Xing Danwen: “My existence is as artist – human – woman”

Xing Danwen, photo by Doors. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in 1967 in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, Xing Danwen studied painting at Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). In the late 1980s, she got excited about the photographic medium and began to shoot the Chinese underground culture. She then left China for further studies in New York. She is one of the first contemporary Chinese artists to use photography in art and to work with photography, video, and multimedia. Her artwork focuses on urbanized China and reflects local and global issues: desire, female identity, as well as the tensions between the individual and the collective.

Xing Danwen’s work has been exhibited throughout China as well as overseas, with exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art (US), the Pompidou Centre (France), the International Photography Center (US), the Victoria & Albert Museum (UK), the Yokohama Triennale (Japan), and the Sydney Biennale (Australia), among others. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at: Warsaw National Museum (2017), Beijing Red Brick Art Museum (2017) and Milan’s Officine dell’Imagine Gallery (2014).

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, Doors interviews this uniquely charismatic artist.

DoorZine: Xing Danwen, you are close to the first generation of contemporary artists in China, and their actions and existence have left traces in your earliest photos, which became your Personal Diary (1993-2003) series. Did you realize you were making a record at the time?

Xing Danwen: No, that really wasn’t my intention at the time. But I recognize now that my photos have the value of being a record. At the time my main thought was visual creation, how to take interesting photos. I originally studied painting. After leaving CAFA, my life pulled in all directions, and for various reasons, I gave up painting and turned to photography.

Aged 17, I had fallen in love with photography and was passionate about it, so it was totally natural and organic. So I wanted to use the camera to continue my creative journey. My question at the time was, “How to let photography be seen as art?”. This is what motivated me to turn my lens towards underground culture.

I was immersed in rebel culture, and in my enthusiasm for creating my own body of work, I didn’t spare much thought for how I was actually creating a record of the times. Looking back, it’s a pity I didn’t think of it like that. Because if I had, more personalities would have appeared and I would have captured more of what was going on.

DoorZine: Why did you choose the underground culture as your own creative theme?

I was young and in the process of growing up, which meant I really needed the spiritual and emotional support of others. The reason why I took photos of artists was because they were not like regular people. As a good student educated in traditional arts who had just left university, I wanted to discover myself and break free. I guess I was looking for support. These people supported my discovery of the wild side of my heart. Learning from them, I felt the power surge through my body. Looking at the work today, you can sense a girl breaking out of her traditional social bonds, a conflict between the lawlessness of her heart and her willingness to follow the rules.

Xing Danwen, from the series “A Personal Diary”. Courtesy of the artist.

DoorZine: Which artists do you feel most resonance with ?

I like artists that stand out, concept-wise, and exhibit a kind of wisdom. For example, artists from the generation before me, Huang Yongping, Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui, and Xu Bing. I know Xu Bing well, and he has had a great influence on me. Seeing his work, The Book from the Sky while at university opened my eyes.

It was the first time I saw art presented in such an original way. Back then, it was quite rare to have an artist leave such an impression, before I went to study in New York. When I got there, I really knew I had entered a world of art. Of contemporary women artists, I admire Yin Xiuzhen a lot. Her work is very strong, just like Zhu Jia.


Xing Danwen, from the series "A Personal Diary". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, from the series "A Personal Diary". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, from the series "A Personal Diary". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Thread". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Thread". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Thread". Courtesy of the artist.

DoorZine: Thread uses a sweater being woven and then unwoven to represent the mother-daughter relationship. What kind of familial and emotional relationship do you want to express?

This new work is not just about the mother-daughter relationship, or even about the family. I wanted to borrow this particular relationship to explore the emotion of loving and being loved. The work is not intended to voice the emotional state of any person or group of people in particular, but rather express something universal about the state of human relations. If you look closely, you will see symbolic nature of the two actors, in that the people in the video have no specific form, representing the concepts of mother and daughter as symbols.

As I get older, I have learnt to appreciate intergenerational difference, and the variety of ways of seeing life values. The Chinese say people can be divided into groups, showing that values are really important. People who share values can share just about anything. To love and be loved, the connections between emotional restraint and control, these are things I want to raise in this work. I chose a very natural relationship, that of mother and daughter, one that needs little explanation, to demonstrate the struggle between them, and explain human relationships on a bigger scale, by effacing the individual and stressing the universality of the roles.

DoorZine: Do you like to play characters in your work? Do you like the role of actor?

Personally, I’m very two-sided. While I can be shy and passive, I really like challenging my own passiveness because I like people a lot, and enjoy the role of observer. It is extremely difficult for me to play a role in my own work, but I enjoy it very much. Not to mention, I think I’m very talented in this area. I’ve also played in two films: Turtle (Jordan Schiele, 2014) and Dog Days (Jordan Schiele, 2016). People say that I’m a good actor because I can lose myself in my acting.

If I put all my curiosity and analytical ability into the role and play it from the perspective of the character, the performance can work out really well. I like acting, because on the one hand, I get the chance to challenge my own passivity. On the other hand, I’ve found that I’m good at it. Thirdly, when I act out my own work, I can better present it to others, offering a stronger sense of its individual character. I like to pay attention to the personal aspect of performance. So when I present my work, I attempt to refine its commonalities as best I can.


Xing Danwen, "Wall House". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Wall House". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Urban Fiction". Courtesy of the artist.


Xing Danwen, "Urban Fiction". Courtesy of the artist.

“I am an independent individual, always striving for self-confidence, autonomy, and self-mastery, as well as equality of the sexes.”

Xing Danwen

DoorZine: With the rise and development of the #Metoo movement, European and US feminism has entered a historic period. Do you see yourself as a feminist artist? How to you view the status quo for Chinese artists and their hopes for the future?

Traditional definitions of feminine virtue in China make women out to be passive and introverted when it comes to their sexual role. Our education system offers up nothing about feminism, which means that an entire generation of women has grown up with no conscious understanding of the movement. Many have stood up only in the context of their own lives and setbacks, and those that couldn’t have become sacrifices.

Of course, young women today are way stronger, more confident, knowledgeable, and ready to express themselves. In my view feminist education today should focus on entering mainstream education, and help women as well as teach men.

If men don’t really respect women’s rights, there is no way to change the traditional power imbalance that favors men, or change the extent of women’s inequality in society as a whole.

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as feminism in my vocabulary. There was only Mao’s concept of half the sky. I am an independent individual, always striving for self-confidence, autonomy, and self-mastery, as well as equality of the sexes. From a certain perspective this fits the concept of feminism, but I don’t see myself as a feminist artist per se.

I think that society today is much more open that it used to be, and the environment for women growing up is totally different. Many young women have the opportunity to get a good education at home and abroad, which makes them more conscious of gender issues and better able to pursue gender equality and an independent life. They have an understanding of the value of life. This will also greatly change the face of women doing art.

Xing Danwen is one of the Chinese photographers featured in A World History of Women Photographers.

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