interview with Birdhead by Davide Quadrio
DAVIDE QUADRIO: Interviewing Birdhead, also known as Song Tao and Ji Wenyu, is like talking to a whole generation of Shanghainese: global, yet completely and radically existing through their beloved city of Shanghai. You struggle to describe your city, yet your attitudes reveal that you no longer see Shanghai as a special place, and that you view this shift as neither positive nor negative. Instead, the city becomes a platform to play with, a game that both frees and roots you. The commercial soul of the city reverberates through you, yet you also show a desire to be separated from it, at least in the making of art. Ultimately it’s only this sense of life, living and consuming that remains. And this states what Shanghai is: life at 360 degrees, pure movement and unstoppable energy in the present tense.
SONG TAO: Shanghai is where we were born, where we grew up. Of course this isn’t something we can choose; it just comes naturally. Our works are records of what we’re interested in, like a mirror reflecting ourselves. The element of Shanghai that appears as “home” in our work can’t help but be natural.
DQ: You work together as a collective. Conceptually, is there a difference between how you experience Shanghai as an artist collective and as individuals? I believe that your photography isn’t simply a record of life but becomes a performance—a performance effectuated through the medium of photography. One could say that your photography is a long-term record of your performance.
ST: We don’t really care about what others see. Photographs definitely produce information, a sense of documentation and of the past, so these sensations also appear when viewing our photographs. We’ve been in this line of work for over ten years and have already gotten used to this kind of feedback. We’re not concerned with what the photographs record. Instead we affirm ourselves, or research ourselves, through taking these photographs. As for the sociological record or nostalgia or whatever it produces, yeah, there are, of course, these functions. We don’t avoid them; each photograph is there. But we really don’t care that much about what others see.
DQ: Then what do you care about? Why choose this method of photography to record and engage in your performances? Your photography really does connect with your lives. For instance, the book Xin Cun (New Village) (2006) is full of your own lives. Yet it also expresses this carefree, couldn’t-care-less feeling—despite the fact that meticulous planning was behind it.
ST: There’s only been one book, Xin Cun, with our own ideas—which is also the most accessible of all our books. The documentary aspect of Xin Cun is the result of us growing up in a new village—we only took pictures of our homes.
DQ: Is it also a reflection of Shanghai’s history and development?
ST: I feel it’s a mirror. When all’s said and done, we’re still more interested in ourselves—or should we say that there is an instinctual reaction to the massive void produced by all kinds of mundane events in life. So you need to search for your sense of existence to affirm your existence.
DQ: What about the expressiveness of the medium of photography?
ST: I have no way of choosing. Three hundred years ago, these forms did not exist.
DQ: But you still can choose, right?
ST: But there’s no need to force things. Since we’re born in this age, there’s no real need to announce to the world that we won’t ever be doing exhibitions. Within the current system, the world needs exhibitions. But you asked about our original intent: must our ideas and concepts rely on exhibitions in order to be presented? Not necessarily, but they can be; plus, doing more of this, we can have a few small experiences of our own.
DQ: Your first exhibition was in 2007 at BizArt Art Space in Shanghai, allowing the audience themselves to affix the photos on the gallery’s walls, which made the space come into being in a very carefree manner. But now, as you say, there is a greater sense of control and design in the works.
ST: What Ji Weiyu and I constantly discussed was how to lay out the exhibition. We felt that setting up the exhibition would be really tiring. Then we decided to let the audience set up the exhibition, so we could relax a bit. Within this, the path we’ve taken is more tiring. Exhibitions take place within a specific space where you show others your work. The classic question here is this: what more can you do within the white cube? In our field, in our profession, everyone from students to old artists will face this problem; we merely provide our own answers.
DQ: Are you used to sharing your lives with everyone to see?
ST: We’ve always been doing projects and making books. But ultimately, all these are extras. The most important function of creating still goes back to what we first talked about—just that little bit of confirmation of your existence.
DQ: What you’ve shot in the last two years seems to not only be about Shanghai.
ST: We’ve shot Shanghai less in the past two years—we’ve taken photographs of other places in Suzhou, Beijing and Hangzhou while traveling. We’ve also done this in the past, but didn’t put them within a collection of works. These changes have come about because of our own internal changes: scenes, characters and things from outside of Shanghai are now placed within our works. The “home” symbolized by Shanghai has become less important. Whether we’re shooting photos of Shanghai or not hasn’t really changed our relation to our own subjectivity—only the background has changed, and yet there is Shanghai, there’s still Shanghai.
DQ: If you chose to make an event or project connected to Shanghai to express this feeling of “home,” what form would this project take?
JI WENYU: We don’t seem to have this desire right now. Our desire is somewhere else.
DQ: Like where?
S: We’ve always been really interested in books and will be making one next year with a British publisher, Moss. They have given us complete freedom.
DQ: Do other people generally invite you to make an exhibition? Or do you actively go about making an exhibition?
JW: Generally others invite us.There aren’t any right now that we actively want to do, but there will be. Our thinking right now is that there doesn’t need to be many photographs; once they have gestated enough, then we will spit some out. But right now, we feel like we haven’t eaten our fill.
ST: In the past we’ve mainly set up horizontal and vertical grids on the wall, filling it with photos, but we’ve reached the point where we only show three or five photos at a time—right now we’re most interested in this kind of work. There’s one photograph decorated with that “Birdhead” visual experience and love of the artisanal, as well as elements like Chinese lacquer that constantly interact with photography. You see how these photographs are a bit dirty, which actually is the result of work in the darkroom. This links the artisanal photographs, wooden frames and designs together. Even earlier, we shot words and grouped them together to form a poem—each character was shot on the street and then combined together to make up a poem from a thousand years ago, a poem that any literate Chinese would know. We fitted a redwood frame for the poem. Aside from that book project we just mentioned, we’d like to work in this direction and investigate craftsmanship further.
JW: To return to the question you asked before—about our connection with Shanghai—Song Tao and I became Birdhead exactly ten years ago. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I feel that from the very beginning of our cooperation we’ve relied on the environment of this city. We don’t actually have a clear train of thought, nor do we know what we should be like, so there’s a huge quantity of photographs about us and Shanghai. But then gradually, we realized all this stuff about Shanghai and the city isn’t really that important for us; what is important for us is ourselves, Birdhead. We can be attracted by many things and then react to them: for istance, the Tang poetry piece we mentioned has this power for triggering something in us that makes us create a new body or work. Equally, an experience can move us into an unexpected direction: for istance, when a few friends of mine and I went to Shaanxi and stayed there for a month. We experienced many things together there—some were shared, some were private, some emotional, others had professional repercussions—and all of this resulted in the stuff that you can see at the Ullens Contemporary Center of Art, Beijing, or in our Swatch project, or like the Italian shoemaking collaboration currently on our feet (where “Birdhead” is written in Chinese on the shoes), and so on. So for us, Shanghai is all this: it’s just like how you go out and say goodbye to your father, and then, coming back, you realize your father’s still your father. So all this craftsmanship has the same relationship to what we learned in school. We want to decorate a photograph, or five, or ten, or a hundred—for us, it’s actually all the same.