Through portraits by German-born photographer Thomas Fuesser, Short Cuts allows readers to peer behind gallery walls and into the lives of China’s leading artists.

Fuesser has been documenting China’s artists since 1993. Short Cuts: Artists in China Vol. 1, a 528 page album that will be officially released in April 2013, holds Fuesser’s intimate shots of his subjects in everyday situations, from working in their studios to cooking in the kitchen.

Feng Mengbo. © Thomas Fuesser.

Feng Mengbo. © Thomas Fuesser.

Read the essay from the book by editor Rosa Maria Falvo, republished with the permission of the author, and then head to the bottom of the page to find out how to win your very own pre-release copy of Short Cuts: Artists from China!

The artists portrayed in the book are

Says Fuesser in a video trailer for Short Cuts, “The new project [Short Cuts] I am doing is like a reflection on what I have done [since] 1993. I followed them [the Chinese artists] one year now, but we decided to do something special for the book.”

Published by Skira, the first edition, which is edited by Rosa Maria Falvo and has contributions by Lorenz Helbling, Shen Qilan and Jean Loh, is the first in a planned set of two or three volumes.

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga S Thorsdottir. © Thomas Fuesser.

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga S Thorsdottir. © Thomas Fuesser.

Below we publish the essay from the book by editor Rosa Maria Falvo. (After the essay, keep reading to find out how to win a copy of Short Cuts!)

From the Inside

 

Almost twenty years ago, in Andrew Solomon’s candid report on China’s art scene for the New York Times’ magazine (19 December 1993), Shanghai born painter and art scholar Xu Hong was quoted as saying, ‘People speak all the time of mixing Western and Eastern influences, as though it were like mixing red and blue ink to paint pictures in purple. They do not think of what it means to understand these two cultures and to try to incorporate their different ways of thought.’ While neither Thomas Fuesser nor Lorenz Helbling are naturally attracted to the limelight, even today, their lives have been independently and inextricably linked to those seeking that limelight and bringing these worlds together. Dissolving the borders between cultures and art practices, between artists and photographers, and even between the public and the gallery space, is what appears to inform their imaginations. Fuesser is no doubt interested in those subtle but fertile ‘interior’ spaces, explored in the process of making art, which courageous artists of all kinds deal with everyday. Perhaps this is the common thread that links otherwise disparate perspectives and experiences, and remains constant in these images as much as in his migratory soul between Europe and Asia.

Sun Xun. © Thomas Fuesser.

Sun Xun. © Thomas Fuesser.

Inspired by Robert Altman’s acclaimed film about an ensemble of relationships and circumstances in Los Angeles, Fuesser has put together his own mosaic of artists living in China. We see loosely knit, intimate and parallel flashes of their faces and ideas juxtaposed with their artworks and their busy, even frenetic, lives. And Fuesser demonstrates an intuitive feel for their individual journeys. Of course, Altman was concerned with the shadowy social tapestry of middle class America in the 1990s. But Fuesser’s subjects today are also elusive, in that, as outsiders, whether culturally or otherwise, we can only begin to understand them through a kind of artistic ‘interpreter’, as it were; someone on the inside, who shares their world. The overall effect is less about narrative and more about mood. Each image implies cooperation and these artists are clearly comfortable with their photographer. While they are the conspicuous protagonists, even in their absence, we can feel the pulsating Chinese metropolis that surrounds them, feeding them a context for their work. Fuesser emphasises the ‘stillness’ of our privileged moments with them. Their concentration, efforts and, in some cases, dismay, is ours vicariously, for the few minutes that we allow ourselves to enter into their world. We can feel Lui Wei’s improvisation, Zhang Ding’s versatility, and Sun Xun’s meticulousness. Zhang Peili’s overwhelming screens and Chris Gill’s burgeoning canvases frame their subjects and makers perfectly. Fuesser sees all of this, in an instant, but there is a mutually creative drive to his approach, a deep empathy and connection, that makes this project transcendent. In this sense, the imagery here was made collaboratively.

Din Yi. © Thomas Fuesser.

Din Yi. © Thomas Fuesser.

Most photographers agree that a good portrait is one of the hardest pictures to achieve. There’s a sense of uncertainty, an awareness of the emotional evocation someone can offer, and a typically awkward prelude to shooting. Indeed, it seems that a dedicated photographer has the same kinds of dilemmas as a sculptor, painter or musician. Fuesser has followed these artists from their beginnings, taking an interest in them as people across the gamut of their lives; a commitment that is essentially coming from a place of understanding. And therein lies the catch: when you photograph an unknown artist, as opposed to a star for the cover of a big magazine, most of the images are likely to remain in a box. But this is what is meant by participating in the history of art. The journey is made up of all those who have carried the torch and contributed to a certain discourse or significant moment in time. An artist, great or small, emerges from a cultural humus, consisting of others who may never be recognised by critics or the larger market but are nonetheless indispensable to the process. Fuesser’s environmental approach to portraiture ensures these pictures have historical significance, while he plays an active role in animating the scene. If artists are a kind of litmus paper for society, then this wryly observant photographer has shown good instincts in defining his own artistic achievements in such a substantial body of work.

Cai Guo-Qiang. © Thomas Fuesser.

Cai Guo-Qiang. © Thomas Fuesser.

Ugo Mulas (1928-1973) famously concluded, ‘When I photograph painters, I often try to go beyond the mere reportage… what I’m interested in is to make clear the artist in connection with the results of their own works, that is to say, that I have tried to understand which of their attitudes is crucial to the final product.’ His brief but intense relationships in the art world produced compelling imagery that showed a certain complicity of mind. So if a good portrait is the result of a unique collaboration between photographer and subject, then we can safely say that the emotional reciprocity in Fuesser’s work is based on trust; a shared moment of exchange between one kind of artist and another. Even fleetingly, there is evidence of familiarity or rapport. In the case of Cai Guo-Qiang, the journalistic encounter itself provides the backdrop to a more confidential ‘recording’ of his personality. Here the reflexivity creates an engrossing set of portraits that ask more questions than they answer. But visual language is unwieldy and open to very subjective interpretation. And yet even in the context of its inherent variations, we get the feeling this person is a complex imaginative being. Which begs another question: who and what is an artist? Historically, taking pictures of them meant being an integral part of a passionate, improvised community; an intellectual hub, attracting kindred spirits ready to challenge and support each other’s assumptions and aspirations.

Zhang Ding. © Thomas Fuesser.

Zhang Ding. © Thomas Fuesser.

Fuesser is what you might call a creators’ photographer. And not just because his colleagues admire his work, but because they are his work. You can see their quick bursts of thinking, alongside the time it takes for their ideas to percolate, even while they’re doing something apparently unrelated, like cooking in their kitchen. Viewers are invited to witness the creative process, and how artists conceive their practice becomes a central theme. This photographer maintains that his work is ‘all about emotions, observing and personal and private access’. It is a slow, tentative process, but he has earned his status as an insider, empowering these artists to confide in him and invest in his efforts. Some shots have an experimental feel, such as the psychedelic red enveloping Zhang Ding, and others are ostensibly playful for the artist but metaphorically poignant for the photographer, such as the cover image by MadeIn Company, entitled Focus, with an aboriginal spear skewering a Hasselblad. Fuesser describes it as either ‘the murder of reality or the resistance of a lie’, depending on one’s perspective.

Ai Weiwei. © Thomas Fuesser.

Ai Weiwei. © Thomas Fuesser.

Sequentially these images convey a naturalness that comes from Fuesser’s own working method, coupled with a reverence for each artist’s adherence to their craft. We get a sense of the passage of time, but more specifically of the tenacity of artistic drive and the pressures of public personas. We can almost hear the street interjecting the silence of a studio or the moment when an artist is lost in thought. In his ongoing physiognomy of the creative essence of contemporary China, Fuesser seeks a balance between the internal world and the one outside. Happily, he has applied a contemplative style to his documentation. One that validates a similar intuition from another kind of artist and culture, over a century earlier: ‘It is not likely that posterity will fall in love with us, but not impossible that it may respect or sympathise; so a man would rather leave behind him the portrait of his spirit than a portrait of his face.’ (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894)

 

© Rosa Maria Falvo

We have one copy of Short Cuts: Artists in China to giveaway! To get your hands on a copy (before it is officially released!), leave a comment below telling us why you would love to add this book to your library and we will select a winner by random draw. Draw closes: Sunday 17 February 2013.

KN/HH

Related Topics: photography, portraiture, Chinese artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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