Xing Danwen 邢丹文

Xing Danwen (born 1967) is best known for her photographic work documenting the underground cultural and artistic activities in mid-to-late 1990s Beijing and was one of the earliest artists in China to employ photography as an art form. She works with mixed media, video and multimedia installations as well as photography to address various issues around Chinese society, gender, globalisation and consumption.

Photograph of artist Xing Danwen

Xing Danwen
Image courtesy of the artist

Monica Merlin: Could you talk about your position as a photographer who wanted to do art in the early 1990s and how you found it challenging?

Xing Danwen: First of all, it was difficult because my living conditions did not really allow me to have a studio, which meant it was not easy to get hold of many of the materials needed for photography. That actually made me simplify the tools I used for making art. At the time photography was a rather new discipline. I studied fine arts for eight years in professional schools until I graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, so I was fully educated as a traditional painter. During the first four years at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, I learned every kind of painting including traditional Chinese painting; I became very familiar with both painting and the history of painters. We all read Van Gogh’s diary and learned about the realities of a struggling artist’s life and I was lobbying to go to Paris to see all the masterpieces.

That was actually why I learned English, but I did not go to a language school – I learned it all by myself. However, when I was in middle school I had a very good English teacher, really first-rate. This teacher had such a lively teaching method – when he was teaching it was as if he was performing on a stage. This meant that I extremely enjoyed going to English classes. In fact, I recently met up with him. He is now eighty-eight and still carries his American accent. I was in one of the best art schools in Xi’an and this year is the centennial anniversary of my school. It is a really old school and I was a very diligent student. There was an entrance exam, but there were no school fees and all applicants were evaluated based on their exam results so it was a fair system.

When I graduated from art school, nobody was learning English. We thought of ourselves as artists, so nobody wanted to sit around reading books or spending time learning English. But I did. I spent four hours every evening learning by myself: reading all the reference books and watching the English programs that were on television every day. My teacher always reminded us how to memorise things and how disciplined you needed to be.

Monica Merlin: You were really determined to learn.

Xing Danwen: Yes, because I had a dream of seeing the masterpieces in Paris in front of me, not just reproduced in books. That dream actually made me really driven and I very much enjoyed learning English. You know, I scored 88 out of 100 in the national university entrance exam – that is a very high score. I had a lot of opportunities to learn as there were also a lot of young Western travellers – both students and professionals – near my school, because my school was located in Wangfujing in the centre of the city. Our foreign student dormitories had spare rooms, so young travellers often stayed there at low rates. When they asked other students questions, the students would bring them to me because their English was so bad and I could help them. This meant I made a lot of professional friends at the time. As my English became better than their Chinese, they were more patient and we started to speak in English all the time, which meant I got to practice a lot. By the time I graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, I was able to discuss professional matters in English.

Thanks to my English skills, I also had the opportunity to work as a freelance photo-journalist for the Western media, which gave me a lot of interesting experiences. Up until then I had been a painter, but taking pictures changed the way I made contact with the world. A painter approaches a piece of work with their imagination and their feelings, but when you take pictures, you are really confronting reality and trying to create works from that reality. That pushed me out of my studio. It changed my character too – for the better. Previously, it had not been easy for me to handle or communicate with people I was unfamiliar with, but the job gave me tasks to complete, so I had to challenge myself on all my shortcomings. This experience as a journalist was very interesting. In a way, I went on a detour for six or seven years. From another perspective, this detour actually had a big impact on my work.

Monica Merlin: Who did you work for at the time?

Xing Danwen: I began work with a German magazine because of something else that had happened in my life – I had married a German man when I was twenty-six. He was not involved in art at all, though he was a kind of collector. He was an engineer for Lufthansa Airlines, doing maintenance for aircraft in China at a joint-venture company. I met him when he was buying my friend’s painting. We are still very good friends, but it was hard to live with him. It was just not right then. He was kind of crazy too because he said that being with me could make his dream come true, because he had wanted to become an artist. If I was with him, then he could be with art and he could also support me in being an artist.

Eventually, because we had a power struggle, I refused his support. I started working as a freelancer and eventually I made more money than he was making. I earned my independence and earned my pride as a woman. I think he really loved me, but at the same time he was kind of defensive and he started to threaten me talking about his mortgage and how he supported me and I could not accept it anymore. I said, ‘I need nothing from you’. In the end, he became a sort of mega-fan of mine. He really admired me – he saw how I had grown as an adult and a person. He liked me because he thought that I always had such a strong energy and will to do things.

I think my life in the 1990s was very complex. The marriage lasted for five years, but I left him after around two and a half years. I think from that experience I was able to have a good think about what a relationship is. I think I totally was not ready for a relationship when I married him, but he pushed so hard towards marriage. During that time, I was struggling as a freelancer. I started with no name until I became successful enough so that in my thirties I could buy my first apartment and my first car.

Monica Merlin: That was a very big achievement in the 1990s.

Xing Danwen: Not many women could afford their own cars and apartments. In the 1990s, my life was more about learning about myself, my potential and how I related to the world. I think I worked very hard on this until I was thirty years old, when I suddenly felt that I understood everything because I had already got my independence. So suddenly I was very clear about where I wanted to be. That is why I went to New York.

During the 1990s I observed a lot of artists going: my friends or the people in my pictures of the underground scene. I also helped the people from that scene a lot because of my English. I brought so many foreigners to visit them privately and translated for them. Those meetings were all underground and small, using private channels for communication. In the end, I was very pissed off and very hurt by the whole experience. After I started to work for myself and could no longer do the full service for the male artists as they requested, they started to be very nasty to me. That hurt me and lead me make the strong decision that I wanted be better than them. I did not want to be a small tiny lady who follows other artists and lives in their shadows. I especially did not want to be in those artists’ shadows and that is why until now, I have not really published the pictures of the underground art scene that I shot in the 1990s. I did not want to live in their shadows and I wanted to become a person in my own right. Now, I am ready to show these pictures, because nobody will think that the pictures happened because of them – those pictures are created by me and they were my own idea.

Monica Merlin: In the early 1990s, you did a series of pictures entitled I am a Woman. Listening to what you are saying now, it seems to resonate with the statement that you are making with that series of pictures. But there are different women in there as well.

Xing Danwen: Actually, that work is not a self-portrait, it is a portrait of other women. I used their faces and their physical appearance to represent my own inner questions. So it is not of me, but it is about me.

Monica Merlin: Were they friends or models?

Xing Danwen: They were friends, all kinds of friends. I was thinking very hard about the problems women experience during their lives. All those people in that series had different issues going on in their lives. It was a mix of things: love, sexuality, professional roles and social roles. Everything was mixed. All of these people had different issues and problems. I used these portraits to discuss these problems. I would say in the 1990s, my works were about the personal inner voice rather than commenting on society. I approached the external world from inside my own emotions and personal issues – even with the pictures of the underground art scene.

Monica Merlin: When did you release these pictures more publicly, the pictures you took in the East Village?

Xing Danwen: In fact I am working on the East Village ones. I now have between five and six hundred pictures that I am working with and that I have selected already.

Monica Merlin: I would not have thought there were so many.

Xing Danwen: The pictures are not only in the East Village – the East Village only lasted for one year. Why are there so many photos? Because my pictures included every underground scene in Beijing, or rather in China, but mainly in Beijing because there were so many there. From rock and roll, underground theatre, filmmaking and modern dance; to literature and fine arts. But fine arts is my own field. As a photo-journalist, I did not choose the subjects I photographed, but when I went on a shoot, I found the whole scene very interesting.

I was also trying to make money, so I did commercial photography as well. For example, when Rock Records in Taiwan was making CDs of several new Chinese pop or rock musicians, I was offered the job of doing the cover shots, so I had the chance to spend time with everyone from that scene. I think that was a crucial experience for me because while in one way I am very introverted, in another way I am full of curiosity and have a strong interest in adventures; it is kind of contradictory. I still have this problem, but I know that everyone has a bottom line like that. Those years being outside and able to explore things, they did not happen because I liked showing up in public, but because I needed to explore new adventures and subjects. That connected me to the whole world.

Now, I think somehow I have reached a certain stage that I enjoy very much being by myself quietly. I do not feel lonely at all and I do not think it is boring to be alone. I have so many things to do. At the age I am now, I find that I am more interested in exploring myself, thinking about my perspective on the world and on different subject matters. After all, the whole journey comes back to what I am.

Monica Merlin: Were there other woman photographers when you were freelancing as a photographer in the 1990s? Is there anyone you can think of?

Xing Danwen: There was one I was not really in contact with. In the West Village, there was a lady who studied at Renmin University. I know that she was an artist photographer too. Her husband is Shao Yinong. They work as a couple, making artwork together.

Monica Merlin: So it was very rare. How were people’s reactions when you went somewhere to take photos – maybe sometimes they expected a man and then you showed up? Or do you think that they were not surprised to see that you were a woman photographer?

Xing Danwen: They were sometimes surprised. For example, I was very interested in understanding filmmaking, because I like films very much. I proposed to the big German magazine Stern to do something on the fifth generation of underground filmmaking in China. I tried to find Chen Kaige. At that time there was no email, so I sent him a fax that I had written introducing myself and my goal for the project. And then he called me back and said, ‘Is Mr Xing there?’ I said I am Xing and he said, ‘Oh, it is a lady!’ and I said ‘yes!’ At that time there were simply not that many women, especially not women who could really work internationally and independently. Also, as a freelancer it was hard for me because I had no colleagues I could discuss business issues with. I did not know what was wrong and what was right, or how I should fight for my rights, so it was very difficult.

I started working with the German media because I went to Hamburg with my husband. In Beijing my first exhibition was with three other photographers who were more traditional – all three were men. The group show was held in Crown Plaza. So it was not in a gallery, but in the art salon inside the hotel lobby. This was in 1992. There was a major German photographer and he really liked my photographs and wanted to buy them. I do not know how much I sold them for, maybe just fifty US dollars. He wanted to buy some pictures for his friends as a gift so we got to know each other and he became my first photography connection in Hamburg.

I told him my dates for when I was going to Hamburg and he contacted PHOTONEWS, which is a non-commercial photography magazine. It was a quarterly magazine, run by a young couple, both photographers. They ran it as a non-profit, so they had total creative freedom. At the same time, they did a lot of commercial jobs to support the magazine and to get sponsors. Actually, this publication is still running today and has maintained this model, existing without too much of a commercial touch, so it is very nice. So this photographer put me in touch with these people, who also curate shows, discover new talent and publish interesting work. I had a first meeting with them and we talked for four hours. Before I left they decided to mount my first exhibition and also put my picture on their cover for the five-year anniversary issue. So that was very big – that was my first publication and it was a very big one!

Monica Merlin: How did you work and communicate with them? Would they come here to select the pictures or did you send them to Germany?

Xing Danwen: I sent the photographs to Germany. The German media liked to use my work firstly because Germans like the underground and anything that is not official, that is why they started with the Chinese avant-garde in the first place; secondly, they thought because I was a local, I could take pictures of subjects that a foreigner would not be able to access; and thirdly, of course because I am based here in China, I save them a lot of money. That gave me an advantage.

Monica Merlin: Also, because you can speak English you did not need anyone else to be an intermediary between you and them.

Xing Danwen: Yes, even though my English was not very good at that time. I had learned English without studying formally and also practiced English with foreigners who were not native speakers of English. In New York I was able to improve my English. Still, I think my English is only intermediate. I wish my English could reach a more literary level; my spoken English is fine, but my writing is only at the practical stage and I have not reached a literary level. When I write literature pieces I find that my words are totally boring with no excitement and I cannot do it very well.

Thinking about this time during the 1990s, my life was layered with multiple issues, all happening at the same time. That was why I did not really show the work A Personal Diary. I think it was because I had a big ego and wanted to be recognised and accepted by this male world. I think I had a certain pride and was fighting for fairness. In China the social ethic is that men and women are equal. But in fact it is not true. I would say this is not due to the social system, I think it is more a result of customs and traditions. Traditionally, women are always the ones who should support their husbands and be behind the scenes, so socially women are more devoted and willing to assist, whereas men want to be in power.

Monica Merlin: Did you feel you wanted to be in power?

Xing Danwen: I am not blaming all the men. I do not consider men my enemy. But I do request equality between men and women.

Monica Merlin: In the art world, do you think that there is still a difficulty in recognising women as good artists?

Xing Danwen: I think it is a very complicated issue. I think it is very much caused by social norms and, personally, I have a lot of difficulties regarding this subject. I have been trying to understand what the problem is. I would say that first of all, I am very alone in the Chinese art scene. I am saying that because other women artists in my generation all have relatives in the art scene. Their husband might be a curator, an art dealer or an artist. The men mostly go out to create social networks. Because these women artists are the wives or the girlfriends, or whatever, they can become a something and they have more reasonable access to the network so they can play a role within it.

As a single woman in this art scene, should I go out and hang out with all the men drinking at night? It is impossible and I will not do it. I think also there is the issue surrounding why a man might want to visit me in the studio and talk to me about art projects. Sometimes, when a man comes to me, it is not just to talk about my art, it might be due to another intention, for example, to get close to me; this has become an issue too. The young generation is now more international and independent, but for my generation, it is rare that someone’s English is good enough to speak directly to the outside world. All this makes it more difficult for me to be accepted by men.

Monica Merlin: So you do feel that there is a distance given the fact men do not understand your position and they do not include you?

Xing Danwen: No, first of all I think I am in a very special kind of position that does not fit into certain categories. That is also difficult. People like to help someone weaker, but they think I am so capable that I do not need to be helped. Often international exhibitions of a group of Chinese artists will be organised by the overseas museum initially, but they always have a Chinese curator in China to organise everything. In this case, I am often selected by the Western curator directly. All of this feeds into the problem. I think that Chinese men do not know how to work with me when I hold this kind of position, they do not know what to do with me, you know?

Monica Merlin: Could you talk about your work Sleep Walking?

Xing Danwen: Sleep Walking is very much related to the work I did previously. I made this work in New York during the time that I was doing my Master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts – Sleeping Walking was my degree project. I told you that I had gone to New York with a clear goal. I was not going to study, but the grant I was applying for was either for three months or two years. That was not really of an option but I thought it was important to stay there longer so I chose the longer one. I was very lucky to get a full grant and the school gave me free tuition so basically I was in New York for free, supported by a grant for two and a half years.

In New York I had a break from Beijing and some distance to review and look again at where I had come from. I am not originally from Beijing, but all of my struggles growing up and gaining my independence were in Beijing, so I already had a very strong relationship with the city. For me, Beijing is my real home. In New York I often remembered Beijing and at the same time I felt lost in the reality of the city. I felt like I had never left Beijing and that thought made me wonder where I was.

Another reason I started this work was because of an unforgettable experience in 1993, when I travelled to Paris for the first time. I applied for a visa to France when I was in Germany, but I was rejected. I had always dreamt of seeing all the masterpieces in person and I really longed to go to Paris. In Germany, a photographer friend who was going to visit his girlfriend in Paris said I could go in his car. No-one checked me at border control so I went through without a visa. I had a friend in Paris who was a novelist I had met on a trip to Tibet and he was my only connection. I told him I was going and he said I could stay.

We arrived in the early morning, before 5am when Paris was still dark and covered in grey streetlights. Coming from Germany, my first impression of Paris was that it was so dirty. My German friend took me to my friend’s home, I do not remember the address but I am sure that it must not have been a rich district as it was kind of crappy and dirty, with dark grey streetlights. I remember thinking that this was not Paris. My friend was a starving writer too and my experience as his guest was kind of weird. His living conditions were very poor and it was very cold. I was so lost – I could not find Paris in Paris! I felt much happier when I was in the museum standing in front of the masterpieces; I finally felt I was in Paris.

That was an interesting experience for me, being in Paris for the first time. The memories of that journey always came back to me, I did not know why I felt that way until I was in New York and I recalled the same kind of feeling there. I was thinking about how I could talk about this subject in a new work and so decided to make something along those lines for my graduation project piece. I learned a lot of new stuff at the School of Visual Arts, for example digital technology, video and moving images. I did a lot of things that I had never done before and it was a great opportunity for me at that time. I would say I came to New York as a nineteenth century artist and came out as a twenty-first century artist. I cannot work without computers now.

The idea behind Sleep Walking was to express those feelings which are often lost in reality. I wanted to create a scenario in which you are in a place, but you do not recognise it – that is why I called it Sleep Walking. In this work there are two components – one is visual and the other is audio. Both components play an equal role in the work. The visual part is all about New York and other Western places that I have visited. All the audio is recorded in China and Beijing. Both parts are on an equal level but presented differently through the use of different media. The audio does not correspond with the location shown in the visual, but the two places became interwoven with one another. Sometimes they came together and other times they came apart so you got lost in this kind of dreamy world. This also refers to other issues that I discovered when I started travelling to different countries. I found that development changes cities and erases identities. The international global standard creates many similarities between cities, which makes me feel lost.

Monica Merlin: Looking at Wall House, it is quite interesting that the four pictures show you and only you. Personally, when I look at it, although you are alone, I do not feel that you are lonely. Although there is a sort of solitude created by urban life, where it is difficult sometimes to forge relationships, I have the feeling that in most of the pictures you are in control of the space – you are alone, but you are not lonely. You probably feel empowered by your image in the moment in which you look at yourself in the mirror. Am I seeing it right?

Xing Danwen: Yes, because I think in that work in particular I wanted to explore the issues surrounding living alone. I am not crying over being alone; I am not complaining about being alone; I am not even making the comment that being alone is a problem. I feel that being alone is a natural fact in one’s life. So in this case I am talking about how to be alone. I think it is very much a part of my own life experience and practice. It is about how I learned to live alone happily.

In fact, when I did that residency, I initially had the idea to create a short film, but I could not carry it out because my time was too limited time. I ended up working with the same concept – to really explore loneliness and living alone ­– just using photography instead of film. I had these four photographs taken in that space, onto which I then digitally inserted a lot of elements. There was also an exhibition, which formed part of the agreement and eight artists had their shown there after the residence. I only presented four pictures and I did not have the video. That was really a big problem for me because I felt that the work was not complete and the whole idea was not there. I did not feel very proud of myself because something was missing in the work. After they published the book, they sent me the catalogue and my picture was on the cover. They said they all thought my picture was the best work and thought it was the most interesting out of the eight submissions.

The second exhibition was a group show with an Italian gallery in Beijing that no longer exists. It was called Marella and was located in the 798 Art District. The exhibition was either called Empty or Emptiness. I was not represented by them but they asked me if I would like to be part of the group show and I said yes. When they invited me, I had the urge to complete the work because I knew something was missing. I think it was at that moment when I had the idea to create the animation – I suddenly felt that the work was complete and I was totally happy with it.

Monica Merlin: It needed some moving images.

Xing Danwen: Yes. Interestingly, when these two media were mixed together it gave the idea a very interesting dimension. At the beginning, I had had an idea planned in my head of how it was going to end up. However, when the real project happened I created more than I had originally planned.

Monica Merlin: It is interesting as well to look at Urban Fiction. There are multiple characters and different narratives going on at the same time and the characters are mainly women. You used your own image in different situations, again in a part of a city or a neighbourhood that is mainly populated by women and where men are in a slightly weaker position; there is the guy who gets shot and a love scene too. I think this is really interesting, thinking about how women live within the urban space and how you can situate yourself and have agency within a specific environment.

Xing Danwen: In fact, I think the matter you have just raised is something I was not conscious of. This consciousness was already part of the making process for this work. I sold my work to a curator from the Netherlands, perhaps from the Photo Museum, I have forgotten. He said it was interesting – in all the pictures the women know exactly what they are doing, whereas the men’s actions are managed by the women. When he mentioned that, I started looking at it and it made me think that maybe it comes from my own consciousness.

Monica Merlin: Was it not intentional?

Xing Danwen: No. I think it is basically because I was making all the narratives from my own perspective. Of course, a lot of the narratives do not come from my genuine experiences, but they are part of my imagination, as well as being inspired from literature and films that I have seen. Many of the actions in the narrative come out of the clichés related to particular things. I was thinking about how to mix the stories and narratives in these pictures because the people were so small, so I chose particular actions that would capture all of my ideas. This was also because it was not a movie. A movie has a timeline and it is easy to create a narrative. I tried to simplify all these ideas into very particular actions.

Monica Merlin: Visually the narratives are very clear, for example, the homicide or the sex scene. They are not nuanced or subtle. Did you have any particular story in mind when you thought about the narratives? As you said, some stories may come from your own experiences and some may have come from your imagination. Did you actually have a story building up in your head while you were working on it?

Xing Danwen: There was a story, for example, in the suicide scene – the picture of the small office/home building with the lady standing on the top. One of my best girlfriends, who was a chief editor for Elle, jumped off a tower. Several other women, who I know but who were not close friends, have committed suicide by jumping off buildings. So this is part of my own experience.

In Urban Fiction No. 23 there is a woman who is pushing a man over the balcony to make him run away because her husband is coming back. That one really came from my imagination, but it is based on what I see: it is always the man having the affair and not the woman. So why not show a woman having an affair? The goal was to create all kinds of stories in different pictures according to the architectural space, to see what fits and in which combination. Some are very positive and some are very negative; some are more peaceful and calm. For example, there is a more colourful picture with three ladies who are each in their own room in a building. I think that is a positive depiction of single women living alone.

Monica Merlin: You did not want to represent them as lonely and miserable?

Xing Danwen: No, this work is totally fictitious but it is also a reflection of my own life.

Monica Merlin: It is a work that allows the audience to think about their own experiences and space, as well as the other possible narratives that are hinted at by the characters within the pictures.

Xing Danwen: I do not feel that I am really giving a clear comment or saying there is a problem. My method is just to create a conflict and put all the elements on the table so that the audience can participate in it and begin a discussion.

Monica Merlin: I have only seen them online and never exhibited. When you do the exhibition, how do you set the space?

Xing Danwen: I can show you – I have some pictures of them on display. Now you can only see two real pictures from the series, because the Victoria and Albert Museum has collected them. They had a show of contemporary photography and everything featured was related to fiction and reality. I really liked the show when I saw it in London. It was a show about camera-less photography: all these incredible photographs were created without a camera. It was so powerful, I regret not buying the catalogue.

In fact, many of my larger Urban Fiction pieces were bought by collectors in London. One was collected by a supporter of the David Roberts Art Foundation.

Monica Merlin: Yes, there are many very good photography exhibitions in London. How do you feel about the reception to your work within China?

Xing Danwen: I think people react to my work in interesting ways and there is not a lot of difference between China and the Western world. I have to say that I think with a professional audience there is no problem, but for an amateur Chinese audience, I think aesthetically, my work is not classical enough for their taste. From the art market, there is zero interest.

Monica Merlin: Really? I am surprised.

Xing Danwen: That is why I have never understood when people talk about the twenty-first century art market in Asia and in China. I say that I do not really know much about it, I only know about my own experience. I believe that, yes, people buy oil paintings, but I do not have any direct collectors in mainland China. Someone told me that a collector has my work, but that he or she has not bought it from me or from a dealer who has contact with me, so maybe he or she bought it at an auction. The Estella Collection collected a lot of my work and their intention was very good – they talked to the artists themselves and they had a very good curator who selected the work. The way they collected was on the advice of the curator, so they were building a very good collection. However, in the end it all fell apart and they just became pieces sold at auction.

Monica Merlin: So you think that the collector’s works came from that collection?

Xing Danwen: Yes, and it was really bad timing in terms of the auction. I am not an auction kind of artist, so my work is very reasonable in China now.

Monica Merlin: Those works were sold in auctions here in Beijing?

Xing Danwen: One time they were. Actually, it was a kind of fake auction. You know in China, artists view auctions as a kind of promotion. This is very weird. I am very critical of this kind of thinking and I normally avoid it, but one time I supported it because my friend from China Guardian auction house said he wanted to organise the first contemporary photography auction at Guardian. This kind of auction was very important to push the market into understanding how to collect photography and to educate collectors about what is good work. He had a list of big names. All my artist friends supported it. He asked me to participate. Because of my goodwill and the fact I also wanted to educate the market, I participated. The agreement was that they would arrange fake buyers, so that there would be no record of under-selling. They took two of my pictures. One was bought by someone that I do not know that they had arranged and the other one fell through. I became very angry with my friend – I tried to help him and he made a big mess of me!

Monica Merlin: Did anything happen in the end?

Xing Danwen: I think the auction did not really push things further along at all. Also, there are some photographers who have held shows in Beijing and who say they have sold a lot of photographs, but I am inclined not to believe them. I think they just want to ‘save face’. Sometimes I just doubt how much they say they sold it to the collector for – whether they sold at the price they were marketing it at, or if they gave a really big discount. Even Chinese museums do not really support artists, which makes me very disappointed.

The National Museum, for example, contacted me about collecting my work which made me very happy. But then an employee from the office called me and said: ‘We would really like to have these works but because we are such a prestigious museum, the artist will normally gift the work to us, but we are also willing to pay you some money.’ So I asked how much they would pay. They said they would only pay ten per cent of the asking price as an ‘honorary fee’. What a big discount! She said that all of the museums are like that. I said that I had had a lot of work collected by big museums internationally and no one else had asked for this kind of arrangement. It is kind of weird: if they gave me ten per cent then I would prefer to just give it as a gift, why should I ask for ten per cent? I think museums should support artists and selling work is how we earn a living. So I did not agree and that deal was not done. That is why if other artists’ works are collected by the National Museum or by other big state museums, then I do not believe that they really got paid at all.

Monica Merlin: Of course if you want to give a donation to the museum then you can do it, but I do not think that it is common practice for the museum to come to you and ask you to give it as a gift?

Xing Danwen: In China there are a lot of things that are incorrect. Art criticism is an example. Nothing is honest. I am totally against this kind of thing because it is a kind of corruption. Everybody is paid to write articles, but there is an issue surrounding how writers are paid. I do understand that writers have a hard time surviving in this expensive world, so of course magazines or publications should change the pricing system for how they pay writers. It is a cycle. But the writers also take advantage of it because they charge twice: they get paid by the publication and at the same time they charge the artist per word. They are all like that.

To give you an example, I have actually had my work on the covers of international publications several times, without even being informed by the editor. I simply did not know that they had put me on the cover. Whenever a publication came out, the Chinese artists or editors would ask me how much I paid for the cover and I would say that I only knew that they enquired about using the image for the article but I did not know that they would put me on the cover. Every time it happened it was a surprise to me.

I can tell you two stories that relate to this experience. One concerns Chinese Art, a magazine which is published by the People’s Literature Publishing House in Beijing. The chief editor was my schoolmate. He was in the year above me when I was doing my degree. He did two issues that relate to my work, one of which was about Chinese contemporary photography. He contacted me and said: ‘We would like to include you in this issue because you are important in contemporary photography.’ Later, he suddenly called again and said that they had chosen my picture for the cover. I said that was great, thank you and he said, ‘But you know you have to pay for it.’ I asked how much and he said however many thousands, I forget. I said that I did not do this sort of thing and did not want to start then, so maybe they should give this chance to another artist.

Then just a few days before they went to press he contacted me again and said, ‘The designer really thinks your picture looks better than the others on the cover so we would like to use your picture.’ I told him it was his decision as I did not want to pay for it. He then said, ‘Maybe you can buy some magazines from us?’ I said that if the magazine was good then of course I would buy copies; I would need them, so it would not be a problem.

Finally the deal was that I bought a lot of copies – quite a pile because I still have some! It was at least sixty copies of the magazine in exchange for the cover. There was another issue, this time about contemporary women artists. He contacted me again and said that they needed a picture – I said I could provide it for free. He then said they also needed an article. I said to him ‘If you are asking me for an article then I will need to pay for it, right?’ I refused. I also criticised him and said I did not want to start doing this. He was my schoolmate and we are still close. We can talk about our problems, so I was very straightforward. I told him that it was my principle and I could not make a special case for him. He came back again and said that without me the issue was incomplete because he needed someone working in photography and I was important in the world of women artists. I still said I could not do it and told him that as chief editor he has the right to invite a writer to write about my work. Why does he have to ask me to do it? He asked me which writer was good and I pointed him in the direction of someone.

In the end he spoke to Gu Zheng who is a really good writer. I do not have a personal friendship with Gu Zheng, but we know each other because he is a curator, writer and an artist. Gu Zheng wrote a very long article, about 1,000 or 2,000 words. But then there was another problem – how many pages did I want in the magazine? I told him it was his designer’s decision and he should not ask me! I thought it was very strange. He said that each page cost 3,000 yuan and that some artists had bought nine or ten pages. Wow – it costs so much to be published in this magazine! I said that if they insist on putting me in the magazine then I do not want to pay: you can put me on as small a portion of the page as you like, I do not care. In the end, he put me over two pages and, because all of the pictures were free, the photos covered the pages and he just left a small space for Gu Zheng’s article and only used 300 to 400 words of it.

Gu Zheng did not talk to me or even interview me, but after he finished writing he sent it to me. I was surprised when I read it because I suddenly felt like he understood me so well. I was very surprised and happy with it, but unfortunately the article was cut into small pieces. It was such a pity that there was no-one to publish such a good article so finally when another magazine wanted to feature my work I proposed this article. I told them that it was a very good article and I really liked it and that I thought he understood my work so well, but it was never published in full.

You should read the Chinese version. I am not such a good judge but people think that the English version is not written that well. Gu Zheng is not only good at criticism, he also has a beautiful writing style. When I read his Chinese I feel like he is talking from his heart and from his feelings. He does not analyse things in a dry way like other critics, you can feel the work’s blood, flesh and bones – it is warm and alive. The full Chinese version was published in a Taiwanese Chinese magazine called ARTCO. The English translation was published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Art.

There is another really nasty story. There is magazine called Art World, I think. A guy who worked there approached me saying they were organising an issue on contemporary photography and that they would like to invite me to be in it. I immediately asked if there was a fee involved and he said that they did not do that – ‘how could they do that as a publisher?’, ‘no way!’ and so on. So I agreed and he asked if anyone could write about me. I told him how in China art writing is kind of corrupted, in that the artist needs to pay a fee and we could avoid this by doing an interview. So we did an interview, which had no money issues.

Everything was going fine until one Friday night I received a long text message on my mobile phone from the publisher. He said that everything was ready but suddenly there was a money issue and everything was stuck at that point. He said that everything was at the printing house ready to go to press, but that he was talking to all the artists involved in the issue to get their support. When I received this message I just thought he was so stupid. I did not answer and then he called me on the following Monday. I said I had received his message but I did not know what to say to him. I told him that his process was wrong – you should ask for the money first, then do the work! He apologised and said it was not intentional, etc. He said he really needed everybody’s support because they had done so much work, blah blah blah. It was like he was kneeling at the door to beg for money and it made me feel very embarrassed. In the end I could not ignore him so I gave him half of the money he requested. This kind of story is quite terrible.

Monica Merlin: You must have felt quite trapped at that point.

Xing Danwen: Yes, that is true, in that moment I felt completely trapped. Even today I feel like a foreign Chinese artist living inside China. I feel like perhaps I really do not know how to engage with the Chinese art scene. I simply feel that it is difficult to know what to do. I do not know which way is right. It is very difficult. Sometimes I try to compromise and think maybe my approach should be like the saying ‘when in Rome’. For a certain period of time I kept thinking about what would happen if I kept living like this, would it become too difficult for people to accept me? I wondered about this for some time.

With regards to the relationship between my practice and the art market, I did not have this problem when I was in the West. I also did not have this problem when I was a ‘nobody’, because I had no market. But by being in the market, I started facing new questions and issues that I did not know how to deal with. This subject in particular is a Chinese problem – a kind of Chinese characteristic. My work started to enter the market about ten years ago, from 2003. In the beginning I had a lot of luck and attention from the art world internationally but it immediately created a lot of conflict. There were a lot of different problems.

I have been thinking about what I want to do, what I should do and what my ethics are: what should I oppose and what should I support? During this time there was the art market crisis, which I think somehow supported me. After the crisis, all of those crooks or unprofessional people immediately disappeared. They were the first to go. I suddenly enjoyed a quiet time in my career. Before I had been so busy with success and the different problems it creates, this distracted me and took my time and focus away from art. That quiet time gave me the opportunity to go back over my experiences and really make a decision about my future and what I wanted to do.

Monica Merlin: So now do you think you will show and exhibit some of the pictures you took in the 1990s?

Xing Danwen: Yes, I am preparing this. I hope to finish organising the picture files and adding clear captions by the Spring Festival and before I go to New York in February next year. You said it seemed like there was not much new work coming out these years. Besides my health issues, which take up a lot of time, I also have some personal things to do. In fact, it has taken me a lot of time to organise all my work for this upcoming publication, meanwhile I have also been working on scanning and re-touching the files. There are more than a thousand pictures and it really is a lot of work. The work I am doing on the photographs makes me feel quite introspective – it is like I am carrying out an examination of my past self. I have had a long time to think about my early works.

At the same time, I feel like I should have been making new works, but because I have too much going on and because I am working on old pictures, I do not have much time to focus on new work. But my thinking about the new work is very clear. I have become more mature and am better at dealing with the creative and thinking process. Often ideas jump into my head about everyday life and I am able to find the ‘click’ or inspiration which pushes the idea into something tangible that I want to do. I need to have this ‘click’. There are a lot of subjects you could do, but sometimes you do not find a personal connection and it is hard to make a decision on how you want to do it. The idea is always around you but you do not know when it will come out. It is like Urban Fiction. It did not happen because I had this idea in 2004 that became a work, it happened because I was always interested in this idea and suddenly I got a ‘click’ and something came out.

When the ‘click’ comes, I then to go through a process of experimentation, thinking about what to do and how to express this idea in a visual work. There are a lot of layers in this process. Sometimes you need to add to it and sometimes you have to reduce and simplify it. Other times you think it is too simple and you need to enrich it. I like my work to be very minimal, so while I am adding to it and I am also taking away from it, doing this back and forth until I finally complete this stage and I am where I want to be for the final piece. It is always like that. Often my interest meets my inspiration and finds its direction.

At that moment I find that the new work has to settle down, sink in and be stable for at least half a year. It is part of the process of making a work. I do not show a work until I have been back and forth, picked it apart, then come back to look at it again and felt ready to go for it. I have several new works that are ready to go. Next year I will fully release them.

Monica Merlin interviewed Xing Danwen in her studio in Beijing in November 2013.

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