New York, Jan. 2010 - ArtSlant editor Sophia Powers had the chance to join Cui Xiuwen at Eli Klein Gallery just days after the opening of her photography solo “Existential Emptiness,” which runs until February 27th. ArtSlant would like to thank Eli Klein Gallery for making this interview possible as well as Laure Raibaut for assisting in the translation.
Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 5, 2009, C-Print, 34 5/8 x 78 3/4 inches; Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art
Sophia Powers: I was intrigued by the title you chose for your show "Existential Emptiness.” Can you tell me a little bit about how you settled on this rather provocative name?
Cui Xiuwen: Well, the concept of emptiness is very important in Chinese culture and Chinese consciousness, and, to be honest, it is very difficult to translate into English. Certainly it has to do with the Buddhist idea of detachment, but I mean it as more than that. I want to use it in the sense of a psychological state.
SP: Certainly the reoccurrence of the doll in your work implies a state of lifelessness or psychological vacancy. How did you settle upon this motif in your latest series?
CXW: I wanted to somehow indicate an alter ego outside of the physical realm. The doll represents the psyche of the young girl.
Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 19, 2009 , C-Print, 94 1/2 x 60 1/4 inches; Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art
SP: Could it also represent your own alter ego as an artist? Or would you say you mean it as a broader statement about the consciousness of young Chinese women in a more general way?
CXW: You might say that both could be true.
SP: But when I read earlier interviews with you, you spoke about how supportive your family was of your artistic ambitions, how you remember your brother gifting you paints, for example, on your birthday. It's hard for me to imagine that in such a family you felt the sort of empty alter ego I see in the young girl you depict.
CXW: That's true, I did feel very supported by my family, and I grew up in a very artistically and intellectually rich environment. However we were not very wealthy, and it was often difficult for me to get as many supplies or access to art books as I would have liked. But I did feel from early age a strong sense of independence and the capacity for self-expression. So I suppose that it would be right to say that the young girl in my photographs is more the embodiment of a generation rather than a particular reflection on my own childhood.
Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 18, 2009 , C-print, 56 3/4 x 118 1/8 inches; Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art
SP: I know you work very closely with each of your models in order to make then comfortable and really capture them intimately. Can you tell me more about how these relationships develop? How do you choose young women in the first place, and how do they react to the process and final product of your photography? Have there ever been any issues with the model’s parents, or the model herself feeling uncomfortable about the pictures?
CXW: In the current series there haven't been any problems, but in an earlier series things got a little more complicated as the girl grew up. However, every model I've worked with has really loved the photographs I've taken as well as the experience of being in the pictures. As you can see, many of the models have grown up in the course of our working together, and I think that in some ways that experience comes through. Also, I think that having worked closely on a series of photographs has been a really positive experience for many of my models, and has very positively influenced their lives. One girl, for instance, became set on being a film actress on the basis of our projects, and another decided she wanted to be a filmmaker. In fact, that girl-- the model in my "Last Supper" photograph, is studying to make films now.
SP: Speaking of films, are you planning to make any more in the near future?
CXW: Actually I'm planning to be done with one next month!
SP: Fantastic! Where can we see it?
CXW: I'm going to be putting it online, actually.
SP: Oh really? Well, if you would like to put a link up on ArtSlant, I’m sure our readers would be excited to see it!
CXW: That would be great! (We'll let you know when the video's up.)
Cui Xiuwen, Existential Emptiness No. 16, 2009 , C-Print, 46 1/8 x 118 1/8 inches; Courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art
SP: You've often been called a feminist artist. Do you like to be seen as such, or does it sometimes make you uncomfortable?
CXW: No, I don't really think it makes sense, and I don't appreciate having such title put on my work. I think it's very limiting. It seems to just be a feature of the art market and very difficult to escape. But in China, I don't feel like such a distinction is made. You don't need to bark about being a woman artist.
Laure Raibaut: That's one of the great accomplishments of Mao that is so often forgotten about in the west. He really made such tremendous progress in equalizing the roles of women, so today in China to be a woman in the arts is not so unusual that one has to make a big deal about it.
CXW: It's true; I want my work to be seen as made by an individual, not made by a woman. I think the goal of art is to realize our own individuality, which is beyond gender. I think that feminism has achieved a lot, but at this point I think the way to achieve feminism's aims is to get over it! I think that sometimes people invest too much in the gender distinction because they are not comfortable as individuals. For an artist in particular it is important to seek self-fulfillment and self-refinement through one's practice.
SP: And finally, my last question. What do you like to do when you're not making art?
CXW: Oh, normal things-- shopping, talking with friends, just being a woman!
ArtSlant would like to thank Cui Xiuwen, Laure Raibaut, and Eli Klein Fine Art for their assistance in making this interview possible.