I've always loved talking to Xiaowen. She has such a unique point of view, and I love how she makes art. Her work has an intellectual and emotional resonance that is very specific to each individual. It is full of tiny, consequential details but also a product of large urban environments: London, Berlin, Los Angeles.
In the first few strange weeks of lockdown, I was fascinated by how Xiaowen was making work, how she was still able to be creative given so much of what she does focuses on the urban environment outside her home and studio. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted her practice in a myriad of ways; she could no longer walk the Berlin streets as she used to. The themes of migration and diaspora that occur and re-occur throughout her practice take on a different air when you are faced with being so far from family in a time of crisis.
I spoke to Xiaowen in April 2020, when her home city of Berlin had been locked down for over a month, and her family in Shanghai were just emerging from the worst of the pandemic.
- Brief Encounters on the Milky Way, film still, 2019
Kitty: In practical terms, how are you making work at the moment?
Xiaowen: This year, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time on making a publication for my long-term project Oriental Silk, which is about touch and tactility, craft and value, and the colours of memory. The Oriental Silk emporium, located in Los Angeles, is the first Chinese silk importing business in the United States after WWII. Having once risen within the Hollywood movie industry, the shop, established more than four decades ago, has become a productive place to reflect on the astonishing histories of twentieth-century migration and to critique the idea of the American dream. This publication features people, places, conversations, and stories interwoven by the meaning of Chinese silks to one immigrant family’s emotional past.
Oriental Silk has become an important part of my artistic identity. Especially at a time of rising divisions and racism, along with an anti-globalisation sentiment, a critical reflection on the themes explored through the project, such as diaspora, migration, international trade, cultural values, and memories, seems ever more relevant and acute.
These days, I think often about the notions of romanticised nostalgia and fragmented memories.
It’s certainly human nature to shape our understandings of the reality catered to our emotional needs but were we to let go of the rational judgment, all we have left would be manipulated storytellings – narratives that can easily turn to excuses or even deceptions.
Getting back to your question, I organise my time in different slots these days. Since I have a job as the assistant director at a non-profit contemporary art space in Berlin, during the lockdown, we all work from home using a variety of digital and online tools for communication and project management. Outside of these hours, I have a pretty strict schedule to allocate my time and energy on my personal projects.
What I realise increasingly is that time is the only capital that truly matters to an artist’s work.
- Oriental Silk, film still, courtesy of Xiaowen Zhu 2015-2017
Kitty: Are you inspired by the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, the new creative space you find yourself in? Is it a chance to explore ideas you may have intentionally ignored in the past and find new artistic avenues?
Xiaowen: I’d feel too privileged to use the word “inspired,” but luckily, I’m coping with the restrictions not too badly. When everything was still normal, relatively speaking, I curated my life in a way that was more or less in balance with my lifestyle in a big city – work, social activities, travel, and solitude in my studio. Now that everything’s more contained by the physical realm, I’m forced to confront my fear and doubt, which were formerly elevated by social activities and travels. Simply put, my new creative space is the same as my old creative space, only that I didn’t have to use it as much previously because I found too many distractions and excuses to be “inspired” by exhibitions, talks, symposiums, events, and so forth.
Having understood that my strength lies in my independent thinking and creation, I want to devote more time to this.
When it comes to exploring ideas that I may have ignored in the past, it’s the same as dealing with fear and doubt. In everyday life, we often talk around our problems, about not being able to identify precisely and standing up it. This is even more present in art-making.
Any great artists in history have been those who faced horror with bare hands. I’m not interested in dancing around problems elegantly without a true conviction to do anything about it.
So this is the direction I’m working towards.
- Unless, from the series The Last Wildfire, limited edition photograph, 2018
Kitty: What were you doing in Berlin, pre-lockdown? Please tell us a little about that.
Xiaowen: Earlier this year, I was in Guangzhou for work. In mid-January, I returned to Berlin. A week later, the outbreak happened in Wuhan, followed by a complete lockdown of the city on January 23, 2020. Meanwhile, my family in Shanghai wasn’t affected until mid-February when the quarantine was strictly carried out on a national level. I was concerned, but not too worried. My family is fine and now things are slowly getting back to normal in China.
I was working for the most part before the lockdown, but my attention was caught up in this strange effect of time differences. I call it a delayed ripple effects, in the sense, that I saw the pandemic getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer, from China to the world, within weeks. But when I suggested buying masks to people around me in mid-February, everyone thought I was joking. First, people here are not used to the idea of wearing masks for precaution. Second, masks were already being purchased by hospitals and clinics, leaving very few available for the general public.
At times, I found myself almost speechless to convey the urgency of the crisis. On one hand, my Chinese social media feed was exploring day by day, hour by hour, about the severeness of COVID-19 and people’s sufferings, and on the other hand, people in Berlin kept partying and living their social life until this could absolutely not continue. Naturally, I was relieved when people began to take reality seriously.
I’m thankful that I can work from home and still get paid, while many people have lost their jobs and income. Though I must say, the German government is doing a fantastic job recognising the enormous value of culture and arts by distributing €500 million grants to artists and freelancers. I personally know many people who received five to ten thousand euros within days of application.
- Berlin before the pandemic, photograph, courtesy of Xiaowen Zhu
Kitty: You grew up in Shanghai, lived for many years in America (upstate New York and Los Angeles), then three years in London (where we met), and are now resident in Berlin. What is most striking to you about the differences between these global cities?
Xiaowen: I think the most striking thing to me is that though I love different aspects of Shanghai, LA, London, and Berlin, I never really fit in anywhere. My work Brief Encounters on the Milky Way is a good example. I see myself as a flâneuse (the female version of flâneur) walking through different places, encountering people, objects, and ideas. Sometimes, there’s a brief moment of mutual understanding, yet eventually, I’m always an outsider, a visitor, an observer, perhaps even a tourist. I’ve made peace with this fact.
The American way of thinking about it would be – if you don’t fit in, you are meant to stand out. My take on it is that by not claiming the ownership of a place, I free myself from any sort of preconceptions of identity, national or regional.
Every relocation is a chance to reinvent me. It doesn’t mean creating multiple versions of Xiaowen Zhu but getting closer to my inner self. Some people achieve this by staying still in one place. I seem to take the opposite approach.
As the Chinese saying goes, different paths lead to the same destination ( 殊途同归).
- Spree, 2020, photography, courtesy of Xiaowen Zhu
Kitty: You have always been, to me, the essence of a global citizen - someone who is at home in so many different cultures and always finding artistic impetus in each. I admire that enormously. But the tug of "home" must be strong. How do you keep in touch with your family in China and what does "home" as a word mean to you right now?
Xiaowen: This is an emotional question. Recently, I was struck by how different Shanghai feels to me. By any standard, it’s a truly global and contemporary metropolis now. I’m impressed by its progress and achievements, economically, technologically, and culturally, especially considering the change it has gone through in the past decade.
However, I feel more and more desperate to pick up old memories of Shanghai when I go home to visit, while the probability is stretching thinner and thinner. This comes down to a more philosophical question: why do we need to know where we come from?
For me, the idea of home echoes with my lack of permanent residence.
“Home” to me is where I can be myself, not just alone, but also with others. It’s easier when I was young and undefined, just like kids imitate adults to be liked. As I become maturer and have a stronger voice in me, there’s more negotiation going on with my surroundings.
Sometimes I ask myself, would my life be easier if I lack my own voice and ideas and always try to appear agreeable to other people? Then, I think of many people who are like this, and they don’t seem to have an easy life, either. So I keep moving, keep my environment fresh, and keep myself alert.
Considering how much energy has been consumed in moving countries, I totally understand why most people can’t or don’t want to do it. As a Chinese citizen, I have to be very good at understanding immigration regulations, my rights, and limitations, no matter where I move to. In the States, I first had a student visa for three years, then an OPT (Optional Practical Training, temporary employment directly related to the student visa), after which expired, I managed to get myself an O-1 Visa for Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievements. In London, I had an EEA family residence card. Now in Berlin, I have a European residence permit. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that at least a whole year of my life was spent on making it legal to live and work abroad. I don’t think this experience can be easily understood by people who only travel abroad for vacations or short-term work arrangements. And even amongst many of my overseas Chinese friends, I rarely know anyone who has such a spread-out trajectory.
The consequence of my decade-long world travel is that my notion of home tends to be abstract. I keep in touch with my family in China mostly via WeChat. I try also to keep in contact with friends in America and the UK. But this is a difficult time. There’s a disheartening appraisal of xenophobia or even anti-mobility movements. But there are good places too, such as Berlin. I can be pretty much left alone to do my own things. This freedom and peace is rare in the world right now.
I miss the beach and sunshine in LA and the streets in London, but I can work better in Berlin.
Right now, “home” means the home office to me. : )
- Treptow Park, 2020, photography, courtesy of Xiaowen Zhu
This interview with artist Xiaowen Zhu was conducted in April 2020, in the middle of lockdown in both Berlin and London. Check out Xiaowen's beautiful work Brief Encounters on the Milky Way on Subject Matter.