Photo Kopi: Zhuang Wubin on Conceptual Photography
in Southeast Asia
Photo Kopi are excepts from conversations on photography I have with friends, peers and colleagues over coffee or cha, with maybe a stick or two to perk things up.
The first kopi session is with photographer/curator Zhuang Wubin, well-known for his research and support for photography in Southeast Asia. Wubin is most certainly one of the most knowledgable people I know, not just on photography, but on history, politics, culture and social affairs in the region. But then again I wouldn’t have expected any less from someone who has spent considerable years researching and writing his upcoming book on Southeast Asian photography.
Now I may not always agree with his views and opinions, and I suspect many won’t either (some finding them militant of sorts), but one thing for certain, it’s hard to argue that Zhuang Wubin hasn’t done his homework and isn’t one of the most passionate photo people in the region today. My conversations with him over coffee, or beer for that matter, are always engaging, always informative, never dull.
First up, is an excerpt* from a longer conversation with Wubin on Conceptual Photography in Southeast Asia.
What is your definition of Conceptual Photography? Or what does it mean?
This is a tough question. It is one of the hardest things to define. I think most of the time when we talk about it here in Southeast Asia, the term is probably badly defined.
Let me use the quote of Chua Chye Teck, who once said to me that there is no such thing as conceptual photography in Singapore. But there are Singaporean photographers who are doing projects with a concept. There’s a difference between the two. We’re not playing with words here. Conceptualism as a practice has a specific history: 1970s, Western Europe, America, parts of Canada… the kind of art that some of them were exploring there. Photography was part of it. So was performance and installation. When it got transferred into Southeast Asia, we had to tweak it, adapt it, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Even when modernity or modernism came to Southeast Asia, it was adapted to our local conditions and needs. But we have barely tried to define what is Conceptualism in and across Southeast Asia. So now a lot of people say that ‘I’m doing conceptual photography”. My question is: are you referring to the Conceptualism of the 1970s? Or are you doing photography that seems to have a concept?
I don’t understand why curators, artists and critics assume that only artists work with concepts. How do you define “concept” in the first place? If I were to take a more generic way of defining it, a way of defining it so that average people can understand, the term can just mean a specific and deliberate way of addressing something we see in society, a phenomenon. Or it is an approach deployed to investigate the nature of art, the nature of representation, or about the medium itself. But there is a specific approach that you want to use.
Unless you are referring to the Conceptualism of the 70s, otherwise it’s very strange for me to hear people say that street or documentary photographers operate without concept, as if they keep their brains somewhere at home in the oven before they step out onto the streets. And they walk around the streets, like a machine, photographing everything that they encounter—devoid of any human ideas and thought, devoid of emotions. I am not saying that everyone who shoots on the streets has a concept. But the assumption that street or documentary photographers operate without concepts is surely illogical.
So you see there are 2 things that we are dealing with – a term with a specific historical context, and one that we can think of in a more generic way. I think if we take Conceptualism as the way it is defined by the artists of the 70s, I would say that in the 1970s and 1980s, there were artists in the Philippines and Malaysia that worked in various mediums, including photography, who were directly or indirectly influenced by Conceptualism of Western Europe and America. This is clear. But if you look at the younger artists now who say that they are doing conceptual photography, what they mean have little to do with that Conceptualism. But I’m not saying this to cast a negative judgment. As always, when cultural forms get transferred into Southeast Asia, they are usually adapted according to local conditions, norms and needs.
Do you think this whole notion of ‘photography with a concept’ is a by-product of popular and commercial art. Singapore for example, most people working in the creative industry or creative fields are doing ‘commercial creativity’. And the basis of this commercial creativity is ‘what is the concept?’ which leads to the use of concept as a generic term as you mentioned.
Even if that is the case, I don’t think it is deliberate or conscious on the part of the photographers. But you are right in that there is in fact a very generic understanding of the term “concept”. But if you say that to the “conceptual” artist, that “hey, maybe the way you use the word ‘concept’ is like the designer who says that ‘this is my concept paper’”, I think the artist will be pretty pissed off with you. I don’t think the artist imagines that his or her understanding of the term “concept” is the same as that of a commercial designer.
But I tend to look at things in simpler terms. I don’t think “concepts” are exclusive to the so-called artists. If you consider Daido Moriyama, can you just say that he is a street photographer with no concept in mind? If someone makes such a claim, he or she surely doesn’t understand photography. Nor does he or she understand art or Conceptualism. Because what Moriyama is doing is closer in spirit to the Conceptualists of the 70s. He looks at photography not in the traditional modernist sense –the decisive moment, for instance. If you listen to what he says, Moriyama always maintains that photography is a reproduction of the world. He is making a copy. This idea of reproduction and copy came to him, partially from Andy Warhol. And Warhol is the person who the Conceptualists tried to both borrow and demarcate themselves from.
Conceptualism attempted to do away with the mark of the hand of the artist, so that it could deal with how meaning is constructed. So when you think of Moriyama, he is not really a photographer.
He is a photocopier.
Yeah, he is a photocopier. You can say that he is avant-garde. He was avant-garde, and still is.
*excerpts and transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.
Comments posted below in a conversation between Zhuang Wubin and Tristan Cai included into this post…
Tristan Cai: 19/03/2013 at 2:52 pm
I would like to offer my 2 cents in helping to define conceptual photography, with my background of being a young SEA artist trained predominantly in western art education, and most recently at SFAI, an institution notorious for its New Genres works.
Just like phenomena and phenomenology in art carries very different meanings, concept and ‘conceptual works’ are different. It may be counter productive to our understanding of conceptual art by plainly centering our discussion about ‘concept’.
In saying so, conceptual works carry in its meanings, the history where artists test certain principles in art, some seminal examples are Kosouths One and three chairs , Craig Martin’s The Oak Tree where concepts of representation, ways of seeings, interrogation of the medium are intrinsic in the play of conceptual works. Carrying on the genealogy with more photo-centric works- we have Richard Prince, to the more recent Doug Ricard,http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/2012/11/doug-rickards-street-view.html#slide_ss_0=1 Conceptual photography offers an alternative way of seeing or experiencing the world, beyond the documentary mode of photography. Its production also often makes us rethink about the nature of the medium itself.
Conceptual works massage the faculty of our intellect, it is in itself part of what early philosopher Kant has described as a type of aesthetics- intellectual beauty. It then became popularized by specific groups of artists, critics and historians and carries with it the history of scholarship, thereby making it appear insular and elitist, but who is to say you cannot make or enjoy conceptual works? But so often, even photography work with a systematic approach (concept), do not go beyond providing the veracity of the photographs. The photographer has visualised what he would like to photograph, how he would photograph and finally creates that photograph according to his vision. However, that vision is often limited to formal aesthetics decisions, lighting, angle, subject matter etc.
Lastly the discussion should not be confused with whether conceptual photography works are superior or inferior to other modes of photography. It is almost to say if chicken rice is tastier than duck rice, while I just prefer to enjoy both as long as they are cooked right! There is just a lot of bad work out there, in all genres, let us just appreciate the good ones and learn from the bad ones.
Tristan Cai: 19/03/2013 at 3:02 pm
Also to add if we constrain the definition of conceptual art now to what it is in the 70′s, it is a huge disservice to the origins of conceptual art, as a core part of the conceptual movement was to continually reinvent itself against the norms and systems of formalism.
Wubin says: 19/03/2013 at 5:37 pm
Dear Tristan, I agree with 95 percent of what you have said. My conversation with IPA, given the nature of the site, is not to delineate what is conceptual photography in Southeast Asia. If I have not been clear, let me apologize. I maintain I am not qualified to define it. I think Ahmad Mashadi may have partially addressed the beginnings of Conceptualism in the art practices of Southeast Asia in the 1970s with the “Telah Terbit” exhibition.
What I have done is to very broadly offer two other ways to think of Conceptual Photography here—one, in relation to conceptual art of Western Europe and USA in the 1970s; the other, looking at the idea of “concept” in a generic way. I don’t think these are the only two ways we can think of conceptual photography.
I think you have brought out a crucial point in that the “core part of the conceptual movement was to continually reinvent itself against the norms and systems of formalism”. I agree. And I think this does not replace/erase the historical context of Conceptual Art, which I contend, is rooted in the 70s (based on my limited understanding of David Campany’s “Art and Photography”). What we need to investigate is how that has been transferred into Southeast Asia.
I am actually interested to hear from you, a Singaporean artist who has (I believe) situated your work as “conceptual”. Taking your point above, how does your practice question “the norms and systems of formalism”?
Yes, this is a big question. Let’s make it simpler here by thinking of it in relation to the art market (an unavoidable factor in Southeast Asia) and institutions like Singapore Art Museum (SAM)/National Arts Council (NAC). Will you be operating against, outside, within, or together with these institutions and “the norms and systems of formalism” that they may (in part or indirectly) represent?
It is also interesting that you seem to suggest that conceptual photography offers an alternative way of experiencing the world and that this is “beyond the documentary mode of photography”. What is implicit (or explicit) here is that documentary photography produces an exact, perfect parallel of the real world. This way of thinking has long been rejected by many documentary photographers in Southeast Asia. Coming from a different tangent, Sontag explained that the Surrealists were interested in photography precisely because it reproduced a parallel world that was “more dramatic” than the real one. So not the “real world”.
Furthermore, I’m sure when Roland Barthes looked at the photograph of his late mother, he would not have confused that photograph for his real mother.
This brings us to the idea of vision. Research has progressed so much in the past few decades that it is now possible to understand the complexity of human vision. The way our visual system work cannot be set out in such reductive terms, simply because it involves complex processes within the brain itself. In fact, parts of our brain used for vision can have excess connections with other parts of the brain used for numbers, for instance, leading to synesthesia. Our vision is also flawed, which is why optical illusions can trick us. We use a lot of mental shortcuts to actually “see” and our brain (not just our eyes) expends a lot of computational energy to do so. So I’m not sure if I can describe the process of a documentary photographer taking photographs in such simplistic terms as “according to his vision”.
I do, however, agree with Sontag that politics and biases guide how a documentary photographer think and work.
Lastly, in the words of curator Erin Gleeson, I have always advocated the flattening of hierarchy in the way we understand photography in Southeast Asia. I am heartened that you agree with me on this point. I hope you will spread the word to the teachers, curators and policy-makers whom you meet at ADM, SFAI, SAM and NAC. We need to look at the work, not the label of the kind of photography. After all, you have exhibited your work at Chobi Mela, which is sometimes thought of as a “documentary” photography festival. I certainly don’t think that your work is “inferior to other modes of photography”. I am sure you will concur.
Tristan Cai: 20/03/2013 at 12:46 am
Hey Wubin, thanks for the quick reply and helping me understand the context of your opinions. I guess I have to clarify some terms I have used.
By documentary mode of photography- it is mainly used to refer to the straight recording ability of a camera, and by photography – simply a lens based medium, and may include video. The documentary mode of photography, does not equate to documentary photography, I was not trying to make a comparison between documentary photography and conceptual art but was still trying to describe conceptual art.
By Formalism- I refer to formal aesthetics- forms and styles. Not referring to the institutionalization of art. ie. the market system, the authoritative museums etc. Although, it is also in the spirit to defy the institutionalization of art, it is not what my work has been about.
In The Oak Tree, Craig Martin was not interested to show us a glass of water, he was interested to show the very nature of conceptual art based upon a transaction of faith and belief. In Kosuth’s one and three chairs he was not interested to show us a photograph of a lovely chair he found, he was interested in the problems of representations of different media.
In Physical Realities of Death, I am not interested to show you how someone with depression or a dead man looks like but with such a pseudo-documentary I question the archetypes of photography- journalistic expression, photography as documents, the historical gravitas associated with the medium and our ontological relationship with this medium that we are so ready to construct our personal and universal histories with this medium, while the recent Smell the Sweet smell of frankincense, focusses on how the sacred has been retrograded into artifice by the shifting of context .
Also by vision, I meant envision, the metaphysical state of imagining the end product of the photograph. I also certainly agree with the visual distortions of photography and celebrate the complex neuro pathways involved with our sights and feelings you mentioned. My point was that the intentions of many photographers with a concept, was still to use the camera as a recording tool to primarily depict their object of interest and do not have a deliberate interest to address / provoke thinking about the medium of photography in their works. Some writings by theorists etc may meditate on the photographs and write something pertaining to the works in relation to the medium, but it is not the primary intention of the photographer when he create the work. This does not discount the complexities and respect I have for documentary photography in anyway, it is just another animal in itself.
Exhibiting at Chobi Mela was a privilege given by the organisers of the exhibition, it really represents their open mindedness to other forms of photography and I am thankful for that. Most artists and art practitioners I have met are not into categorization or hierarchy, and even against interpretation of art at times. You seem to suggest that there are forms of discrimination based upon the categorization of art by administrators and institutions? If it is ok to talk about it in this public post I would like to know more, and it may help in creating a constructive dialogue and public petition surrounding the issue. If not, I will take down specific names from you the next time we meet.
Wubin: 20/03/2013 at 5:18 pm
thanks for your reply.
1. I find your suggestion that the “documentary mode of photography, does not equate to documentary photography” to be redundant. I prefer a simpler way of saying this, that the mechanical function of a camera is documentary in essence. In your work, you have used this as a departure to question the limits of documentary practice.
2. In “Physical Realities of Death”, the concerns that you raised are valid and important. I think Robert Zhao has tried to address one or two (but not all) of these concerns in some of his projects, albeit coming from a different direction. In fact, the artists of the 70s were already dealing with these issues. The Filipino conceptual artists in the 1970s were also looking at the limits of the medium, to put it simply.
3. I often wonder why some artists bother to point to us these issues again and again without attempting to give a reason (or two) why we so readily believe in photography.
4. I totally agree that some documentary photographers use the medium as a recording tool, without even highlighting their biases.
5. You are right and that there is now not some, but entire schools of thought that deal with vernacular photography, or those produced by photographers who use the medium mainly as a recording tool. I can offhand think of Elizabeth Edwards, Karen Strassler, Christopher Pinney, John Tagg, Geoffrey Batchen, Stuart Hall, Darren Newbury, Howard Becker, Peter Hamilton, and Rosalind C. Morris etc.
6. At this point in time, I will avoid discussing things like “envision” or “metaphysical state of imagining” as what the social sciences have been discussing under the guise of pseudo-science like Lacan or Freud have been shown to be flawed, if not entirely illogical. Until I know more about the connection between “seeing” and “meaning making” from a neuro and computational science perspective, I will choose not to add to the din.
7. As for your last question, there are countless examples in Singapore. For instance, the photographs of K F Wong are now kept in the National Archives. However, it is entirely possible to see his work as the modernist photography of Malaya. Unlike the USA, we have almost no history of modernist photography in Singapore. This sense of erasure/inferiority informs the way our historians and curators think of photography here. I will like to see TNAG, for instance, featuring the works of K F Wong and Lee Lim, instead of consigning them to the classification of “archive” or “Salon photography”. Even in Bridget Tracy Tan’s essay on Yip Cheong Fun, she acknowledged Yip’s sense of nation and place when he shot in the Chinatown during the 1950s. But in the end, she still avoids the possibility of considering him as anything other than “historical” or “Salon”.
8. I don’t think public petition will help. I think if influential artists like you can reiterate the fact that both documentary and conceptual photographies are equally complex whenever you speak to the curators of Singapore Art Museum, for instance, it will already be of immense help to all. I think if the influential artists and curators in Singapore just hesitate slightly whenever they make comments about journalism and documentary photography based on outdated arguments, things will move very quickly in a better direction. It is not helpful if you merely voice out for a more level hierarchy of photographies on IPA, when a lot of the photographers here have no doubt that they should never have been put down simply because they call themselves documentary photographers.
9. The reason why we never have an Atget here, for instance, is not because Singaporean photographers are lazy or incompetent. It’s because the art community as a whole has “refused” the possibility, in the very narrow way we define art photography.
Tristan Cai: 21/03/2013 at 3:35 pm
I agree Wubin, I made a very bad choice of words regarding the documentary mode of photography. Pardon that. I also really do not consider myself as an influential artist, that’s matter-of-fact, but I will take every opportunity I have to advocate the pluralistic approach in appreciating art. Also about providing reasons for my art, art is non-didatic to me, and many works are not repeating itself, there are many nuances of difference, which I rather the viewers think for themselves and interpret in their own ways. Just like how photographers in conflict repeatedly photograph conflicts, and as what Chang Chien Chi said, (I cant remember the exact words…but smething to this extent)– it is not about duplication but rather layers.
I really wish to learn more about what you describe as that there is a hierarchy and documentary photographers being put down. Also by out-dated arguments, what are they?
Is the hierarchy created based upon the personal tastes of a few influential gate keepers, and they prefer conceptual works rather than documentary works? And is this preference due to their western art education background and they studied mainly art rather than photography, so it is of second nature for them to slant towards conceptual photography as it shares an overlapping discourse to art of other mediums? Or is it another problem of the pragmatic culture in Singapore where importance = $$ success. Thus the illusion of this hierarchy been further exacerbated because photography at major art fairs like Art Stage Singapore’s Singapore showcase and the former Singapore Art Show has not shown much documentary style works (yet)?
I totally agree with what you say in 7,8,9, and I really yearn for someone to properly frame our local history of photography, and hopefully see them as permanent exhibits, it is like a missing limb to me. I also understand our local art institutions just started to collect photography not too long ago, they may just need to move in baby steps and have researchers like you point to them the importance.
Still I am really curious how this hierarchy has been set up. To me, it is strange. It is strange for me because documentary style photography as a form of Art, has been very well-recognised all over the world. In San Francisco for eg, the A list galleries that focus on photography, pre-dominantly show and represent artists working in that style. You know so many big time photographers, from Atget, Alec Soth, An-My Le, Richard Misrach (i just saw one of his print, his less expensive one, going for a whopping 45 grand at Fraenkel Gallery), Pieter Hugo, and even younger stars like Katy Granan and Lucas Foglia etc.
And you were mentioning SFAI and ADM, which I have to set the record straight, that almost the entire photography faculty from these institutions, works with straight photography, so it is very well regarded in these academic institutions.
So if the cause of that under-recognition in Singapore is because of market forces, especially in terms of the gallery system. We have to recognise that Singapore’s art market just took flight, there is only thus far one commercially active gallery set up to promote photography in Singapore and they have recently expanded their focus to mix-media works as well. Perhaps we need a commercial gallery that focusses on documentary photography, if commercial success of documentary photographers in the art market is what that will give recognition to documentary style photography in Singapore. Perhaps IPA can consider that role and bring good works to art fairs? Lastly photographers should be proud of their own works and if they know they have done good work and want wider recognition, they should take initiative to promote their work abroad.
Wubin says: 21/03/2013 at 7:34 pm
1. About IPA, that is Kevin Lee’s initiative. Not his full-time job. I do not know what’s his long term plan.
2. Tristan, no need to be apologetic. I do not take this personally.
3. As for the reasons behind the hierarchy, there are many. I think you may have pointed some of them out. I agree with some of them. Let’s also not forget that practices like printmaking was also for many years not valued highly in Singapore. I owe this insight to Koh Nguang How. In terms of movies, we moved from the centre of Malay cinema in the 50s and 60s into a country that produced almost no movies in the 70s and the 80s. There are broader reasons behind these developments, which also affected the development of photography. However, I don’t think this is the right venue for such a discussion.
4. By out-dated arguments, I refer, for instance, to a rigid, non-changing view of journalism that some curators and art historians hold onto, that many documentary photographers, even in Cambodia or Malaysia, don’t subscribe to anymore. I do not mean to say that all photojournalists have stopped believing in that they can change the world through simply exhibiting their photographs in Paris, for example. Many still do. But there are many who have also moderated, if not changed, their views. Another example is the common assumption that the documentary world is homogenous and uniform when it is, in fact, full of competing viewpoints, even on fundamental issues like “what should photojournalism be in the digital era”.
5. With regards to SFAI and ADM, I’m surprised at your input but I think this may be due to the way you define “straight photography”. I think we can see Wolfgang Tillman’s work as “straight photography”. But it is certainly not the same as that of Salgado. If we take “straight photography” as “documentary photography”, then we should expect a closer relationship between ADM and the journalism programme at NTU.
6. Part of the problem in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, is that the main barometer of art is the market. So I don’t think I will agree that by merely having more commercial galleries, the hierarchy will be less pronounced. Without sounding like a PAP candidate, we need a more holistic package.
7. When Gu Zheng published the mammoth compendium on China contemporary photography, he has no qualms picking documentary photographers like Lu Nan and Liu Zheng and putting them beside artists like Wang Qingsong and Xing Danwen. I guess we lag behind in this respect.