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Interview: Birdhead, Shanghai Photographer Duo

Talking to rising Shanghai photographer duo Birdhead about digital vs. analog, Kendo, the changing city, and dreams of driving an Uber instead of doing art.
By May 19, 2015 Arts & Stage
Welcome to Birdhead -- two chain smoking, jokester photographers from Shanghai who have spent the past 11 years documenting the real, gritty, and often dark side of their city, frequently injecting themselves and their friends into the photos. Birdhead still use analog equipment for everything, and most of their photos are black and white. They don't have a website. They are not on the cloud. The only thing digital is their name, which they claim is computer-generated.

Xiao Ji (b. 1980) and Song Tao (b. 1979) both graduated from the Shanghai Arts and Crafts School. Like many Chinese artists, Xiao Ji also studied at Saint Martins in London. In 2004 they formed Birdhead, and have since exhibited at MOMA in New York, the Venice Biennale, Rockbund, K11, and now have a solo exhibit at ShangART.

We talked to the gangster-looking duo about their work and how Shanghai’s art scene has changed through out their artistic career. While it is hard to tell when they're trolling (in another interview, they compared their style to the quest for seven Dragon Balls), they come across as real, unpretentious people just trying to record the city in their own language.

SmSh: People consume so many images everyday now -- maybe they become less interested in photography as art or feel it is in outdated medium? Do you ever feel a sense of crisis about that?

Song Tong: I think we should look at it from a reversed perspective. It's precisely because everyone is taking photos now that makes what we are doing more evident. I don't feel crisis but warmth.

Xiao Ji: I don't think traditional film photography is vintage now.

Song Tao: Photography only has 200 years of history up till now. We can’t really make any conclusion yet. After all, it comes to the question of what do you do with the tools as an artist.

SmSh: So you really never take digital photos?

Song Tao: No. The only two digital cameras we have are called iPhone 6 and iPhone 5s.

SmSh: Your current exhibition contains a lot of traditional Chinese cultural imagery and are all shot strictly in black and white. Is it because of nostalgia -- an attempt to escape from the digital world?

Song Tao: No. We never used digital anyways, so there is no such thing as escape from it.

Xiao Ji: The reason we used Chinese elements or craftsmanship per say, is because it has the personal touch. There is this handmade feeling. And such feeling implies humanity. We are not used to, nor feel like [using a] digital camera. Not because it's good or bad. It's just that we are used to accomplish what we want with skills that we can manage.

SmSh: Your past "Xin Cun" (New Village) series often examined external changes in the city — this motif seems less evident in this current show. Does that mean you care less about it now?

Song Tao: Yeah. Back then, Shanghai was changing dramatically, and we were also in our 20s. So a lot of our personal change and experiences were syncing together with the change of the city. It's not like we see Shanghai is changing and we got excited, so we decided to record the change, or record how it turns out later. That's not our intention.

SmSh: Do you like old Shanghai more or the now?

Song Tao: There is no "more". It's more or less the same. A city is just like a human. It dies too. Look at Detroit. Shanghai's puberty period and dramatic changing phase has stopped now. Its peak was before the World Expo in 2010. After that, the city has calmed down quite a bit.

SmSh: Because it has now reached another phase?

Song Tao: Yeah. You can't have multiple times of puberty. It's impossible. After about age 15 or 16, it stops.

SmSh: So, if Shanghai has entered a much quieter period and, at the same time, you guys are changing and growing older — do you think these change have affected the way you create work?

Song Tao: Now I like to study about myself more. Before, we were more intuitive and spontaneous. But now we have a much clearer vision. We focus more on how we work with each other, and how we see this world together. In other words, we are more self-centered and self-worshiping. I guess that's the biggest change in terms of how we make work now.

SmSh: What do you do when you are not taking photos?

Song Tao: Taking photos is not the most important thing in our life.

SmSh: So what do you do in your daily life?

Song Tao: Drinking tea. And count how many works we have in this exhibition, how much they [are] worth. Then ask the gallery to sell them as soon as possible. When we get money, we go buy more cameras, film rolls, and tea.

Xiao Ji is practicing Kendo. I sometimes write a few strokes of calligraphy, learning writing from ancient people. Then, when we get chance, we go out and travel. When we travel, of course we will bring cameras with us. So rest assured there will be a bunch of photos get produced again. And then, we think about how do we use these photos.

SmSh: So taking photos is production?

Song Tao: Taking photos is not production. Taking photos is excretion.

SmSh: And it just happens that people want to buy these excretions?

Song Tao: That takes a bit effort and talent.

SmSh: If one day, you stopped being an artist, what do you think you will do?

Song Tao: Me? I think there are two jobs I can do. But in China, I can only do one of them. There is a thing called Uber. I wanted to be a taxi driver. Now with Uber, everyone can become a taxi driver at any time.

Another job is that I want to be a pornography director. But it's not an opened area in China. I think it's a great thing if we can make local Chinese pornography. It will be officially released, with label and porn stars. But there is no such industry in China. The government won't allow it. It's such a good and environment friendly industry though.

SmSh: What about you, Xiao Ji?

Xiao Ji: Practice Kendo.

Song Tao: You can open a Kendo Club and sell Kendo equipment.

Xiao Ji: I can also make handicrafts.

Song Tao: I'm also interested in that. It's a great thing to make handicrafts, be it making a leather bag, a pair of shoes or a table.

SmSh: What do you think about the current art ecology in Shanghai, compared to when you first started your career?

Xiao Ji: No comment. I never paid attention to it.

Song Tao: It's more ecological than before. The art scene now is more complicated and has more explicit levels. There werent so many museums ten years ago. Now there are more private museums, and more galleries too. At first, Shanghai only had one or two art galleries, but now there are so many of them. So are the artists. Counting from age perspective, there are three generations: old, junior and young. Art schools also have more specific majors. There weren’t any times related majors before. But now you have New Media major, etc.

SmSh: A while ago, I heard an artist saying that artists should keep pace with the times. What do you think?

Song Tao: Artists are the least group of suckers that have to keep pace with the times. Not at all. Because in the end, it all comes to what do you want your art to do? It's very clear with us, we only care about ourselves.

Xiao Ji: You can either keep pace with it, or you don't.


Welcome To Birdhead Again is on until June 7 at ShanghART gallery.

Note: The author conducted this interview in Mandarin then translated it to English.



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