ZOOM Magazine Interview

Sara Namias


   Wang Ningde’s photographs are personal
 and artistic constructions, and they explore 
the connection between memory and reality. Without memory, even the present might not make sense and, vice versa, without a connection to reality, memory could become merely 
a dream without any meaning and altered by imagination. 
It is said that the eyes tell everything about a person, but here we must trust in what exudes from the facial expressions and the general context, and what they communicate to us is a sense of solitude, anxiety and melancholy, and hearts that close within themselves a painful past.

  The works by Wang Ningde are created by drawing on his past experience—childhood, family life, his own sexuality—but they do not narrate specific events: they recall them, evoke them, and then refute them. All his characters refuse to make visual contact with the viewer and always keep their eyes closed, or are taken from the back. And yet, within the a-temporal black-and-white setting, the involvement with them is profound and one can’t help but ask what they are thinking about. Many answers immediately leap to mind, imagining a story or seeing one’s own mirrored in them, thus becoming part of them and identifying with them. But one thing is certain: we will never know their intimate secrets because in the photographs of Wang Ningde, there are no answers.

ZOOM: Why did you decide to study photography? What drew you to it?

W.N.: I grew up in a small town in Northern China, and before attending Luxun Art Academy I had never used a camera. I was originally going to study painting, but a friend was taking the photography exam and asked me to accompany him. To my surprise, I was admitted to the photography department. Of course, like all such stories, my friend didn’t pass the exam.

Up until now, I have always thought of photography as a tool and a kind of language.

Z.: Your works have been shown in many countries, including China, Cuba, the US, Greece, Belgium and Denmark. When did your career take off and how has it evolved?

W.N.: My first solo exhibition was in Guangzhou, in Mr. Tong Chen’s bookstore. The exhibition included some street photography I had done in the Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong. The theme was “Walking Toward a Darker Place." In 1999 I started to create the Some Days series, because I felt that only photographing the real world, I was unable to express the issues that I really wanted to.

Z.: “Some Days”... does that mean some days in the past or in the future…or both?

W.N.: When creating the title, I purposely downplayed the work’s reference to a specific time, because although this is a series that is directly linked to memories, I still wanted to have more time and space depth.

Z.: What is the relationship between your works and T Zero by Italian author Italo Calvino?

W.N.: Italo Calvino is a writer I very much like. I have noticed he’s written about the concept "T Zero." This theory is so exquisite, I can’t help but compare it with Henri Cartier- Bresson’s “the decisive moment”: A hunter went to the forest to hunt. Suddenly a fierce lion comes roaring up to him. The hunter frantically raises his bow and shoots at the lion. The lion springs at the hunter, the arrow whistles through the air. Right at this moment, just like in a movie plot, is what Italo Calvino calls “T Zero”. The moment after this, one has many possibilities: the lion is killed by the arrow, or the hunter is mauled to death, these could both be called time 1 and time 2. While the time before “T Zero” (how the lion and hunter met, for example) could be called time negative, i.e. time -1, time -2, etc.

Z.: Your series Some Days became very strong, in part because you have been working on it for so long. Do you have other series planned or conceived?

W.N.: At the start of Some Days, I had already decided that I didn’t want to copy/repeat history, but that I wanted to explore “memory” itself. The more we research "memory," the more we know that it isn’t reliable. It can change and is easily interfered with. To take a personal view of memory and make it seem more precious, I believe in the end will effectively make the audience’s memory more real and be closer to actual fact. I am continually making memory’s "T Zero," this “decisive moment” appear, to include more of time- and time+. In my last solo exhibition, I did some installation works. It is impossible to avoid having some of them deal with the problems of photography (you know, photography and I have been living together for 18 years—this is suffocating for me), but even more, these installations are about flash moments and eternity, breathing, and light.

Z.: Who are the people photographed? How do you create your shot?

W.N.: The people in the photographs are models I employed. Each time I might use a different person. Sometimes I would go to the marketplace to look, other times I would go to the entrance of the Film Institute to look since there are often some people there willing to act as part-time models. About the realization of my photos, I will usually draw a sketch first, and then look for suitable scenery, props, and models. I mainly don’t communicate with my models. If it’s said there are two types of directors, I am more the tough kind.

Z.: Two features are interesting in your works: the closed eyes and the subject turning its back to the viewers. What do these features mean?

W.N.: People’s eyes, simply put, have two states, open and closed (of course you could also add half-closed, half-opened...). I feel that in the history of photography there are too many photos of subjects with opened eyes. According to proportion, 50% of the photos should have subjects with their eyes closed. Not to mention that many of people’s most important facial expressions are with eyes closed i.e.: fear, fantasizing, sleeping, death, even sex. So looking at it this way, I naturally make the subjects in the photos have closed eyes. “Subjects with backs turned” also comes from the same line of thinking.

Z.: The element of water is frequent, what does the sea or swimming pool represent for you? It would seem fear or pain.

W.N.: The ocean is a distant place and mystery combined. As you said, water, fear, and pain are often linked together. But I still seem to have no way of completely explaining why water is always present in my works, perhaps that would be a very long article if I wrote it out. Perhaps at the core of my being, I reject logically rational art.

Z.: How is the life of a photographer in China right now?

W.N.: When I first started to sell photos, the collectors basically were American or from Europe. Slowly, I started to have Chinese collectors buy my works. I can’t really say what other photographer’s lives are like.

Z.: How is the photography market in China?

W.N.: I don’t really know about the Chinese photography market, maybe it’s better for the gallery to answer this question. I sell my works to support my life and studio; it’s been quite steady.

Z.: What galleries represent you? Have you ever done a book? In which country would you like to show your images?

W.N.: My works in China are mainly represented by Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art and our contract runs until March 2011. In France, Galerie Paris-Beijing manages my works. In addition, there are galleries in both the US and Japan that represent me. I have published several catalogs but never a book. If possible, I would most like to have an exhibition in North Korea to show my works. Putting aside all values and standards, I think the things that will happen there may be a sample of this generation of Chinese people's memories. The difference is, there it’s continuing to be played out on a daily basis.