Portrait of a photographer as an aspiring artistThe origins of Thomas Fuesser’s photographic project come from a unique opportunity, which he is probably the only one to enjoy. He penetrated museum and gallery walls, ignored the auction house hammer, and captured the intimacy of some of the most acclaimed contemporary artists in China. He has revealed the way they work, the spaces where they create, how they paint, and what they do with their time. In carefully structured intervals, Thomas Fuesser demonstrates how he has been profoundly inspired by life in China and the varied personalities of its artists.
Fuesser first came into contact with artists in China as early as 1993, when Dutch curator Hans van Dijk (1946-2002) arranged for a group of foreign journalists and photographers to visit the up-and-coming members of the then fledgling avant-garde art scene in Beijing and Shanghai. Fuesser knew nothing about China at the time, but was instantly hooked. He has since become a welcome fixture in artists’ studios, those very ones who were, to quote him, “poor and unknown” at the time. As these artists grew in stature, they embraced him despite the fact that he did not speak a word of Chinese and they knew no German and little English. This special rapport has given him very privileged access to a typically reclusive art community.
When photography emerged in the 1800s there was a temptation for photographers to substitute ‘art’ with photographic compositions that competed with the best paintings of the times. However, Fuesser’s artistic aspiration lies in his following of one of the greatest traditions of this genre, the photographer’s observations of an artist at work. We can clearly recall George Brassai’s images of Picasso and Matisse, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s intimate portrayals of Matisse and Giacometti, and even the most recently unveiled images of Lucian Freud by David Dawson. Thomas Fuesser’s SHORT-CUTS offers an exceptional look into the inner sanctums of artists in China; how they work, rest, and play.
The shuttered bull’s-eye
To begin with, we are struck by the cover image of an arrow shot through the lens of a camera (an artwork by the artists’ collective MadeIn Company). As a metaphorical bull’s-eye, one could interpret this as the photographer’s ambition to illustrate his creative purpose. That is, to penetrate the secrets of art making and even the souls of these artistic minds.
But what we did not suspect was this candid confession by the photographer himself: “I didn’t have that in mind when I chose this picture, because that artwork provoked a lot of pain in my brain and in my heart when I first saw it in the MadeIn studio. They created it with three cameras; one of them was this Hasselblad. It was shocking for me. Coming from classical photography, everything I had done before was on film. Most of the portraits I did were on black and white film or with Polaroid. I fell in love with portrait photography because it gave me time to pay attention to the person I was capturing. But times have changed. Now few people have the patience to let you prepare the shooting, loading, and changing of films in your camera. It has taken me a long time to make peace with my brain and my heart as I completely changed my approach, switching from analogue to digital. This picture translates the pain I felt in destroying my own past.”
The temple of art
Having settled this technical issue Fuesser set upon a grandiose idea. The work begins with a kind of temple invocation. We see Ding Yi’s ‘crosses’, meticulously arranged across his large canvasses and religiously installed as neon lights outside the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai. And still more images focus on Zeng Fanzhi’s stained glass and veiled sculptures (a ‘veiled’ reference to Michelangelo’s “Pietà”). As if this photographer wanted the viewer to appreciate his photo album with the same respect, rigour, and seriousness he devoted to the portrayal of these artists. Yu Hong’s scenography in the deserted exhibition halls of the Shanghai Art Museum gave Fuesser the opportunity to produce a classical portrait of the female artist, rendering the contemplation of her work like in a kind of Sistine Chapel. We can understand why this photographer likes Saul Bellow’s words: “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.” Fuesser explains, “For me artists are the soul of society. They are its reflection and in a sense they are also its psychiatrists, be they oriental or western, from North or South. You will find in their work something that reflects what is happening everywhere.” Indeed, Zeng Fanzhi is represented in this way, because the photographer feels his search for salvation: “I have included the black and white portrait of him I took in 1995, alongside a painting in his ‘mask’ series. Although his face looks serene, underneath he was burning like hell”. And Ding Yi is truly the most contemplative artist he has met, as Fuesser confides: ”Back in 1993, Hans van Dijk told me that there were three developments in Chinese contemporary art: new-socialism, new-realism, and Ding Yi.”
The meditative picture of Ding Yi’s empty armchair is composed in such a way that one notices the crosses on the ceiling and the art deco windows; that is, the artist’s omnipresence. Fuesser was impressed by the fact that Ding Yi always sat in that chair when receiving guests, like some kind of evangelist preaching art and offering them excellent coffee. Curiously, Zheng Enli is also portrayed sitting in a huge leather armchair. Although these chairs appear to be a little oversized for the two artists, their posture has a statuesque and stoic stillness. Another empty, velvet, armchair was featured in the atelier of the art couple Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Thorsdottir, and in photographing Chris Gill at work. Fuesser reveals that the blue velvet chair on which Gill sits to paint remains impeccably immaculate while paint is splattered all over his clothes and the floor. Here the chairs or armchairs appear to anchor the artists’ living and working spaces; providing safe havens where they can rest after a demanding work session. Zhang Enli’s portrait in the armchair is an especially moving reminder of Cartier-Bresson’s 1944 portrayal of Matisse in almost the same pose, with the great master holding a white dove in one hand and sketching with the other.
Lines, structures and patterns
Since Fuesser comes from a German photographic school in the broad sense, one can feel that he is particularly inspired and excited by the different geometrical compositions and architectural installations in the artists’ ateliers and the exhibition halls of the museums and art centres where they display their work. With his judicious placement of the camera inside some installations, like in the case of Liu Wei, he is able to magnify the artist’s verticality, like a forest in the city, creating a relationship between his trees and the confined space. Fuesser’s sensitivity to lines and forms led him to craft a painting within a painting – un tableau dans un tableau – such as, when he borrows the huge painted walls of the Rockbund Museum in Shanghai to illustrate Zeng Fanzhi’s electric blue zebra-stripes. And when he places the Chinese calligraphy ‘PEASANT’ above Cai Guoqiang’s head, presenting the artist like a great orator talking to the press.
Artists on the move
In contrast to these “sofa artists”, Thomas Fuesser’s images mostly maintain an energetic tension. Artists are viewed as intense physical workers who are actively on the move, like Liu Wei constantly talking on the phone, and the non-stop physicality of Pu Jie’s painting process, almost like a labourer or brick layer. “He’s always in action, walking around, jumping up and down, he would not even sit down for a tea”, explains Fuesser. “I saw this installation by an Austrian artist Elizabeth Gruebl, who built a sculpture with all of Pu Jie’s canvasses and the interiors she had assembled from his studio. So I suggested he climb up there for a photo. Up he went and sat inside the cubicle, ready with this pose! I said ‘Please don’t move’, and you know what, he actually stopped for a few minutes, like he really enjoyed the peace and quiet he had found!” It makes you wonder whether these are the modern day characteristics of multimedia artists, such as Zhang Ding and Liu Wei. They are always multi-tasking, organizing the team works, and intimately connected to all the newest communication systems. Fuesser had to use a flash-light to immobilize Zhang Ding while paradoxically producing even larger images of his movements – “he’s a very intense worker, everything he does is carefully planned.” Sun Xun’s blurred portraits also reflect a young and talented artist constantly at work. Fuesser made a point of saying that Sun Xun used to work only in black, but this time he was painting in white. From a photographic point of view, this black and white coincidence materialized in the picture he took while waiting for the artist who had been delayed at the airport: Sun Xun’s favourite pet, a nervously energetic black and white American Checkered Giant rabbit, happened to be wearing the same black-rimmed eye-glasses as his owner.
Another ‘physical’ artist is Chris Gill, here wearing a sweater splattered with paint in the colours of the South African flag. His smeared face emerges above his blue canvas, almost echoing Francis Bacon. At the same time it reminds me of those portraits of Lucian Freud painting, made by his assistant David Dawson, and illustrates that photography can assimilate the brushstrokes. It also demonstrates Fuesser’s creative efforts in consistently finding an original and effective method of portraying seventeen major and individually very diverse artists.
The concept of SHEN in Chinese traditional portraiture
“Zhang Enli is an extremely sensitive guy,” explained Thomas, “before the opening of his exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum, those around him said he had stomach cramps for two days because he was feeling the pressure.” This makes his smiling portrait even more remarkable: “I caught him at the end of the opening ceremony and I sensed his relief, the pressure was off, finally he relaxed and cracked a smile.”
In Chinese traditional ink brush painting there is a genre called ‘REN WU’, literally ‘people and things’, which corresponds to the concept of portraiture in Western art. However, this ‘people and things’ genre is much less practiced than ‘mountains and waters’ (landscape) or ‘flowers and birds’ (nature). Is this because of the tradition of Confucian pudeur, an avoidance of overly frank portrayals, or could it be that painting a portrait of someone is actually more difficult than sublimating an idea with mountains and bamboo? Here there is a widely accepted theory that in portraiture the artist should achieve an expression of ‘SHEN’, an almost untranslatable concept, somewhat akin to notions of ‘spirit’, ‘inner soul’, ‘energy’, and even the quality of that energy. For his representation of the MadeIn Company, Fuesser arranged their individual portraits in a sort of ‘Facebook’ style, and to make it interesting he directed each artist to look up or down. I remember the first time he asked me to sit for his portrait project almost ten years ago. He gave me two very simple instructions: “PLEASE DON’T MOVE” and “SMILE WITH YOUR EYES, NOT WITH YOUR FACE.” Fuesser’s first monograph was entitled Please Don’t Move and though I never saw that portrait of me (assuming he was not happy with my inability to smile with my eyes), I spent a long time wondering what he had meant.
Perhaps ‘aura’ is a more appropriate definition of ‘SHEN’, which is what this photographer does best. Instead of pursuing the long tradition of seated, studio portraiture, with all its necessary lighting and backdrops, he has focused on people in their own environments, attempting to capture their auras on the fly, on the move, and while they are not looking into his camera.
The creative energy radiating from an artist is especially detectable in a powerful face. This photography project has a decidedly historical dimension; we are looking at some of the most powerful figures in China’s contemporary art scene. I wonder what Fuesser was thinking as he photographed such heavy-weights as Zeng Fanzhi, Cai Guoqiang, and Ai Weiwei, and whether he still remembers the way they looked when he first met them almost twenty years ago. Perhaps it is this very familiarity, accumulated over time, which has allowed him to pinpoint who they are and what can be read from these “power faces”. For instance, in the two consecutive diptych portraits of the famously ‘angry’ Zhang Peili, we see one with his eyes wide-open and the other with eyes shut, conveying the idea of inner and outer worlds. But it also looks as if Peili were sending us a signal behind his “Correct pronunciation of weather broadcast” work; a powerful artistic statement evoking a sensitive historical event in China.
Paramount to his status in the global art world community, Ai Weiwei’s powerful face speaks for itself. His blurred head-shaking portrait, as if saying NO to whatever he cannot tolerate, is a strong declaration of his unwavering personality: “I am an individual. I am not part of any system. My system is my conscience” (2009). It is interesting to note here that many years ago in his New York 1983-1993 photography series Ai Weiwei experimented with self portraiture, images of himself shaking his head from left to right, creating blurry faces. This also reminds me of Duane Michals’ and Francesca Woodman’s 1970’s experimental photography; particularly Michals, having photographed Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, and Giorgio de Chirico, for whom portraiture is still a real challenge as it deals mainly with appearance. He argues that the photographic image is essentially a lie, because people cannot be what they look like. Observing Fuesser’s images of artists’ paintings, sculptures, and installations we could ask whether these artists are really what they paint. In this context, Cai Guoqiang’s face is the most representative of Fuesser’s style. Far from being a total convert or in awe of these powerful art world figures, this German photographer seems to practice the concept of ‘distanciation’ (Verfremdung). These eleven “snapshots” of Cai Guoqiang, perhaps taken in the celebrity hunting paparazzi manner, portray this firework artist as an object of strangeness, particularly worthy of a face study. As our photographer put it: “Well, I followed Cai Guoqiang for three days. He acted like a superstar, which he is, and I noticed that he looked different depending on the circumstances. His facial expression was constantly changing, immediately expressing what was going on in his brain. This is very different from other Chinese artists, who are usually detached and subdued. During interviews Yang Fudong wears a stereotypical expression and always looks very cool. Ai Weiwei is always cool too”.
A day in the life of an artist
Nonetheless, sometimes we find that an artist really reflects what he or she makes. Both Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Thorsdottir have a certain resemblance to their creative works. Perhaps for this reason Fuesser’s approach with them is rather like a documentary, a quasi reportage for a magazine piece on a day in the life of an art-couple. “Wu has three major issues in his life,” says Thomas, “First is what’s going on in the world, second is swimming, and the third is food – nothing but healthy food”. Indeed, the portraits of Wu and Inga are a sensitive reportage on the artists at work, rest and play. They are shown in their complete intimacy, working together, swimming in a pool, and preparing dinner in their kitchen. One surreal image stands out, where Inga is lying on her palanquin bed in the middle of the mezzanine floor of the Shanghai Art Museum. “She decided just like that, to the shock and amusement of everyone watching. She’s a wonderful artist and a great manipulator”, adds Thomas.
Listening to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart on a vinyl record player! What a surprising representation of Feng Mengbo. Who would have imagined, in his digitalized world of video inspired violence, a calm and solemn looking Feng Mengbo standing behind the silhouette of a bloody Bruce Lee figurine? In a studio littered with electronic components and projected imagery on walls and computer screens, we can hardly tell if this artist’s paper-cut black silhouettes are real or just another pixilated painting he created. As with Zeng Fanzhi, Thomas Fuesser has added a black and white portrait he took of Feng in the 1990’s, as a poignant measure of time gone by, like a faded vintage sepia image in an old photo album.
Short-cuts or chassés-croisés
Like in Robert Altman’s movie of the same name (both English and French), which came out in 1993 and the very year Thomas Fuesser formed his initial bond with China’s art community, these seventeen artists are not represented as mutually exclusive stories. Chris Gill’s revelation about how Ai Weiwei became a master internet communicator via social networks is one striking example. “Twitter… Like a bird”, this innocent phrase in Gill’s 2009 interview with Ai opened up a new artistic activism for this artist. Without it, we cannot understand the surgery-related, shaved-hair portrait, and the “MISSING” poster in Fuesser’s photograph. It also sheds light on the presence of Chris Gill and Inga Svala Thorsdottir among Chinese artists. And explains why a book on China’s contemporary artists had to be made by this German photographer. They all play dual roles – as actors and witnesses – in the history making, especially the invisible but omnipresent, past and present, figures of Hans Van Dijk and Lorenz Helbling, who together with Fuesser bind the common threads connecting these seventeen profiles. Another vital figure is Zhou Tiehai, now in his capacity as director of the Minsheng Art Museum, who is dedicated to promoting exhibitions on the short history of Chinese contemporary artists and become an indispensable keystone in the SHORT CUTS project. As Fuesser has reiterated, were it not for the omission of Andrew Solomon (New York Time’s art critic) in his most important first reportage on Chinese artists in 1993, there would not have been any ‘fake’ magazine covers painted by Zhou Tiehai with his own portrait, which eventually defined Tiehai’s art and therefore his undeniable stature today. He is portrayed here alongside his quasi miniature paintings in his ‘dessert’ series. In one of them we have to look closely to see that each delicacy has a caption, in French, of a certain profession: diplomat, judge, minister, professor, dancer, washerwoman, financier, buffoon, ragman, bottom-smacker, and so on. Pointing to the importance of the written text, Fuesser suggests: “The dessert series has somehow liberated, freed Tiehai from what he has been doing until now.” It is clear to me that Tiehai left out his own profession; he is indeed the ‘philosophe’.
As a whole, this entire project evolved over the course of its shooting. From the simple portraiture of contemporary artists to a series of interconnected photo essays, each one represents the way Fuesser himself sees each artist, or as he puts it, “my interpretation of them”. There is no precedent or equivalent work in China. In 1996 the Chinese photographer Xiao Quan published a book entitled Our Generation, which includes portraits of artists such as Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Bing, He Duoling, and Fang Lijun, all shot in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with a single black and white portrait per artist and a text recounting their relationship.
SHORT-CUTS is not another book on China’s contemporary art. Nor is it an art critic’s thesis or even an historical or theoretical analysis. It is a photographer’s attempt to integrate a variety of photographic genres under the pretext of intimately describing seventeen of the most successful contemporary artists in China today. It is an exercise in portraiture, still-life, architectural photography, documentary, and reportage. What we can all perceive is an undeniably passionate visual story by an inspired photographer with obvious affection and respect for ‘his’ artists. In the end, I suspect that the whole process belies Fuesser’s own aspirations to be an artist. Of course, his ‘short cuts’ also provide an enjoyable opportunity to learn something more about the dynamics of the contemporary art world, which still remains a mystery to me. Thank you Thomas!
Jean Loh / Independent photography curator / Shanghai / China 2013
French-Chinese, Loh graduated from Sciences Po International University in Paris, and has been living in Shanghai since 2000. He is a member of the editorial board of the ‘Trans Asia Photographic Review’, published by Hampshire College in collaboration with MPublishing at the University of Michigan Library.
Loh has curated many photography exhibitions, including the ‘Marc Riboud Retrospective’ in China (2010-2012) at the Shanghai Art Museum, Beijing CAFA Art Museum, Xi’an Art Museum, Hong Kong City Hall, Macao Museum of Art, Wuhan Art Museum, Chengdu Center of Photography, Dalian Art Exhibition Hall, Xiamen Luoca Art Center, and Guangdong Museum of Art.
His international exhibitions include, ‘Lu Guang’ (Eugene Smith Award winner) at the Yangon Photo Festival in Myanmar (2012) and ‘Five Chinese Photographers’ at the Biennale di Alessandria in Italy (2011).