Artist Thomas Wunsch, who digitally manipulates photographs into abstract expressionist creations, tells us about his incredible experience on residency during the spring of 2013 at the Huantie Times Artist Residency Program in Beijing.
China Residencies: What sparked your interest in China?
Thomas Wunsch: I had never been to China before, but I've had an interest in the country for a long time. With all the conflicting news I was hearing about China, I thought I should go and check it out for myself. I have travelled and worked extensively in other countries in Asia, but I had a hunch that China would be completely different than anything I had seen and experienced before. And it sure was.
CR: How did you hear about the Huantie Times residency?
TW: My long time curator Juan Xu told me about this program. She is very well known for her curatorial work with the "Bald Girls" group [an activist feminist art collective] that even made headlines in the New York Times. She told me about this residency, I thought that this would be a great opportunity. So I applied and was accepted, which, needless to say, made me very happy.
CR: Did you have any issues applying for a visa?
TW: Yes, unfortunately there were quite a few issues when I applied for my Chinese visa at the consulate in Frankfurt. The first problem was the length of my stay. Even though I had a written invitation from the museum stating that I would be there for that length of time, the clerk seemed to think that this was simply too long. I tried to draw his attention to the fact that a Chinese institution had invited me to stay for that long, but he was not impressed. Another problem was the fact that I am a photographer. The people at the consulate seemed to think I wanted to take documentary photographs and possibly use them to the disadvantage of the country. It took quite an effort and a referral to my website to convince them that I only work in fine art photography, not documentary photography. I did finally get the visa, but it was very hard work.
CR: What were the residency's accommodations like?
TW: The accommodations were quite good. The museum provided me with a two story 100 square meter loft, with a large modern kitchen and bathroom, an office desk, a fully furnished living room and bedroom, complete with air conditioning,a washing machine and so on. I was very pleased with that studio.
CR: How did you fund your residency?
TW: Part of the funding came from the museum, other parts I paid for. I did not mind putting down some of my own money for this residency because I expected it to be a fantastic experience and I was not disappointed. This was money very well spent.
CR: Did you apply with a specific project idea in mind, or were you looking for inspired on the spot?
TW: I wanted to be inspired on the spot, since my work involves taking photographs that I later process digitally, and inspired I was! It was unbelievable.
Everything in China looks so different than things in the Western world that I had no problem finding something to photograph every day. I only take abstract expressionistic photographs, which are in fact so abstract that they are beyond recognition.
CR: Tell us a bit about the project you worked on while you were there.
TW: The purpose of this artist-in-residence program was to take photographs in China and after six weeks, exhibit the resulting works at the Huantie Times Art Museum. I had never done something like this before. In the past, I took photographs all year long and, at the end of each year, I went through thousands of photographs and selected the best ones for publication or exhibitions.
In Beijing, it was a completely different story. I was out in the field for eight to ten hours every day, taking photographs in different parts of the city. I would return to my studio at night to work on my computer, shaping my pictures for hours. Even then, I didn't have the time look at each photograph I took in one day. All in all, I took over 10,000 pictures and out of these, I pre-selected 300 that seemed to have potential. In fact all of the pictures I showed at the museum ended up on my year's best list.
I am still not finished viewing and processing all of the pictures I took in China, even though I continue to work eight hour days on them. So far, I have viewed about half of them. After my residency finished I went to South Korea for two weeks because I had an exhibition in Seoul, and while I was there took another 2,000 photographs. And you may have guessed it: I have not looked at any one of those yet either.
CR: Did your work or practice change significantly from your time in China?
TW: Yes it did. I have never been inspired to go out on a daily basis and take photographs for such a long stretch of time and still find new and interesting things to photograph. I don't usually travel abroad for such a long stretch of time and don't normally take this many photographs. What inspired me in China was not only the new surroundings, the people, the language, the food, and meeting other artists, but also the intensity of the experience. It did not just change my work practice, but also changed me personally. To this day, it continues to have an effect on me.
CR: How involved are the organisers with the resident's daily life? Did they organise exhibitions or open studios?
TW: The organisers were very involved. And they were of very big help with everything I needed. I have to single out Frank especially, whose real Chinese name I never found out (Frank was very secretive about it.) He speaks very good English and was bending over backwards to make sure I had everything I needed for my work. I was also able to call him 24/7 in case of an emergency. That is the kind of support one hopes for while working in a foreign country.
The organisers also did a great job setting up the two week exhibition of my work at the museum at the end of the residency. Everyone was great: Marc, the graphic designer at the museum, designed the invitation card and the poster; the crew hung the artworks according to my instructions and organising the opening reception with food and drink. The museum team also invited members of the press and a television film team that made a six minute report on the exhibition. When the exhibition was finished, the team wrapped my photographs carefully to make sure they did not get damaged.
CR: Did you give lectures or classes during your time there?
TW: I was invited by the Luxun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang to introduce my work and held a lecture for their photography class. I took a train there, which took about 5 hours, and stayed for three days. Around 200 students attended my lecture and asked wonderful questions. I also attended their photography classes and review students portfolios, which were all very good. Some students were so good they really didn't need to go to art school, while others were still exploring the possibilities of photography and seemed unsure of what their subject matter should be, but that is a normal part of the development of an artist.
CR: If there were other artists around while you were there, what were they like? Did collaborations occur?
TW: When I was in Beijing, I met some wonderful artists that have become friends of mine. Jinwon Chang and Gwanghee Jeong from South Korea, both spent an entire year on a Korean artist-in-residence program in Beijing and Lucia Dellefant from Germany and Anton Petz from Austria, who were also part of the Huantie residency. First of all I have to say I love their artwork. When I was visiting their studios I could spend hours there (sometimes literally) just looking at their work. They are also impressive personalities and great fun to be around.
I am pretty sure that I would never have met them had I not gone to Beijing and I consider personal encounters like that an extra bonus of the residency. Every one of us had at least one exhibition in Beijing. And even though collaborations did not occur, we are in touch and hope to collaborate in the future.
CR: What was Beijing like as a city?
TW: Beijing is overwhelming in every aspect. It is monstrously huge, but I was able to cope with its size easily. I have lived in New York City for a long time and big cities do not scare me. It took some getting used to taking taxis and the subway to get anywhere, since nothing in Beijing is within walking distance.
I went to Caochangdi quite often because it was great to photograph. I also went to many galleries there and ate at restaurants. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei lives there and one day I paid him a visit. Even though other outer districts of Beijing look similar, its art community makes Caochangdi certainly very special.
CR: Did China fit your expectations? Or did the country surprise you?
TW: Before I went to China I did a lot of research on the country and talked to many people had been there. But when I arrived, things were very different than I had imagined.
China, to answer your question, exceeded my expectations by far -- in a very positive way. Everyday life was a constant thrill. Work in such an environment was very productive, and it shows in my pictures. Beijing, as a city, was much larger than expected -- while New York City is very compact, Beijing is spread out over a very large area.
CR: Did you speak any Chinese before coming? If no, did you learn any during your stay?
TW: While doing my research on China, I found out that a lot of people speak English in Shanghai but few people do in Beijing, so I thought it would be best to take a Chinese language class. At first I thought I would only learn how to speak, but my Chinese teacher told me I had to learn the characters too, because otherwise I would be able to speak and understand, but not read anything, not even a menu. I took a two hour class once a week for three months, and practised at home every day for an hour and a half. And I was glad I did, because in China, I was able to communicate about the most important things.
CR: Did you feel you encountered a significant cultural or linguistic barrier ?
TW: China is so different from western world (and even from other countries in Asia) that one can find oneself in quite a few unique situations. I never considered these differences to be barriers, culturally or linguistically, but instead I thought of them as opportunities that helped me grow. I developed quite a few new survival skills that to this day, 8 months after my stay, I am still using, and that are also very helpful for my photographic career.
CR: Overall, what experience or encounter will stay with you from this time?
TW: After I returned from China, people asked me what it was like and I would tell them that every day, without exception, I had five to eight unbelievably great experiences -- and this is no exaggeration. I am not able to single out just one encounter that was especially impressive, the entire stay was great. When you live in China, your body is flushed with adrenalin all the time, you know you are on the crest of the wave. I took some of the best photograph I have ever taken in China and I think that says it all.
CR: Are you interested in going back and spending more time in China?
TW: I spent two and a half months in China and I am convinced that I only scratched the surface of the country. I will definitely go back, possibly as an artist-in-residence again. This year I am going on residency to South Korea, but I am thinking about a return in 2015. China was very good to me, I love that country.
To view more of Thomas' work, visit his website at www.wunsch-photography.com.