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A Conversation with Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu)

Interviewer: Paul Gladston 2012

Song Tao and Ji Weiyu are photographers who live and work in Shanghai. Both were born in Shanghai; Song in 1979 and Ji in 1980. Song and Ji graduated from the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts in 2000. Ji also studied at St Martin's College in London, graduating in 2004. Since 2004 they have worked together under the collective name of Birdhead, making collections of photographs that focus closely on the city of Shanghai and their experience of living in the city. Before 2004 Song pursued a solo career as an artist in China making photographs and videos. He has also collaborated with the Shanghai based electronic musician B6 on the making of video installations that, like those of Birdhead, engage closely with life in Shanghai. The text presented here is an edited transcript of a conversation recorded at the P1 Coffee Bar in Shanghai on December 12, 2007. Versions of this conversation were previously posted on the ShanghArt website, and at the Arthub website

Paul Gladston: How did you meet and when did you start working together?

Song Tao: We have known each other since 1998. We were at art school together; so, for almost ten years now. We started working together seriously in 2004.

Paul Gladston: How did your artistic collaboration come about?

Ji Weiyu: I was in the UK from 2000 to 2004 studying at St. Martin's College. After I came back, we said we should do something together just for fun. But after a while, we started working together seriously.

Song Tao: To be more precise, Weiyu started using cameras at the age of 14 when he was in school. I started using them when I was about 20. The first camera I used was the one I borrowed from Weiyu before he went to the UK. I played around with it when I had nothing better to do. Later on, I bought my own cameras. We didn't see each other for two years after Weiyu went to the UK. He was in the UK, and I was in Shanghai. He took a lot of photos in London, and I took a lot of photos in Shanghai. We decided to exchange our photos online to see how each other was getting on. We didn't really talk much about cameras. One day, on the 1st of June, 2004, he came back to Shanghai. The next day we visited each other because we were good friends and we began to take photos together, just for fun. We spent two weeks taking photos and then two weeks developing those photos and editing our first album, which was called The Beginning of Summer [see figure 15]. All the photos in that album were about the two of us and our surroundings.

Ji Weiyu: The reason we only spent one month together is that I went back to the UK again at the beginning of July.

Song Tao: Yes, he went back to the UK again on July 2nd 2004.

Paul Gladston: Why do you call yourselves 'Birdhead'?

Song Tao: Do you want the standard answer or a humorous one [laughs]?

Paul Gladston: Give any answer you like.

Ji Weiyu: The standard answer is that when we were saving a new document on the desktop of our computer to put all of our photos in we typed randomly and two Chinese characters came up, which were 'Bird' and 'Head'. So we just took the name. Besides, the sound of the two characters when spoken together in Shanghai dialect sounds special [laughs].

Paul Gladston: A lot of your work is about Shanghai and its local culture. These things are clearly very important to both of you. Could you say something about the relationship between your work and your love of Shanghai as well as its local culture?

Song Tao: As Shanghaianese, we do have a kind of local cultural identity. We try to show this in our work. We were both born and brought up here in Shanghai. We feel very happy living in this place. Some people like moving around a lot. Some people, like us, feel happy just to be in Shanghai. I'd like to give you an example to illustrate what I'm saying: I heard that the best long jing tea in Hangzhou is made from leaves grown on a particular hillside near the West Lake which is shrouded by mist during the rainy season. If you moved those tea bushes to London, they might survive, but the leaves grown there wouldn't be the same as the leaves grown in Hangzhou and the tea would taste different. This example shows that particular stuff grows in particular places. This is the same for people.

Ji Weiyu: We use cameras to express our feelings. They are tools that we use to tell stories and to express our feelings.

Paul Gladston: Who is the audience for your work?

Song Tao: We think of our audience as being made up of people of our own age group living in Shanghai.

Paul Gladston: What about those who don't belong to your age group and/or who don't live in Shanghai?

Song Tao: We don't care!

Paul Gladston: You don't care?

Ji Weiyu: We don't care. They may care about us, but we don't care about them [laughs].

Paul Gladston: How do you think audiences in places other than Shanghai respond to your work?

Ji Weiyu: Well, though we just take photos of Shanghai, a lot of galleries invite us to stage exhibitions abroad. If they invite us to go, it shows they understand what we are doing and that they can appreciate the kind of feelings we'd like to express.

Song Tao: Yeah, Shanghai is very important to us. When we take photos of Shanghai, we actually digest something of the city and what is shown in these photos is something of our understanding of Shanghai. They actually become Birdhead's photos and are Birdhead's world.  If these photos are connected together as a 'world' we are at the centre of that world. At the same time, Shanghai is also part of our world. This process of moving from the city of Shanghai to the world of Birdhead is very interesting. When viewers encounter this world, they will have different interpretations due to differences in their national and cultural identities. Some may misinterpret our work or feel that it is difficult to interpret. But, still, something different will emerge. It doesn't matter if they accept our work or not—that's not under our control. So we don't care about whether they accept it or not.

Paul Gladston: So, you are happy for individual viewers to interpret your work in an entirely subjective way?

Ji Weiyu: Yes, we wouldn't object to that.

Song Tao: Our work is misinterpreted by viewers too. That's very normal.

Paul Gladston: Your work reminds me in some ways of 'punk' photography produced during the late 1970s and early 1980s in the US by the likes of Nan Goldin and David Wojnarowicz.  Like theirs, your work is highly improvised and self-referential. You resist any straightforward interpretation of your work, and you don't always cooperate fully with those who are trying to understand your work. Where does this kind of attitude come from in the context of contemporary China?
Song Tao: Well, the attitude I have now―which is very happy and satisfied―is not the one I have always had. You would notice the differences between the work I did seven or eight years ago, when I was at about 20, and the work I have made in recent years. My earlier stuff was quite dark—seemed to be very rebellious—which might be because of my age or even the hormone thing. At that time, I was quite 'punk', which I understood as being quite rebellious and not satisfied with my surroundings. Gradually I got bored with this kind of negative attitude. This kind of 'punk' attitude reached its peak and suddenly I changed to another attitude. I realized that it's only when you try to accept things and have a better attitude towards life that you can begin to do something different. I started to like my life and tried to be more constructive. I started doing some work which was different from the work I used to do. I think it's useless to resist all the time. Things or situations can be changed only when you try to accept them first. That might sound very Chinese. 

Paul Gladston: There's certainly an element of resignation or, perhaps, acceptance involved in what you say. As to whether that's specifically Chinese… 

Ji Weiyu: We're not entirely indifferent. We do care about how other people look at our work, but we wouldn't instruct them in how to look. For me, I'm indifferent to politics. Attitudes towards politics and how other people judge our work are two different things. With regard to politics, I'm indifferent. As for others' views, it's none of my business.

Paul Gladston: Your recent show at the BizArt centre in Shanghai was called Welcome to the World of Birdhead Again [see figure 16]. 

Ji Weiyu: Yes. The name of our exhibition there in 2005 was called Welcome to the World of Birdhead. This year, 2007, the name of the exhibition was Welcome to the World of Birdhead Again. The name of our next exhibition will be Welcome to the World of Birdhead Yet Again [laughs].

Paul Gladston: One of the things that interested me about that show is that you weren't trying to impress people with your skill as photographers. Also, you didn't try to reach out to a non-Chinese audience by, for example, using clichéd images of China or of Chinese culture. Was that a deliberate strategy on your part?

Ji Weiyu: Not really. The reason we like working in Shanghai is that we can do the kind of exhibitions we'd like to do. Our main intention in doing exhibitions is to do them for fun. However, we wouldn't refuse money. If our work can be sold at a good price then that makes us happy, because we can buy more of the stuff we like [laughs].

Song Tao: Well…how can I say this? It seems to be unique to us that we can't sell our work, but other artists can [laughs]. After our first exhibition, we received some feedback from the gallery: some viewers said: "we could take photographs like that ourselves". Well, they're right. Some viewers might be able to do something like that themselves. But why don't they try to do it? [laughs] Actually, we were happy when we heard this kind of comment. This is something we'd like to hear. 

Ji Weiyu: Still, we think our work satisfies the taste of the audience.

Paul Gladston: I spoke to Yang Fudong about a week ago, and one thing he is very clear about is that he wants to make work that is very well crafted. That doesn't seem so important to you. 

Song Tao: There are good and bad examples of well-made works. Yang Fudong's well-made work is definitely much better than that of others. It doesn't matter if you try to make work that is very well-made, or you try to make work that is not so well-made, there are criteria in this field that can be used to judge if they are good or bad works. There are many artists in China who try to make well-made works. Yang Fudong is the best.

Ji Weiyu: Do you mean that we don't really show our technical skill directly or obviously? We don't really want to make our work in the same way that Yang Fudong makes his. We have technical skill, but we don't think it's necessary to show the audience how skilled we are all the time. I think this also has something to do with our life experiences and personalities.

Paul Gladston: There's a video of the opening of the exhibition Welcome to the World of Birdhead Again which shows viewers mounting the show themselves. Was this a deliberate strategy to try to break down barriers between you and the audience for your work as well as between your work and everyday life in Shanghai?

Song Tao: The decision to show the exhibition like that—letting the audience pick up and mount the photos they liked—is something we thought about carefully beforehand. There are two ways of showing photos. One is to put all of the photos in frames and hang them up. The other way is just like when you look at photos in an album at home. You look at each photo from page to page and it's so close to you. We thought the second way would draw the audience closer and that it would save us a lot of time thinking about what kind of frames to use and how to hang them [laughs]. As for your interpretation; I agree. We would like to give something back to the audience. 

Paul Gladston: A lot of Chinese artists I have interviewed have spoken about the importance of aesthetic feeling in relation to their work. Do you have a particular view about the audience's response to your work in terms of the way they feel? Is there a particular aesthetic experience you think viewers should have when looking at your work?

Ji Weiyu: On this point, we wouldn't compromise. We just follow our own judgement of what is beautiful and make something that we think is good. We follow our own aesthetic feelings. We don't really try to second guess the needs or aesthetic tendencies of the viewers. When we do exhibitions, we just want to make the viewers happy, that's it.

Paul Gladston: Why is beauty so important to you?

Ji Weiyu: Well, of course, as artists it's very important to us.

Paul Gladston: The reason I asked that question is because beauty is now something of a suspect term in relation to Western discourses about art. In the West we would tend to put a big question mark after, or place inverted commas around the term 'beauty'. We tend to see beauty as something connected inescapably to tradition, social hierarchy and asymmetrical relations of power.

Song Tao: By making beautiful work, do you mean making work that follows the form of contemporary art, or that follows public views of what the form of art should be?

Ji Weiyu: We think it's a kind of physiological need. We don't want to make ugly stuff and so we try to emphasize aesthetic feeling and to make the work beautiful.

Paul Gladston: In the West, we now tend to subordinate aesthetic feeling to the question of the critical function of art. The primary question is always: what sort of critical function does the work of art fulfill?  This is true even when beauty is used as a strategic way of making a connection between artworks and a wider viewing public. It seems to me that one of the more obvious differences between Western and Chinese contemporary art is that in China artists often seek to downplay or even deny any sort of critical function for their work in favour of its aesthetic value. 

Song Tao: In China, there are several types of artworks. Some works tend to have a more political function; some works use labels or symbols of Chinese culture to attract buyers, which they do just for the purposes of the market. As for our work, it tends to be more oriented towards the philosophy of life. We love life and we would like to show our feelings about it.

Paul Gladston: Nevertheless, there is a tendency for contemporary Chinese artists to emphasize the importance of aesthetic feeling when discussing their work. As I see it, the move away from socialist-realism in China after the Cultural Revolution involved a necessary reassertion of the importance of aesthetic feeling as part of the reconstruction of a relatively autonomous artistic sphere. So artists have, in a sense, been able to make a resistant statement about their freedom from prior political constraint while, at the same, avoiding any direct and potentially troublesome engagement with present day politics. 

Song Tao: I think there are several types of artworks, no matter whether it's in America or Europe or in China.

Paul Gladston: Let me approach what I'm trying to get here at in another way. Artists in China are often reluctant to talk about the critical function of their work because of prevailing political constraints on freedom of public expression. Do you resist discussions about the political significance of your work in favour of aesthetics because you have concerns about the possible consequences of talking openly about political issues? 

Ji Weiyu: No, not really. I don't know about other artists, but for myself, I have no interest in politics at all. I just can't do any of those kinds of works. It's not because I'm afraid of the possible consequences or whatever.

Song Tao: To be absolutely clear, we're not so inspired by the politically oriented field. I think there are several types of artists―regardless of whether it's in China or the West. Some of them tend to be more politically oriented, some are not. In the West, there are not so many restrictions on politically critical work. While in China…well, it's not as open as it is in the West. You could do it, but there's a danger that you might be put into prison.

Paul Gladston: Contemporary Chinese art has been strongly influenced by the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes. In an international context, avant-garde and post avant-garde art is now habitually associated with post-structuralism and the theory and practice of deconstruction. Do you see your own work as being deconstructive in any way? And if not, what else applies?

Song Tao: I have heard of Dada, deconstruction etc. I learned a bit when I studied art history. However, we don't really like to use those terms or definitions as ways of labeling our work.

Ji Weiyu: I don't know these terms at all.

Song Tao: I've got a question: what were the intentions of Western Dadaists and avant-garde artists?

Paul Gladston: It's actually very difficult to give a simple straightforward answer to that question, because a critical understanding of what Dadaist or avant-garde artists were doing has changed over time. It has to be looked at genealogically. I'll give you an example: Marcel Duchamp's ready-made Fountain, which involves the proposed presentation of a male urinal as a work of 'art'. When it was first put forward for exhibition in 1917, Fountain was interpreted by at least one commentator as a way of extending the boundaries of what might be considered as art, and therefore, in the context of the prevailing cultural discourses of that time, what might be considered as beautiful.  By the time we get to the 1950s there's a widely accepted view that the Duchampian ready-made isn't simply an extension of the existing boundaries of art, but that it's a kind of anti-art; that is to say, a radical other to conventional forms of art and aesthetics―one that seeks to blur the boundary between art and life so as the means-end rationality of the latter under capitalism can be reworked critically along the more playful lines of the former.  And when we reach the late 1970s and 1980s, that's when works like Fountain start to be interpreted in relation to the theory and practice of deconstruction. Deconstruction isn't about extending or transgressing boundaries, or just being opposed to something. It's about suspending the conceptual boundaries which define the differences between things; for example, between art and life. But at the same time, it's not about saying that art and life can be exactly the same thing; that they are identical. There's art and life—two differing states—but the boundaries between the two have been revealed as uncertain; it's no longer quite clear where one ends and the other begins. Both are to be seen as culturally mediated and unstable categories.  That's a very simplistic description. 

Song Tao: For us, to be direct, we just think of the relationship between the hunter and the rabbit. We, as artists, are hunters and the viewers are rabbits. We just think of how best to approach the showing of our work and how to build a relationship between the viewers and the work.

Paul Gladston: Can traditional Chinese thinking, Chinese philosophy, or Chinese aesthetics be used as an intellectual framework to interpret your work? 

Ji Weiyu: Our work is like Chinese painting. More like freehand brushwork, rather than painting realistically with oils.

Paul Gladston: But isn't your desire to blur or unsettle the boundary between art and life open to interpretation from the point of view of traditional Chinese aesthetics? Traditional Chinese shan-shui painting, for example, invites the viewer to immerse him or herself in the scene depicted by the painting.

Song Tao: Some of our previous works are different. It's just like changing from 'beer' to 'whiskey'. I don't know if you have seen our installation Birdhead Suitcase….which has ten suitcases [see figure 17].

Paul Gladston: Yes I have. But the point I'm getting at here is that your desire to blur the boundary between art and life can be interpreted both in terms of theories associated with the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes and traditional Chinese aesthetics. It's not just your work, but also other Chinese artists. It seems to me that contemporary Chinese art can be interpreted similarly from differing cultural perspectives but also that it can never really be pinned down completely according to one or the other of those points of view.

Song Tao: Yes, the key point is...the work we made in 2005, which involved the use of some suitcases was inspired by daily life. We put some photos in those iron suitcases. Those photos were taken by us and contained our feeling, our passion. The suitcases are like covers, which were arranged in a formal way and which were used to catch the eye of the viewer. These photos we took are very ordinary and it seems you can find them easily in your daily life. However, all of them reveal how much we love and enjoy our life.

Paul Gladston: Another way that I would interpret your work is that it engenders feelings of what it's like to live in a modern city—a kind of immersive bodily experience, something one feels with one's body. Is that the relationship you are trying to get at? What it feels like, to be in the city of Shanghai; what it feels like through one's body and the relationship between one's body and city.

Song Tao: I'm touched by your comment…very happy. It's the best kind of comment. That's the kind of comment we'd like to get.

Paul Gladston: When I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai about your [Song Tao's] work with the electronic musician B6, I also talked around this idea. One thing that interests me is the sense you give through your work with B6 of being immersed in the city. Something that struck me about the video installation Yard, which you made with B6, is that the viewer is made to enter bodily into the work [see figure 18]. The work is presented within its own specially constructed corridor-like viewing space; one that involves a video back-projected onto a screen from outside the space that is then viewed as a reflection in a mirror running parallel to the screen within the specially constructed viewing space. Consequently, viewers have to cross a line in order to enter into the work. The experience of looking at the work is, it seems to me, analogous to what it feels like to be part of the city. Moreover, it opens up a whole range of possible aesthetic responses that are not wholly determined by the work. They are determined by the shifting relationship between the viewer and the work—so different people can have their own differing subjective or culturally mediated responses. It's like being in a city because we all have different kinds of bodily points of view about the city in relation to our differing senses of cultural identity. 

Ji Weiyu: It shows our work also has some influence on those people outside of Shanghai.

Song Tao: Well, we'd like to think it's similar to the way you interpret it. For us, we had to choose and pick what we really like or dislike. It's a very direct picking process. We just take photos or videos of things that we are interested in. So you can always see highways and tall buildings in our photos, which are things we like.

Paul Gladston: In the West there would be tendency to view this bodily experience in terms of the sublime: the idea that the city doesn't have a clear perceptual limit. The feeling you are supposed to have, according to Western ways of thinking, is that the city overwhelms you. It's not quite clear where the limits are—there's no correspondence between imagination and cognition, so you can't see the edges and you can't intellectualize/conceptualize the edges. You encounter the illimitability of the city and the failure of imagination and cognition is painful. However, in theory at least, you can then overcome that pain through your ability to form some sort of reasoned intuition of the illimitability of the city. That's also one way of defining post-modernist art—as sublime; an art that has no clear conceptual limitations―like Duchamp's Fountain. But it seems to me that a lot of what you are doing in aesthetic terms doesn't conform exactly to the idea of the post-modern sublime. Your works don't have clear limits—that's for sure. And in a way they seem to overwhelm the imagination and the cognition of the spectator. But I think the difference is that you invite viewers to enter into and to immerse themselves in the work without any abiding sense of pain, or of tension, disturbance or fear. As soon as the viewer immerses her or himself in the art work—as soon as they have lost their sense of subject-object relationships—they then embark on a kind of generally pleasurable open-ended aesthetic journey; one where the viewer has an unfolding relationship with the work that has the potential to bring about a potentially endless range of changing feelings over time. To use deconstructive terminology—this could be described as a 'trace structure' where each individual feeling is marked by the traces of all other possible feelings along a serially incomplete chain of experience. That's quite different from a conventional Western aesthetic, which points towards something more immediate and circumscribed in terms of feeling—unalloyed pleasure in the case of beauty and pain followed by pleasure in the case of the sublime. What you are invoking seems more akin to a Chinese aesthetic, I think. You seem to be suggesting the possibility of a 'non-sublime' relationship with the city; a kind of unfolding, open-ended aesthetic, a bodily felt aesthetic response. I don't think that's the same as the sublime. It's similar in some ways, but not exactly the same.

Ji Weiyu: I don't know. To be honest, I don't really know that much about traditional Chinese culture. However, having been born here, and as someone who lives in China, naturally something must have been inherited from the past.

Paul Gladston: Let's talk a little bit about your upcoming residency at the University of Nottingham in the UK. What are you going to do there? 

Ji Weiyu: We don't know. We really don't know. We can't imagine what it will be like until we get there.

Paul Gladston: Don't you have any thoughts about what you might get out of this particular experience?

Song Tao: We don't really know. I've told you before about one of our thoughts. We would like to make a video recording our conversations in English. Of course our English won't be that good. We could speak English to those native speakers who speak Standard English. We could then edit the voice of native female speakers making it high pitched, which you couldn't really hear clearly if you don't try too hard. And also try to edit the native male speakers to make it very low pitched and very slow, so one couldn't really distinguish those conversations either. This is just a thought. But we don't want to plan too much because we may have more, better ideas while we are there. We would like to make it a kind of 'brainstorm art' that is full of ideas that viewers can interpret.

Ji Weiyu: We'll think about what we are going to do when we arrive there. Since I've been to the UK before and have stayed there for four years, it's a place I'm familiar with, not like if we were going to the USA. I don't know what that would be like.

Paul Gladston: What other things might you do apart from working in the university and going to galleries? Last time we met you talked about going to see Chelsea play football at Stamford Bridge. What other things would you like to do when you are in the UK?

Song Tao: Going to the second-hand shops; buying interesting clothes and small stuff. By the time we get there in January the shops should be having their sales.

Ji Weiyu: In the morning, we'll go to the open market. I stayed in the UK for four years, but never went to the open market in the morning. I just couldn't get up in time.

Song Tao: We might not be able to get up early enough this time either [laughs].

About the Author

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the inaugural head of the Department of International Communications and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. He has written extensively on the subject of contemporary Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art criticism for numerous magazines and journals including Yishu, Leap, Art Review, Contemporary Art and Investment, Artworld and Eyeline. His book length publications include the monograph Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005) and an edited collection of essays, China and Other Spaces (CCCP, 2009). He is currently preparing a monograph on the theory and practice of contemporary Chinese art for Reaktion and, in collaboration with Katie Hill and Chris Smith, a guest edited edition of the journal Contemporary Art Practice for Intellect with the theme 'Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality'.

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