideas about artistic medium, Fu Wenjun invites his audience to think about the boundaries of art.
Photography has always been regarded as a documentary, while digital pictorial photography blurs the line between reality and illusion. The viewer is invited to enter different scenes created by the artist. Fu Wenjun’s works should be treated as a sequence because they provide a complete context for the audience. As contemporary American scholar Claude Cernuschi has pointed out when analysing Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline: “An individual canvas will be read in in terms of the canvases that surround it as well as against the frame of reference, or interpretive background, the spectator has gradually internalised. Consequently, a painting such as Probst I cannot have a single, fixed meaning or emotive resonance existing ‘on’ the canvas...That meaning or resonance, rather, is ‘in’ the spectator’s mind.” Similarly, the meaning of Fu’s digital pictorial photography is also contingent on context and the beholder’s participation.
Fu Wenjun once summed up his creative means as such: “My concept will be expressed using collage, juxtaposition, etc.” Collage and juxtaposition are essential methods in western modern and contemporary art. They were initiated by the masters of early 20th century modern art such as Pablo Picasso and Gorge Braque, culminating in the hands of postmodern artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. But the difference is that the post-modern juxtaposition of Western art largely cancels oppositions, while Fu Wenjun sharpens the debate between different items, thus creating a tension on the two-dimensional surface.
Fu Wenjun has shaped his digital pictorial photography with various decompositions and reconstructions. Contemporary critic Katharine W. Kuh believes that the core of modern art is “break-up”. She proposes that in our time, the characteristics of art are manifested in the following aspects: broken appearances, messy colours, scattered composition, disintegrated shape and broken images. Since the birth of modern art, every part of art has been broken down, including colours, light, paint, shapes, lines, spaces, painting surfaces and layouts. Modern art has always emphasised “break-up”, but it does not mean a lack of rules. It attempts to establish a new rule. In other words, a break-up is another form of reconstruction. By doing so, artists analyse, enlarge, and separate some aspects that people have easily overlooked in the past, and provide them with rich and complex experience.
Just as contemporary art historian Yve-Alain Bois has pointed out, most abstract artists are never tired of stressing the richness of their abstract/conceptual subject-matter. As an artist living in the southwestern province of China, Fu Wenjun has been trying to show the collision between traditional national culture and contemporary culture, which is an essential theme in his works. In AskTea series, Fu chooses to locate everyday daily objects of Chinese teahouse in the centre, but the whole image display fragmentations and divisions. This is a way of bringing history back to the present on the one hand, and emphasising the impact of modern lifestyle on tradition on the other side. In his East Wind Blew Again Last Night, Come and Go, and After Fresh Rain in the Mountain, Fu Wenjun also contemplates on the binary opposition such as the past and the present. The process of creation is time-consuming. For example, to create the Twelve Zodiac series, Fu Wenjun took several days taking documentary photos in Yuanmingyuan. After returning to Chongqing, he spent another five months to complete the work. A detailed observation of the world and a large amount of tedious post-processing are both essential in Fu Wenjun’s creation.
The exploration of abstraction is a significant feature of digital pictorial photography. Although we often find it challenging to describe abstraction, the experience of it plays an important part in our visual activities. It seems sure enough that Fu Wenjun is a typical abstract artist. But I think this conclusion is incomplete. In a famous conversation with Christian Zervos in 1935, Pablo Picasso expressed such ideas: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards, you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.” Nowadays more and more people have realised that the interpretation of the dichotomy between “abstract” and “figurative” is only a historical phenomenon instead of an objective truth.
From a close perspective, we tend to interpret Fu Wenjun’s works as diversified combinations of forms, but from a certain distance, we may prefer to explain them as a unified whole. This is, of course, a generalisation, but in many ways, people do encounter difficulties in distinguishing diversity and unity. This difficulty shows that the meaning of abstract artworks exists in the ongoing reconstruction and immediate experience of the viewer. Through digital pictorial photography, Fu Wenjun attempts to evoke people’s keen perception. In these works, both abstraction and representation are not final purposes but means. What lies behind the active surface is always the artist’s reflection on the status quo of people, history and culture. As such, his artworks show a dialectical unity of multiple and one: even if the forms and techniques of Fu’s digital pictorial photography are different, they all present an image of the artist as a thinker.
Thus we may safely conclude that whether abstraction is abstract is not a formal question, but a cognitive issue. People’s disagreements over abstraction are not so much due to the ambiguity of the artistic forms as to people’s different “interpretation community”, a term borrowed from Stanley Fish. To recognise the viewer’s subjectivity in the construction of meaning is not only a prerequisite for the rational interpretation of abstract artworks but also a requirement for initiating all interpretations. People’s understanding and appreciation of abstract elements in artworks are deeply rooted in their basic cognitive abilities, and abstraction is not too high to be popular.
Of course, our appreciation of digital pictorial photography is not like reading. Our cognition changes as the pages of the book are flipped through, while when we look at Fu Wenjun’s works, we experience a “comprehensive loss of visual recognition”. In other words, our eyes are not at rest, but in the process of continually changing focus. Thus, various contradictory forces occur, including tensions between the centre and the edge, gravity versus upward force, and so on. The artist tests our ability to capture information through different contrasts. His digital pictorial photography challenges people’s colour perception and shape perception with multiple colours and lines.
Many of Fu Wenjun’s digital pictorial photography use a soft colour transition at the boundary of objects and the contour line of the characters so that people feel the challenge to distinguish between the figure and the ground. By contrast, in works such as Red Cherry, Ask Tea and April, the artist applies a cubist approach to divide the surface of the photograph into separate small units, using bright colours and sharp contrast, so the images in the centre become more prominent.
What can we learn from such arrangements? Contemporary neuroscientists have discovered that colour perception is an important ability that promotes shape perception because colours cannot exist without shape. By distinguishing colours, one recognises an object or apart from its surroundings. If someone loses this ability, a visual perception disorder will happen. It can be seen that colour perception and shape perception are mixed with each other. The neuroscientists’ research provides an academic reference for us to understand Fu Wenjun’s photography. For example, when we look at Red Cherry, we can recognise the colour of the cherry, but the artist has deliberately added some rectangular squares to destroy the original shape of the fruit. Moreover, by casually rendering red, the cherry has become a highly blurred symbol that guides people to indulge in the world of imagination. This combination of precision and ambiguity makes his work particularly eye-catching.
It is true that the artistic value of digital pictorial photography still needs further research and discussion. In the context of cultural pluralism and photopopularisation, photography has already developed beyond the process of light exposure of photosensitive media, and photography with new languages is in urgent need. Contemporary art critics such as John Berger and Susan Sontag believe that photography is not only an aesthetic form but also a social field with democratic spirits. Artists’ constant exploration of photography urges people to abandon the old theoretical paradigm and respond to its challenges with fresh and diverse perspectives. Fu Wenjun’s digital pictorial photography not only displays the artist’s talents and professional qualities but also represents his sense of cultural and historical responsibility. With various visual possibilities, the viewer and the artist are in a dynamic and benign interaction, enriching each other’s understanding of photography and the world.”
About the author: Mao Qiuyue，post-doctoral researcher of Zhejiang University; assistant professor of Tongji University