Embrace the silence. I think when I had that title in mind I had that Depeche Mode song, Enjoy the silence, in actual mind. Which makes sense as I had been listening to VCMG – made up of Vince Clarke and Martin Gore – and their airtight house album ssss. And it was clear to me as I flipped through the CD booklet that both have aged pretty well, even if Vince has an earring, and that maybe, just sometimes, us old people have something to offer (tax deductible scare quotes) especially if we are alert and alive to remixing and patient enough to lie back and nudge into conversations, by stealth. As if we were already in them. I mean who of us hasn’t thought that, right? Ok. Which is why this perished wetsuit on the patio speech is directed at you young poet, as a letter. But let’s say it’s maybe something from Verlaine to Rimbaud, before Verlaine had liquid-papered himself up and out and always back to his wife, so anytime, but before that scene in London, when Verlaine simply left and ran to Belgium. I think it was Belgium. But what I really mean is this is a letter to a young poet that is not that other missive, I haven’t read that one, so, and anyways, poet is used simply, structurally, as the opposite of hater. I mean everyone is writing letters to haters these days. In every field, it’s dear hater this, dear hater that. Hater see me. Hater you won’t bring me down. This morning, while the rest of you are hung-over from your opening good times, I am staging a fully sober sit-in against that trend and addressing my letter of caution, of love, of deference, of frustration and air clearing, to the poet, a poet with a camera and maybe an urgent honours thesis to write about the damned camera. Is there any other kind?
Ok. It could be . Hands out the window. Hair greasy, tucked in, behind the ears. —– —.
Dear Young Poet with a camera and maybe an urgent thesis to write about the damned camera,
Hey, what’s with the fucking jumper? Don’t wear jumpers. Really. It’s —–, we have sun and television, so give the fucking jumper thing away, huh? Baby? And don’t read your girlfriend’s ——- magazine. And don’t try to write cute. It won’t help. Not a bit. I’m sorry, I’m not yelling. Anyway, so this is what I was thinking when I was riding home. I was riding down a hill in ——– with the wind behind me on my little black Brompton and you were in my thoughts, like always, as I figured maybe braking was a good idea because I truly did want to say that I totally know and I totally dig Eric Kim too! You’re so right, he’s amazing. And no, I am not being sarcastic. Like you, it’s a physical thing, the connection. And I seem to remember having a friend like that, or dreaming I did anyways, when I young, in primary school and then I got depressed and he ran away. Except maybe I was always depressed and it was S and more I guess even P who had that friend and I only had conversations and we were in our twenties then. And I wanted him to like me and he didn’t so much. Doesn’t so much, even when, and after, we gave him a lift to his car because it was a kilometer away in a pretty big car park. Still, it’s been written about a lot, but yeah his (E.K’s) infectious personable attitude goes a long way. It’s entrancing. To me that’s his art, the photos, are merely by-product in a way. It is the being of the street photographer that is real to you I think. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking it’s not. Photos are not proof, they are not miracles of light and the amber waves of grain. They are pre-purchased airfares. — ——-. You gotta get there on time. You might be kicked off because you have too much luggage. And you know, inside, your passion for EK is based on how he moves his angular thin bespectacled body through urban space, as a performance of chance charm, reminding everyone who sees him that the photo game is nothing more than a series of sporadic encounters in an arena of fidelity, infidelity, leafing through your bible, then shoving your keys back in your slot. You, your head at an angle, awake and listening for sounds in the spare bedroom, want this somehow, yearn for mutuality and reciprocity even as it is being denied you, especially as it is denied you. It feeds and fuels you. Eyes out, winter, the window. I guess because of this I worry about you going to his workshops — —— — ——–. Will you be able to take being left behind? Will you not simply fall in love and either not speak and sulk around waiting for him to discover you as a genius or as a friend and of course preferably both (how could he not?), or follow him around trying to be too much the replica he probably doesn’t want? Still, the practical awkwardnesses aside, I can imagine walking around with your camera and just ramming it in people’s faces! And because Eric’s there, it’d be sweet! None of this Bruce Gilden flack-jacket agro. It’d be all happiness and sweet apologies and smiles. And that’s gotta be the best thing in the world. To be present and excusing yourself at the same time, to take ground and deny the possibility and probability of ground itself. And all because you have this little box in your hand. That’s what it’s about. Which is why, yes, I also think Eric is completely right to warn you against GAS Gear Acquisition Syndrome. You want the new Nikon 36.5 Mega pixel, but seriously what is the point? The thing is a prop baby! A prop for who will never be. Your mouth, a moth a-firefly, a-fishing in the river.
Still, who you can be is up to you I suppose – your head resting on the car door – but let’s not forgot Eric’s courage, learn from that. Because, hey, like you, he’s been doing it for about five years and the thing is, and I am not dissing you, he’s simply pushed aside a whole bunch of fear stuff. I mean he’s out there. No apologies, all apologies. He is beside himself, as Eric Kim is Eric Kim. Double himself, the self that writes the blog and the diffuse self grooving on the Leica and then the name to google. EK x EK is the person collabo beyond himself in the arena of his production and the fact that I mean that diminishes me somewhat by contrast, I get that. I have your pity. It is a popsicle,you left on the dashboard of your Dad’s car. You get that. Like you get that to be a photographer therefore you have to begin by doubling yourself before crystalisation occurs and don’t be afraid to double again. Be your own cube. Literally. Remember lipstick?
Your scarf. Lose the scarf. No more tattoos!
And I think, if I can offer this, I think it’s a pretty super idea to stop with the quoting of Roland Barthes at every opportunity. I get your love of Camera Lucida, but bear in mind please that it was featured in the film The Truth about Cats and Dogs as a pretty basic signifier of the love interest’s capacity for soulfulness, which Barthes would have totally dug I’m sure. And, I know you’re edging towards this, but don’t write about photography as a medium of social exchange. It makes you look ridiculous! You’re not even on ———. Therefore, by no means feel it’s okay to take a photo of —— —— and hold it up to the crowd next time you talk on a Sunday morning, and give it to him, as a memory of the time you were shaky nervous at the Experimental Art Foundation and spoke to him and only him, though maybe a few other people actually. And for the love of God don’t point out how in the photo (which you got developed at —— ——— on —— —— for — —– per print!) his steady eyes reflect your low-brow shakiness, and the dependency you were having as you were planning on something big happening that eventually didn’t happen. So don’t fetishize that with a photo. Don’t pass it to him now and make a big deal of the movement. Instead, simply let it go. Don’t burden the image with your feelings and eternal earth-brake because you are getting to an age where that kind of stuff doesn’t wash anymore, especially with the folks in Zanzibar who you ran arms for, not laughing so much when they took your leg, the pain too much, I know, in the train with your sister, and Edmund, when he wrote about it, didn’t seem to worried at all! Seemed even to judge you for the pain you felt, but I don’t, didn’t. And you should know I have not yet heard the new Lower Dens album, but have heard their coverage on NPR of one of their gigs at South by South West in Austin, Texas. As I mention that I do think it’s okay to have quote Clay Shirkey’s Here comes everybody about the influx of photo media and the new democracy and how everything is back to the Kodak moment, ironic and yadda yadda and etc, but it is weak to lay that trip on me. I mean, and this is where Lower dens comes in, the crew at NPR faced the truly enormous task of covering South By South West and they didn’t balk. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how depressed you are, you just to man the fuck up in front of the deluge and make something happen. I mean it is not going to stop for you to figure your shit out right? You can tweak your dials and hum your Heidegger-in-bondage songs but you are going down if you ain’t moving. The crew at NPR damned well did it! I mean they might have burned out, but they did it. That’s a lesson you could learn from The Biggest Loser too, when Graham was doing the upright trainer thing type machine he dug in, he might have nearly died, like Simon nearly did too, but he got the job done. The Commando was proud of him even though on Monday night’s episode he’s gonna throw some other shit at him, which bums me out. But you know, that’s how life is, there is no one to rely on. On that, and to U-turn here, I know you found it kinda weird to watch that video about Eric hanging out with Charlie Two Dogs in Tokyo. You could’t hang out with that guy, not without staying like super tense the whole time. But Eric could let him be like that. He didn’t suffocate him or try and be like him. He let him be and let himself be. Easy. That ability to let people be the people they are and not try and change yourself or them is something you should emulate – ha ha! And again that is the true joy of street photography these days. Not so much the Winnogrand thing to “see what the world looks like photographed”, but to kinda be in that space with a camera, letting everything be, feeling yourself simply in the way of the flows and the stagnant pools of life. Sounds ideal right? I think that’s why you are transfixed by photography as such. You see it not as a series of episodes and events, but as a fortress of solitidue in your barren self making. If that’s a contradiction I don’t care because the point stands, the more abstract you get in your writing about these things the more you just prove it dude. Therefore the openness you claim as your radical territory is not openness at all. When you claim that the space of you and the camera is a space of the Imaginary you are correct inasmuch as you are trapped in an internally reflecting dyad. I guess I do mean that the way it sounds. For you, your camera is an excuse NOT to be on the street amongst the action and thrum of it, because if you really got off on that you’d be out there anyways, but it allows a space for your diffidence to melt into the body of your (m)other, the only melting you do, your camera a Linus-like transitional object (that concept the one thing I know for sure you learned in 1994 in a demountable in a circle with women who had changed their names or where changing their names, by deed pole sometimes, sometimes by simple insistence), that makes this space what it might better be for you, kinda gooey with the fantasy of yourself and the mirror-completed image of yourself that you are using the fictional everyphoto as a stand in for. Which, again, is why you are transfixed by PHOTOGRAPHY as monster entity. It’s understandable, I just don’t respect it anymore, that stance you bring to things. It’s not just that the stakes have left town and started gardening in the suburbs, it has simply shaded you in areas you were already pretty sketchy in. The way your Bokeh was kinda not super hot anyway, and how it has gotten really crappy lately, especially in low light levels. This is by no means made up for by the fact that you think the very idea of photography is a catalyst. You ride around the city seeing it from a semi circle, with the idea of making conceptual photos from it, and this gives you sense that somehow you are the living embodiment of Ed Ruscha. But, for the upteenth time, Ed is not dead! Even if he did rep for the US in the VB, 2005. And the bridge over ——- road is just that, it is Wanneroo road already and not ——- Street. Despite the fact that you can see the city from a bridge you live outside any ability to make art. Remember that. And talking about it in fake poetics doesn’t bridge the gap. Truly. You are not the subject of Photography either. You plain aren’t. You feel as if you complete the scene, that that interpretative completion is your engagement. But remember as young Lacan was shamed by the fishermen because the can they pointed at didn’t see him, so too are you voided by the photograph, erased by the scenic as such. I guess the good thing is that this does indeed connect you to Teju Cole as he walked his own city, New York, post 9/11. I guess that is acceptable, it was a good novel, but there is no tragedy for you to hone in on. Oh sure you could see your inability to shoot as an intense deferral that activates, through absence, the actual tragedy free chasm you carry inside, all the time, all the while, at any rate. Though, and it’s frankly as glib as this, this chasm could about be completely cured by another camera, for sure. I agree with you on that one. Eric doesn’t know enough about how cameras can cure. Still, a small sensor will not get the job done. Why did you buy that damned camera? You were aware of it, you read all the reviews and wrote them off, because you had a rich confirmation bias going down, overlooking all evidence to the contrary and you finally found two youtube videos that said the Pentax Q haters were haters and hadn’t given it a good enough shot. so to speak. And then you’re telling me that what you love is not statement design but plain design. So you like the Surly cross check and not Colnago, and the Fluke uke and not the Moore Bettah. Which is ok, and so now you must have a Canon S100, even though you already have a Canon elph which you picked up in a JFK vending machine because your dog put the Lumix F1 under the bed as you were packing and frantic. And hey like Bike Snob says if you have too many tools you become the tool. Again I’m not ebbing consistent here. Still that’s a lesson I was reminded of when I saw the guys with the super big lenses standing at the airport taking shots of planes landing and taking off, slouching like cow folks. All super relaxed in the air con. And lord knows these are folks we do need to distance ourselves from. I mean craft is old hat. Still, to get too into stuff with no vision isn’t that what makes us men. And are we not men, are we not —-?
And for God’s sake do not in any place make some ludicrous claim that you are actually trying to replicate photography when you write! The idea that a piece of short writing might sit on the page like a photo because it is a cube or rectangle is plain ridiculous. The combination of blankness and faux philosophical observation and sensibility, sense and it, is not something that mirrors the photo no matter how much you think it makes you like Jeff Rian. Jeff Rian is amazing! And you are just trying to get your thesis up, so shut up about that ok? And Lydia Davis you ain’t. It makes it sound like I am hating on you, and that’s okay, that’s why you keep writing all the letters to fend me off, isn’t it. You always saying you want to get back to softness, the detail and grip of a particular photo. You claim it makes you write, in so far as it initiates the struggle to find words to describe, but I have seen you lost in the work. Lost, not active, just lost in the grain, dopey and woozy bug-eyed in the Oceanic of the photographic, the endless pixel vision, pixel blindness is what you called it when I shook you free, the Imaginary claimed you, unable to triangulate. This is a diagnosis I take no pride in giving to you. You can’t go on like this, with this kind of attitude.
Remember that book I made you read – you are possessed by your System 1 thinking – subconscious reactive intuitive quick judgement making – when you need to balance this with system 2 checking and reflective thinking, the hard thinking, the thinking that is actually thinking in terms of exercise. What you do is like eating donuts! It is not healthy. And it’s always the same thing! Christ young poet you grate on me, completely, and I think you’ll find you fail your thesis, or worse you will do fantastically…and start to believe in yourself, the glib ebullience you have allowed yourself to construct as a mesmerizing force will take you over. Since I don’t know where your supervisors are I have to tell you to slow down, break ideas down into units and start making minimal. To think of photography as the last act of minimal art, a proper and true record of an arrangement of materials, some of whom are people some of whom are not people but plants and buildings and cars and barns, that is the energy that will save you. Go look at the Burning House blog and look at all the super wonderful photos of stuff, gear. Learn how to product shoot and work for Hypebeast or Norse Projects. After all, this is life not a dream. Hey, and I think if you want, just don’t eat that part of the carrot that seems to get bitter before the greenery. That’s not metaphorical. Ok. See you tuesday. We’ll have meatballs.
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I was a hundred pages or so into Alain Badiou’s Being and Event when I began to notice the seemingly pointless blank pages between the chapters. I thought it rather unecessary to have all these blank pages here and there and that it was somewhat misleading; one could assume they were simply there to divide the chapters more distinctively. But that would be just too suspiciously easy.
Apparently these pages hold such expectations of un-blankness that it is necessary to place a declaration that its decidedly blank quality is in fact intentional. And yet, without any explanation, how are we to know the true intention of this blankness when its own self righteous declaration of blankness destroys whatever blankness the page could have held?
What is this blankness the page speaks of? Is it the emptiness of its own claim? For the claim is indeed empty. Its being has been confronted, denied by the sentence: “This page intentionally left blank”. What was the real intention? Surely the page would rather just be blank than abolish its natural blankness with a written claim of intentional blankness. That is, if that was truely its intention.
The page is clearly not blank, and yet blankness is all it declares. Neither full nor filled, the page and all its intentions are merely multiples and each multiple a field, over which a vast, all-encompassing void looms.
Interview: Yik Chow & Erik Bernhardsson
Translation: Yik Chow, Erik Bernhardsson & Asta Yu
( F de C Reader 2)
Everybody’s talking about China, what effect it will have on the world, and also what China can add of its own; what it can create. And especially, people are talking about the post-80s generation in China; it’s supposed to be rather special, because its the first generation of the one-child policy, and because its said to have a different set of values from earlier generations. You’re a post-80s photographer, so I’d like to ask you, is it really that big of a deal, being ‘post-80s’? — *laughs* No! It’s an over-analyzed thing. It’s not that important.
So what about your photography. It’s quite graphic, lots of nudity. Nudity still isn’t completely legal in China — pornography is still illegal. So what’s this, part of a ‘sexual revolution’? — I don’t think nude photography is ‘revolutionary’. Being naked is the natural state of human beings; it’s how we’re born. If people were born with clothes on, then it might be revolutionary to peel them off and take nudes.
So what about the attitude towards sex and people’s sexuality. Is it a big topic within families and society today? — No, it’s not a big thing. It’s not unique for today’s generation. I think it’s a personal thing and everybody has their own view.
Your photography then, is it legal? — No, it’s not legal. Actually, the same goes for independent publishing: it’s also illegal to publish things without express permission.
What do you need to do to comply with the law if you want to publish something? — You need to go through a certified publisher and get an ISBN number, and the content can’t be sexual or in other ways illegal.
But you’ve self-published several books! How do you print and sell these publications of yours then? — I sell them online and through friends’ art bookshops. But it’s also illegal to sell these books, so we’re all taking a risk doing it. However, in October a Norwegian publisher will publish my new photo book.
There are many things that are restricted or illegal in China, but it seems to me that a lot of the regulations or laws aren’t really being looked after. It seems that it’s the state and people in general don’t really care. So in practice, there’s a lot more freedom than you’d think, for example in the case of independent publishing. It is in fact growing quite quickly in China. — No, that’s not really the case. For example, publishing this book was extremely difficult. It was a huge gamble. At first, I couldn’t find anybody at all that would print it for me, because they were afraid of what would happen if it was uncovered that they had printed a book with this kind of content. After asking around if my friends knew anywhere I could print it, one friend who runs a printing business let me print it there as long as we did it after-hours, so that nobody would know what we were doing. I couldn’t get an invoice or receipt for fear that the printing could be traced to this shop, and that the factory could then be closed.
I see. But what I mean is that in China, there’s a lot of things that are officially not allowed, but you can do it anyway. For example, if you run a bar and your neighbors complain about noise, you pay off the neighborhood police so you can stay open later. In some ways, corruption opens up a lot of space. And, you can smoke in places like People’s Park. — I think it’s a case of ‘freedom’ being more obvious in an environment where most things are restricted. For example, one time when I passed People’s Square, I saw people flying kites in the middle of the square. But they were surrounded by guards, and also there were several plain clothes police among that group of people. The way I saw them was as prisoners let out to play. But they didn’t see this themselves. So I’ll just say, the more restricted you are the more free you can feel.
Presently there is a campaign in Beijing and in China at large to promote ‘cultured’ and ‘civilized’ behavior For example, there’s signs and audio telling us how to ride the bus, line up for the subway and so on. Culture is of course a common framework for interaction, but it can also become overbearing and restricting. Contrary to what most people seem to think, there is a kind of creative vacuum in China, where you can actually do anything as there are no pre-existing rules for how to do things. So could there be a concern that a more ‘cultured’ population would not be a good thing? — These propaganda posters are put up because China sincerely needs to promote ‘cultured’ ways. But I don’t think it’s possible to change this country that quickly. All that we can do is follow the general direction set out by the state. And then within that, we’ll have to find our own direction. But hopefully some day changes like these will lead to me being able to sell my books here. These changes are what I’ve chosen to photograph.
What about your background. You never graduated from university, right? — I entered University of Media Communication in Beijing, but skipped a lot of classes and never took the final exam, so I didn’t graduate.
You didn’t study photography: do you think that might have been a good thing, as studying photography could’ve restricted your thinking, or killed some of your excitement towards the field? It happens to a lot of people; your passion becomes a job. — I don’t know. There’s no way to go back in time and choose again, so there’s no way to know. I can’t answer that question and I don’t think about things like this. What happened, happened.
Why did you come to Beijing? — Ren Hang: Originally I came here to take the entrance test to the photography department at the university in my hometown. But then I was admitted to the University of Media Communication in Beijing, so I stayed here instead.
Like you said, if I had studied photography, then maybe I would’ve been working in an office today, doing something completely different. Maybe it’s fate that decided that I went to Beijing instead, and became a photographer. However, I don’t think Beijing is a good city for living.
How’s your relation with your parents then? — I talk to my mother on the phone almost every day. But I can’t tell her about everything. She doesn’t know that I didn’t graduate university, because I don’t want to make her worry about me. She thinks I graduated and that I go to work in an office every day.
Do your parents know you have a boyfriend? — They don’t know. They’re very conservative, so I can’t tell them. My dad would not be able to handle it if I told him.
How do you make your photography known? — Originally I put it on different websites, but because of the content, it got blocked or deleted. So I switched to other, foreign, community sites like Flickr and tumblr, and I let people download my photos.
The people in your photos, are they all your friends? — The first people I shot were all my friends. Later on, I used Weibo to ask some of the people I knew through that community to let me take photos of them. Nowadays, there’s a lot of people who email me and ask me to take photos of them. That’s mostly how I find my models now; I like to stay at home most of the time. If I go to a party with a lot of people I get nervous.
You’ve done collaborations with people outside of China and you’ve also exhibited abroad, in France and Russia. How do these things work? — We find each other online and if we find we have something in common we talk and perhaps decide to create some new work together.
Do you ever do commercial work? — Sure, I do different types of work. I just wouldn’t want to have to go to an office for work every day.
Where do you sell your work? — I sell in galleries. Most of the time it’s bought by foreign collectors.
What about your upcoming exhibition in Stockholm? What are you showing there? — Since the exhibition is in a kind of museum, I have to choose what I show according to that. It’s quite restricted, no sexual content. Also, the curator is Chinese too, and he’s worried what would happen if word got back that the exhibition had been showing outlawed content. It would be controversial. I used to think that exhibiting abroad would be quite unrestricted, but after I went abroad I saw that galleries and museums everywhere have many restrictions as to what can be shown.
Is it easy to get a visa to travel abroad? — If you have an invitation letter it’s pretty easy. You still have to do a lot of work to prepare though, showing certificates etc. There was one photographer who applied for a visa and took one of the photo books he had his photos published in to show. It had nudes taken by other photographers too, so he was close to being denied the visa. When I apply for a visa I show different types of photos, and I say I do ‘beauty’ photography.
Do you have your own website? — I used to have one, but it had so many visitors that it got blocked. But I’m planning to set one up on servers abroad, and I use Flickr and tumblr.
Do you ever ‘jump the wall’ [expression for evading the ‘Great Firewall of China’ net censorship]? — No, I dont. I kind of live in my own world. When I travelled I saw the newspapers’ coverage of China. What they report is still very one-sided, focusing on the negative parts only. So, I’d rather not see what they have to say.
… if we want to enjoy fashions thoroughly, we must not look on them as dead things; we might as well admire a lot of clothes hung up, limp and iert, like the skin of St BArtholomew, in the cupboard of a second-hand-clothes dealer. They must be pictured as full of the life and vitality of the women who wore them. Only in that way can we give them meaning and value. If therefore the aphorism ‘All fashions are charming’ offends you as being too absolute, say – and then you can be sure of making no mistake – all were legitimately charming in their day.
My friend Joe recently shared some photographs with me, one of them was this photo of Steve Albini. He told me when he took this photo he was fixated by Albini’s rapturous stare. Here he is 26, fronting Rapeman in London on tour with Sonic Youth in 1988. The band was around from ’87 to ’89 and drew its name from the members’ collective mind-warping reflections on a Japanese comic of the same title. They would become characters themselves. Rapeman had an acutely abrasive and true metallic sound from a Travis Bean aluminum guitar coupled with a peculiar clairvoyant reductionism in the lyrics. After a moment with the intense glare, my eyes shifted downward. Albini’s denim is revealing. With the anti-quantity of negative space, the origins of these apparent threads presented a bit of a mystery. Is the denim falling apart or is on its way to being completed ? Are they being exhibitionist or in the throes of a suppression whereby the fabric itself attempts the void ? This denim isn’t fraying, it’s an ongoing confrontation of being completed, conformed to a modern, standardized form- a form obsessed with measurement(s). Perhaps this ‘fray’ left and was seen again on Martin Margiela’s Spring/Summer 2008 catwalk. Albini likely never gave a second thought about the jeans, and likely saw them as dispos-able. The jeans register as nothing rather than something, yet at the same time, they’re analogous to Rapeman’s sonics and lyrics, or composite. ___ Here they are held up by the horizontal guitar strap which also acts as a belt: A fusion of the guitar and the jeans which reminds that the demeanor and intensity of the music were more perpendicular than parallel. ; Could the same be said for a [potential] mass reproduction of them based on a tailored cut of these? ___ In a video my friend showed me, Patti Smith apparently cried [http://vimeo.com/51908409] when she saw herself, her own look, on Ann Demeulemeester’s catwalk. Later Patti becomes Ann’s friend and maybe more poignantly— her customer. In the end buying back her own look. The jeans are an event, a supernova in slow motion. an eventual coming and people were drawn to them whether they saw them at a show put on by Rapeman or Margiela. VG
|MMMSS08. photo source: http://auctions.yahoo.co.jp|
My friend Joe recently shared some photographs with me, one of them was this photo of Steve Albini. He told me when he took this photo he was fixated by Albini’s rapturous stare. Here he is 26, fronting Rapeman in London on tour with Sonic Youth in 1988. The band was around from ’87 to ’89 and drew its name from the members’ collective mind-warping reflections on a Japanese comic of the same title. They would become characters themselves. Rapeman had an acutely abrasive and true metallic sound from a Travis Bean aluminum guitar coupled with a peculiar clairvoyant reductionism in the lyrics. Aside from the intense glare, my eyes shifted downward. Albini’s denim is revealing. With the anti-quantity of negative space, the origins of these apparent threads presented a bit of a mystery. Is the denim in a fray or is on its way to being completed? Are they being exhibitionist or in the throes of a suppression whereby the fabric itself attempts the void? This denim isn’t fraying, it’s an ongoing confrontation of being completed, conformed to a modern, standardized form- a form obsessed with measurement(s). Perhaps this ‘fray’ left and was seen again on Martin Margiela’s Spring/Summer 2008 catwalk.
Conversation with Alin Huma
(first appeared in the F de C Reader 1)
Did I say? This is about fashion… This is why we’re talking. But, fashion, maybe it’s not your cup of tea … or … is it?
Tell me I’m wrong. Still, fashion, I see it in your work, an attitude to it somehow. It’s not obvious but it’s there. Especially in the Muslim China stuff where faces , in a sense what your work is about, are completely covered and something else comes to the foreground. — Fashion….uh….it has been an obsession since we came down out of the trees. I look at that production from Western China in 86, with its (now) long-gone Tadjik, Kirghiz, Uzbek and Uigyur dress codes. The clothes, they have their own life which will resonate into the future, because among other things we have photographic records of them.
Sure, I wonder how approaching these shots might have differed from your usual mode of working. I mean in your “non-burka” works the faces of your subjects are always super animated, even joyous, as you really bring something to them, and they to you. Being literally shrouded, but definitely not face-less, these shots are totally different. Did you come to it differently, in terms of how to make a photo, and how you make a temporary relationship? Or was the gestural back and forth the same, just differently structured? — My relationship with people, good friends, chance meetings with brief acquaintances, total strangers I may encounter while I’m out on a ride with my camera always begins with eye contact. There is a moment, eyes connect, what happens in those short, intense and silent connections is one of the great unmapped aspects of the human condition. The contingencies people bring to eye contact are so loaded with potential, we read each other, we draw conclusions, we act or switch off, invite or repel. Eye contact with a stranger is super intense. If I’m photographing, normally I’m working with complete strangers, I encounter them in the unstructured freestyle theatre of the street. Ostensibly I’m collecting people, stashing them away on a roll of film and interrogating the works later through a process of proof sheet elimination. Having eye contact with a Muslim woman in traditional attire is particularly intense, the attire really nails you to their eyes, the costume is so riven with the mystery of their beauty, they are so much more conscious of how to work eye contact. …
But yeah, more specifically, the 2 women in Kashgar …a standard August Sander double portrait rip-off….. even today it’s such a pleasure to cite uncle August by stealing his beauty. Only in this part of the world do Muslim women dress quite like that and only very rarely today. So how could I not photograph those women. Everytime I do street photography it’s always the kind of exciting personal experience that suggests I’m never going to bear witness to this event again. The primary weirdness is, of course, as you suggest, the facelessness powering its otherness. I was standing right in front of them, I shot with a wide angle lens. I could have reached out and touched them. They could have told me to fuck off and I would have. Given the absence of a key factor in my m.o….eye contact…I just went with their body lingo which seemed to invite scrutiny. It was a completely new and exciting experience. Because I’m basically a collector of experiences penciled in as photos. Kashgar in 86 is probably best represented by that work…the single image is worth being obsessed with…. but there is a lot of other pencil work that creates a more panoramic and layered understanding, it’s about ensembles of work and how they replay my time in Kashgar in 1986.
That’s it! The ‘fashion photography’ thing. Eye contact reacting in a volatile way with clothing! And yeah, seeing that other photograph blew me away. To me it’s the quintessential ‘fashion photograph’ profoundly and superficially speaking; profoundly because you’ve a total ‘fashion subject’ facing, quite fiercely, the camera/viewer through veils and veils of clothing/styling; then superficially, indulge me here , it’s the clothing itself; it is uncannily what Belgian designers would be showing one or 2 years after you took the picture: put together a Margiela jacket and a Dries van Noten skirt from the late 80s and that’s what it’d look like, place it in some semi-mythical Gurdjieff-land (ie something Hussein Chalayan or so) and you’ve got that whole long moment, arguably the last relevant one in western fashion - and i’m particularly attuned to this because we’re doing this ‘fashion publication’ and almost everyone we’re talking to is referring to it in one way or another – in a photo created in a separate reality. So, now I wonder if by “only in this part of the world do Muslim women dress quite like that” we’re seeing the same thing. What I’m getting is that combination of floral skirt or dress + masculine ‘power-jackets’ or pea-coats, nonetheless with a feminine cut/silohuette. It’s like something straight from the Antwerp Royal Academy’s graduate show, or JP Gaultier’s atelier or something, yeah, not to mention the Margiela/Magritte-ish face cover. I mean, what is it? You were there . are those actual men’s jackets ? like, the same jackets their husbands or brothers wear? I’m fascinated by what I see as a really intense kind of, and force even, of androgyny. — Its complicated. Islamic fashion for women operates within the constraints and reactive pressure of a deeply conservative Muslim patriarchy. For instance most of the dressmakers in Western China in 1986 were men. The rough and ready country made sports jacket was a scene among the upwardly mobile men from Tashkurgan to Urumchi. The dressmakers would have co-opted the same SJ pattern and tweaked it to suit the female sensibility. The photo looks at that particular fashion shtick. Of the wealthier married Muslim woman. She owns the street, striding right down the middle, many eyes follow her. Like anywhere else in the world the girls watch the girls and the boys watch the girls. Her allure was powerful. The hand gesture, easily coping with the infidel photographer blocking her way with the camera. Those sexy ribbed woolen stockings disappearing under the hem of the undress me brocade skirt.
And again that same picture, how it’s arranged as an entity, well, to me there’s something more erotic in it then say in a Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton work. And oddly it has pretty much the same elements and tensions . But , yeah , it’s ‘real’, whatever that means. So I really want to know how it felt taking THAT picture? How was it, standing there, being there, in front of her, feeling her and the space, feeling yourself there? How was it to BE that picture? — Taking the picture was easy. She was so aware that she was on the catwalk of downtown Kashgar. I simply had to photograph her.
So, yes, it’s an energy is what I’m saying, it’s a way that fabric is being mobilised for something that is fashion and beyond it. Your eye got it. So, I wonder, have you actually, ever, shot fashion? — No, I’ve NEVER shot fashion, but you know what, I’ve always thought about it, always had a keen interest for fashion photography that did not simply re-saddle that horse they have been photoshopping to death for well-dressed zombies these past 15 years. I think the Burberry shoots test the waters for control of the bottom feeders in the septic tank of slimeball fashion work out there today. I would LOVE to shoot fashion. I’m very inspired by fashion photography from the 60’s, heavy grain, mid-tones dominated by highlight and scaled-up contrast: black lips, suicide white skin, scimitar eyebrows. Kodak tri x pan push processed to the outer limits to value add the silver halide grain structure. This sort of manipulation is so much more emotive and exciting than using fake orgasm photoshop tools. I’ve been waiting years for someone to ask me to do fashion.
I am not letting you off the hook there. I want something from you. Now, though, I’m wondering if there might be such thing as a ‘primal scene’ in a photographer’s life? I mean the kind of ( ideal) fashion photography you’re describing here is pretty close to the famous picture of Georgina (your first ‘relevant picture, no ?) you shot in the early 1970s. For myself, I know there are only 2 or 3 types of photos I’m taking, and then i have 2 or 3 strategies of NOT taking those photos…of taking anti-photos. One of my scenes was at this Sugarcubes concert, late 80s. I’d just bought my first Nikon F-some-letter with the crappiest 35->200 zoom lens and the guy at the shop gave me a crappy 2Xconverter as a bonus. So I’m standing there in the middle of the audience quite far from the stage and for some reason Bjork is staring, and staring intensely, at me and mostly at me while doing her act. So I’m WTF and almost unconsciously reach for the camera, and put on the stupid teleconverter too (I never used long lenses before and since ) and take a number of pictures. Now those pictures, the 2 that survived at least, for sure are a primal photo/primal scene for me. It’s the intensity of her gaze; I’ve been deflowered, photographically speaking, by that famous icelandic vocalist. And what I’m trying to say is that even with my ridiculously long lens i can’t say I ‘shot’ her, and even today i don’t like the expression ‘to shoot’, meaning that, with that as a ‘primal scene’ my idea of taking a photo is that whatever, whoever is in front of the camera must be stronger that what’s behind it so if anything taking the photo is more of a suicide than a shooting. But, yes , this is my ‘primal’ problem … anyway , you start seing things differently. Like looking through these pictures of yours in West China several times before realizing that all the guys are actually wearing the (same) Mao cap each styled differently - the brickie, the guy cutting meat, the kid with ‘street cred’ and sneakers, the dude coming out of the manhole, etc – yet there’s nothing typically Maoist about the characters here. Is this some sort of subversion or had the revolutionary zeal died out by then? — In 1986 China was on the cusp of a considerable liberalisation. However, there were still only 2 dress codes possible for the masses, one for the Han Chinese and one for the ethnic minorities. The Han population had a choice of blue, green or grey Mao uniforms. The People’s Liberation Army had a tweaked version of the same outfit, for instance the cap had a red star on it, the civilian cap had none. I noticed each person seemed to have their own attitude subtly imbedded in establishing something of the individual in the totalitarian strip. The ethnic minorities were allowed to dress in their own tradition. 1986 was the first year foreign travellers were allowed independent access to remote areas. So by the time I made it to far west China, where the Han population was then an absolute minority, the ubiquity of the uniform of the People’s Revolution gave way to this really elegant and exciting and diverse Central Asian/Islamic couture of the silk road circa 19th century.
Where precisely did you go in China that time? — China is a really big country, bigger than Australia. I had a brief look at places that simply had to be seen: Shanghai, Xian, Beijing, Guangdong. But the real attraction for me in China was to go as far west as I could, to the Takla Makan Desert, Urumchi, Kashgar, Turfan, to the silk road. It was a time machine. I landed on a dirt strip in the middle of a freezing sand storm at Kashgar in an Antonov24, a sort of fictional aeroplane, cute, funky, with bits falling off it, no door on the lav and you needed a torch to find it, tyres down to the canvas and one propeller misfiring. The airport was a mud-brick fort, the whole city a perfect catalogue of 18th and 19th century Islamo saracenic architecture. I felt so lucky to have been able to make the long journey west and see that last vestige of history before modernity wiped it out.
And did it feel different? I could be wrong but I kinda get the feeling you’re swinging between something almost Robert Frank-ish and something August Sander-ish and that dichotomy is hardly resolved. Personally, I find this inconsistency fascinating and exciting but I imagine you might have felt somewhat out of your element? It has a different feeling, a different flavour all-together to your previous India or SE Asia stuff. — Sure you are right, there is so much nostalgia invested in that work. I couldn’t keep away from it, the trip back in time. The emerging post-revolutionary China is not there. There is much more Sander in the work than Robert Frank. I was going through my own cultural revolution. At least I was processing that – I needed to ditch the horse that I rode into town on and find a new way of connecting to the world with a camera.
What do you mean? What horse did you jump on? — That horse is a little hard to define because it took so long to arrive and then suddenly it was there, fully formed. In 1986 I knew I wanted to cease chanting the same old litany, yet it took another 14 years to change-up. I was of course thinking about it all the time across those years. The influences were there: William Eggleston, Kishin Shinoyama, Tadayuki Kawahito, William Kentridge and of course Colors magazine. My students had a big influence over me. So many of them caught in the spell of David Lynch. His seminal film Blue Velvet set the essential fried tone, its mise en scene for under grads through the 90’s and still running. Interestingly through the film Lynch copiously quotes photographers Steven Shore, Larry Clark and Joel Peter Witkin.
At about the same time I started talking to you about these pictures I was reading Roland Barthes’ Chinese journals and he seemed to have a hard time finding both the codes of ‘fashion’ (the ‘fashion system’) as well as the sexual codes (the sexuality of the period). Yet looking through your pictures I cannot help feeling, if not sexuality , at least a strong ‘sensuality ‘ that completely defies the typical perception of the PRC at the time (I grew up in Romania, which was fairly close to China at the time and even there we had jokes like: what’s Chinese pornography?: a picture of Mao with his top shirt button undone etc ) there is definitely style and styling going on, a collar, a couple of buttons … — Sure that’s the thing about fashion the way you can shape it to you own compeling need to make a statement. If we were all subject to a dystopian splendour that required us to wear black garbage bin liners, we would still find a way to melt the hem, go v neck, backless, add the cod-piece.
Is what you saw, what you shot, because you were at the periphery, and Barthes went bang to the heart of it in Beijing. — Yes of course, I can understand Barthes predicament – Beijing was so heavy, so controlled in that awful Orwellian nightmare way. The further west you went the power of the state waned, individuals entered the experiential mix offering the seduction of a counter revolutionary moment.
Hmm, counter-revolutionary as revolutionary of sorts … Let’s move. You had a big show in Japan, when was it? Late 80s? How was that? Where was it, in Nara somewhere? Was it one of those museums that had been built recently during the bubble? How did you feel your work was perceived at the time? I mean I feel Japan goes through these cycles where for a short while there is a reasonably raw, straight perception of stuff, then it moves through much longer periods where (the same) stuff gets re-framed and re-re-framed which is to say neutralized. I know for example quite a few famous international ‘street-artists’, in recent years, complaining that when they get invited to Japan they’re always asked to do their gig in a department store and the like rather than how they’d normally do it. — I had a big show at the Nara Sogo Dept store, they had a MUSEUM on the top floor. It was organized by a Japanese benefactor friend of mine called DANGERMOUSE…she was dangerous. A Rich girl, never worked a day in her life. She was freakishly good at juicing obligation owed to her family by others in high places. Money was no object in staging the show. I asked how many photos they wanted for the catalogue, she said “all of them, it’s a museum Max”…it was a 250 photo exhibition. They put us up at the old Imperial Hotel, the emperor Hirohito had stayed there. It had the most expensive laundry service in the world. I literally had to hide my used clothes otherwise they would confiscate the and launder them and charge you $500 for 2 y fronts and a pair of socks. I’m so glad I was with Dangermouse, she saved me from the extortion racket by playing very un-japanese hardball with the Manager. Dangermouse lives in a convent now.
Hmm, if Dangermice hadn’t gone to convents when the bubble burst we might have had been able to produce this publication in Japan as originally intended i guess. — Yes, Dangermouse would have been perfect! But she was burned out and bankrupt by the turn of the century.
But in a sense it’s thanks to this Dangermouse character that we’re having this conversation now. Since it was on finding again your ‘Made in Japan’ book – the rather epic indeed Nara exhibition catalogue (from now i shall call it the Dangermouse book ) – in a second hand shop that got me looking at your stuff in a fresh way sometime last year. Hey I don’t know if you recall but i proposed to you in 2000 or so we do an exhibition together and theme it sharply ‘ The human Eye vs the sick eye’ or something like that; having as key images your famous ‘Human Eye’ picture (actually the cover of the Dangermouse book?) vs some picture I’d taken at the time on crappy APS film – a dead format – of similar anatomical casts but of toracomas and other horrible eye diseases, and you politely declined, not the idea of having an exhibition but having that particular theme/angle to the exhibition… So yeah, with my anti-’human eye’ rant at the time I was going against something that now i think wasn’t really what you were on about to start with. I mean I was going against some basic ‘humanist photography thing’ that was I felt a dominant thing in your work, at least in the way it was edited and presented up to a certain point. But yeah you’ve amazed me several times by subtly or not so subtly reinventing yourself, like in the late 90s or so when you started printing ‘70’s stuff , stuff well known as B&W prints in color, because you had actually shot them in color and all of a sudden what i considered to be more or less ‘hippy stuff’ looked as fresh and ‘now’ as what say Tillmans was doing at the time, it was, like twenty-something years ahead of its time and had to wait till the mid 90s when color was re-accepted into (more mainstream) art-photography.
So, anyway, and this goes back to the start of this conversation, looking at the second-hand Dangermouse book last year one picture struck me , it was the one of the 2 aged, i assume, Muslim women in China. They are standing somewhat diagonal to the camera, while still facing it, and their faces are entirely covered — I like that tension and have to say, personally, I prefer it to your more resolved ‘humanist ‘ stuff so it struck me that you must actually have a lot more stuff like that and that the classic ‘Max Pam’ kind of stuff was just a way of showing stuff rather than what you were about – and you had already shown this with the color pictures… — You have that book?!!!. it’s like rocking horse shit, basically only ever made available in Japan, they printed 2000 copies, maybe they sold 200 and the other 1,800 volumes were converted to tofu. Yes Human Eye was the Dangermouse project only she had no creative involvement in. Her creativity was focussed on safe cracking, super steep handling fees and stratospheric consultancy fees. No Dangermouse, no project, she had a take no prisoners approach to dealing with the Japanese Patriarchy. I had 4 different female translators/assistants over the 2 week period in Nara, all of them flung into a blazing suribashi and disposed of for some transgression on Dangermouseworld. I had complete creative freedom on doing the Human Eye catalogue. It was published the same year as Going East (1992) .
But what about that idea of another Max Pam, of many other Max Pams…how does that sit with you? Is this my imagination? (And I know it doesn’t matter if it is, we still live textually after all) — There are many Max’s and I do work with some of them. For instance with my enduring connection to things, objects, artefacts grew from the comfort and pleasure derived from toys as a child. A model kit of a World War 2 Nazi Air Force fighter plane could keep me occupied for weeks on end. This toy from that era is a perfect example of one of the first flat packaged consumables on the market in the second half of the twentieth century. Like a complex Ikea product it came with a set of detailed and inexplicably vague assembly instructions. The act of assembly with its components of extruded plastic, fixed in place with a clear gel glue that made you high was an early introduction to Narcosis & Sculpture 101. Years later at one of those inexplicable, cathartic emotional crossroads in life which found me searching for direction and validation I went back to the toyshop and bought my ship of love. Months later, my art therapy complete, I had my finished and painted Airfix model of the SS Lusitania. Having collaborated with my children on various photographic shoots of our own making, little adventures with toys really. I recruited the eight-year-old Jack Pam to be my model for the Lusitania photograph. I arranged Jack centred on a manhole cover at the bottom of our very steep street in London’s Muswell Hill. It was an unusually foggy morning, just about perfect for the act of black and white photography. My own unresolved yearning. Jack and the model ship which in life had suffered its own tragic history. The world we sailed through and the car accelerating down the hill fast, threatening to turn Jack into a hood ornament. The lighting and climatic atmospherics of North London all combined for the photograph as theatre finale to the model Lusitania opus.
Yeah, there is definitely something very ‘physical’ though about a photography itself, the more digital we go the more we feel it it seems so i can see how you’d work with that Max. Now, since we’re back on the street, how are you actually approaching people you don’t know? You’re not talking, I assume. You’re moving, you’re gesturing. How does this feel? How is your body working in these relationships? Are you even aware of it? — In answer to this I need to go back in to the beginning of the real photolife. My first photographs of any significance were made at art school in the London of 1970-71. In early 1971 I discovered the work of Diane Arbus in the school library for the first time. I was totally taken by the raw forensic style of her work and the loaded quality of her subject matter, all perfectly balanced in square format. I knew I had to trade in my Pentax Spotmatic for a Hasselblad as soon as I had the funds. You pick up the camera and know this is the camera you’re meant to have. There’s no intellectual thing at work here. You pick up the camera, it fits, it’s waist-level, you can compose; it just feels right, you immediately have that connection with Diane one of the truly great artists of the 20th century. Right away I discovered this new camera offered me the test site for my own search for identity. I was in love with the lover of my roommate. She was majoring in fashion at the same art school. The beautiful Georgina (you mentioned that shot before), she was the first real portrait for me, it happened very quickly, that serve and return thing you get when you meet someone and what passes between you is a silent agreement, often but not always sealed by a smile. That mobility and negotiation used on my first good photo is still unfolding for me today.
I love that description! Beautiful! Is love a part of all your work? Love in a weird, transient, temporary sense? Is your work a history of passing loves? In a broad sense of course. I mean you are never a mean or a critical photographer. You photograph what you like, what you love, what you want more of. And, well , here’s my answer about that ‘primal scene’, i guess. … Related to this …have you ever had the feeling, the rightness, taken a shot and then had something happen, half way through, once you shot was taken maybe, that made you rethink your initial feeling? … I also wonder what the fact that you shoot film does. I imagine if you were shooting digital there’s that thing of being tempted to check the camera to look at the pic, and then you’d lose the person, and whether that would matter? — Shooting film is such a different process to working with a digital camera. When I shoot film I’m completely reliant on that first thought best thought mindset, it locates me fully in the experience. It’s a very satisfying way to work. You don’t know what you are going to get, but who cares, its all about the moment, the excitement and drama of being in the moment. Working with a digital camera degrades the immediacy of experience. The moment you press replay, you lose the moment, its gone forever. Reviewing work on the screen the moment after you have completed an act of photography suggests you don’t back yourself. It invites you to become more anal and less inventive as a photographer. If the picture is seemingly not quite perfect you can flog it to death by shooting another 52 versions of a moment that has already gone. Also intimacy is often removed as you show the other players around you the results of your unique brilliance on screen. I dunno, It may suit some people. I know people who like watching themselves make love in the mirror, filming it as they go, on the I phone. If I’m slobbing it I’ll shoot digital. I’ve been a slob quite a bit lately.
Let’s go back again to the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning… What about your own relation to fashion ? There’s one self-portrait of you in front of the Taj Mahal or something like that and you look quite the stunning young Yves Saint Laurent . — You mean the mirror self-portrait at Ajmer, at the Amber palace in 1971. There was a very particular kind of look I cultivated then, about belonging to a sub-culture. When I think about the travellers to the East I most wanted to connect with then, visual recognition was important. There were lots of guys wearing mascara, pencil line moustaches, the cumberband, the bandanna, the puffy shirt, camel riding footwear, fair bit of ethnic bling. Refugees from a Pirates of Samarkand movie. There was no Lonely Planet guide, there were no back packers, no globalisation, no BIG aeroplanes, no mass tourism. When you travelled to the east you vanished into another world, you dressed like the locals who all seemed to dress like pirate movie extras. Maybe you didn’t see or meet someone from the West in weeks, but when you did, you could see right away they were playing the same escapist game. Yes the young YSL, it’s the glasses I wore. They were his.
And any advice you might have for fashion photographers ?? — For the questing young fashion photographer the advice is no different to the questing young artist with a camera. You need to mine your own particular sets of weirdness. We all have them. Take the lid off, grab a few issues and work with them. Pretty soon you will find authenticity and originality flow into your work. For a how to do it guide simply begin by ripping off photographers you admire and then gradually ease onto your own authentic horse and ride it without regard or favour to any fashion mag editor. Never forget it’s your horse, not theirs to command.
dec. 2011 // all photos Max Pam
workbook of Ren Hang. photos Erik Bernhardsson.
(a conversation in the soon ready F de C Reader 2)
Boundless Presentation, Beijing, ↓
Translation by Sophie Cao.
(first appeared in the F de C Reader 1)
You design for Hermès in China and you also have your own brand, Boundless. What is your background? I entered Northwest Textile College (Xibei Fangzhi Xueyuan) in 1986 to study fashion design, and after graduation in 1990 I stayed in the college working there for 7 years. In 1999 I got offered to work in Shanghai for Chen Yifei clothing studio, so I moved to Shanghai, where I have lived until now. From 1999 to 2002, I worked for Chen Yi Fei studio, then became freelance for a while, and in 2005 I started my own studio, Parallel, and set up my brand, Boundless.
Did you have much international experience before joining Hermès? Our school in Xi’an has a partnership with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and they helped us set up the training school and sent teachers to China. I assisted the Belgian teachers, helping them teach and prepare their classes; it was a good experience. After that, I interned for 3 months in a haute couture clothing company in Rome.
How is it to work for a European brand? Shang Xia Hermes is based in Shanghai, and most of the people working there are Chinese. I feel that what interests me most is sourcing original material and researching handcrafting skills. There are challenges too, since in China we still lack experience in dealing with luxury products. We need French designers or consultants to direct us.
How does it feel to design for somebody else? I started my own brand before joining Shang Xia, and I’m trying to keep it. Shang Xia has certain codes that must be followed. It is interesting researching new fabrics and material and visiting handcrafting shops. For designing, we have some freedom but we also need to listen to the art directors, and I don’t mind that I don’t have my name on the brand. I have my own brand to realize my own ideas. I think that is an OK balance. I need something from Shang Xia and I need something from Boundless too.
In general, is there a lot of European influence in your work? Yes. Firstly, I think that I was influenced by Europe from working with the Belgian teachers. That was very important for me. Then my three months internship also influenced me a lot.
You mentioned Martin Margiela as an important designer. Martin Margiela is one of my favorite designers. He is so important to me because he changed the way I view clothes. He has a unique approach to clothing. He finds inspiration from the very idea of clothing itself beyond any specific clothes as such. This deeply inspired me. Besides, his design is grounded in his daily life in Belgium or Paris, while at the same time concerned with philosophy. That is interesting and inspirational.
Where do you look for inspiration for your own design outside Hermès? Boundless’ main inspiration is from two sources: one is the Chinese way of looking at things; the philosophy. Also the techniques of Chinese cutting, very flat cut, no draping or darts… it is interesting to see how the Chinese make clothes. Also traditionally we have different mentality of how we look at the body. Both Chinese and Japanese, we think the body should be covered, not shown to people. From ancient times Chinese and Japanese clothes were very loose. You cannot see the body directly. The materials were quite soft, normally made of silk cotton or linen. You can feel the shape of the body but you don’t actually see it. That enables more imagination. Sexiness is expressed that way but not through the act of seeing. It is a different mentality and that is why we make clothes different from Europeans. Europeans tend to think that people should be proud of their body, so one function of the garment is to help show the form of the body, hence they make the hip part or the breasts look bigger, and invented cutting and sewing skills and techniques to realize these effects. Another inspiration is ordinary life. It is interesting to see how everything is mixed: western things, Chinese things, old things, new things. Actually, it is quite a mess. Beijing is a mess. Sometimes I like this mess. It is bad taste, but interesting, and has much power.
I agree. Things are still arriving to this country so everybody is figuring out how to use what styles and all. In Europe we have a proper context for everything. Certain people wear certain garments. Here you see for example people with totally different backgrounds wearing the same garments. It is both funny and it makes you think of the meaning of things. How do you feel about design in general in China? Can China be the next Japan? The general situation now in China is active, full of chances. The economic boom generates more demand, which enables more opportunities for designers, but the general design level is not high. So far it is not comparable to Japan. The current situation of fashion designing in China is more or less similar to the contemporary art in the 1980s and 90s… Artists at that time tried all kinds of styles from the West; now the fashion designers are doing the same. They copy every style from London or Milan or Paris… All styles can be found in China except their own style. I trust that in 10 years this will change. Besides the designers’ influence, there is the customers’ influence. Chinese people are into big brands like LV… Even big name avant-garde designers may find it difficult to sell their products. Many rich people like to consume big brands from Europe. It is a fact. Even not so wealthy people who cannot afford big pieces would rather buy small items from big names. Many tourists and students studying overseas, buy lots of those during discount season. Also many online-shops act as a middle man for European products and charge fees. All in all it shows that when consuming fashion, Chinese consumers are not considering design or shapes or material but the brand name or their faces or social status. I do marketing for my own little brand and at the same time work for Hermès. I can see the difference. My brand sells in some private shops in Beijing and Shanghai; it has a small number of products, but I do feel that more and more people are interested in such products made by Chinese local designers. On the other hand, Shang Xia Hermès is a luxury brand and only sells in Shanghai. And it is directed to wealthy people only. These customers don’t consider the money they’re spending when buying Shang Xia Hermès… I don’t expect this to change in the near future, I am afraid. It is not a mature consuming attitude; it is worrisome. Maybe in five to eight years something might change.
Everything in China is moving quickly… in 5 or 10 years it will be incredible. And many students go aboard to study fashion. Altogether, there are more than one million Chinese studying abroad. It is true that many students go abroad. I think it’s good. One reason is that their parents have more money to support them while studying overseas. At least they will learn about techniques and the procedures of the fashion industry. It helps to improve the level… In my opinion, the most important thing is that they find their own way of viewing things. Personally I wish students can find themselves, form their own attitude to fashion design. Second important thing is to pay attention to the quality.
How would you describe your work? There is the type I called flat, learned from Chinese cutting and the mentality of how we look at things. Flat cutting is the trademark of traditional Chinese and East Asian ‘couture’. I also got influence from Japanese vintage, like how to set the positions of neck and arms, because in this way when people wear the clothes they got the twist or turning of the fabric, so when you create the proper form and the positions, even if you don’t make a twist shape or sew it in a certain way, you still get the effect. That is the Chinese way of thinking – you don’t make the finished garment itself, you make the system to generate it; the thing is not fixed but naturally comes out of the environment that you create. In Europe you can use the draping technique to make the form – you shape it perfectly the way you want it – even you take off it to hang it on the rack, the shape is still there. But for my clothes, if you take it off from the body, it becomes flat.You don’t see the shape or plissé any more. That is very Chinese – we don’t make the plissé or the form, we just use different position of the neck and arms and let the body do the turning of the fabric.
Did Issey Miyake inspire you? Yes, I got much influence from Issey Miyake and I need to work hard to get away from him. Otherwise I will be in his shadow. In general now I try to find first hand material rather than look at other designers’ work.
What about other Japanese designers? Comme des Garçons and Yamamoto are my favorite designers. I learnt a lot from them. They really set up Japanese fashion style which is really great. Before them, there was only one standard from Paris, after them there was two standards, and later came another standard from Belgium. I went to Japan three times, though very briefly, but I could feel the Japanese are strong at design. Maybe it is to do with their character. They are organized. They like to control things… even nature. Japanese do like nature, but under control. Look at the bonsai, the trees they plant in the backyard, are all controlled, height and shape. It is not like in America where they would just let the trees grow.The difference is that in Japan they take good care of trees and garden plants and keep them looking impeccable, while in China, they just leave them there without any care. It is so dirty.There’s a big difference between Japanese and Chinese. That is why Japanese make everything organized, everything is controlled by humans, and everything is designed. Somehow it is a bit too much and don’t feel relaxed. Of course the environment is really clean, but maybe for certain things it is too much. But due to such character, they have great fashion and graphic design.
At the UCCA shop they were selling a skirt you had made from an IKEA towel. As a Swedish person I know this kind of towel well: every family has it in their kitchen. When I was a kid, we also had it and saw it every day. When I saw it in the UCCA shop, I saw something out of place. The IKEA tag was still there on the skirt. I had been looking for something like this in China, more than just the surface and the look, something more conceptual… Though IKEA is originally from Sweden, now it is in China, so it’s also meaningful for us. My studio uses lots of IKEA furniture. It is important for Chinese life, especially for young people. It helps us make life look nice. So IKEA is also part of our life now even if it is from Sweden. That is why I choose things from IKEA, like a towel or the print fabric. The towel is often used in the kitchen to clean and dry the bowl. I think it is perfect for summer to make a dress or top, because it is cotton and it is easy to wipe the sweat off with it. Also I like cheap and low tech things. When I made the skirt, I kept the tag. I found that interesting.
Lots of fashion people like to buy branded things and they are proud of those brands, and would like to show the brands. But of course they are not proud of IKEA or cheap things. When someonebuys an LV bag they want a big label to show it is LV, but if it is IKEA they don’t want to show it is IKEA. That is the interesting twist of the whole branding part. So you left the tag on. I wanted to joke about those people, to tease them. I want to keep the IKEA tag on the dress and if you don’t like it, then just don’t buy IKEA.
In Sweden, if you visit a 20-something’s home, most of the furniture you see will be from IKEA, from second hand shops or from their parents’ house. You can recognize the furniture. If you use too much IKEA, we think it’s boring; it shows a lack of personality. What does IKEA mean in China? I think maybe it has a higher status here? I think in China it is a bit different. Normal Chinese from small towns or cities would still think IKEA is expensive. People from Beijing or Shanghai, white collar, can easily afford it. So most young people in big cities buy furniture from IKEA because in China there is no nicely designed and low priced brand for the massmarket. IKEA sells well just because it is low priced and nicely designed. In China, low price always means bad taste.
In China when you rent apartment, it will come with furniture. But things in the apartment are always really ugly and of low quality. Even if they look good when they’re new — sometimes they copy some designer’s or big label’s work — in a month or so, they will have broken or started to rust. So after living in China, I begin to really appreciate IKEA and understand its value. IKEA is important for young people because they care about style now. Also in Chinese big cities, people move fast. In a year many people would move two or three times. If they buy expensive furniture, then when they move to next place the furniture may not fit. With IKEA, at least it looks good even if it’s cheap. That is why they want it. Uniqlo is the same. Muji is a bit more expensive.
You live in Shanghai. In China most art and creative things are in Beijing. Why have you decided to live in Shanghai? When I moved in 1999, Shanghai was a good choice. Compared to Beijing then, it was easier to find fabric and clothes factories. Pattern makers were also better than in Beijing. In those years, the most important reason was Chen Yifei who gave lots of freedom to his designers, and his brand had a really good image. I didn’t have second thoughts deciding. Of course now for creative things like art and music and film, Beijing is a much better place. Shanghai is more commercial. But Shanghai is good for fashion because the business environment is good. And the central city area has narrow streets where individual designers can rent small shops. Individual designers firstly appeared in Shanghai, since they could rent a small shop for about 2000rmb, and start designing from there. They could live there and at the same time made money. It was a completely new way of thinking compared to before when all we could do is work for companies. Only in those years in Shanghai did people find that they could live and work in that way. Beijing had this later because it has wide roads and not so many narrow lanes that allow people to walk slowly and appreciate those individual designs. Recently though, fashion designers are more active in Beijing. The reason is that when they finish studying in Europe, they come back to Beijing and considering that here they have more media and more opportunities. That is how Beijing got more active recently.
Ai Weiwei recently said that Beijing is a dirty and inhumane city… if you were to make the choice today, what would it be? It’s a difficult question. I have been thinking about this for a few months. This is a very personal thing. Different people have different feelings about a city… But I agree with Ai Weiwei. If you live a normal ordinary life, Beijing is not convenient. But if you like music and art, or you like to meet different kinds of people, then it is a good choice. If you want to have a more relaxed middle class life, then Shanghai is a nicer choice.
Let’s talk about design again.. For me the three most important designers are Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Maison Martin Margiela. However they are all gone now. MMM is Diesel now. Yamamoto is bankrupt. CdG still has this anti-fashion image, but they are making purses and this Play thing… I think it is normal though. CdG, Rei Kawakubo… they are old, and it is natural that they don’t make their collections as fresh as they used to. Everybody will have that day. Time moves on. I respect these three designers. But if they want to stop working I understand. Actually it may be better to stop. Especially for Yamamoto, I didn’t like his last collection much.
Maybe we are looking for something else. We don’t want just famous names or labels anymore; maybe we want something that’s personal too… How do you see the future of design? It is a big question! One thing for sure is that everybody is waiting for a surprise. Japanese fashion is gone, Belgian fashion is gone, the Antwerp six, anti-minimalism. That’s why people are all waiting. I can think only for China, but here we can’t put our hopes on the big companies. They make lots of money, but the only thing they can change is to have a better working place and better wages for workers. Some of my friends own companies, they also had harsh years in the past 2 or 3 years because they had to pay higher salaries to workers and they had to make their prices higher. For individual designers, they still need to find a way to work better. There are four ways to improve. One is to go abroad, like Uma Wang. She did well, she’s from Shanghai, now she has shops in Milan and London. Joyce is also doing well in Beijing, finding her own way. The second way is to open their own shop to sell their stuff, like me. The third way is those who do well and in 2 or 3 years start to make enough money and go to department stores to open shops. The last way is to use the Internet to sell. Decoster just opened a concept store, Vera Zaishi Wang… Everybody is looking for the right way to work.
part of one device in another device betraying will to random. this one finds a new way to end. where slaw meets coleslaw. tilt of the head i s///////////////////////////aw and called it lineage so time and again it /////////////////////////////is an angle of a head and this is how i am not a hero i guess un-commitment. huh, who won’t buy pants//////////////////////////////////don’t make statements sneakers! and/////////////////////////////////////caps and glasses and bags and key////////////////////////////////////////holders everyday car ry. looking a////////////////////////////////////////////way from horizon to car idling n////////////////////in////////////////////////reverse yet. blades my hero c////////////////////alle////////////////////////d came on over ha nd to han////////////////////d it is///////////////////////a groove where on e thing is////////////////////repea////////////////////////ted and there is no t even a/////////////////////change///////////////////////of chord/key it goe s on an//////////////////////d on it i/////////////////////////s weird how gett ing old///////////////////////er make/////////////////////////s you more comf ortable///////////////////////with tro///////////////////////////pes like that don ‘t call i////////////////////////it theor////////////////////////////y it is not even I beg//////////////////////////an to try////////////////////////////and study how men///////////////////////////with ov////////////////////////////al heads dress as i/////////////////////////////f i coul////////////////////////////d find a templ ate//////////////////////////////and i d////////////////////////////id i guess it wa s no/////////////////////////t the one i////////////////////////desired though but th////////////////////at someone h////////////////ad addressed this a s a pro/////////////blem as well made//////////me feel like at least th ere was////////a solution out there th///////at a kind of blending in w as possi//////ble and this was a way /////out of being betrayed by my fa////ce as if i need to tame it a///nd find a culture for it a way to ///settle it inside the Other n///not to let it be natural when //////////nature is the only thing////////////that i cannot desir e it ma///////////kes no sense i am sure/////////analysis never do es so yo/////////////////u will have to take i///////////////t on faith that my blending is a kind of blending that i take not for granted but as an institutionalisation of nature that is a way of not being cult ure. see if we all blend in the same amount we all start to talk as if it is the air itself that is breathing us, against each other we lie in the mud and in the corn and a hard angle of rock cools us down. we fear like fear is simply passage and moment. this one finds a new way to end.
||( a facsimile of the entire first issue of this ground-breaking magazine as well as a long conversation with Mr. Aoki will be published in the F de C Reader #2 )//|