Sunday 2 April 2017

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Liminal Space 2

, Fan Xi et Mao Zhu

All the versions of this article: [English] [中文]

"I’ve never trusted reality : I have too much respect for it, so I wouldn’t trust it"

Fan Xi - Building, 2017 from TK-21 on Vimeo.


Roland Barthes mentioned in Camera Lucida, the silence of the photographs is a question of music, “Absolute subjectivity is achieved only in a state, an effort of silence (shutting your eyes is not to make the image speak in silence). The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: “Technique”, “Reality”, “Reportage”, “Art” etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” [1]. This suggests the qualities in photography are such that “I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.” [2] The eternal discussion on love and death traces back to refined cognition and knowledge on the essence of human existence. Photography, through the eyes of the lens, captures the “genuine” and often unnoticed everyday phenomenon.

Since 2013, Fan Xi’s works gradually became more conceptual. Although the ongoing series “Wall” and “Parallel” from this period may seem to embark on completely different forms of representation, are in fact inferences to the same issues through different angles. “Wall” series exudes a desolate beauty, provoking a reflection on post-industrialization, where the ruined, abandoned and ignored architecture may still house the remains of sentimentality from the past. People did not destroy them, but they are left forgotten. In the course of urbanization, those abandoned and ruined architectures, absent of any human trace, are like the healing wounds of a developing city, they are rapidly repaired, occupied, devoured, or even effaced by urban spaces. Fan Xi nominates the helplessness and sincerity of those people living in such environment with the series “Wall”. It may embody an implicit indifference, one that objects destruction. They stare back at the viewer apathetically, as they wait for the imminent “outcome” or the “end”, as if it has become “Scenery”. To a certain degree, the implicit meaning in Fan Xi’s “Wall” is greater than the straightforward impression of a “post-industrial” imagery. Her lens quietly responded to such dreary outcome: the desolate wall, the wild grass by the road, and the budding flowers, the prosperous streets, or the crushed corpse, chiming in on the same impression.

Here, it’s apparent that Fan Xi began to avoid a narrative based on personal emotions, and shifts toward an expression that’s more abstract. One that extracted the implicit storylines of the images and intense emotions, where the images captured through the lens are calmer and contained. This is a gradual process of “de-iconification”. In fact, the “Parallel” series, began in the same year marked a critical shifting point in Fan Xi’s practice, “Once this work was completed, it seemed to have separated from you and grows on its own. It became independent, and that’s a great feeling. Your making of it reciprocates in its shaping of who you are.” [3]

The “Parallel” series is Fan Xi’s realistic representation of the most “genuine” reality of those living in dire circumstances. Unlike everyday scenarios, the environment under water creates a “genuine state”. As what the artist has written in the work statement, “The burdensome reality often shatters its internal setup. For me, photography creates a liaison between the two, visualizing the space between the surface and the internal. The choosing of environment for “Parallel” is to be simple, as it equally demands calmness, the message conveyed by the external body points to an internal reality. All of these concrete connections will configure into the most realistic realm. Being alive is the most cruel reality.” [4]

The setback of the water eliminates any possible elements of performance and vigilance from the model’s body and facial expression, as well as possible impact from the earth’s gravitational force. For Fan Xi, the setup of the scenario implies that reality of an existence in its most genuine display. This is true creativity. In an extreme condition, the model’s endurance under water to shoot the photograph is usually less than one minute, and during this short period of time, they wouldn’t have the time to think about how they would look beautiful – holding one’s breath, being there, wait, and staying alive, are the basic experiences of life. At the same time, Fan Xi had intentionally chosen both male and female models to avoid the subject of gender discretion. Under the extreme condition of being under water, gender difference may be overlooked. The way this work is displayed for the exhibition, Fan Xi has placed these works at an angle so the viewer may not perceive the entire image; some were fixed to the ceiling, some on the floor, engulfing the viewer’s points of view from top to bottom, asserting a sense of urgency by placing them in the same scenario. Here, Fan Xi has equally eliminated the “scenic” aspect of being under water, and the tension is sensed from the reality beneath the surface of each image – survival in itself, is a cruel, dramatic and extreme experience.

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It can be said that “Parallel” series is the only work hitherto has adopted the human figure to “de-iconify”. Even though every photograph is a realistic depiction of the extreme condition of being under water, yet the reality of this series does not fully respond to the facial expression or the bodily movement of each subject, but displaying a “genuine state” the work. In her later works, Fan Xi pushed such experiment of “de-iconification” further with “Time Length” (2013). The composition, scenario, mood are gradually replaced by the simple form of the objects – it may even be unrelated to the form of the objects, the high exposure from the blinding flashlight enhances such effect, where the information of the objects are effaced by the blind spots, only leaving its most visible “silhouette”. Such exposure prolongs the time of framing the image, at the moment when time cross over the object, the exposure disrupts the specific linear narrative between the order of time and representation. This approach to deduce information allows the image to be simpler, restoring the limitations of the image, while providing other possibilities of entrance and interpretation.

The title “Time Length” literally comments on the linear narrative of photography with satire. On the relationship of photography and time, Fan Xi points out, “Long after the invention of photography, the photographs evolved around the concept of time, and photography is one of the mediums for linear narration of time. Its subjects are actual objects, and no object would escape the fate of disappearance and eventually be possessed by time. In other words, time is a basic quality of photography, or in a certain sense, a readymade of time. In photography, time is not only the most sentimental depiction, but can also be kidnapped by time. Roland Barthes’ “that-has-been” is now possible for everyone as photography became widely available today. In this case, how would the embodiment of true meaning in time be represented? If time is the barometer for the existence of life, then how can photography become its most effective evidence? I took out the appearance of time in its linear progression, for example, simple narratives. Instead, I’ve adopted a seemingly crude approach to over expose certain details, and by eliminating the singular narrative of the time, the destroyed image is precisely the depiction of actual meaning in life under time’s influence.” [5]

The title of “Time Length” refers to the double entendre of existence and time. If photography is a portrayal of reality, then a representation of reality at present is only timely – whether in particular effects such as the news, or the rendition of a nostalgic past, or pointing to the future. But in the “Time Length” series, Fan Xi’s “length of time” deflected multiple meanings, not only an acknowledgement to the period proceeded this series, but also the overdue expectations of the viewer’s response to the work. Nevertheless, the implicit desire of this work has transcended the limitation of time, by focusing on the pure exploration of the state of existence, as well as the infinite distance between the work of art and its viewers. In Fan Xi’s photographs, attributes of humanist elements are instilled into the relationship between light and shadow, color and shape, subject and setting, the viewer’s psychology and the work itself in “Time Length”, rather than aiming at fulfilling technical standard. For example, the depiction of violence, people’s response in certain situations, or the environment’s affect on people and etc., have all revealed the conditions of existence. By eliminating the adjective and rhetoric of iconification, Fan Xi has laid out the fragile and naked truth of existence before the viewer, the unbearable weight of existence “should not disappear because its weakness and insignificance, in the contrary, it should become stronger as its superficial impression has been stripped away to live up to the dignity of independence.” [6]

The issue then becomes, to what extend is photography the appropriate medium on the discussion of survival? Here, to simply restore the figures, or deduce form by over exposing the object are obviously inefficient in supporting Fan Xi’s vernacular of expression. Moreover, can “image” be restored, or is there a so-called pure and original state? In the course of learning traditional techniques of photo processing, Fan Xi unexpectedly discovered a new way of developing the photographs: one in which, the chemical agents disfigures the original image, and its fragments float continuously as time progresses and the image further disintegrates. Fan Xi calls such works, derived from the destroyed developing process, the “Reduction of Image” (began in 2012, and is still in progress). The most conceptual endeavor of “Reduction of Image” is its extension of the discussion on time and survival from the “Time Length” series, at the same time, exploring other possibilities in the vernacular of photography.

In the “Reduction of Image” series, the works of art visualized with the effect of time undergo the dual processes of destruction and generation: the addition of chemicals to a framed image reassembles the information originally conveyed by this image, this definite image continues to transform and grows into the unknown. According to phenomenology, the only constant in this process of transformation is having had the experiences of reducing the destruction, the fixed image faded and nearly wiped out of the original, what is then reduced may precisely be the form of the object. Thus, as the “form of the object” is reduced, the eyes would be unable to piece together the form when it was captured. It becomes an experience in opposition to experience.

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If the image is considered as a point of departure on the idea plain, then photography still cannot break free from its reliance on the frameworks of spatial relationships and form within the two-dimensional medium. In the “Time Length” series, through reducing information on the photograph, Fan Xi found the infinitely penetrating meaning towards the “core” underneath the surface of the image, where “Reduction of Image” appropriates an outwardly expanding process of destruction to allow the image to be reduced with possibilities beyond sensible experiences. At the instant of pressing on the shutter, the unexpected, the blind fate, the beauty and vulnerability in the process of destruction that infinitely approaches extinction constitutes the source of inspiration for Fan Xi’s “Reduction of Image”. Here, the creative destruction inevitably reveals Fan Xi’s deconstructive parameter of rebirth after death, meanwhile following a constructive impulse in the sane vein.

If “Reduction of Image” explores the medium and subject of photography through traditional methodology, then “The Tree” series, began in 2014, has adopted the technology of Photoshop: where the branches of each “tree” had been collaged from different trees by the artist. In other words, every seemingly real “tree” is the outcome of Fan Xi’s bona fide image editing. The exploration of structure in this series inevitably benefits from Fan Xi’s training in sculpture from the earlier years. The reason each tree seems so real is precisely because the branches are put together without giving the impression of violation. If Fan Xi’s aim is to reveal the infinite distance between the object and its reality on the surface, then we should continue to question which one is more real, the collaged “tree” or the actual one? The image of the reconstructed “tree” challenges people’s knowledge and experience of looking at a tree – and because they are assemblage of a different trees, then how can the tree be identify upon the first glance?

Since the “de-iconification” initiated with the “Time Length” series, the series “Reduction of Image” and “The Tree” are simultaneous undergoing the processes of destruction and regeneration: the former destroys people’s preconceived notions of the objects from their everyday experience, and the latter tries to re-establish a viewing point of experiencing the world. Whether in her attempt to restore this experience, or to reconstruct it, what Fan Xi’s works is interested in exploring is nevertheless the experience related to existence. In “The Second Meditation”, Descartes asked a classic question on cognitive theory: When we see something wears a hat and a coat, we would think that’s a person. However the question is, why are we certain that’s a person rather than the obvious hat and coat? Our everyday experiences shape our cognition. By the same token, it also hinders our judgment. Fan Xi’s tree challenges such cognitive inclination derived from experiences – when we see the “tree” in her work, how would we know the “tree” put together with Photoshop is one that exists, and is the same tree?

“The Tree” series consciously reconstructs a way of looking. This is a highly rational process, and the position of every branch requires sufficient reason. It is constituted by a large amount of sensible material (branches from different trees), while not limited by them.

In 2016, Fan Xi started a new series, “All Beings”. If Fan Xi has not clearly identified the sufficient reasons between the work of art and its implied meanings with the “Nothing” series, then starting with “All Beings”, the artist began to clearly grasp the inner logic in her art practice. The ability to convey one’s own artworks is a process of legitimization, just as art practice cannot be sustained with whimsical idea. The artist’s discussion of her own work should first of all follow a continuous reflection and progression of thought process. All photographs in “All Beings” are shot at night, like being dressed up at night, it’s an impulse to document the madness in growth, its unnoticeable details, and thriving lives hidden in the night.

This series has been given a rather serious title, “I’ve never trusted reality: I have too much respect for it, so I wouldn’t trust it”, from which Fan Xi thought about the ensuing work in the sane vein, “I’ve never imagined about death: It should still be a surprise”. “All Beings” eventually adopted the meaning of these two long titles, perhaps already encompassed everything Fan Xi wishes to express. Every image in “All Beings” is taken with long exposure and multiple flashlights. Here, Fan Xi reduction of the image to its “genuine status” no longer relies on the physical deconstruction of the image as in the “Reduction of Image” series, but allows the object to be revealed through its own its desire to be “alive”. This is the most appealing aspect of “All Beings”. Weather in the growth of life, or the disappearance and extinction (what Fan Xi wishes to continue with), the desire to “grow and live” is the essence of existence for all beings, presented without any constraints. In other words, the desire “to live” engenders the restoration of all things’ essence. In this sense, Fan Xi shares Spinoza’s point of view that, all beings make its own effort to preserve its survival.

The splendor of “living beings” exhibits the speed at which the myriad of things exists in “All Beings”. Those sprawling vegetation, audacious and towering architecture, the formless objects under high exposure, and the dancing branches… existence has its own speed of growth and decay, however, through Fan Xi’s lens, the images emit splendid radiance, gathering all the objects’ speed of existence into the image.

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Portrait on Paper Series
胶片、综合材料 film, mixed material 2015


The debate on photography and painting waned at the beginning of the last century, people no longer doubt whether photography and film with the advance of modern technology would be consider an artistic medium, or to formulate into a new artistic language. The mediums were considered modern, constitutes as part of our modernity. If Shakespeare and Jane Austin live in the contemporary, perhaps they’d also pick up a camera or become playwrights. However, Walter Benjamin has incisively observed the essence of photograph as a kind of image, which means photography would have to rely on the mechanical reproduction for a work of art. With this mechanical reproduction, the so-called aura in the “work of art” is disappearing [7]: Semantically, mechanic suggests, photography is a type of technique; and reproduction suggests, photographs are products can be quickly consumed. In the developed capitalist era, the poet expressing emotions, the aura and all the sources that provide energy to the work of art have disappeared. We live and survive in the present, in this superficial and rapidly consumed world of images, everything in this world has become a subject of desire, superficial, and the body is immersed in the bombardment of sensible desires inflated and consumed rapidly, then relentlessly abandoned. The works of art in a time of images production became consumer items, a product with a price tag, edging for new heights with a voyeuristic gaze, renewing auction records. As revealed in Jean Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society (1976), parties in the position of distribution appeal to and incite uncontained desires to consume through various technological means to people of all social strata, with which to re-organize social status.

This is not a theoretical hypothesis. The past has already disclosed the “world of image” of our time. According to Jean Baudrillard’s theory, photography, or images, is a new witchcraft invented by modern society. We think we can control the world as we wish, we think “we” photographed certain landscape based on our interests, rather it’s the world emphasizing its own existence in these images with the assistance of technology. Here, the subjective and objective accomplishes a chilling inversion – the landscape is performing itself, and we are only playing the supporting roles of in relation to this image. However, anywhere we look, image technology inadvertently suggests, “We” are the subject, the essence of existence who are in the administrative role. Paradoxically, photography as an expression subservient to the subject’s will, enwraps contemporary art in various ways as a new technological mean, coercing for its confirmation on being a respectable art. [8]

Borrowing one of Heidegger’s popular saying, the present time is a stiff undying “Weltbild”. If the essence of the image is representation, representing the representation, and imitating the imitation, where an infinite gap exists in the “concept” of existence [9]. Then, the representation of image hinders the thriving physis of existence. Unfortunately, the conclusion on the crisis of modernity does not offer any salvation, Heidegger simply stated, the crisis of modernity is comparable to the “abyss”, where redemption can’t be found. The courageous ones jump into it, or the existentially enlightened guards it silently. This is also the reason Susan Sontag firmly believes photography should not be an artistic category expressed in On Photography, based on the classical Platonic principle, the imitation of imitating the object itself, is placed at the lowest level of conceptual order. [10]

Even in the present, as much as photography has stepped up to being works of art, widely collected by art museums and sold in auction houses, and owned by art collectors, yet the daunting prospect for an impoverished time of images is not only the disappearance of the “aura” - a critical component of the works of art, but also the people who carry, sense and represents such aura, in other words, the artist. Walter Benjamin has projected that behind the strong impact of images in the time of mechanical reproduction for photography and film over traditional techniques is the implicit social, cultural, psychological and intellectual disconnect between the present and the past. The way in which one accepts this kind of change suggests the kind of “modern” person one chooses to become. In Benjamin’s view, this is the so-called modernity. It’s not love at first sight, but the sentimentality of the last glance. Confronted by modernity, everything is passing by rapidly, and becoming inconsistent with time. Thereby, it renews, renovates, disappears, or becomes a classic reminiscent of modern life. In a world where everything becomes old quickly, one has to put a lot of effort to strive for eternity, to leave a mark on these short-lived objects, or destroy them completely. The Arcade Project (1926-1940) was a theoretical framework that tried to encompass everything, Benjamin tried to “study the overall through fragments” [11], discovering the existential essence of the overall from the basic individual component. In this project, the most difficult aspect for researchers is to understand the absence of Benjamin’s own writing. Instead, he’s only copied and edited secondary materials.

Photography’s own controversy is perhaps similar to the psychological fear behind Fan Xi’s early transition from sculpture to this medium: how can photography be an accurate artistic language, as the vehicle and an expression of the artistic aura? At the beginning, Fan Xi had obviously rejected it. As early as “Nothing” to today’s “All Beings”, Fan Xi’s works completed the transition in the liminal space, from “nothing” to “everything”, a transition not only conveyed through the ambition seen in the titles of her artworks: if “Nothing” captures the weakness and ephemerality of one’s existence, from Fan Xi’s eyes to the lens of the camera, she consciously tries to build an existence with “All Beings”, framed in those full and rich physis in spite of its vicissitude. This liminal transition is Fan Xi’s attempt to transcend photography as a technique, a way of representation and its possibility as an artistic language. To which, “All Beings” tries to structure a framework of meaning as in Benjamin’s Arcade Project, by encompassing all sentient beings passing through life – even the most insignificant wild grass, should live up to its dignity and solemnity of being. This is even more so in “The Tree” series, where Fan Xi tries to protect the effusive meaning of existence, allowing it to grow into a silent “tree”. The notion of existence is the essential core in Fan Xi’s art practice, as well as the infinite distance between her art photography and all frivolous ways of looking.

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[1Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p55.

[2Ibid, p. 73.

[3Fan Xi’s personal website,


[5Fan Xi’s personal website,


[7Walter Benjamin, trans. Xu Qiling, Lin Zhiming, Towards the Years of Disappearing Aura – Walter Benjamin on art, (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2004) p. 60-61.

[8Jean Baudrillard, “The Disappearing Technique”, in Gu Zheng, Selected Papers in Western Photography (Hangzhou: Zhejing Photography Publication, 2007), p.122.

[9Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, trans. Sun Zhouxing, (Shanghai: Shanghai Yiwen Publication, 2008) p.86.

[10Susan Sontag, On Photography (Shanghai: Shanghai Yiwen Publication, 2008), p.145.

[11Walter Benjamin, “The Arcade Project”, David Frisby, trans. Lu Huilin et al., The Fragments of Modernity, (Beijing, Shangwu Yinshu Guan, 2003) p.255.