Let’s talk about the 2 recent projects of yours; the disCONNEXION
(2002-2003) and DUPLICATION
(2003) . Both projects have to do with globalization and later
hinting at idealization. Can you talk a little bit about how
you went from making something really quite personal and intimate, such
as in your earlier work, to these two issues that are on a larger social
I moved back [to China] in year 2003. Being someone who had lived in western
society, I noticed that the progress of modernization in the west happens
in a slow and natural way, but in China it happens so drastically that
it feels almost futuristic, so much so that you can’t really compare
the two. The idea of modernization is being exaggerated in China and that’s
what makes it so interesting! China is not simply copying western modernization,
it’s also idealizing it. Sometimes this modernization good it’s
very damaging, but if it does turn out good it can be the greatest thing.
I think I noticed in both disCONNEXION and DUPLICATION
that even though they are photographs of junk you were able to present
it in a way that made it feels like it wasn’t junk, was that intentional?
I think that’s because this junk was exported from America.
[See related article link
"Where computers go to Die" at the end of this interview]
This junk is from America?
That’s correct. I was very intrigued by this idea of being modern
after I moved back home. I kept thinking about how modernization is being
expressed in today’s life. So for a while I was trying to figure
out how to capture this modern third world country that China is today.
Although I had stopped taking assignments from magazines, I bargained
with them that I would take on certain projects if they sent me to highly
industrial areas. That was how I got to visit the Special Economic Zones
(SEZs) in Guangzhou (Wiki: Special
Economic Zones). I knew a French magazine had just published a story
on the subject of exporting junk, but that wasn’t the first time
I heard about it. I remembered reading about this subject ten years ago
in some European magazine. I couldn’t believe what I had read, but
once I decided to investigate I would find out all there is to know about
When I got there and saw the junk piles I started shooting
immediately, not because I found a quick answer to what I was trying to
capture, but because I knew it was what I needed. The producer from the
magazine wondered why I took only close-up shots of the junk pile. What
they needed was images of the environment, how people live and work in
the junk. But all I saw was the junk as a metaphor for our modern life:
we are living on a tightly integrated organism. [see disCONNEXION]
I went back there many times because I couldn’t capture it all in
one day. It is also a sensitive subject therefore I wasn’t all that
welcome there, nobody wants to get in trouble. I chose about 10 images
from my first trip, and after developing, scanning, and enlarging them,
I knew immediately I was in the right direction. I went back there a few
more times and finished the series. The actual creative process of this
series might seem simple and straightforward, but because how clear the
concept is, many people thought it was all set-up. They leave very strong
impressions on your mind. Those images, [disCONNEXION], not only
demonstrate the phenomenon of modern lives but their existence also serves
to underline a certain truth. This journalistic truth has become the sub-theme
in this series.
You’ve mentioned that some people have said these photos
also have a Modernist aesthetic, do you think you are beautifying them
in this way?
Yes, but at the same time I’ve left untouched their truth and the
undeniable facts. For example, an important fact is that 75% of this junk
is from America, the rest are from countries such as Japan and Korea.
At one point it was junk from countries in western Europe and the U.K.,
but now the European Union has set up treaties regarding the principles
of using 3rd world countries as dumping grounds.
In a way they are almost political and historical documentation
of the countries that used this part of China as a dumping ground.
Exactly, the photos serve to document America’s dumping problem
and they also document environmental and labor issues in China. The people
who work in this area pretty much live in a cancer prone environment.
It is perhaps providing them a job, but it’s not very humane. Surviving
day to day is the main issue for them. They don’t really think about
long term problems. The entire village smells like burnt plastic. They
hand pick computer chips and cut open cables with knives to get the copper
wire out. All this work is done using very primitive techniques. Sometimes
to get the metals out of all this junk, they simply cook and melt off
the plastic in big pots without even wearing a mask, there’s black
smoke everywhere. I think once the environment goes, so will their health.
[See related article link
"Poisons inside your PC" at the end of this interview]
So do the doll parts in DUPLICATION refer
to their wasted lives?
DUPLICATION is different. Like disCONNEXION it does
have something to do with rapid modernization but from a different angle.
It is the lost of individualism. Although we tend to think that human
cloning is only found in science fiction, our social expectations and
needs, which drive our goals, are forcing us to become very similar, like
clones. For example, when you look at the classified ads you see very
specific job descriptions that require such and such experience, degrees,
and skill sets, then we have our children structure their curriculum in
school based on these requirements. The result is the creation of a very
specific type of person. It scares me just by thinking about having a
Do you think all these concerns address only Chinese issues?
I can only say that when you look at the aesthetic standards in China,
you will notice the cover girl is usually a blonde model even in the domestic
magazines. Chinese also like to project fantasies when naming products,
like in real-estate they’ll have names like "Soho" or
"Madison" for new buildings. These products are there to help
us achieve an ideal or fantasy. [see Urban
When I was in Guangdong I visited many toy factories. The toys that reminisce
real lives, like realistic miniature objects, intrigued me. Then I realized
I hadn't seen any Asian dolls. I asked them why there were no Asian dolls
and they said it was because no one ordered them. Then I asked him, "what
about the domestic market?" The response was, "No, no one orders
them either." But he did mention that every once in a while they
would get orders for black dolls. It’s not like there are no Asian
dolls out there, but 99% of the time people don’t order Asian dolls.
What’s the state of contemporary art in China?
In the early years, the art was pretty much forbidden, and there was very
limited information around. Being in our twenties and coming from very
traditional academic backgrounds, we wanted to change the circumstances.
We wanted a revolution. There was no market for art, so we were making
art for our own sake. There were many ideas that couldn’t stand
to be repressed and need to take some form. So many things happened to
artist in those days; police actually arrested artists, which now sounds
like a joke.
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