petite mort In this issueSomething from Nothing No.3 2005
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I had heard of Danwen Xing and her photographs from various friends, but how I really began to immerse myself in her work was when I first saw it in the pages of Wired magazine of all places. Her 2004 work Disconnection was a series of photos taken of mostly American Garbage dump sites in South Eastern China. As I began to dig deeper into her work, her involvement inside and outside of the art establishment began to unravel. From her humble beginnings in China, to her travels and employment as a photo journalist in Europe and then back China, this interview paints a portrait of Danwen Xing that conversely demonstrate to us what the world around us has become.


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 scale?
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 it.

© 2005 Danwen Xing
"all I saw was the junk as a metaphor for our modernlife.  We are living on a tightly integrated organism."

Images from Danwen Xing’s disCONNEXION series. While on assignment in Guangzhou she photographed pile after pile of yesterday's circuit boards and fiber optics.

© 2005 Danwen Xing

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]

© 2005 Danwen Xing

"our social expectations and needs, which drive our goals, are forcing us to become very similar, like clones"

Images from Danwen Xing’s DUPLICATION (2003) series.
Heads ready to be assemble in a Chinese factory, who knew there were so many blondes in China?

© 2005 Danwen Xing

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 child. [laughs]

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 Fiction, 2004-2005]

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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