An Interview with Wenxin Zhang

Wenxin Zhang, a Chinese photographer currently based in San Francisco, California, makes open-ended, surreal photographs that suggest her identity and her dreams, and often reflect on the metropolises she has called home. Her work is currently on display through August 1, 2014, at the Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco, as part of the center’s Spring 2014 Artists-in-Residence Exhibition.

In an interview with Daylight, below, Ms. Zhang speaks about two of her projects, Five Nights, Aquarium, and Beast by the Waterfall Guesthouse.


Interview by Trent Davis Bailey
Photographs by Wenxin Zhang

Daylight: Your project of images and text, Five Nights, Aquarium, has three distinct languages: photographic, English, and Chinese. As different strategies of communication, how do you view the role of each in your work?

Wenxin Zhang: In each project, I use different languages to tell the story from different angles. I believe that particular feelings can only be awakened by particular languages. Instead of telling stories, my photographs leave traces and suggest them. My texts always come in both Chinese and English. I write in Chinese and my friend Dan Peng helps me to translate them into English. I am fascinated by how translation changes the tone and sentiment in a subtle way. And by juxtaposing the translated English version with the original Chinese one, there is always a sense of distance and curiosity. Recently, I’ve been adding some landscape images that I created in an old-fashioned computer game, Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, into my ongoing project Beast by the Waterfall Guesthouse. So, there are four languages now. The landscape images from the computer game function as maps to guide the fictional trips I take in my photographic novel.

D: At times the storyline of Five Nights, Aquarium feels lucid and diaristic and at other times it’s hallucinatory. Can you explain how this relates to your narrative framework of the nights and the allegory of the aquarium?

WZ: Five Nights, Aquarium is a reconstructed journey story which constitutes twenty photographs and five short written works. The five short writings feel like journals, but only the first and last are truthful, while the other three are fictional. It’s like going inside an illusion and then coming back to reality. After having the hallucination, you obtain some vivid memory. In my work, I redefine my identity, rediscover the lost and forgotten, and reflect on internal experience in a semi-fictional way. My work explores the grey area between reality and fantasy.

The reason why I use an aquarium as a metaphor is because I have felt and still feel trapped like a fish in a tank from traveling back and forth between two countries. Also, an aquarium is a place where people go see fish swimming in an imitated habitat. This characteristic of an aquarium echoes how I think about memory and fantasy as they exist in a fabricated reality.

D: In many of your portraits, the subjects are unclothed — or close to it — in what appear to be bedrooms. These portraits imply an established intimacy and give a sense that you’re concealing or revealing something about these people or the situations you’ve photographed. Are you seeking a specific type of person for this project? And, in the context of this work, what do you feel these portraits represent?

WZ: In Five Nights, Aquarium, the people in the photographs are like characters in a play. The environment they were in, the gestures they had, and the emotions they revealed at that moment are all hints to the story I want to tell. When thinking or writing about the stories that I want to tell, I list the types of people that I need photographs of, and then I look for them. The people I photographed either represent people from my past or people I met in dreams. The portraits are mostly taken indoors to convey a sense of claustrophobia as well as to capture the sensual yet intangible ambiance between that person and myself.

D: Your work, in many ways, locates extraordinary, unconventional beauty in the everyday, while also suggesting banality. How have the two places you have been for the past few years — China and San Francisco — informed your approach to making this work?

WZ: This is a very interesting point. My hometown Hefei and my current city San Francisco have completely different aesthetics. My hometown is a haphazard blend of Soviet style apartment blocks, abandoned factories and brand-new high-rise glass towers. It can be very bleak in the winter. So since I was very young, I constantly dreamed about moving to a beautiful western city. Then I came to San Francisco, which was exactly like the place I dreamed of, so it felt like I was coming to a fairyland at first. Ironically, its prettiness and mild weather slowly bored me. I started to miss the harshness of my hometown. This delusional experience inspired me to portray my hometown in a gloomy tone and to portray San Francisco in a luring way.

D: Your current ongoing project, Beast by the Waterfall Guesthouse, has some pointed connections to your previous project, Five Nights, Aquarium, but I think there’s a greater emphasis on mythical landscapes of an ambiguous geography. What was your initial inspiration for creating this work?

WZ: I am doing a bigger body of work about reconstructed journeys. It consists of three chapters. I've completed the first chapter, Five Nights, Aquarium, and Beast by the Waterfall Guesthouse is the second. Beast by the Waterfall Guesthouse is a non-linear photographic story discussing the loss and rediscovery of estrangement and desire.

When I was a kid, I fantasized about the world as a sleeping beast by a waterfall. The beast was gigantic, bizarre, and quiet. I was able to imagine it as my secret friend, regardless of its wishes. When kids were still kids, all necessities of life were offered and received in cupped hands. There was no need to create a stake in the world. Everywhere was but a strange land waiting to be explored and discovered.

Unconsciously, once I was able to fend for myself, I started to explain and analyze the world, and to adjust my position within it. The world changed, from a given and relatively static universe to an ever-moving, progressing ribbon that needed to be pursued. For me, this caused the loss of one dimension. To find this lost dimension, I escape from my daily routine and leave on trips with the intention of getting lost. I go traveling into the mountains and forest and go into people’s houses, where I encounter strangers, animals, and waterfalls. In the photographs, the visual difference between animal and human bodies is blurred, as well as the edges of space and time. The images are sensual and there is a notion of solitude, just like the beast in my childhood fantasy.

D: I often look at the work of certain photographers and think that they are actually some other profession disguised as a photographer, such as a graphic designer or a scientist. Looking at your pictures, I’d say you are more of a magician. How do you feel about that?

WZ: Ha! I’ve never thought about it that way, but I think I will try to from now on. Although I feel that I’m more a hypnotist than a magician. A magician commonly shows his tricks to a large audience for entertaining. A person under hypnosis; however, is said to have the ability to concentrate intensely on a specific thought or memory, and he or she is very sensitive to suggestions. I think my photographs are just like suggestions.


For more information about Wenxin and her work, visit: