Chinese contemporary artist Fu Wenjun proposed digital pictorial photography in the early 21st century. 1 Digital pictorial photography is a combination of painting elements through digital post-adjustment and multiple-exposure photographic images to reveal unique visual effects. It emphasizes the rediscovering and reuse of image resources.
How does Fu Wenjun create his works?
Fu Wenjun once summed up his creative means as such: “My concept will be expressed by means of collage, juxtaposition, etc.” 2 Collage is to integrate elements which are not related to each other, thus having an effect of challenging people’s stylized cognition. Juxtaposition is the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side, often to compare or to create an interesting effect. Collage and juxtaposition are important methods in western modern and contemporary art. They were initiated by the masters of early 20th century modern art such as Pablo Picasso and Gorge Braque, culminating in the hands of postmodern artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. However, the difference is that the post-modern juxtaposition of Western art largely cancels oppositions, while Fu Wenjun sharpens the opposition between different items, thus creating a tension on the two-dimensional surface.
Where does the artist’s intellectual resources come from?
Fu Wenjun’s creative thinking reflects the combination of the East and the West. In Fu Wenjun’s artworks, some characteristics of Chinese traditional art are very prominent, such as the conflict between cavalier perspective and focus perspective, the interpenetration of ink smudges and colors, and the organic combination of vividness and subjective expression. While getting rid of the shackles of documentary photography, Fu’s digital pictorial photography captures Chinese ink painting elements, embodying a touch of freehand brushwork. Fu often likes to reflect on Chinese tradition, history and religion in his works, such as Twelve Zodiac, A Wind From Yesterday, Ask Tea, East Wind Blew Again Last Night, etc. 3 This is a way of bringing history back to the present on one hand, and emphasizing the impact of modern lifestyle on Chinese tradition on the other hand.
Fu Wenjun integrates the essence of modern and contemporary art such as Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, conceptual art and pop art. His digital pictorial photography shows a modernist sense of homogeneous space with postmodernist collage techniques. The so-called “homogeneous space” refers to the fact that since Edward Manet, modernist paintings have deconstructed the three-dimensional surface, abandoned the story-telling genre and revealed a two-dimensional effect, which finally culminated in Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings. 4 According to many art historians, modernism have been moving toward abstraction, but this is not a deliberately designed route. Such trend has exerted a strong influence on later artworks.
Fu Wenjun uses a variety of media deftly. Rosalind Krauss once pointed out that artworks after the modernist paintings have greatly broadened the connotation of “medium”. A medium can be something solid, or it can be a behavior itself. In other words, artists’ medium is no longer restricted to specific things; it exists in the field of communication with the audience.5
As an artist living in the southwestern province of China, Fu Wenjun has been trying to show the collision between traditional national culture and contemporary culture, which is an important theme in his works. The subtlety and the subjects reflect Fu Wenjun’s oriental background, and his artworks show a spiritual lineage to the West.
How to understand Fu Wenjun’s abstraction?
To explore the possibility of abstraction is Fu Wenjun’s another concern. It is more than a pure formal question. The abstraction in digital pictorial photography is similar to the “semantic abstraction” proposed by British scholar Harold Osborne, that is, “incomplete or limited reproduction of natural appearance.” 6 This technique allows the author to give full play to his personality and imagination. The images in Fu Wenjun’s works are distilled either from the real world or from other works of art.
Abstraction is a method for the artist to understand the world. It does not mean being out of touch with reality. Free from objective representation, the artist reshapes the world for expressive purposes. In Fu Wenjun’s work, images that people take for granted are broken up and then rearranged, allowing the audience to see the world through the artist’s eyes and then to think differently. In these works, both abstraction and reproduction are not purposes, but means.
Modern scientific research has shown that people’s understanding and appreciation of abstract elements in artworks are deeply rooted in their basic cognitive abilities, and abstraction is not too high to be popular.
What does the artist want to tell us through his work?
Fu Wenjun is committed to showing the interaction of different things. Based on photography, his works explore many possibilities of artistic expression. The works of art that we have seen today have more or less abandoned the shackles of a large amount of substantive content in reality. The artist uses documentary materials as his basis, and incorporate his contemplation on Chinese culture. In recent years, works such as Ask Tea and Red Cherry have become more experimental, which shows that his grasp of the work is getting better and better. 7
To arouse people’s awareness of art’s critical function is Fu Wenjun’s aim. As Fu said in an interview a few years ago: “Digital pictorial photography is an attempt to propose some meaningful topics through the medium of photography. I hope it will lead people to think deeper. Everyone will have his/her own understanding. There is no definite answer.” 8Fu Wenjun believes that contemporary art is critical, and it is not a game of speculation and recreation. The responsibility of contemporary artists is trying to reveal and analyze problems by their sharp perception and perspectives. Fu Wenjun takes many pictures in his travel and uses them as his raw materials. After coming back to his studio, he will tear, split and recombine the images, while being unaware of the restriction of time and space. In a word, he aims to make a clear and rational critique on this complex world.
About the author: Mao Qiuyue, Post-doctoral Researcher of Zhejiang University; Assistant Professor of Tongji University