The Futura 89+ series features interviews with artists, writers, activists, architects, filmmakers, scientists and entrepreneurs who were born in or after 1989. In this issue Hans Ulrich Obrist & Simon Castets (with Katherine Dionysus) interview Bruno Zhu.
You’ve produced an extensive body of work using photography and bookmaking to deal with narrative systems. In fact, you have a website— www.bzbooks.org—dedicated to the scores of titles you’ve self- published. Can you tell us about your interest in books and bookmaking?
I am not tech-savvy, so bookmaking was the solution within hand’s reach to manipulate visual stories. At the time, I was interning at a design studio with free Xerox printing, so after working hours, I would stay in the office and run through edits I had made the night before. It felt immediate and complied to a sense of urgency that drove me to photograph constantly. To this day, I don’t have a formal explanation for the motifs I am attracted to, but the book as a format inspired me to consider intimacy and consumption as intertwined modes of production. When I was in fashion school, we would spend hours browsing through old issues of fashion magazines to gather a mixture of techniques, shapes and moods that would later be sampled into outfits to create a weird hybrid. “Let’s think about a noir movie actress tele-transported to an underwater club in Soho, wearing scuba gear with a ‘90s bomber jacket, all while holding a bread basket, because it’s actually about revising the turn-of-the-century house maid look.” Bookmaking became a platform inspired by this sense of play and deconstruction. It felt necessary to subvert linearity, to walk sideways in a scene where new photobook publishers seemed more concerned with design and packaging. Books are brilliant because they only tell you things once you open them, so it’s more about actors, accomplices and consequences than just carrying statements.
Your book Facsimile I: a novel was on display in our 89plus exhibition “Poetry Will be Made by All“ at The LUMA Foundation in Zürich in 2014. It’s a kind of printed chronicle of Tumblr interactions. You’ve since published Facsimile II: whodunnit and Facsimile III: meet cute. There’s an interesting interplay between analogue and digital with this project. What inspired you to make web content into printed matter?
I was growing resentful of visitors for sharing my images and hiding the original source. It’s a petty and hypocritical complaint to make, since the whole premise of Tumblr is unbound sharing, so Facsimile was a way to cope with it. I screengrabbed users’ homepages, descriptions about themselves and FAQs in a spur of hate, as if hard copies would work as stronger evidence of theft, but as I was going through the texts, I actually felt kinship. Most of them “talk” to an invisible “you.” They come across juvenile and defensive, yet yearning for exposure and validation, in a way being representative of my condition too. These profiles made me think about loneliness, whether this was a way to reach out and connect with people. I laid out the screenshots and started chopping them, editing them in a manner where users would be in a dialogue with one another. Translating them into printed matter worked as a countermove to the gesture of reblogging, as in this new order, I wanted these users to find each other. I was recently looking for some of the users I featured, and their profiles were no longer online. It’s strange to think of Facsimile functioning as an actual duplicate of them, like proof of life.
Do you have pseudonyms?
Jessica Zhu, Zhang Feng, Zhu Cheng.
Photography is central to your practice. What draws you to this medium?
For me, the hook is photography’s accessibility. I am not trained as a photographer, yet cameras abound. Through photography, I was allowed to claim what I saw. I’m thinking about my high school drawing classes, where we would bring a vegetable or a perfume bottle to draw. Praise would be given to whoever had the highest skill of reproduction, which bugged me, because it meant that imitation was an end goal. But during lunch breaks, my friends and I would take out our mobile phones to photograph and film each other posing and jumping, and in that scenario, reproduction became alive. These photographs would channel glamour, promiscuity, humor and friendship. I was drawn to photography not as a medium, but rather as an instrument that gave my friends and me power.
The inevitable, miserable truth is that everything we do forms a personal mythology that is grounded in a collective one.
Do you see generational creative patterns?
Yes, growth eventually leads to demise. It’s about keeping an eye for legacies.
You’ve said that reevaluation, speculation and hypothetical realities play a prominent role in your creative output. Can you talk a little about these concepts in relation to your work?
In my recent work, I have been exploring domestic environments as an aesthetic manifestation of intimacy. Imagery of furniture from catalogues and lifestyle magazines are scanned and transformed into new bodies. By distorting and displacing familiar interior decoration motifs, I’m interested in creating a landscape where the seemingly “wrong” is the only way to exist. Reevaluation and speculation are key modes in this mental process. Think of a table that wants to break free, or a “pillowbook” for innocent pillow fights. These objects draw from a cartoonish process of understanding as an attempt to escape their prescribed symbolic passivity. A table can no longer support other objects, while getting hit by a “pillowbook“ could actually send you to the hospital. Everything we do forms a personal mythology that is grounded in a collective one. This is inevitable, obvious and, honestly, miserable. What I’d like to suggest is for us to step away from this normative thread. Relax and be absurd. Don’t be dramatic, be tragic. Failing to walk a straight line might liberate oppressed qualities within us and reroute anxieties, expectations and desires into an arena of brutally honest individuation.
Do you believe in horoscopes?
I do, but I rarely read them.
Your 2015 exhibition “Vista Alegre” was curated by your mother. How did that collaboration come about? Did the unique curator- artist dynamic influence the working process and/or the content?
My parents left China in the late ‘80s and went to Portugal. This was my first solo exhibition there, and given the context and locality of the show, I wanted to reflect upon the country’s colonial ghost. Throughout the past decade, the country saw a wave of Chinese immigrants opening shops with competitive prices, which were frowned upon. We were accused of robbing the local economy and selling poor-quality products. Nevertheless, people kept coming to our shops, bargaining for cheaper prices and dissing us when walking out. Discrimination aside, I look back at it and think about how commerce and aspirations went hand-in-hand for both parties. “Vista Alegre” is the name of Portugal’s oldest porcelain manufacturer, which translates to “happy view.” While no actual porcelain was shown, I presented another type of “china” in the form of my sister. The exhibition’s centerpiece was a series of chicken wire sculptures with my sister’s face printed on, which were hugged by the museum staff to give them shape. Bringing the scenography full circle, my mom was invited to curate the show, drawing a parallel between the role of curator in an art institution and of a household. For the past few years, my sister’s education has been my mom’s biggest project: she now plays cello, speaks fluent Mandarin and English, and has traveled extensively for a sixteen-year-old. I wanted this opportunity to present human subjectivity as a surface equal to an image, equally as vulnerable to manipulation, controversy and contemplation as a flat picture. We held a performance in the museum hallway, where staffers were instructed to hug and dance with my “sisters,” while my mom looked on terrified. She kept asking why I would do such an ugly thing to a print, which revealed her limitations for transgression—but when asked if she would like to take those works out of the show for not being “pretty” anymore, she declined, saying she wanted whatever would make me happy. Seeing my mom designate areas within the show, like a “living room” and a “bedroom,” by placing a television set on one side of the room while leaving a corridor near another was emotional to watch. It revealed an awareness of space that was inherently attached to a notion of decor and inner security which, together with the role of the crafty son and the musical daughter, fulfilled a projection of her home, of her “bigger” picture. The install week was full of these nuances, where compromise met discovery, and by the end, I felt lost without her input. The show had become hers, and I was just a producer.
What role does chance play?
Chance’s a bitch.
We’d love to know more about your recent exhibition, “New Arrivals,” which was shown in Amsterdam in late 2015 and included music by Beyoncé.
“New Arrivals“ was an interpretation of the museum’s library. When I was introduced to the space, I found out that access to the books was by appointment only. It’s ironic that the so-called library is not practical at all—it seemed more interested in showing off rather than letting us in. I wanted to build upon this “image” of reading, to add another layer to this flattened notion of a library. The show had several elements that alluded to textuality, one of them being a series of electric cables called Electric Love. I was upset after setting up a show and not being able to control the lighting conditions, so I started to think of my own lighting system. It was about stripping back to basics, while “Crazy In Love“ was playing in my studio. A word play came up, “electric love, “ and I wondered how could this “immaterial“ concept be manifested. So I printed the lyrics onto cable extensions, and while doing it I started to think of them as “veins“ in the space, wiring up the room to feed us energy. I eventually went back to Beyoncé and followed her videography as a structure to shape the work; as long as she produces, the work will expand along with it. I am huge fan of her precision, especially how she controls her narrative and manipulates multiple mediums to construct a consistent vision of womanhood. But if we break the songs away from the visual and the star, we are left with pure text, one that tells tales of self-empowerment, devotion and endurance. The exhibition was thus “powered“ by her text running across the space, while the beats of her songs were heard at a distance.
Your series of photographs “Grass Warm Trifecta” (2012) explores your fascination with the “average“ and the “mundane, “ and yet the images are still very aesthetically pleasing. How do you feel about art and beauty?
I think art is ugly and nasty, drastic, narcissistic, baffling, frustrating and, most of the time, annoying. But it is the recognition of its critical qualities that keeps me going, much like problem solving: to look for what’s missing, to help someone or something unheard. I was so green in 2012. I was an innocent fashion student with an obsession. I just wanted you to see that these corners, buildings and places needed more care, that they deserved as much scrutiny as a newspaper headline. I was attracted to the mundane precisely because it wasn’t abstract. It felt real to engage with piping and fences. It was a way out of an apathy set by living in London. To me, these images don’t represent the beautiful, they represent the therapeutic. (Apologies for my pretentiousness!) I connect “beauty” to a sense of completion, and at the moment, I don’t want that. But I am constantly seeing beautiful things, like an Azzedine Alaïa dress, a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven, or last summer, when I watched my dad seeing a live panda for the first time at the zoo in Beijing.
Speaking of beauty, from what we’ve seen of your work in the studio, it seems like your newest works are dealing with fashion and dress, which is interesting, as you originally studied Fashion Design in London before starting your MFA in Amsterdam. How do art and fashion operate or interact with one another in your practice?
At school, we were taught to be skeptical about fashion styling, because it was all about conjuring a character through dress up and not design. The “new” would come from preexisting clothes, which made it more about renewal than newness. If we step away from form, what styling allows is a direct structure of an attitude. It can be so simple: button up a shirt and you will look classy, leave the buttons undone and you will look sexy. Much like staging image-objects, bodies are also a vehicle for narratives precisely through what they wear. Pairing a grey wool suit with a baby pink shirt immediately conjures a specific class status. But if we swap the trousers for jeans, an entirely different personality emerges. Fashion’s volatility is its biggest asset—it allows multiple decades of style to coexist simultaneously, thus bending time and space. Bringing that into an art context opens a methodology to examine the impact of images today. Just think about when you make yourself “look good.” What could that really mean?
I think art is nasty, narcissistic, and, most of the time, annoying. But the recognition of its critical qualities keeps me going.
One of the works you’re currently developing is New Clothes, which uses found magazine images of clothing in wardrobes, printed onto fabric and then worn by a model, creating a kind of “walk-in closet.” What does this work mean to you?
They were initially sketched to be a series of kitchen aprons. I thought it would be funny to cook while protected from grease by images of “new clothes,” but unfortunately, I ordered the sample in the wrong fabric. It came in a slinkier polyester, which was more sensual than the original material. So instead of kitchen aprons, I pictured people draped in these “new clothes.” This work is another iteration of my current interest in stretching the notion of “bodily” image. If we consider fashion as an “image,” what would it mean to wear such an “image”? Since it doesn’t refer to fashion design’s history, New Clothes is simply what it claims to be. The model becomes a “walk-in closet,” and s/he would walk on a catwalk similar to a traditional haute couture show, where someone would announce what the model is wearing. But in this case, the narrator would read the model’s personal stories morphed with the features of a closet instead. The performance renders the runway as a navigation platform to address inner fears and desires. Come out of the closet, by becoming a “walk-in closet.”
This connection with fashion and wardrobes leads us to your mirror stickers, which were included in our 89plus exhibition “ Filter Bubble“ at The LUMA Foundation in winter 2015–16. Virus Mirror (2015) is a multipliable work, acting in the background as a literal reflection of the show. Why mirrors?
Mirrors are heavily ingrained in our collective conscious as passageways into other worlds, so I thought it would be fitting to offer “exits” out of the filter bubble, a bridge to escape the personalized information landscape that assaults us everyday. The number of “mirrors” produced matched the number of artworks featured in the exhibition, as a gesture of hope. It sounds super corny, but I was seduced by the idea that each artwork would open a portal, an “exit,” with Virus Mirror being a faint representation of it. I grew up watching Doraemon and his incredible pocket pulling out inventions of the 22nd century. In an age of increasingly dematerialised concepts, I’m having a lot fun staying a bit back and generating tacky fictions.
What will change everything?
Chinglish being taught in schools.
Do politics and art mingle?
No, they tango.
Bruno Zhu (Portuguese, b. 1991) is an artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. He is represented by Jeanine Hofland, Amsterdam.
Images: Accent Wall One, 2015. Courtesy of the artist; Untitled, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Carlos/Ishikawa, London; Cold Open, Installation view at Jeanine Hofland, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the artist and Jeanine Hofland