AAA’s Fiona He spoke with artist Fang Lu about her unique style of camera direction, her interest in food as an artistic medium, and the reality of being a female artist in China today…
Fiona He (AAA): In your earlier works such as Untitled Beings series and Skin, as well as in recent works such as Automatic Happenings, you have self-directed and performed in the artwork. Most of them focus on simple tasks such as lip-syncing while eating cake, repetitively putting on and taking off your clothes, or performing timely awkward quasi-cooking actions in a non-descriptive environment. Can you tell us about your role as a performer in front of your own camera and the relationship between that and your role as artist? Moreover, how does the solitude or intimacy in working alone allow you to explore and convey the possibilities of this medium?
Fang Lu (FL): In my works, the camera is not used to document a phenomenon, but to transform simple tasks and everyday actions. As the camera enters an everyday, common space, time and objects of portrayal transform through which an altered representation is created. The same transformation also happens to the performer. In fact, the most apparent example would be public space under surveillance, and how our behavior in public is in fact, shaped by these cameras. Therefore, when the camera is intentionally placed within a private space, the camera has an instrumental effect on the performer (either myself or other performers). I am interested in this unique characteristic of the camera. Therefore, in many of my works, I create an isolated filming environment in order to allow myself as a performer or other performers to enter a staged scenario. A lone individual may forget the existence of the outside world and that may be quite a liberating moment, whether used to play a role or complete a task.
AAA: Between 2005 and 2007, you were completing your MFA degree in San Francisco. During these years, you made works such as Straight Outta HK, Panda Express, and the recording of Kelda’s life that was broadcasted on a public TV channel on a weekly basis. These works, on one level may suggest your relationship to society within that time frame, but on another level may be read as an artist’s own exploration of identity in relationship to the society to which she belongs. Could you elaborate on the issues you were interested in when making these works, and how or if that relationship has changed, especially since you returned to China in 2007.
FL: Looking back, I don’t think there have been any essential changes in my method or the form of my work. What changes is in the content. When I lived in the U.S., the content and direction of my work in different phases varied with my living environment. An artist is constantly negotiating her/his relationship with society; being partial to the social system, she does not fully belong to the present or to the past, and whether she belongs to the future would be even more out of her control. Therefore, the artist’s quest for identity and her/his relationship with society is continuous.
When I lived in the U.S., being Chinese within a culturally diverse environment, I observed the Chinese Diaspora and the differential understanding on global culture and identity. The African American female’s vision of becoming a star on Diva TV, as well as my own observations of Chinese ‘reality’ (Panda Messenger, ‘News Replay’) outside of China examine individual identity through new media experiences.
In the last few years after my return to China, these questions seemed to return to the broader issues of artistic practice and gender issues. I think the process of artistic practice is a process for the artist to learn about herself. Hopefully this self-learning process will bring forth a more truthful understanding of the outside world.
AAA: Food has been a theme that has occurred in many of your works, such as Sweet Dream, Automatic Happening, Family, and Rotten. What does your interest in food suggest? Moreover, you may be accused of being wasteful of large quantities of food; does such wastefulness help you to achieve your intention?
FL: Food projects what is most internal in us. In everyday life, when I am in a bad mood, cooking often calms me down, so it’s rather natural for me to use this material in my work. Food is an object of consumption, change, and procedure. Taking Rotten as an example, food is used as a type of cosmetic, materials of adornments to conceal a model. The status quo of women in our society is the constant pursuit of eternal beauty and immaculate perfection, which of course contradicts the changes taking place in the body internally. In Rotten, I set up a visible process to expose what should have been consumed internally on the surface of the body as an alternative to ‘eating.’ Perhaps it was due to the non-industrial nature of such ‘cosmetics’; once the make-up artist finished adorning the model, the model seemed to have returned to a primitive state. Moreover, after a few hours of filming, the heat from lighting the scene catalysed a faint rotting scent from both the food and the body at the scene.
When I executed this work, the filming was done continuously. It was difficult for the model to endure the weight of the various food added to her head and body. Interestingly, my travels to Tibet after completing the filming for this work made me realise that weight on women is customary practice in certain cultures. Among many nomadic tribes, woman wear the family’s precious gold and silver jewels, not only to exemplify status, but also to secure these precious metals by wearing them on the body rather than leaving them in tents when outside working.
Rotten is a performance aimed to visualise and aestheticise cooking food without the goal of ‘eating’ it. Whereas, Automatic Happening is a series of quasi-cooking and house works that were constantly interrupted and incomplete, a process comparable to the work of an artist and a way of artistic production. These activities were extracted from their actual contexts and performed in a non-descriptive ‘space.’
The actions and materials used in my works are often considered parts of rituals, which in themselves are a consumption of material, time, and labor. The use of food in my work might be considered wasteful because the way in which food is used is paradoxical to the expectations of its practicality (utilitarian purposes) in contemporary society. I don’t believe that art should abide by certain social ethics and logic. Whether it’s wasteful to use these materials comes back to whether artistic practice should be politically correct. I think ‘correctness’ is an operating system that stops people from thinking and questioning, and is manipulated by commercial interests and the social system. Environmentalism is an apparent example, and to make work with such logic in my view is simplistic and dangerous, because most people would not refute such ‘correctness.’
AAA: In your works where actors were invited to perform, you seemed to have taken a passive role, allowing the actors to fully express themselves in the assigned tasks. The recent work, Rotten involves three hours of an unrehearsed make-up session with a model dressed in white with a table of raw fruits and vegetables. How does this process allow you and the performers to communicate in exploring and representing the ideas behind the work?
FL: You are right. I have taken a passive directing approach contrary to the traditional pyramid model of directing – this is also the most significant difference between the medium of video art and traditional television. However, the more passive the approach, the more planning is necessary prior to filming. Because shoots are unrehearsed, I set up as many cameras as conditions allow in order to work with more raw footage in my post-production. In each shoot, both the performer and myself experience the same unknowns. That can be both exciting and nerve-wracking, and both moods have been valuable to the work. The performances in most of my works are unrehearsed, because I think certain imperfections, and awkward characteristics should also be part of the action.
Communication with each performer in the different works varies, and communication with the performers and the make-up artist was focused on how to use these unusual materials to allow these two ‘hybrid’ activities–make-up and cooking–become a continuous process. I was interested in the embedded performative aspects of both make-up and cooking, yet to allow these unrelated activities to rely on each other and let the process become a scene requires collaboration among the performers. I think such coordination is quite interesting, and also critical to making the fictional performance possible. Before I met with the make-up artist and the actors, I was uncertain about how to execute the specific details of this proposal. It was only after meeting them that we decided on the specifics of the filming plan.
AAA: Who are some of the foreign and Chinese artists, particularly from the Canton area, that have had an influence on your work? And which aspects of their work was the most interesting to you in terms of your own practice?
FL: Although I spend most of my time in Beijing, several particular artists in Guangzhou have had a significant impact on me. One of them is Chen Tong, the founder of Borges Liberia, who has been engaged and supporting this contemporary art organisation on an entirely individual basis. After my exhibition this year at Borges Liberia, I realised that the level of investment and engagement in an exhibition exceeds most other organisations in China. The other person who has influenced me is Xu Tan. As a friend, my conversations with him on a regular basis about art and creativity have always been quite fruitful. I think the work and attitude of these two artists provides a new reference-point for contemporary Chinese art.
AAA: As a young female artist who’s lived and studied abroad, what do you think your agency is as a female artist in China, and how has that been projected through your work?
FL: I am uncertain whether reiterating gender inequality or using art to replicate certain social phenomena is effective, so that’s not the core thinking of my artworks. However, it is inevitable in life and art that my instinctive interest lies with the issue of women. I don’t think I need to ignore this instinct; as a female artist, to void or circumvent the issue would arrive at the same outcome – returning to a male centric context. In my view, the social system was based on the distinction between feminine and non-feminine. This is not a simple oppositional division of sexuality, because these qualities are embedded in each individual simultaneously. Feminine, in comparison to the default social value of non-feminine, represents every subject and state that is unstable, non-utilitarian, non-cumulative. But these are not qualities that are recognised by our society. This is the same in the structure of the art world.
In the Chinese art scene, there are a lot fewer women artists than male artists, though in fact there are more female students than male students in art academies. I think one of the reasons might be that, when a female artist becomes successful in her career, when people start to identify the value of her creativity and transcendence, they actually unconsciously see her as male. Then she becomes pregnant one day, and retreats temporarily from public attention, and the public awaken to realise that she is still a woman. Then once again, the strength of her creativity is questioned. It is a cruel reality.