Isaac Chong Wai

Performance, Politics, and Perception: The Art of Isaac Chong Wai

In the midst of a changing world, Isaac Chong Wai brings his unique artistic vision to the Venice Biennale. Born in 1990 and working between Berlin and Hong Kong, Chong’s art transcends borders, exploring themes of power and human vulnerability. Through various mediums like performance and photography, he captures the essence of our interconnected world. As he prepares for the Biennale Arte 2024, curated under “Foreigners Everywhere,” Chong’s work promises to inspire reflection and unite us in our shared humanity.

Memories seem to be a recurring theme in your work. I’m curious, are there any specific memories or moments from your childhood that continue to inspire your artistic process today.

In Hong Kong, it has been common for kids to learn art in some sort of centre. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I took drawing classes. I still vaguely remember drawing a stuffed animal resembling a rabbit, a mouse, and a monster. The tiny stuffed animal stood still in the center of the table while all the kids sat and drew in a circle of chairs. I patiently drew every hair on the stuffed animal. The teacher was amazed by my work. That was the first time I felt like a small famous artist. This practice of drawing has stayed with me. I often draw to articulate ideas. Meanwhile, I see drawing not only as using a pencil to outline a stuffed animal but as a gaze through which an object, a movement, or a feeling maintains its familiar form but is altered.

How do you manage to strike a balance between drawing from personal experiences and delving into broader conceptual explorations within your work?

Sometimes, certain personal experiences lead me to create works. In 2015, a stranger abruptly hurled racial insults and then bludgeoned my head with a glass bottle in Berlin. I went to the hospital afterward. In the same year, I was sexually assaulted by a man on the street in Berlin who forcefully kissed me at a tram station. I pushed him away, shouted at him, and ran away. I then remembered that I was in a running team in middle school. I ran fast. You know, it’s like the bad luck all show up at the same time without advanced notice. All these violent incidents happened in a blink; it feels like it’s less than a second of human interaction. The speed of violence makes me think, if there would be a way to slow it down through artistic practice.

I really needed to do something. I felt bad and useless. I then created a series of works looking into the moments of falling and if by any chance, support can be there when one falls. I don’t think my personal experience has to connect to broader conceptual explorations, but things often happen within a system. By looking into the problematic system, I imagine, through my artistic practice, and my imagination sometimes finds ways to resist those inherent violence.

How do you push against conventional limits of the body, both in terms of physicality and theoretical frameworks?

I would say that I imagine the impossible, and I question why it is impossible? For example, in Falling Carefully (2020), a sculptural piece, I created three copies of myself capturing a simultaneous fall. When the sculptures fall at the same time, they get stuck and freeze the moment of falling.

Sculpture has the quality of stillness. Integrating stillness and the collective body as a means to stop time and fall, I was interested in looking at the external forces that create the choreography of many fallen individuals in our societies and how falling myself, or “repeatedly” making myself fall could be a way to rehearse in order to prevent or resist dominant powers. It is impossible to duplicate myself in order to get some help (I wish I could) when dangers come, but it is important to know that I am not an individual who might encounter violence, but someone who can offer help when others are in need.

How do you manage the equilibrium between individuality and collectivity in your artistic expressions? 

It is an ongoing question. Sometimes it is a struggle, but oftentimes it is natural. In a video piece that I created, The Silent Wall (2014), I used my hands to touch the bullet holes in Sarajevo and later tuned the volume of the city’s sound from loud to silent in every clip, every wall that I touched. It was my first time seeing bullet holes in my life. I remembered seeing the memorial Sarajevo Rose where mortar holes were covered by red resin resembling a rose.

I was with other master students from MFA Public Art and New Artistic Strategies led by Professor Danica Dakić at the Bauhaus University Weimar. During this research trip, I listened to stories about the bullet holes and how local people perceive them. I questioned my presence in the traces of the war. I was not there, but I should remember.

It was clear to me that I wanted to do it myself as my personal approach to remember and archive all those “insignificant” bullet holes, according to many locals. While it seems personal, it does lead me to think in a wider context, especially about what it means when it comes to the idea of collective memory.

Could you elaborate on how you view the importance of physical space in your site-specific performances? Additionally, could you share which performance you feel best utilised or complimented the space in which it was held?

When present at a site, one cannot avoid its history and context. In 2015, I invited numerous people to stand as “memorials” and talk about their personal stories in a square named Weimarplatz (previously Gauforum). This square was built by Hitler with the intention of people gathering there to live out Nazi principles. The square has been renamed several times in history and was called “Hitler’s Square” by some. Nowadays, it is an empty green area that looks out of place in the city, as it is large and rarely visited. The dominance of history often neglects the voices of individuals, including those whose houses were destroyed to build this square. I wonder how our personal stories could weave our voices together and write a new collective narrative consisting of different moments in time that we share from the past, contrary to the dominated discourse which actively silences people’s stories. It was a very special performance. Many people came to my studio to share what they talked about during the performance. (During the performance, we couldn’t really hear what other people were saying, as each of us was at a distance, and when speaking, we couldn’t hear the others). Some people cried, and some complained about the weather (it was very hot). It was both personal and collective.

Do you perceive your work as primarily reflective or proactive in its engagement with social issues?

They are often a reflection of experiences. Sometimes, I perceive my work as an autonomous body, a free being. The audience encounters the “body.” Those emotions and reflections might shape how we engage with social issues, but they might not as well.

Which recent social changes and global phenomena have you tackled in your artistic endeavours?

I often feel powerless when confronting social issues. For example, the anti-Asian racism that has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are so many emotions and tensions in public spaces. These years, the world is full of tears, with many deaths and much suffering. The profound sadness is so close that it sometimes leaves me speechless. I am not an activist, but I find my own way to tell my stories and help others. I always say that I hope I can help, because I might or might not be helpful. Recently, I have been looking into how mourning could be a way to deal with the powerlessness that individuals hold in everyday life. 

In 2022, I worked with composer and singer Dagmar Aigner, who has been working with mourners for over a decade. Her voice heals me. I collaborated with her to create a two-channel video piece where one can see a group of performers moving in a circle while singing mourning songs and lullabies in a loop.

The title of the 60th edition of the Biennale, ‘Foreigners Everywhere,’ conveys a distinct message. How do you interpret the concept of being a foreigner?

It is a celebration, but also a struggle at the same time. Working at the Biennale, there were “foreigners everywhere.” I encountered artists, technicians, specialists, assistants, and curators from different parts of the world. We sat at the same table, ordered the same food and drinks. It was a big celebration of our encounters in Venice.

Being foreign sounds objective, but in my opinion, objectivity is always a lie. It is important to recognize differences. I often say that if we are all the same, we are not okay. No one is the same. If we do not point out the differences, we lose them. Being different, being foreign, is something beautiful.

As we look forward to the upcoming Biennale, I’m genuinely excited about the chance to witness your project in Venice. Could you please share more details about the project?

Falling Reversely (2021/2024) is a seven-channel large-scale video installation and performance created specifically for la Biennale di Venezia, “Foreigners Everywhere,” curated by Adriano Pedrosa. 

I conceived the work Falling Reversely in 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of my friends who are Asian diaspora living in the US and Europe, including myself, encountered verbal and physical assaults in public spaces. We shared our fear and told each other our stories, trying to find ways to protect ourselves and voice out against these attacks. 

Many individuals fall when an attack happens. Some of them were alone in public spaces. I then imagined, what if we could rewind those falling movements through artistic practice. This is an imagination possible in art but impossible in reality, as a fall cannot be reversed. 

I worked with Asian diasporic performers. We studied CCTV footage of Asian individuals who fell due to physical assaults in public spaces. In the large-scale video installation at the Venice Biennale, the screens are sometimes on and off, creating an immersive experience as if a performance or an event is taking place in the blink of an eye.

What upcoming projects or themes are you currently delving into in your artistic journey?

The past few years, I have been exploring how human interactions and emotions transform into bodily movements and materials. My current series of work is called Breath Marks. The idea originated from a video work of mine called Neue Wache, where I use my breath to leave traces on a window facing the memorial Neue Wache, in an attempt to cover/blur its image.

In the ongoing series Breath Marks (since 2022), I use my breath marks as a “paint brush” to depict images. In Breath Marks: Queen Elizabeth II and Crying Hong Kong Girl (2023), comprising a photographic print and a glass sculpture, I use my breath marks to depict an image circulated amongst Hong Kong social media, of a crying young girl holding a framed photograph of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

I believe I will continue following my works, as they always lead me to future projects.

In order of appearance

  1. Portrait of Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of Innsbruck International/ Mia Maria Knoll.
  2. Falling Carefully (2020) Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of Asia Society, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman Gallery.
  3. The Silent Wall (2014) Isaac Chong Wai. Video. 10’43’’. Video still. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  4. The Silent Wall (2014) Isaac Chong Wai. Video. 10’43’’. Video still. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  5. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Venice Biennale 2024. Photography by Atsushi Kakefuda.
  6. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Venice Biennale 2024. Photography by Atsushi Kakefuda.
  7. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Video still by Isaac Chong Wai, Julia Geiß and Lana Immelman. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  8. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Video still by Isaac Chong Wai, Julia Geiß and Lana Immelman. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  9. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Installation view. Photography by Riccardo Banfi. Courtesy of Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  10. Breath Marks: Queen Elizabeth II and Crying Hong Kong Girl (2023) Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

Ai Weiwei

Navigating Through Life 

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) is undoubtedly one of the most influential and fearless voices of our time. In a world where the right to express oneself is often taken for granted, Ai Weiwei’s unwavering commitment to this cause emerges as a clarion call to create inclusive spaces where every voice is respected and cherished.  “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”. A statement followed through by the immense outspoken nature of what Ai Weiwei’s body of work testifies to be. As he beautifully puts it in this interview, without free expression, we lose our expressive uniqueness, “akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky.” Ai Weiwei’s art transcends mediums, seamlessly merging with activism in works like Remembering (2008) and Human Flow (2017) where he sheds light on the plight of refugees, compelling us to take action and empathize with those in dire need. 

His exploration of cultural heritage, craftsmanship, and the value of everyday objects in his latest exhibition at the Design Museum in London serves as a testament to his enduring commitment to preserving our shared history. Our conversation with Ai Weiwei also delves into his relationship with technology and social media, illuminating the complexities of online engagement in a world marked by censorship and rapid change. He offers his perspective on the evolving role of design in contemporary society and reflects on his deeply personal connection to the objects he collects. 

In this interview, Ai Weiwei also delves into how his journey with his father, Ai Qing, not only shaped the man he became but also paved the way for the unique connection he shares with his son. Standing at a crossroads of generational wisdom and personal growth within the complexities of parenthood, identity and the world he envisions for the next generation, Ai Weiwei finds himself tasked with the delicate balance of imparting the lessons of his past without allowing them to cast a shadow on his son’s future.

Ai Weiwei shares not only his artistic vision but also his unwavering commitment to the values of human rights, freedom of expression, and the enduring power of art as a force for change.

Jade Removille: Ai Weiwei, it is a pleasure to be able to have you as part of this upcoming issue. Where are you now? 

Ai Weiwei: I am in London at the moment, but my residence is in Portugal.

Jade Removille: On your website’s homepage, the powerful statement “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”, urges society to create inclusive spaces where everyone’s voice is respected and honoured, reinforcing the notion that self-expression is not just a privilege but an essential aspect of our shared humanity. As an outspoken dissident artist and a fervent activist for human rights, could you delve into how significant self-expression is to you? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for your insightful interview question and for taking note of my comment on free expression. Free expression is often perceived as a core element of human rights. In a deeper sense, without free expression, each individual loses their unique attribute that belongs to them. If such circumstances prevail, our society would be robbed of its expressive features, akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky. Such a world is indeed a daunting prospect.

Free expression facilitates our ability to perceive the world as an extension of our senses and emotions, enabling the manifestation of our unique perspectives. It is through this individualized articulation that we can truly appreciate the richness of human nature and the value of our shared humanity. 

In my view, free expression is not exclusive to artists or to those who construct foundational thinking paradigms. Rather, it is the most crucial element that defines us as human beings. Stripping away the right to free expression is perhaps the most damaging action against individuals, as it strips away their very essence.

Jade Removille: Has your sense of belonging to China been undermined since your exile in 2015? Have you found your oasis of peace? Do you see a future in which you would come back?

Ai Weiwei: My sanctuary of serenity resides solely within my heart. Much like a diligent gardener, I continually tend to my personal thoughts and expressions, nurturing them so they can flourish. It would be accurate to describe me as a person without a homeland. From my birth, my father was deemed an enemy of the state, so I grew up in exile within my own country during my early years.

Subsequently, I embarked on a journey abroad, having lived in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Portugal. None of these places can be referred to as my hometown. My maternal language is Mandarin Chinese, which makes my existence in these foreign lands akin to navigating life with a disability, relying heavily on body language and gestures to barely communicate. Nevertheless, I am profoundly grateful to these countries for providing me with opportunities to engage with issues that matter to me and to remain active.

Jade Removille: At 15 years of age I was introduced to your work through the Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern (Kui Hua Zi, 2008), and it left a lasting impression on me. I remember my parents and I were utterly amazed by the meticulous craftsmanship of the seeds, their delicate nature, and the sheer scale of the installation, which was difficult to fathom.  In an interview for Tate, you mentioned that sunflowers symbolised the revolution, providing both spiritual and material support for the people. The immense quantity of seeds created for Tate Modern was unimaginable, yet you accomplished it. Witnessing such a meaningful installation also benefiting and providing employment for the hundreds of artisans involved was truly moving.  Could you talk more about this work? Did you plan on the installation to interact in a specific way with the location and the visitors? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for sharing your experience of encountering this artwork as a teenager. I must confess that I also first saw this installation in its entirety at Tate Modern. At that moment, my feeling was the same as yours. 

When an artist embarks on creating an artwork, it begins merely as a concept. The particular characteristics of this concept were its grand scale and voluminous nature. What is more important is that these 100 million sunflowers were each meticulously painted by hand by 1,600 women. These women, dedicating two weeks of their lives to this project, rendered it almost a religious activity of a kind of daily expression. The sunflower seeds are the embodiment of their craftsmanship.

In Jingdezhen, the town of these women, this is their tradition as well as a means of survival. Concurrently, their straightforward task of painting sunflower seeds encompassed a profound sense of interest and engagement. This imbued me with a feeling of the enduring power of art. It doesn’t simply draw people’s attention, but its creation is also a testament to the investment of time, the grandeur of volume, and the concerted labor of many hands.

Jade Removille: I would like to address your practice as an architect. You used to run FAKE Design with which you realised 60 projects. FAKE closed down shortly after the Olympic ceremony for which you had designed the Bird’s Nest’s stadium in collaboration with Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. Your involvement in this project helped to shape its iconic and innovative structure. You brought to architecture, the humanity it needed but you have mentioned before that you had had enough of it. Why does this medium not suit you anymore? 

What was your very first architecture project? 

Ai Weiwei: My first architectural project occurred before I even recognized it as such. It was when my father and I resided underground, in a ‘diwozi’, devoid of electricity and water. Our bed was merely a platform left from the excavated earth, topped with straw. Our only source of natural light was a small window above. Occasionally, pigs would pass by, sometimes partially sinking through and hanging halfway from our ceiling before scampering off in panic. That was our reality.

Amid these circumstances, I needed a place for a lamp. We carved a small square hole, around 20cm high and 30cm wide, where we placed our oil lamp. This humble hole, dictated by the constraints of our environment, has left a strong impression on me. I hadn’t realized it then, but it embodied an essential element of architecture: providing solutions for our fundamental needs in the most basic ways. Such solutions can range from a modest hole for an oil lamp to a colossal stadium meant for an entire nation.

The year we completed the National Stadium was also when I decided to abandon architecture. I came to realize that the application of architecture wasn’t based solely on individual desires but could be manipulated as a tool for national propaganda. I felt a sense of regret for our work. Despite creating an ambitious and unparalleled piece of public architecture for Beijing, its usage contrasted starkly with our original aspirations. It became a symbol of power projection and a mechanism to sideline individual existence. That’s why I chose to step away from this highly politicized practice.

Jade Removille: Intensity, care, resilience, memory and recovery in the face of immense destruction are recurrent threads in your work. With Remembering (2009) at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, Germany, 9,000 backpacks were arranged to display a quote in Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world. Each backpack in the installation represented a life lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, particularly the young students who perished due to the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings.

In your 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, you had created a striking and thought-provoking installation using 90 tonnes of steel bars salvaged from the debris of the earthquake. Each steel bar was meticulously straightened by hand, a labor-intensive process that imbued the artwork with an additional layer of meaning and significance. 

Through your work I sense that part of your message is conveying the indomitable spirit of affected communities and their ability to rebuild. How do you think governments could be held more accountable on systemic issues and what is our role in this? 

Ai Weiwei: My focus on straightened rebars as artworks emanates from a deeply personal place, as they are connected to the lives tragically lost during the 2008 earthquake. Uncovering their names and identities became a necessity. Yet, such simple and concrete facts can often be brushed aside and forgotten in some societies. In my view, neglecting our shared memories and disavowing our communal sense of guilt for the disasters of the past render us accomplices in evil. Consequently, if we believe in our right to seek freedom, expressing human rights equates to our duty and obligation to remember those who have been hurt and forsaken. Such endeavors serve to constantly remind us not to devolve into beings devoid of feelings and a sense of justice. The recollection of past experiences, the understanding, and empathy require a language and means of expression. My artworks are an exploration for such a language.

In terms of whether my artworks strive to hold governments accountable for disaster management, I feel that I have failed. My artworks only represent what I, as an individual, can accomplish, in tandem with those who resonate with my cause. They do not appeal to the government, which is not a single entity but a complex mechanism operating on the principles of bureaucracy and power. More often than not, the governmental understanding of human life and rights stands in stark contrast to our own. This dichotomy underscores the necessity for every individual to voice their perspectives.

Jade Removille: You touch upon interconnectedness of life and art, how art is about life and its reality. Art becomes a means of activism. Human Flow (2017) your film about the refugee crisis is a poignant call for action. Had you always thought about the role of art or the role of an artist in this way? How far do you take art as a means of activism?

Ai Weiwei: My interest in the refugee crisis stems not from the principles of activism, but from my desire to comprehend the world more deeply. When I left China in 2015, my understanding of global issues was rudimentary, superficial even. I needed a pressing international event to deepen my insights. Consequently, I immersed myself in the refugee issue over the following years.

I traveled to numerous countries, visited countless refugee camps, and conducted interviews with hundreds of refugees and the volunteers aiding them. These experiences culminated in several films and provided me with an understanding of the political landscape in the context of globalization. Whether as an individual, an artist, or an activist, the labels don’t matter. What truly counts is how I use my limited time to acquire a comprehensive and balanced understanding of humanity as a collective and the world in which we reside.

The formation of such understanding requires the assistance of both activism and art. Without activism, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to engage firsthand and experience these situations deeply. Without art, my involvement wouldn’t find an adequate channel for expression and release.

Jade Removille: You place great value in the past and artefacts and throughout the years you have researched history, ideologies, materials and artistry. Within your work there is an embrace of the handmade and reverence for craftsmanship in an era in which automation and mass productions are revered.  What does destruction of cultural heritage mean to you?

Ai Weiwei: Humankind is hurtling at an unprecedented pace towards accepting new realities, a process that demands the hefty price of forgetting our roots and striving to erase our most innate attributes. These original attributes encompass our need to employ our hands in work and our feet to gauge distances – aspects now largely replaced by technology. Consequently, we no longer actively use our hands as we once did. Our hands, once vital and irreplaceable extensions of our creativity and thinking, thus becomes disconnected and irrelevant to our struggles and understanding of the world.

In this light, human nature is evolving because the functions of the human body are changing. This leads to shifts in human logic and language. It is why I persist in believing that we must retain these basic abilities – not only do they ensure our survival, but they also imbue our thought processes with meaning.

Jade Removille: Your new exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense at the Design Museum, London explores the value of everyday objects, from ancient stone-age tools, fragments of pottery from your Beijing studio (which was demolished by authorities in 2018), as well as an impressive collection of approximately 100,000 ceramic cannonballs and 200,000 broken spouts from teapots or jugs. You have said we are products of our time, giving new interpretation based on their own knowledge. What does design mean to you in relation to our time now?

Ai Weiwei: Whether intentional or not, design has always primarily been a reflection of one’s identity, and subsequently, it communicates our collective identity to others. To truly comprehend who I am and who we are, we must delve into our understanding of history, our origins. It is only by acknowledging where we come from that we can grasp our present state. As for where we are headed, that remains uncertain.

What we possess are the history and memories that have shaped us, the processes that have defined our identities. Our understanding and recollection of history, our awareness of various conflicts and contradictions, these are indeed what will form the foundation for who we might become in the future.

Jade Removille: What was the first object you consciously decided to collect and why?

Ai Weiwei: In fact, I’ve never regarded myself as a collector. In the society where I grew up, there was no private property or personal ownership; everything we possessed, including our thoughts and individual actions, belonged to the state, to be assessed by its standards. The only possessions I could call my own were my early memories.

Upon my return to China, I found many items that I deemed valuable casually for sale in markets and on display, without anyone paying much attention. These items included Neolithic stone axes, spouts, and porcelain balls. My impulse to collect them stemmed from the belief that the sheer volume of my collection could serve as tangible proof of our collective disregard for our own history and the values it embodies. It reflects our blindness to the foundations of our existence.

Jade Removille: All this materiality and collectibility contrast highly with a sense of having survived at some point with nothing but yourself, your mind and your health. How has your self-perception in relation to the collective evolve after remaining isolated in secret detention for 81 days, in 2011?

Ai Weiwei: We arrive in this world bare, and equally bare shall we depart from it. All our collections merely signify our deep affection for the people and things in this world, or perhaps, a certain curiosity. However, these are attachments we can’t carry with us in birth or death. They are public resources, yet under many circumstances, they must be understood and curated by individuals.

When I was secretly detained, my loss was not simply of the items I had collected. Instead, I was deeply affected by the reality that everything lost its meaning because I was isolated and could not communicate or exchange with others. This included memories, which also lost their significance, as they are resources meant to be shared and utilized by the public. That’s why I embarked on writing my memoir immediately after my release, even though it took almost a decade to complete.

Jade Removille: Which specific places in the world have had a profound impact on you and left a lasting mark? How have these places helped position yourself in relation to the collective? 

Ai Weiwei: To be frank, my travels have taken me to many places, driven by work or personal curiosity. Yet, the place that has had the most profound impact on me is one I hadn’t appreciated for many years – the ‘diwozi’ where I moved in with my father as a child. Out of all the places I have lived, the ‘diwozi’ holds the greatest significance. It was there that I came to understand common human nature, the value of things and political idealism, which has enabled me to stay alert and aware to this day.

Jade Removille: As a keen user of technology and social media, to which extent do you think you are reaching a level of connectedness with your audience? Do you feel more free online? 
In these recent days we have been seeing the introduction of a new social media platform. Will you be using Threads?

Ai Weiwei: In my time in China, I initially believed that social media could help us overcome communication difficulties, censorship, and restrictions on expression. However, my experiences soon revealed the absurdity of such a notion. Today, social media in China operates under severe political censorship, leading to a limited form of expression. It manifests as a peculiar form of media—altered by power, favoring entertainment over depth, serving as a platform that lacks profound expression. In the West, social media isn’t entirely free either. It’s akin to a bustling disco, where the clamor, the overarching melody, and the rhythm still dictate the overall environment. I don’t perceive social media as a medium for deep thinking. Its real strength lies in serving as an information channel and fostering a diversity of expression. It enables us to experience a time, unimaginable prior to its advent—a time imbued with mythical connotations, feelings, and expression. As for its impact on societal development, I believe it merely accelerates society’s existing trajectory. Be it politically or economically ascendant or descendent, social media hastens the pace.

I’m not familiar with Thread; I’ve only recently heard of it. My requirements for social media are akin to my needs from a pair of shoes. I wouldn’t purchase a new pair simply because it’s available, not until my current pair is beyond use.

Jade Removille: Which other artists inspire you?

Ai Weiwei: In my younger years, I found inspiration in Duchamp, the artist who shattered the barriers of conventional thought. Alongside him, I regarded Andy Warhol as a pioneer in the realm of communication and artistic expression.

Jade Removille: What does process mean to you and what does the finalisation of a project bring to you? 

Ai Weiwei: To me, process signifies everything. Life, from birth to death, is a continuous process. The completion of one project merely marks the inception of another. Until our final breath, nothing is ever truly finished.

Jade Removille: Looking towards the future, which current projects are you working on? What do you wish to learn more of? 

Ai Weiwei: First and foremost, I don’t believe I possess a future. I don’t hold any grand ideals or ambitions either. My desire is simply to navigate through life with greater serenity and tranquility.

Jade Removille: Finally, the theme of this issue is Personal Investigation. In your memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, 2021, you delve into your personal experiences and shed light on the events that unfolded in your life and that of your father, Ai Qing, a significant figure in Chinese literature. Drawing parallels between your own journey and that of your father, who faced challenges in his time, you were also finding yourself a father to a two-year-old son. Considering this context, could you share your reflections on the intergenerational impact of personal experiences and how they shape your role as both an artist and a father? How do you navigate the complexities of your own life while also contemplating the kind of world you want your son to inherit?

Ai Weiwei: When my father was alive, our father-son relationship was largely unfamiliar to me. I bore the brunt of the calamities my father brought upon our family as a writer and thinker; these adversities were shouldered by us all. Our relationship was always fraught with complexity. My father never envisioned us becoming a thinker or artist, mainly because it was evident that such individuals often brought immense hardships to their families. As I strove to extricate myself from these political chains, my efforts persisted for decades. Throughout this time, I never considered starting a family or having a child. However, when my son turned two and I was secretly detained, I began to realize that my understanding of my father was quite limited. I also acknowledged the responsibility I had towards my son, namely, the obligation to pass on what had transpired between my father and me. This was necessary because there was always a risk that I could perish at any moment, and it would be a shame if I didn’t fulfill this duty. The relationship I had with my father shaped the one I have with my son. I don’t want him to be influenced by me at all, as he will face a time and lessons utterly different from my own. However, I also don’t want him to forget his roots. My son is now 14 years old, and I must carefully consider how to prevent my experiences from negatively influencing him.

Images

  1. STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE: TIANANMEN SQUARE, 1995-2011
  2. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova
  3. WEIWEI CAM, 2012 DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN, 1995 (1)(2)(3)
  4. GLASS HELMET, 2022
  5. MARBLE TAKEOUT BOX, 2015
  6. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova

    All artwork images courtesy of the artist

Yuji Watanabe

Team

Photography · Yuji Watanabe
Styling · Remi Kawasaki
Hair · Yuki Yanase
Makeup · Anna Misawa
Model · Tsugumi at Donna Models

Designers

  1. Outer YOSHIOKUBO, dress LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN, blouse TORO, collar 333 STUDIO and shoes RICK OWENS
  2. Dress and blouse OTOE, blouse LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN
  3. Top and Skirt RICK OWENS, blouse LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN and collar 333 STUDIO
  4. Dress and Blouse LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN, race blouse OTOE, corset vintage, glove RYO TOMINAGA and shoes RICK OWENS
  5. Dress and Race blouse LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN, corset Vintage and skirt YU TANAKA
  6. Dress ALAÏA and collar vintage
  7. Dress and Crinoline CHIKA KISADA, blouse LITTLE TRIP TO HEAVEN and shoes RICK OWENS

Sun Woo

The Trip, 2022

Exploring the intersection of technology and the human experience

Sun Woo (b. 1994, Seoul, South Korea) is a visual artist whose work embodies the intersection between two cultures and generations, and the way technology can inform and transform artistic practices. Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Sun Woo migrated to Canada around the age of ten and despite the challenges of being an immigrant, the experience of growing up between two cultures has deeply informed her identity and artistic practice, especially in a time of rapidly shifting technological landscapes.

Her compositions evoke traditional paintings with a precision almost only possible digitally. By integrating digital tools into her practice and merging them with analog approaches reflecting the generation and cultures in which she grew up, Sun Woo explores the intersection of technology and the human experience. Her work reflects the sense of in-betweenness that characterises the contemporary experience and questions the location of the body in today’s technology-filtered reality.

Sun Woo discusses with NR her upbringing, her creative process and the messages behind her recent exhibitions. She explores how her experience growing up between two cultures has influenced her work, why she chooses to use a combination of traditional and digital techniques, what she hopes to convey through her art and her perspective on the merging of cultures and technology in contemporary art.

You were born and raised in Seoul, South Korea but left for Canada around the age of ten. What are your earliest childhood memories there after migrating? How did those two places aliment your desire to create and paint?

When did you start creating? When did you realise this was something you wanted to pursue?

Moving to Canada was not an easy experience as I had to leave my life at home behind and adjust to a completely new environment. Even in the company of friends, I constantly felt alone and never fully understood, which naturally led me to seek other things that could help fill these holes. These first became movies and magazines rented from my aunt who ran a small variety store in town, and later on, new devices such as computers and online platforms began to emerge. They allowed me to remain connected to my community in Seoul, but the physical distance still made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere.

“I think this kind of upbringing and the sense of groundlessness strengthened my desire to create and paint, as it gave me a voice that was free linguistic and cultural barriers.”

When I moved to New York to attend college, I began to pursue my practice more seriously. Placing myself in a community of artists triggered me to dive into art making as something I’d like to continue to pursue. So after receiving my degree, I moved back and got a studio in Seoul, which is where I’ve been based since then.

What would you say has been most impactful from the merge of these two cultures? Is there one you feel more strongly attached to?

Your compositions evoke traditional paintings but with a precision almost only possible digitally. Airbrushing, hand painting, photoshop are some of the traditional techniques and digital tools you use for your artworks. Why have you chosen those? How do you think technology and analogue coexist together?

I think both my identity and practice have been heavily informed by the experience of growing up in between two cultures and generations. Being an immigrant in a time of rapidly shifting technological landscape allowed me to reach my homeland any time through the screen, while staying physically tied to the cultures of a foreign country. At first, it was difficult since I was born before these devices were introduced and had to teach myself how to utilise them. But they gradually became an intimate part of me, both as a friend and a channel into the world beyond physical bounds. This experience naturally led me to integrate digital tools into my practice, merging them with analog approaches as a way of talking about the generation and cultures in which I grew up. Through this process, I also wanted to reflect on the time that we’re living in, the sense of in-betweenness that comprises a large part of the contemporary experience.

“I often find that my identity bears resemblance to today’s digital images — the way they wander without an anchor.”

Circuit of Requiem, 2022

On one hand, I think this sense of empathy drives my urge to take these images out of the screen and ground them in the physical space of a painting. Because I imagine them as virtual bodies floating in the online environment, the process of distorting and augmenting them on Photoshop reflects my interest in exploring the transformative aspect of contemporary body, fostered by its increasing interaction with technology. By bringing them out of the web, giving them a tangible form through bodily labor, and putting them back on the Internet, I’m trying to question the location of today’s body — including my own — especially after much of our activities have transitioned into the digital sphere after the pandemic.

Could you tell us about your show ‘Memory of Rib’ curated by Jeppe Ugelvig with a special screening of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Mouth to Mouth (1975) and your show ‘Invisible sensations’ at Carl Kostyal in Milan in May 2022? What were the messages behind these exhibitions?

‘Memory of Rib’ was a show that brought together a group of artists whose works evoke or deal with the idea of corporeality. It explored concepts like the body’s instability, limitations and contingency by looking at the ways in which it interacts with today’s technology and sociopolitical landscape, while also thinking about how we detect and identify with images of the flesh seen in commodities and media. It included a diverse range of artists in terms of age, sexual identity and cultural background, especially with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose work from 1975 provided a historical anchor to which younger generations of artists could contribute their discourse.

The works that I presented in the show, titled Silent Companions and Baggage, developed from my research on prosthetics and medieval armours and weapons — tools that have evolved to complement physical weaknesses and came to function as literal arms, legs, and skins of an individual.

“Weaving these histories with the relationship between today’s body and technology, I tried to construct compositions in which the organic intersects or collides with the mechanic to become something transcendental.”

Through images like melting meat-candles and strapped rock-flesh, I tried to address how it feels to be a body in a digitally mediated world, which at once “enhances” you and nurtures your feeling of insufficiency.

‘Invisible Sensations’ was my solo show that opened earlier that year, and it also dealt with the emotions and sensations related to inhabiting a technology-filtered reality. It included paintings and 3D-printed sculptures that evoke body’s limits, vulnerabilities, and struggles to resist their mortal fate, as well as social constraints that continue to oppress the female and coloured body. Images of my own body parts, including medical scans that I carried with me at the time to treat a prolonged illness, were collaged with elements that allude to mechanical presence, becoming fragmented, reconstructed, and translated into otherworldly beings. Through this convergence, I tried to look into the fragility and endurance of today’s bodies and question the extent to which their unification with technology can liberate them or transform the atmosphere they inhabit.

Diligent Heart, 2022

How is the process usually for you when putting together a solo show?

In my past interviews, I’ve revealed that I collage images via Photoshop. But even though my works are presented as images, they actually begin with text. From stories to dissertations, various sources of written materials provide inspiration for my work. Despite this, I am interested in creating something that can only be communicated by being in the presence of my works — something that is to be experienced and surpasses the written language.

“Paintings are not simply re-enactments or something that fits perfectly into an existing theoretical frame, but they are a result of materials that I channel through my own body and create to evoke a response that cannot be fully harnessed by rationality.”

Sometimes, the exhibition space also determines what I decide to paint, even when it’s a white cube. It is important to me that the works speak to the space and vice versa, and that the work is presented in a way that reinforces the viewing experience. As a result, I tend to spend a lot of time contemplating on such a dynamic, which often determines the work’s size and form.

Detail crops from The Crimson Letter (Triptych), 2022

 Your work also interrogates Korean societal desires and more specifically the ways in which female bodies are viewed and represented. Could you talk more about that? How do you think gender roles and stereotypes surrounding being a woman in Korea, will evolve?

Because my practice interrogates today’s social condition and technological landscape through the lens of my own psychological and bodily experience, many of my works are inevitably tied to my identity as a Korean woman. In result, they often speak to the experience of being a female body in both online and offline environment, as well as a body inhabiting two different cultures.

In addition to my painting practice, I’ve also been working on a project called Dadboyclub with an artist and friend, Sangmin Lee since 2021. Dadboyclub, to both of us, is a platform to channel issues specifically regarding the experience of being a woman. For the first iteration of our project, we exhibited virtual ‘products’ that each house a story about womanhood. Objects like an inflating, studded baby pacifier that obstructs a woman’s throat, or a ‘flower’ with a rolling eye that detects and destroys hidden-cameras with automated spears, reveal the conditions and violence women may experience in society through a long-winded joke. These products do not actually exist, in real life nor as NFTs — so they cannot be sold — which was an important aspect of this ‘virtual store,’ which was also a commentary on how female narratives embodying pain are consumed as entertainment online or through popular media. 

Sinkage, 2022

Absurdity is a driving force of this practice, as we navigate the ways we can express our discontent with inequality as well as emotional pain that is regarded as superfluous. Whether it be a small feeling from a failed relationship, to discovering violence embedded in the myth of Psyche and Eros — Dadboyclub re-situates women’s stories, old and new, revealing a prickling truth of reality that was often disregarded as minute and obsolete. We believe the personal is political. 

There have been some progressive developments over the past few years regarding gender issues in Korean society. There has been a change of perspective regarding parenting and housekeeping especially, which have been regarded as female duties up until very recently. More women are speaking up about sexual violence and trauma, which have been looked down upon before the Me Too Movement in Korea. But at the same time, there still remains a local issue of victim-shaming and the taboo of publicly claiming yourself a feminist, grounded in the society’s age-old history of Confucian patriarchy.

“Discussions regarding female equality are voiced more often, but with the growing polarisation between a progressive agenda and right-wing counter-movements — which seems to be a global phenomenon — the backlash hits harder, making it difficult to gauge whether we are moving forward or simply repeating the past.”

Which other mediums and tools would you like to explore? Would you consider using AI systems such as DALL·E?

Actually, my current practice already involves AI in a way, since I often use images that are fed to me by my search engine and social media — which, after analysing and machine-learning my interests, provide me with new sources. In this sense, I often allow my devices to become the agent rather than controlling all aspect of the process, and the resulting work becomes a joint product of these voluntary and involuntary selections. Even so, I sometimes find new programs like DALL-E quite haunting. How do artists justify their practice when AIs actually produce artworks on behalf of them? What new roles are we to take on?

Detail crop from Diligent Heart, 2022

There is a certain longing for the 2000s in your work. Is there any recent pop culture events that has marked you? What are some of your favourite music albums and films?

I think my works embody a sense of longing and empathy in general, not only for the 2000s but also an older past or even the future. They sometimes long for a certain time, place, or person that I’ve physically experienced but also ones that I haven’t. I find this faux-nostalgia, a longing for a time that I do not know, to be an interesting cultural phenomenon that I also engage in. In this sense, the convergence of the physical and virtual plays not only into the process and medium with which I work, but is also echoed throughout the narratives and depictions that drive the work.

No-landing Flight, 2022

How do you feel our hyper consumption of media is shaping us? Do you think we risk to lose ourselves if less time is spent on building connections or do you think it is an inherent part of shaping our identity?

In this new age of technology, how do you ground yourself?

I also find it hard to navigate a time like this, where you’re seeing so much and being surrounded by so many people, especially through social media. From a certain angle, I feel like the world seemed much smaller when we were less connected, as it gave each of us more presence and weight. Now it seems to be the other way around. Our sense of importance seems to dwindle as we become exposed to the lives of so many strangers and ours constantly displayed alongside theirs. We’re endowed with more options of things to see and people to meet than ever, but simultaneously, we also become one of those options as well. These are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately, and how do I ground myself in an age like this? I still don’t have an answer to that. 

Dadboyclub, Camouflower, 2022. Website

 What was the first piece of art you saw that left an impression on you?

Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois were among the very first, and they still continue to inspire my practice. 

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of the artist and Carl Kostyál Milan, London, Stockholm.

Ziyu Wang

Credits

Photographs · Courtesy of Ziyu Wang

Remi Wolf

“At times it did feel like a bit of an overshare, but in the end I’m happy that I ended up telling my story.”

Following the release of her debut album, Juno, on 15 th October, I caught up with Californian singer, Remi Wolf, over Zoom. It’s early in the morning when we speak, but Wolf is excited to tell me about the photoshoot for NR. “There were loads of crows that were pinned to my body, did you hear about this?” she asks me. And sure, I click through some behind-the-scenes shots and there’s Wolf, side-eyeing a crow to humorous effect. Remi Wolf seems to be turning conventional pop on its head – introducing an eccentric bag of songwriting and sounds into what has long felt like a sanitised, sterile space. It’s like the Gen Z kid who grew up listening to Natasha Bedingfield before discovering MGMT as a teen went on to become a singer – which is, of course, the case. Wolf grew up in Palo Alto, where her early life was largely spent training as a competitive skier (she represented the US twice at the Junior Olympics). She quit skiing in her mid-to-late teens and turned her hand to music; Wolf became one half of a duo whose name was styled off Hall & Oates and appeared briefly, age 17, on American Idol. But it was after meeting multi-instrumentalist, Jared Solomon, at an after-school music class that Wolf’s musical vision truly began to take shape. Almost a decade on, Wolf and Solomon, aka solomonophonic, are regular collaborators, with the latter co-producing the singer’s debut album.

Like Wolf’s signature kaleidoscopic wardrobe, Juno is maximalist blend of bubblegum bops and funky beats. The record is infectiously catchy from the outset. Album opener, Liquor Store, demands to be sung along to, despite the fact the subject matter is a raw reflection of getting sober in the midst of the pandemic. It’s the kind of introduction that sets the tone for what’s to come, even if the rest of Juno dips in and out of different styles. Wolf’s debut album is a bit like a bag of pick and mix – some songs are sweeter than others and there are some juicy gems (in the form of hilarious pop culture references to, say, Billy Bob and Angelina) to be found. The album’s title takes its name and cover inspiration from the singer’s French bulldog, who Wolf adopted during the pandemic. Her debut follows on from two dog-titled EPs: 2019’s You’re a Dog! and I’m Allergic to Dogs! from last June. The song Photo ID from her sophomore EP is dazzling pop that, perhaps to no surprise, became a viral hit on TikTok. Earlier this year, Wolf collaborated with fellow Gen-Z sensation, Dominic Fike, to re-record Photo ID as part of We Love Dogs!, a remix compilation of her two previous EPs. With appearances and remixes from the likes of Beck, Hot Chip, Little Dragon, Nile Rodgers and many more, it’s safe to say Remi Wolf has already found her footing as a connoisseur of eclectic, experimental sounds.

Congratulations on the release of Juno. How are you feeling?

I feel tired, so tired, but really happy that it’s out. I feel this freedom that now I can kind of go off and do whatever I want because I’ve been doing work for this album for the past year and a half almost. So yeah – it feels good. It feels good to be done with it. I feel like I can move on to a new of phase of creativity and writing.

Am I right in thinking you started working on the album just as things with the pandemic really kicked off?

Kind of, I guess. The writing process really started more in November [2020]. That’s when I started writing the bulk of the songs; I wrote Liquor Store, wyd, Grumpy Old Man and Anthony Kiedis all within three days in November. And I think that really, those four songs decided the direction of the rest of the album. But then, I ended up going back [to] songs I wrote previously before those that ended up fitting in with the album. Songs like Sally – I wrote that three years ago almost. There’s little bits and pieces from different times, but mainly the middle of the pandemic was where the bulk of the album was made.

Did you have any expectations of what your debut album would be like?

I didn’t expect anything from the debut album. I kind of went into it and was just like, whatever comes out, comes out. I didn’t have a vision for it in that sense. I was just trying to be as honest as I [could] with the writing and trust my intuition on what sounds good and what sounds I like. And I tend to write songs that are kind of funky and pretty driven by drums. We used a lot of electric guitar. I think the instrumentation is a reflection of what we were feeling at the time. But yeah – no – I didn’t put any expectations on what the album was going to be. It is a bunch of different things all in one.

Listening to Juno, it does feel like a journey through so many different vibes. And it’s difficult to choose my favourite aspect of the album. So maybe this is an impossible question for you, but what’s your favourite song on Juno?

I really – I do love all of them. I like them all equally. Recently, I’ve been appreciating wyd because I haven’t heard that in four or five months ‘cause it was finished a while ago. But now that [the album] is streaming, it’s very accessible, so I can go and listen without having to dig through Dropbox or whatever! I love Liquor Store; I feel like Liquor Store was the first song on the album that I was like, “Okay, this is the start of the album.” I think it’s the thesis of the album, and I loved writing it. 

The subject matter of Liquor Store is quite personal. How does it feel to write and share that song with the world?

It is quite personal. I think I felt like I really had to share the story, or else the meaning of that song would have been completely lost. And you know, that is what I went through during the pandemic and felt like I had to be honest. If I left that out, it would have felt like I was lying to people about what was actually going on in my life. And this album exists because of the pandemic and my sobriety – it would have been a completely different album [otherwise]. At times it did feel like a bit of an overshare, but in the end I’m happy that I ended up telling my story.

There are so many pop culture references in Juno as well as elements that recall Natasha Bedingfield and the fun, bright sounds of the early 2000s. Did you always want to incorporate these kinds of references, or is that something you’ve picked up over time as the 2000s have gotten further away?

I mean I used to love Natasha Bedingfield, I really did. I think a lot of those references made their way in subconsciously, or as a result of me having listened to that music as a kid. Like truthfully, I didn’t go into making this record [thinking] “Okay, I’m going to reference this and this and this. It’s going to sound like the early 2000s.” It was a very organic thing that happened that I didn’t really think about. I don’t know, I think when you make music and you’ve been listening to music your whole life, things you like – melody ideas or whatever – end up coming out. 

I think during the pandemic, we all had this yearning to listen to music that made us feel comforted. I found myself listening to a lot of music from when I was younger during the pandemic. Maybe my subconscious was trying to make music that made me feel comforted, and because of that, we referenced a lot of early 2000s, late ‘90s sounds. But I don’t know; the pop culture references, they just slid their way in there as part of my songwriting. It just kind of happened, you know? 

What do you want your fanbase and listeners to get from hearing your songs? Beyond good, fun songs…

I want them to get whatever they want out of it. I honestly don’t want to put what I want them to feel or think about it on them, because I don’t think my music should exist in that way. Like, I didn’t make it thinking, “Oh my God, everybody needs to listen to this and feel freedom!” I want people to get what they get what they get from the music, and hopefully what they get is positivity and it helps them, I don’t know, get through their day. That’s why I listen to music; I listen to get through the day and feel happy – or feel sad. Just to feel something; so I hope they just feel something from it. 

Your European tour starts in a few weeks. That must be really exciting?

I think I fly over on November 5th and I start in Spain and then go all around. I’m very excited for it, it’s gonna be very fun. I just finished a month-long tour about a week and a half ago now. And it’s so amazing being able to actually see my fans in real life and see who they are, what they like, what lyrics they like and what lyrics they really scream out. It’s been a learning process, but it’s amazing. 

I think people are just so excited to go back to shows that there’s this energy for live music that I have never really seen. People, including myself, aren’t taking the live show for granted as much – and people want to go really hard. I’ve noticed there’s less phones; people want to be in the moment and I think that’s so cool. It’s such a community-building opportunity. And after some of my shows, I see fans get to know each other and become friends because of my music and that’s so cool. So yeah, I’m excited. I’m a little nervous, but definitely excited. 

What are you most excited to perform?

I keep talking about Liquor Store, but it’s really fun! What else do I have? Sexy Villain seems to be a crowd-pleaser. And I’m excited to perform Street You Live On – I think that one is going to be really fun to do. I want people to cry during that song. Now I’m putting this on the audience. They can do whatever they want, but I think it’d be fun if we all cried together…

It must be weird when you’re performing and seeing which lines people collectively sing, or shout. Are you ever surprised by which songs people really know?

It surprised me a little bit with my song, Disco Man, that people really love the chorus, but they also love the lines “And he’s wasted all his money, but he’s never been a waste of time”. I was just shocked at how many people knew that song to be honest, I had no idea. And then people really love the “ain’t no Chuck-E-Cheese in Los Feliz” line from Quiet on Set, which part of me expected ‘cause it’s really fun to say. But they really love it, they really scream that shit. I’m excited to see which lines they pull from the new songs I just dropped and the ones I dropped just before the album, like Anthony Kiedis. I haven’t performed that live yet, so I’m excited to see how that goes. 

Juno is out there now and you’re about to go on tour. What’re the next steps for you beyond that?

I mean, I think a lot of next year is going to be just touring, writing new stuff and trying to push the boundaries with writing again. I think that I’ve come out of making this album a very different writer, and I want to just keep developing [that]. I want to find a hobby that I can really put my time into because I need something else besides music.

Maybe I’ll start playing baseball or something. Maybe I’ll come out with a line of baseballs or baseball bats? I also want to start making clothes that I can wear and that my friends can wear as well. I think that would be a really fun adventure because I used to sew when I was younger and I kind of want to get back into it. 

I feel like that would be an obvious thing for you to do, given how much attention is paid to your style. You could have a little clothing range for your future tours.

Yeah, exactly. 

Credits

PHOTOGRAPHER · MIKAYLA JEAN MILLER
CREATIVE DIRECTORS · NIMA HABIBZADEH AND JADE REMOVILLE
FASHION STYLIST · SHAOJUN CHEN
SET DESIGNER · YAO LIANG
MAKEUP ARTIST · FRANCIE TOMALONIS HAIR STYLIST · RACHEL LITA
PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANTS · CHRIS LLERINS AND BROOKE CARLSON
CREATIVE ASSISTANT · ETHAN PENN
INTERVIEW · ELLIE BROWN
SPECIAL · THANK YOU TO KATERINA MARKA AT UNIVERSAL MUSIC
THIS FEATURE IS PART OF VOLUME FOURTEEN THE IDENTITY ISSUE

Erwin Wurm

“Absurdity helps me to clarify, to make the view clear”

Have you ever seen a fat car? Maybe a thin house? It sounds like the start of a joke but for Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, who has spent much of his career exploring sculpture, space and the human form, it is a way to gain a new perspective or understanding of the world around us. While Wurm uses humour as a tool to get peoples attention, ultimately his work is intended to prompt people to look at things more carefully.

With one of his most well-known works, One Minute Sculptures, viewers are invited to take part in and become the artwork themselves. Wurm provides handwritten instructions accompanied by cartoon-like drawings so that viewers can pose with everyday objects, often in absurd and humorous ways.

Wurm states that “I am interested in the everyday life. All the materials that surrounded me could be useful, as well as the objects, topics involved in contemporary society. My work speaks about the whole entity of a human being: the physical, the spiritual, the psychological and the political.” NR Magazine joined the artist in conversation.

Much of your work revolves around the concept of consumerist excess and gluttony. Does your work critique the people who are manipulated to consume in such an excessive way or the capitalist society that entices and forces them to do so? 

It doesn’t critique the people, it critiques the system and the idea of the system. But on the other side, it wasn’t only a critique. I was working on the notion of sculpture and what does it mean to make a sculpture. Then I came to some basic questions, when I make something I add volume and take volume away. When we gain and lose weight we do the same, so you could say gaining and losing weight is a sculptural thing. I found this strange absurd relation interesting. The sculptural issue was always combined with the social issue. Sometimes it’s more a critique of consumerism, sometimes it’s addressing questions about our entire life, and psychology, and all these things.

One of your most well-known series of works is One Minute Sculptures in which viewers pose with objects to become ephemeral sculptures. As these ‘sculptures’ are then captured with photography what separates them from say, an image on social media with someone posing in a similar way? What makes one a ‘sculpture’ and the other simply a funny image? 

Well first, I started doing them in 1992 far before social media existed. At the time I invited people to follow my instructions and I made little drawings so people could realise the sculpture. It was an attempt to democratise the concept, so everybody can be a part of the art piece. So I invited the public to follow these instructions and at that time we offered mainly, at the exhibitions, Polaroid photographs. So they would have a Polaroid taken of them and then they would go home with it.

This was far before social media existed, but then social media came and now everyone comes into my shows with mobile phones and takes selfies. But it’s cool, it’s great, and they transport them out into the world. And many people know my work. I was surprised that this became a success because as an artist you always have doubts. I was very surprised that it became so successful.

You consider the physical act of gaining and losing weight as a sculptural gesture. Is the intention for your work simply to explore the sculptural form of gaining and losing mass or is it a greater commentary of the danger and damage diet culture causes? 

I was playing with this diet culture because I remember when I was younger, it started in the 70s, there were these photographs about gaining weight. These double portraits with one slim one fat. I turned it around and made a portrait of one slim one fat, so I was playing with the important questions of daily life. Important questions which everybody and all these magazines were dealing with.

You are known for using humour to explore serious topics in your art. Do you think that people these days, particularly the younger generation, see using humour as a coping mechanism as part of their collective identity? If so how do you think that affects how they approach the creative sphere?

My humour comes from the idea of the absurd. I’m very influenced by the absurd like Beckett, Ionesco, and all the others. Also, the idea of paradox, looking from the paradox and the absurd angle to view our world and maybe see something else, something different. This is necessary because our world is fucked up, and in a very bad condition, and it gets worse and worse.

“I think we have to start making steps back and look at what we are doing.”

Where we have brought the world and how we will treat our world in the future. Absurdity helps me to clarify, to make the view clear in a way. And humour is a part of absurdity, yes. Sometimes humour is a good thing to use, but not always because I’m not a joke teller. I don’t want to become someone who is just telling jokes. I want to be taken seriously, even though sometimes I use humour as a certain method.

You often extend and alter reality in intriguing, humorous and disturbing ways. Do you think viewers connect with your work because there is a common desire for escapism in a post-capitalist society?

Maybe? But frankly, I never thought about this very seriously because I’m more intrigued by my work. I feed into my own work and my own universe. I try to get the best out of it and then I show it to the public and they discuss it. They love it or they hate it or whatever but I am more focused on my work and not so much the reaction of my work.

So you say you dive into your universe, how would you describe that?

I create certain issues in my work and certain quality criteria. I always try to get better and it’s getting worse and then it’s getting better and then not. So it’s a constant fight. It’s a daily fight with my work and the rules inside my work, the different components and the quality aspects that I’m fighting for. Sometimes it goes very easy and very smooth and sometimes it’s very edgy and complicated. Sometimes I don’t get to the point and I don’t even know where the point is. The point is disappearing and I have no idea what I’m doing. Then desperation is following and then it’s releasing again and it’s constant up and down. But I think every artist can give you this same answer. Because an artists life is not like you know what you are doing and you just do it. It’s full of doubts and shortcuts in a way. That makes it exciting, but also exhausting sometimes.

Do you have a specific way you approach your work, say from coming up with an idea to seeing it to fruition?

Yeah so when you work a lot, you get more and more ideas. I never run out of ideas, but it’s whether they are good or not. I write them down and make little notes and little drawings in little booklets. I look at them after a certain time and when I find something interesting I make a mark of it. Then I go on with it and I come back and forwards and backwards. In one moment I think “Oh that’s a good idea I could do something out of this”, and then I have to decide “What do I do?” Do I make a photograph, or a video, or a 3D sculpture, or a drawing, or a painting, or whatever? So that’s a second process and this lasts sometimes a long time, sometimes a year or more, and others times it goes very quick. It depends on my mood or my idea.

Your work deals with philosophy drawing inspiration from philosophers from the early twentieth century. Is there a philosopher or philosophy that stands out particularly when it comes to your work as a whole?

Well yes, because I’m Austrian there were always two guys who were very influential on me. One isn’t actually a philosopher but a psychologist, Sigmund Freud of course. The inventor of psychoanalysis, he’s Viennese.  The other is Liechtenstein, who was a linguist describing and trying to make order of the world through language. Just the opposite of Sigmund Freud which is very interesting too.

For other people, if you go back to Montaigne who was a philosopher from the Renaissance. By writing about the world, just by writing about himself and his family, and his needs and necessities, and his desires and his longings, that made him write about the world. It’s so interesting because that’s what artists are doing.

“When we make work about us, in a way we mean the world.”

When it’s functioning well, it’s accessible for many people. if it’s just a story about your grandmother nobodies interested, but if you’re able to lift up a story that is accessible to many people, then it’s interesting.

How do you find that then comes out in your work?

That’s a good question. How do I know? Sometimes I have the feeling it works well, and then not. It’s a constant doubt, yes. That’s the fight that I was talking about before.

What advice do you have for young creatives?

Oh my God, go on! Don’t believe anybody! Because so many people gave me advice and much of it was good but also much of it was not good. So be critical with what you hear and what drives you. Be critical with yourself, and be critical with the world, and try to make it better every single day, and don’t give up. Don’t give up, go on. People will tell you “Oh there are so many artists in the world we don’t need another one” or “You will never make a living out of this.” I heard this always. Just go on. Just trust yourself. You really want to do it then do it. If you have doubts then stop and try to have a better life somewhere else. And I mean having doubts in the general idea of becoming an artist, not having doubts about the work you are doing.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what plans do you have for the future? 

Oh, I have several shows coming up. I’m not able to go, but we made a show with augmented reality. They scan sculptures and then they transform them. You can go there and there is a QR code on the floor, and you see this sculpture pop up. Sometimes it’s very large and you can walk around them. I will be there on a flying carpet as an augmented reality also. It’s an experiment we did this recently and it was quite successful. In the fall I will do some other shows, so it’s going well, it’s going good! I have a lot to do, it’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to being able to have exhibitions and openings which I can go to.

Alfie White

“photos are a way of making sense of it or, if not, then posing that ‘Why?’ in an image.”

Born, raised and based in South London, Alfie White works across mediums of photography, print, writing, and film to explore humanity’s intricacies and nuances, with a focus on moments of intimacy that resonate with him. Drawn towards contemporary youth and its different layers and subcultures, Whites’ work documents the anxieties young people face in contemporary society, both individually and as a larger collective.

Diving headfirst into his photography career, White has assisted on major projects, like the first Dazed+Labs x Converse student shoot, all while still developing his own signature style. During his time at college, he worked part-time at a Snappy Snaps, so developing film was something he was very familiar with, even before he started shooting. White works predominantly with 35mm Black & White film, and develops, prints, and scans his work from in his makeshift home studio.

White’s timeless aesthetic is reminiscent of early social documentary and street photography. White doesn’t describe himself as a street photographer, however. His work aligns with the documentary practice and can be understood as a continuous visual-study on social conditions and humanity as a whole, seen through his lens both literally and metaphorically. White’s approach is one of fluidity and intuition, with little premeditation behind the specifics of what he shoots and has described them largely as a collection of unconnected fleeting moments.

His latest ongoing project has been funded by the Dazed 100 Ideas Fund in partnership with Converse, where he will create two documentary projects: a photo essay on the experiences of people affected by the UK Government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, and a collaborative document showing the experiences of young people across the globe throughout 2020, that will be published later in 2021.

NR Magazine speaks with the photographer to discuss how he sees himself as the person behind the lens.

What is it like navigating the creative sector as a young artist?  

It’s less navigating and more a seemingly perpetual process of hesitantly stepping into an increasingly darker room; it’s constant guesswork. Lots of emails, lots of negotiating, lots of arguing your own value and lots of people undervaluing you as such.

But it’s also a lot of special experiences, all of which I wouldn’t have had the privilege of experiencing if I wasn’t in this, so it’s also very exciting, especially as I feel that we are at a turning point with the newer generations taking up all these spaces now, and I feel part of that. Not to mention the many wonderful people I’ve met, many of whom I consider mentor figures due to their age and experience in the game. They make that navigation a whole lot easier and just generally worth it.

Does photography help you find moments of refuge in the chaos of London? 

It helps me understand it a bit better, or cope with it at the very least. I get quite easily over-stimulated, and I’ve always found that the camera has an effect of nullifying a lot of the stimuli around me, allowing me to zone into one thing. Photography is a way for me to make sense of chaos.

What moments have you captured that you’ve found to be the most meaningful? 

I don’t think any moment in particular can be placed above another. That’s not me trying to be abstract, either; I genuinely mean it. They’re all fractions of seconds that I’ve just been lucky enough to capture, and I suppose in that sense,

“it’s more the moments that I didn’t capture that feel the most meaningful, if I were to properly reflect.”

You were awarded a grant from the Dazed 100 Ideas Fund to carry out a national photo essay on those affected by COVID-19. What has it been like working on this project? 

It’s been a continuous challenge but has been so rewarding in the experiences I’ve gained and people I’ve met from it, many I consider friends now. These projects of mine are entirely solo gigs, which means that the workload is often intense and spread across a much larger timeframe than a project with a dedicated crew might have, as I have to juggle it around my personal life and other work; but it’s getting to a point where I think I’m beginning to get an idea of what it’s looking like and where it’s going, which is incredibly clarifying.

It’s been a full embodiment of working in silence, working on this project. I’ve had multiple friends and family just assume I’m done with it, as I haven’t said anything. This brings about its own challenges in that until I lay everything out and am able to show someone, it’s just been my eyes that have seen it so far.

With the theme of this issue being Identity, I thought it would be interesting to know your thoughts on how you feel you explore identity and community with your work. 

There is a big question mark that looms over most things for me – identity and community especially. I don’t know if I feel a huge sense of community or ever have done, and I don’t know if I’ve felt any sense of identity either, for that matter. Sometimes just the fact that I am real, that I am me, that I exist, is too much to get my head around; let alone that all of that fits under a larger entity, a community.

I don’t think I explore these elements consciously, but more that any exploration of them is done through a natural process of just embracing the subjective and personal, as well as this general curiosity about everything around me. I think I explore these things as they are there in front of me, and simply don’t make sense most of the time.

I use self-portraiture a lot to explore myself—which I suppose is my identity as well—but also how it intersects with my surroundings, which could be my community as well. I don’t feel any attachment to any specific niche of society or community, and it’s in that sense that there’s a level of objectivity involved in this general exploration. I am just here, these things are just there, and I don’t know why, but photos are a way of making sense of it or, if not, then posing that ‘Why?’ in an image.

Getting into photography as a teenager, how has your style and mindset developed as you’ve grown into adulthood? 

It’s gone from a hobby to a career, from being something I did on the side to now a cornerstone for my existence and an integral tool in communicating the thoughts and feelings that come with said existence. I take photography much more seriously now, as I do with most things, and the photos are more serious as a result of that. Photography acts as a continuous reflection of my thoughts, feelings and values, and that can be seen in the development of my work and subject matter over time. A lot more thought goes into it now.

Do you feel a particular responsibility as a photographer? How do you see yourself as the person behind the lens? 

I feel a responsibility as a human being before anything, but there are definitely additional responsibilities that come with being a photographer and just making an image of someone, regardless of whether you are a photographer or not. I’m very aware of the potential effect an image has, especially in today’s age, on the person viewing it and on the person in the image, and I try to act as sensitively as possible with this in mind.

I see myself as just myself, as Alfie. I don’t think of myself as a photographer in that sense, but just as me with this tool which, in the moment, is the most effective thing I have at attempting to communicate whatever it is that I’m attempting to communicate. I’m acutely aware of my standing as a cis white male and attempt to operate as respectfully and sensitively as possible with that and how I might be received in mind. But that awareness exists regardless of whether I have a camera in front of me or not; the camera just amplifies the need for it.

Are there any moments where you feel like you hide behind the camera? 

I’ve never really felt like I could, even if I wanted to. Perhaps it’s just in my head, but if anything, I feel more exposed when I have a camera round my neck, let alone when I’m taking photos. This kind of follows the sentiment in the previous answer: I will very rarely attempt to operate as a ‘photographer’, firstly as it just feels unnatural, but secondly as,

“I think it’s the lack of detachment in being present—in not being hidden—that allows for more intimate photos.”

Are there any photos you’ve taken that you feel a certain connection with, or that you feel have resonated with a specific moment in your life? 

Oh god, all of them! There’s one in particular that stands out, which I took at a Dazed takeover of an exhibition by Jefferson Hack at 180 Strand, back in November 2019. I was hired to take photos of the night for internal and it was my first time shooting events and using a flash (it had literally arrived that morning).

Anyway, the night went really well, and the photos turned out great, and about 11 months later I was sifting through the negatives from the night to rescan one in particular that I liked. I had been speaking to a girl I had met on a dating app for about a month at this point, and I was randomly sifting through these images from that night when there she is, in one of the photos! It turns out I had photographed her there and didn’t even realise or remember. We have been together for nearly a year now.

The night itself was a flurry of nerves and then excitement, now being one of my fondest memories, as well as later acting as a catalyst to so much more—not to mention that the night itself was a result of so much happenstance, so-much-so that I literally wouldn’t be able to predict what my life would be like if a certain interaction hadn’t happened about 6 months before it.

I try to allow myself to be guided by serendipity and I think this image will always act as a reminder to continue that.

What places would you like to travel to photograph in the future, post-pandemic?

New York and Gibraltar. I miss them both, New York especially.

If you could curate a show that gave people an insight into your identity and process as an artist, what would be featured in it? 

Everything: post-it notes, journal excerpts, emails and texts (that I’ve sent), images and videos of mine from my life; scents, sounds. Just something really personal, intimate and immersive. A bit of me.

What’s your relationship like with social media and how it communicates your work to others? 

It constantly changes, but I think it’s lost a lot of its importance for me recently and has gone from feeling like the platform to host your work to just a platform that caters for it in another way. I still take it seriously, but I don’t bank everything on it; I’m much more focused on the physical.

The issue with social media is that it is largely geared towards quick engagement. If an image takes longer than a few seconds—maybe even less—to process, then it isn’t ‘good’ in how we interpret that engagement. There’s so much amazing and powerful work that just isn’t fully realised when presented through social media, and it’s why I think books and exhibitions will never be taken over in that sense, because they create a space for complete immersion and concentration that social media (or even websites to an extent) can’t.

But equally, if Instagram suddenly just vanished tomorrow, I really wouldn’t know what I’d do. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found myself subconsciously moving away from social media, to attempt to spread my eggs into other baskets in a way. I know something else will eventually replace them, but when entire networks now rely on just one app and have done for years, how will they transition?

Do you ever go about trying to become a participant in something you’re shooting, or do you prefer to just be a witness? 

I’ll always be a participant, but that participation varies on what it is, how I feel, and how much I feel is required from me, just like with anyone else. I’m a pretty quiet person, though, especially in new environments, so I think I automatically take a position as a witness anyway. As I touched on before, though, I’m there as Alfie before anything else.

Where do you see your practice heading? 

I’m beginning to explore a lot more written and moving image work, and hope that exploration continues. I’m hoping to start thinking of a solo show at some point too.

Regarding photography, just the same as it’s always been, more or less: making images that mean something to me. I want to go deeper, realer; make work with more long-term value. Everything else can fall into place around that.

Credits

www.alfie-white.com
Images · ALFIE WHITE

Judy Watson

“In making the work I make I am lifting up my ancestors and their stories and learning more from them every day”

Judy Watson is an Australian artist whose practice is based on her exploration of her matrilineal Waanyi Aboriginal heritage and the experiences of Aboriginal people since British colonisation. Exploring Waanyi culture through the lens of collective memory, she then incorporates these histories into her artworks, often drawing on archival research and documents.

Watson’s work a preponderance of aboriginal blood uses copies of documents from the Queensland State Archives which are then layered with ‘blood-like pools of red paint, symbolising the pain and deaths of Aboriginal people.’ The documents in question are evidence of the discrimination Aboriginal Australians faced, including voting rights.’Full blooded’ Aboriginal people were not allowed to vote but ‘half caste’ Aboriginal people were. The artwork highlights the awful treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Queensland as a reflection of the ongoing effects of British colonisation.

This artwork will be part of A Year in Art: Australia 1992, a free exhibition at Tate Modern. The exhibition brings together a selection of over 25 works, many on show for the first time in the UK. The exhibition explores how artists have acknowledged the continuing relationship Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have with their lands, as well as the ongoing impact of colonisation and the complexities of representation in Australian society today. The exhibition is available to view from June 8th 2021 until Spring 2022.

When it comes to ideas of social change you have described your work as subtlety discreet with a strong message that insinuates itself into the viewer’s consciousness, do you think that aesthetically pleasing and subtle artworks can be used as an effective form of activism?

Yes, I think the power of aesthetics and subtlety can embed themselves into people’s memory and slowly leak their contents into their consciousness before they can put up resistance. Sound and smell can be a strong activation as well.

Do you think this exhibition, and your artwork specifically, will make British people more aware of the issues of British colonialism and how that affected/affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? 

Yes, if people look into the work, they will get a sense of the oppression of Aboriginal people under the ‘Act’.

You talk about collaborating with family members on your artworks. Did they have any specific input/influence on a preponderance of aboriginal blood, and if so in what way?

I spoke to my mother, Joyce Watson about this work. She is also trained in printmaking, in fact, I was one of her first art teachers at Art School in Townsville. After making this work I took Mum and Dad into the Queensland State Archives with me. I showed them the files held on my grandmother, Grace Isaacson (Camp) and her mother Mabel Daly, among other members of my matrilineal Aboriginal family. I made a second artist book: ‘under the act’ based on these files. My mother is very supportive of me using this material in order to show the public what it was like for our people to live their lives under this institutionalised brutality and bureaucracy. My grandmother, Grace Isaacson gave permission for us to access her files.

You speak about collective memories as an inspiration for your work, have you found that a lot of personal histories and information have been lost due to a fear of discrimination from British colonialism? And if so did you find that loss of personal histories frustrating when researching during your process?

Many people have helped me to uncover documents and history about my Aboriginal family. I did interviews with my grandmother Grace, my mother Joyce and other family members from Mt Isa over the years. I’ve also undertaken a lot of research as have others about these untold stories of colonisation in Australia. It was hard at first to find these stories but we achieved it with persistence and hard work. There is more to be unearthed in the future.

Can you tell me about your creative process for a preponderance of aboriginal blood? How did you come up with the idea and how did you go about the physical process of making the artwork? 

I went to a talk by Loris Williams (an Aboriginal archivist) and Margaret Reid at the University of Queensland about Indigenous people and the right to vote in Queensland. They showed amazing documents on their PowerPoint and this is where I first heard the terms: half-blood and a preponderance of Aboriginal blood. Immediately I knew that this is what I wanted to make work about. I had been asked to make an artist book for the commemoration of Queensland women and the right to vote. I knew I wanted to focus on Aboriginal women in particular. I asked permission to use the images from Loris Williams’s talk and it went from there.

I’ve discussed the making of the work in previous texts that you can access from the description in ‘a preponderance of aboriginal blood’.

In previous works you have united your Aboriginal heritage with your English, Scottish and Irish ancestry such as standing stone, kangaroo grass, red and yellow ochre, is this also the case with a preponderance of aboriginal blood? How else do you navigate the contrast of these ancestries within your work?

My work ‘burnt shield’ which is in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery could be the shape of a European family shield. It could also be the female shape of the pubic area, or the waterhole at Duwadari waterhole, Lawn Hill Gorge, Boodjamulla National Park in NW Queensland. Sometimes I have referenced my skin colour, derogatory names and imagery associated with flayed skins. These are earlier works, both in prints and works on canvas.

You stated that shared experiences are an important part of your work. How do you feel to be a part of this group exhibition and is there any other artists artwork that particularly resonates with or stands out to you?

There are many amazing artists whose works resonate with me.

Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t but their work goes beyond the knowing.

You describe discovering how your Aboriginal ancestors were treated as a ‘heavy burden’, do you consider your artistic work/process as a way to work through, express and deal with that ancestral trauma?

In making the work I make I am lifting up my ancestors and their stories and learning more from them every day. I want to pass that knowledge onto my children and to others in the wider community.

What other media (i.e. books, films, documentaries)  would you personally recommend to people who are looking to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures and the effects of British colonialism? 

Tony Roberts ‘Frontier Justice’, Timothy Bottoms ‘Conspiracy of Silence’, Bruce Elder ‘Blood on the wattle’, Rachel Perkins ‘First Australians’. So many books, videos, resources…

What artworks are you currently working on and which topics do you plan on exploring in the future?

I am currently making two bodies of work for different projects and venues that I can’t reveal yet.

One project is looking at climate change. The other is looking at a big issue affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody. I am also working with more research around the Aboriginal women in my family, the stations they worked on, the maps of the country. Other imagery will appear as I go through the process of making the work.

My public artwork ‘bara’ will be installed soon at the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, looking down at the Opera House. It is a large work in marble that represents the bara / fish hooks made from shell. These were predominantly used by Aboriginal women in Warrane / Sydney when they were fishing in their Nawi / bark canoes in the waters around Sydney, catching fish for their families in Gadigal Country.

Credits

Robert Wun

“finding the right balance between freedom and restrain, creativity and reality, patience and precision”

Robert Wun. Now let’s repeat: Robert Wun. We should not stop repeating, as we really might be facing one of the most extraordinary minds of contemporary fashion.

The Hong-Kong born designer sat down with NR to discuss his latest collection, the family memories that inspired it, and, most importantly, his fight for inclusivity. Leading us through a sincere recollection of anecdotes and reflections that shaped his aesthetic and beliefs, the young creator tells us a story of empowerment and attitude.

“Equality, Diversity, Sustainability and Accountability”, It’s a fight against the system what Wun’s aiming for. Nowadays more than ever, we are reminded of the urgent need for change within the institutions, and his creations are an open invitation to it. We might not yet be sure how to feel about Robert’s AW21 journey, but surely heaven has never looked this good.

Your last AW21 collection ‘Armour’ is simply mind-blowing. Tell us more about your inspiration behind it.

Thank you so much! The collection is a tribute to my grandmother whom I lost last year in October. The collection is also a celebration of her and all the women who have inspired and changed my life. Every look is inspired and named after a woman.
I admire powerful strong women because of my grandmother: she shaped my views of feminism, and taught me about love and respect. I have had the pleasure to connect and cross paths with incredible and inspirational women who I’m lucky to call my closest friends and family.

Swallow birds are a key inspiration of the collection. They were my grandmother’s favourite birds back in her village in Hainan Island, China. They also hold significant meaning to our family: according to a poem, young swallows are meant to one day leave their nest, and live their life without their parents. The poem resonates a lot with me, considering I left Hong Kong to pursue my dream in the UK. 

“This season, I am building an army to go to heaven with her.”

The collection is presented at dusk, as that’s how I’ve always imagined heaven’s gates to look like, in a sort of surreal dimension. It is my most personal collection: a self written diary documenting the many memories of my grandmother, my family, and my close friends. I also decided to photograph the collection myself. It felt right to be the one behind the lens – of what I believe to be – the most genuine collection I have ever created.

The idea of womanhood presence in your childhood played a determining role in shaping your aesthetic and designs. What do you see in it?

My work revolves around feminism, it shows my admiration towards strong women. 
During the post civil war, my grandmother moved to Hong Kong on her own. Mending clothes, making plastic flowers and sewing shoes, she raised my father as a single mother, not knowing a word of the native language. 
My mother’s work ethic of work & studying since the young age of 12.. She’s still pursuing a Doctor Degree.

“The idea of womanhood has always been very ingrained in our family, and the interplay between grace and strength is how I portray femininity in my work.”

Your training started a while ago at LCF. How has your practice developed since then?

Becoming a designer and brand owner, the biggest development is gaining responsibilities and business knowledge of the industry. I have grown, season by season: navigating in finding the right balance between freedom and restrain, creativity and reality, patience and precision.. And, ultimately, coming to the knowledge and the understanding of the importance in execution.

What were the biggest cultural challenges you faced in building up your vision?

I would say the biggest cultural challenge is the constant fight against the system. Trying to box me in a diversity category, it’s tokenism culture. As an East Asian designer, identity is constantly the only element they wish to see in my work. I found that dehumanising, it diminishes my vision. My work is not always about my heritage nor it certainly does fit into the western gaze perception.

What do you hope people will take away from your collections?

Hopefully something inspiring and timeless, profound, yet optimistic.

Pleats, pleats and pleats. Your approach to them is revolutionary: what is so special to you about them?

The pleat style and technique is called Sunray-pleating, I see them almost as a powerful pattern of illusion. Like a palm tree leaf, feathers on a bird’s wing, or sun rays through the clouds, I am always inspired and mesmerised with those patterns in nature.

Gaga, Cardi B, Willow Smith, Billy Porter, to name just a few of the celebrities that went for your designs.. How do you feel about such great feedback? Who would you love to see next?

It is such an honour and blessing to be able to dress all these powerful women. Many of them have inspired me since I was young! I would love to dress Naomi Osaka, Frances McDormand, and, of course, Beyoncé.

What do you believe to be the biggest urgency in Fashion right now?
Equality, Diversity, Sustainability and Accountability. How does your personal vision and practice embrace these?

“I have always aimed to normalise sustainability and diversity. I do not believe in marketing these values as a gimmick to sell the brand.”

I think they should be a common practice in all businesses, not just in fashion.

What should we expect from you in the near future?

What’s next for the brand will be a full e-commerce in 2021 and the introduction of new accessories. I am planning a very exciting collection for SS22: we will be working with incredible figures from the industry at expanding the brand’s language beyond gender, size and identity.

Credits

Images · ROBERT WUN
www.robertwun.com

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