Online, part of Independents Biennial 2021 (links in post)
Did you pick up a copy of the Independents Biennial paper? It’s a really neat way of sharing the festival’s content in this least physical of festival years. More intentional than a website on its own, easily accessible, and an object I was pleasantly surprised to come across in my local Asda. As great starting point for getting a taste of everything, with more space for the artists to represent themselves with more than a byline.
Feiyi Wen’s page contains a single photograph of a waterfall. It’s so light that it feels somehow ephemeral, much less solid on the page than other entries. It caught my attention immediately. Then…(for reasons covered here) I didn’t come back to it. I did see her work crop up on Instagram feed a few weeks ago, but I didn’t have time to follow it up. I’m a big fan of discovering art on Instagram, but there’s a difference between seeing something once in passing and doing it the justice, which takes longer than one visit. Each of Wen’s posts came with a caption which deserved time to think about, to explore in relation to a series as well as a single image. And I missed her digital exhibition outside Open Eye Gallery – I’ve made a grand total of three trips to Liverpool in 2021, each with very specific missions. It’s only this week that I’ve come back to discover more about the image I found so intriguing, and the rest of the work in the series.
Under The Yuzu Tree and Wood Water Rock, which I’ve explored through Open Eye’s Instagram, Independents Biennial and Wen’s own website, are both series of black-and-white photographs based predominantly on natural scenes and forms, and I find them very beautiful. The use of palette and definition is as interesting as that first image in the magazine suggested. Wen really gets greys, with black and white generally only appearing to really pick something out, like a shadow under a rock or a sparkle on a lake. You can make our every tree on a mountain, every crevice on a rock, yet at the same time there’s something which feels intangible, indistinct, about the details. They’re quiet, but not silent; slow, but not quite still. Those waterfalls aren’t frozen in time, but neither are they roaring – the feel is instead more like they’re suspended in a world which runs by its own rules. Looking at Wen’s work I feel like I can’t pin down exactly what or when it is – and I love this feeling of being untethered in my exploration. Like I’m on the edge of something big, that moment when all potential for what that actually means is still open, before reality comes along with whatever that brings.
I also wonder if this is my way of processing what Wen has intended to achieve. What she explains in those Instagram captions is that through the work, she’s trying to explore cross-cultural concepts, some of which may only exist in one culture. Even after years of looking at art and trying to consider different interpretational standpoints, it’s a challenge to realise that there are some concepts you still don’t know because they’re not culturally embedded in the systems we work in. I’m used to thinking about how, and from where, my opinions have been formed; but what am I still missing? Wen references Chinese and Japanese concepts which I can know intellectually but perhaps, without a cultural background or particular practice, really know and apply to my experience of these – or indeed any – artworks.
In centring these ideas, there’s an implication that Wen’s put something in the work which we might be missing. it doesn’t really matter how true that is – raising the question is enough. Some people might find this idea frustrating, like it defies the thought that they can reach the heart of the meaning. But to me, in the whole exercise, finding the true heart of the picture isn’t the point? Rather, it’s an opportunity for contemplation of what thoughts I do have, and what other possibilities might be out there.
It goes so well with the “un-graspability” (for want of a better phrase) of the work so well. When I said before that I love the feeling of my mind wandering around the work, adrift in an abundance of possibilities – to me, that’s exciting. That’s one of the key reasons we turn to art, right? To open up new possibilities for what life can be, and how to think about it? This is why, whatever has inspired Wen’s view and whatever she has actually put in the work, it’s still not a question of there being a ‘right’ way to view the art. My feelings are valid, but recognising that they’re born of cultural conditioning is an important thing to remind ourselves of. Rather than worrying about what I could possibly be missing, I prefer to be intrigued about what’s still to learn in this great wide world.
I will be keeping my eyes and ears open for when I can find an opportunity to view Wen’s photography in real life. It works online, but will being a different kind of object make them more tangible? Will the juxtapositions she creates feel different on paper than they do on screen? What will change about their slow beauty, and does that change outside of being part of a mass of images on Instagram, or even in the Biennial magazine? I want to see how turning this into a physical object changes yet again how I feel and respond, and whether that brings me closer to understanding perspectives I’ve never before applied.