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Interview with Artist & Photographer Xing Danwen

Last Updated on 2022/03/31

Xing Danwen‘s subjects include conflicts between globalization and traditions, problematic environmental issues created by the development, the urban drama between desire and reality.

Xing Danwen started her visual art practice with painting medium and took a professional study at the primary art school affiliated with Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts. She continued painting and did her BFA at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. In the late 80s, she met photography and was immediately drawn into this medium. As a self-taught photographer, she was one of a few artists in the late 80s and 90s in China that was exploring the boundaries of photography and using photography as an art form. Through the camera, she observed and challenged the questions on Chinese society, humanity, female identity, and the generation that was born in the 60s. In 1998, she went to New York with a grant and fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. Xing Danwen exhibits domestically and internationally, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Pompidou Center, International Center for Photography, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1st Yokohama Triennale, and Sydney Biennale 2004, etc. Her works are also collected widely by museums and privates, including Whitney Museum, Pompidou, ICP, SF MoMA, FNAC, the Progressive, Groupe Lhoist, etc. She has been awarded several important awards at home and abroad. In 2018, she was awarded the Silver trophy for the Best Artist of the Year by AAC. Also, she is listed as the 10th from “25 Asian Art Female Power” by Art Bazaar magazine Japan in 2019.

Official site

You started as a paintress and in the late 80s, you were drawn to photography. Can you tell us about your beginnings? What did it mean for your artist’s path?

My beginning was very simple. I just like to paint. Like many children. It was just a hobby, but I kept doing it and started dreaming to be an artist. At that time our education for art was very basic, just about painting and sculpture. So, making a painting, for me was a simple understanding of moving toward art. Later, when I was in art school, coincidentally I met photography by reading a photo magazine at my professor’s studio. That moment it added to my vision of making visual art. I didn’t have any photography class and I even didn’t have a camera. So my understanding of photography was also very intuitive. Photography is another medium of visual art. For me, it’s the same as a painting, just different media. What I like about photography is that the media has its own kind of language of reality. But at the same time, if it is real? Therefore, in my work, fiction and fact, and illusion and reality often play important roles.

Xing Danwen

You were part of the first generation of contemporary artists in China. You experienced an important and significant time in the art scene. How did you feel and what is your feeling now about your experience of the beginning of China’s contemporary art movement?

It was like we were looking for the way in the fog, but with strong belief and courage, brave and adventurous.

What were the biggest challenges during that period? Have you faced some unexpected moments that made you ask if it was your right path?

Society was very suppressed, and the mentality of the public was very closed. These made us a small group of artists without support and understanding, often under siege and without security. For example, one weekend in June 1994, after Ma Liuming’s performance at his residence, we were all arrested. Two artists, Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming were detained for more than two months, and finally convicted of pornography and repatriated. Even so, I have never doubted myself and what we have done. We are not afraid. Where there is oppression, there is resistance. This made us more courageous and motivated.

Can you tell us how the idea of “Born with Cultural Revolution” came to life? What is the story behind it?

Born with Cultural Revolution” is part of “I am a woman” series. I separated them into two bodies in the end, because of Mao’s icon. These three images are together as a triptych. In the picture, the lady is a friend of mine from my hometown. She was born in 1966 and was pregnant with the new generation which creates layers of generation issues.

Xing Danwen born Cultural Revolution
Born with Cultural Revolution ©Xing Danwen

Where did the idea for “I am a woman” come from? What did you want to communicate?

When I made this work, I was in my twenties, an age full of questions and doubts about life and love. This work is an exploration of women’s issues, especially to myself and the female gender through the bodies and eyes of my female friends.

The art critic Gu Zheng wrote in 2006:

Xing Danwen’s I Am a Woman, of 1994-1996, boldly rejects that the female body has most often been represented under a male gaze. It can be considered one of the earliest images of nudity shot by a woman in China’s photographic history. As advocated by its title, it represented the establishment of assertive self-consciousness by a woman. In an enclosed space, Xing Danwen, through rich and varied visual angles, tricky shadows, and interwoven female bodies, concocted a private space for women, intangible for others. This pictorial space could only be shot with the mutual trust and interdependence of the women involved. Usually, it is a privilege of the man to imagine the woman and structure her image, and it is the man who is motivated to watch and present it. However, in Xing Danwen’s work, it is of a woman watching a woman, a woman defining the emotion and body of a woman. By representing the woman’s body, Xing Danwen provided for the first time a concrete shape to the existence and advocacy of the new woman in China. If these photographic images mark the wakening and consciousness of the artist as a photographer, then her photographing the female body establishes her own female identity.

Can you share with us any meaningful stories from backstage of your art projects?

I think disCONNEXION (2002-2003) and Because I am in the Mountains (2017). When disCONNEXION was finished, the first exposure was at the Whitney Museum in New York, in an international large exhibition called “The American Effects,” which was a very controversial show criticizing how America brought so many negative effects to other countries. Regarding “disCONNEXION”, 80% of the electronic waste was shipped from the U.S.

disCONNEXION (2002-2003), photography
Xing’s concerns are not only related to large cities. She has traveled to southern China to explore the effects of electronic trash recycling on villages and small cities in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province. In disCONNEXION, her critical eye and sharp lens examine the aesthetics of technological waste, reflecting environmental concerns, but more importantly, anxiety about changes in the lives of workers along the south coast, whose ghosts can be sensed despite their absence from the frames.

Because I am in the Mountains (2017), Installation with coal coke and mixed materials
This sculpture presents a panoramic miniature of a contemporary landscape made from coal coke, the synthetic material that results from burning coal. In this work, Danwen Xing creates a contrast between the polluting medium and the scene depicted. Confusion is triggered speechlessly by the divergence between the apparent disaster that is contemporary life and the beautiful vision of a natural landscape from traditional Chinese ink art. Xing expresses clear concern for the threatened nature, but more importantly, she borrows a phrase from Chinese philosophy: standing on Mount Lu means that one cannot see its true face. She engages with a visible symbolic complex, recognizing that it is impossible to observe objectively when we are lost within ourselves. Well, I choose these two bodies of work, because they share the same concern about environmental issues and a clear notion of the problematic reality under urbanization, although the works are made in a different times with different media, forms and have different artistic languages. The first is a series of photographic works, made from 2002 to 2003. This work is focused on electronic waste and the pollution caused by it. It lifts the veil of the nightmare following the development of our digital era and consumption. At that time, I was just returned from New York, and I faced constant change in Chinese cities. This was very disturbing to me because I realized how much damage was caused by rapid development. When I got an assignment from the French newspaper Libération to go to the Guangdong Shantou area, along with the Pearl River data, I immediately got my eye on the most developed economic zone and the biggest manufacturing area for “Made in China”. I focused closely on the detail of the subject with a very minimum aesthetic, only depicting the facts of the object. For one year, I had been to this region forth and back for several trips to develop this project. Through different parts of this area and villages, I saw the electronic trash was dismantled without any technical support, it was just cut, burnt, and disassembled with the bare hands without any safety protection. Millions of migrant workers and their kids just lived with these most toxic chips from the computers, and the air was full of poisonous burnt plastics, socked into the river and soil. I asked the workers if they knew how harmful to their health. They answered: “Well, we can not care so much. We are here just to make some money and later we are going home anyway.” You see, it is happening everywhere with such a short vision of the business. People work hard to make a quick profit, but at the same time damage their own life without any consciousness, and bring up more problematic issues. Many years later, in 2017, I created another work “Because I am in the Mountains”, which is a sculptural installation, made with another kind of waste: coal coke. After I had located my studio in the suburb of Beijing, I was obliged to heat up with 15 Tons of coal every winter because we didn’t have enough energy, either electricity or gas. Since then I discovered the coal coke from the stove. I found it very beautiful like a mini scholar-rock. So I started to collect them and had kept thinking to make something out of it. At the beginning of 2017, the idea got clear, which is to build a landscape, like the concept of traditional “ink art” with the coal coke. The aesthetic is a beauty of poetry, but I insert the human being’s signs and trails, such as houses, roads, and a small town, even a construction site, etc. That metaphor how urbanization is taking place everywhere in China. Nature is destroyed, the human being pollutes the living environment and the air, with or without consciousness, somehow like me. I can’t deny that I have been one of the polluters of Beijing’s air too. What a shame! Well, this work got its premiere in my 1st large-scale museum solo show “Captive of Love” at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing in the fall of 2017. Of course, for two years, the Government restricts using coal and every polluting material and provides a better energy level, now we all heat with a clean energy:-). The title of the work “Because I am in the Mountains” is a phrase from a very famous poem by Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo: “when you are inside Lu-mountain, you can not see the true face of the mountain”. It is exactly a depiction of what is urbanization happening today.

Your art career is full of intimate portrayals. Is there any of your work that you are particularly connected to or that marked a significant moment or change in your personal life?

It is hard to say which one in particular. Several bodies of work have been important in different moments of my artistic development. But nothing has changed my personal life. They are all part of my artistic journey with achievements. The work “A Personal Diary” perhaps is an example of a significant moment. Different media: performance art, Photography, performance-based experimental film. In 1992, I graduated from the Central Academy of Arts and I was obliged to stop painting, only work with the camera, because my living situation was too unstable. At the same time, I met the artists unconfident Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming from the East Village in Beijing. They were very urged to be photographed by me. And I was looking for a subject for my work too. Therefore, we agreed to collaborate, since we share a mutual interest. At that time, I didn’t know what was performance art but I was curious about the difference and they were photogenic. Therefore, it came to very interesting conjunction with these three roles: photography, performance, and artwork. As my purpose was very clear I liked to make my work, instead of documenting it for others. It comes to a debate about the relationship between photography and performance art. I have never thought and intended to document the performance, but I interpreted it with my unique gaze. Many years later, I stepped into staging and acting for my work with both photography and video, including performance-based experimental films, I become more conscious of the conjunction and how the media merge, as in my museum solo exhibition “Captive of Love”, the curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh has stated comprehensively: Through photographs, installations, and videos, she positions herself inside the event, as a subject, a model, or a critical eye, creating a visual language that is both subversive and poetic.

Besides photography, you work also in the field of mixed media, video, and multi-media installations. Which of these art techniques reflect you most as an artist?

As a visual artist, I don’t like to be limited to photography. According to my idea and subject, I like to choose the most appropriate media and express well its particular language. It is part of the creative process of each new work, sometimes it causes a lot of study and experiment when it is something new technically. It is a challenge, also fun with the new experience and the new technology. I am not against anything traditional, I enjoy the hand-craft work too. Anyway, I hope I can be free and capable to use different materials and media in my works. In the past years, I didn’t work much with photography, but more with material-based work and installations, and also many more experimental short films.

How much has China changed compared to when you started your artistic career? How do you see the new art community? Do social media and new technologies help art and artist to get closer to the audience or there are new kinds of layers and filters?

A lot of changes. In the 1990s, we didn’t have many public exhibitions of contemporary art, we didn’t have a market, also we didn’t have an art press. At that time, everything was underground, secretly. The audiences were artist friends in the circle, and the artist community was very small, finger accountable. Today in China, art becomes an industry, with international art fairs, and hundreds of domestic galleries. and so many social media for the art press. Yes, there are so many exhibitions that the artists have a much better platform to display their artworks, more chances, and opportunities to be shown and seen. People from my generation become more independent, no longer grouping, and the young generation is more fit for the commercially driven art world.

Installation view of Xing Danwen’s I’m a woman, 2019 at UCCA, Beijing. ©Xing Danwen

What role gender has played in the development of Chinese contemporary art? What does it mean to be a woman artist working in China today? Does gender still matter? Are women slowly changing Chinese art?

Women in China are like everywhere in the world. They are part of society and culture. When you want to talk about Women in any country, you must understand the circumstance. In China, in 1949 Mao Zedong declared that women are half of the sky. Women and men are equal socially stated in China. Women are encouraged to work and go to school the same as men. But where does the imparity come from? The answer is tradition which is the fundamental problem. China is still a macho society. Men are dominant. Virtually, what is standard for a good woman, traditionally everywhere is the same: to be a good wife as a servant, to be a good mother as a maid, and to be a good partner as a capable assistant.

Anyway, a woman should never consider herself and what she needs. In general in my generation, when women are independent, smart, especially economically independent, it would never be considered the best choice for a wife. But not every man is this way, and the new generation is different, I think. The new generation in China is very different from mine because they’re all from one-child families, which means he or she is a king or queen:-) They are the center, get all of the attention from the parents and families. The parents would give the kids the best education and material life, whatever the parents didn’t have. Today in art schools, there are more female art students than males. Perhaps, they are more female artists now but in general, still not many.

Well, whatever, I like to advise that a woman wants to be truly independent, only to be smart with an independent mind is not enough; she has to first gain economic independence. Talking about women artists, I think it is difficult in any country and any time because it’s a very independent, intelligent, and competitive profession. It requests a lot of struggles and challenges. Especially with my generation in China, they were very few women artists. Besides the tradition, there are some essential natures and features we should understand about women in general. Here are some of my analyses.

Urban Fiction
Urban Fiction (Xing Danwen), ©Xing Danwen

1st, Emotion, and love. How to transform and convert the feelings into a creative idea or art-making? I have been observing in my own life, often a woman artist makes a strong voice when she is in an emotional hardness; but when she finally found her love and is happily located, her work lost the edge. Do you understand what I mean? It seems that her emotion got another path to be expressed, not in artwork anymore.

2nd, Focus, and concentration. One of a woman’s nature is nursing and nurturing. Often, a woman enjoys taking care of the family and her loved ones, at the same time she got distracted from her focus when she is not capable to manage her time and energy. After some time, she might lose the track of her career, and not be able to catch up, become unconfident.

3rd, Persistence, and courage. As we know, being an independent artist is with lots of pressure and competition. If you don’t work hard and fight against the difficulties and your limits, you won’t be able to approve of yourself. Believe in your heart with ambitions, don’t easily give up on any frustration, never lose your strength and direction. Compared with men, women are somehow easier to give up.

After all, it doesn’t matter for a man or a woman artist, to be a real good artist, this profession requests intelligence and a strong mind, aside from the skills and techniques. Therefore, the quality of the artwork counts! I was born during the Cultural Revolution and I grew up, under the official promotion of “Men and Women are Equal: a woman is half of the sky”. Among my five-member family, I have a younger sister, my parents, and my grandmother. My grandmother was born in the revolution of 1911 in a family-owned old-style private school.

Installation view of Xing Danwen’s A Personal Diary, 1993–2003, at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, ©Xing Danwen

So she had an education and graduated in her senior middle school. The only man in my family is my father who actually is the quiet one, instead, all of the women have strong characters 🙂 My grandmother was a very strong independent woman. She married a very nice man who was a big engineer in the garment industry, but unfortunately, he had died too early from a medical accident at forty. So my grandmother was alone and brought up my mother. She worked as an accountant in a factory, supported my mother in studying, completing her university. From the beginning, she always said, a good education is extremely important for a woman. We should first establish a profession and become economically independent before settling into a family. It is quite unusual in my generation, I think. So I grew up in such a family. I never feel that I’m second sex. I don’t have any doubt about equality with a man. In school, I was always at the top. And I am always in the best schools. But, please don’t think I am a lucky one. No, life has never been easy for me, as an artist, as a person, and as a woman. But I always worked very hard with both art-making and making a living. And I enjoyed the experience and struggles. I didn’t fight in the sense of being a woman, I’m more fighting to be a confident person and a good artist.

Also, you may ask me, what about love in life being a woman? I have been very clear since the beginning that I won’t give up myself for a man. I want to be myself. The man who loves me should respect and like who I am. I like to be friends with the man, and I have learned a lot from them too. I think the most important is to be fair and equal to each other.

If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be?

To be an artist!

Photos courtesy of Xing Danwen

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