Redefining Reality: Wenxin Zhang in Her Own Words

Wenxin Zhang, "Self portrait by the lake," 2012

Wenxin Zhang (MFA 2013) is always redefining her reality. In her writings and photography, she describes her experiences&mdash growing up in China, her current life in San Francisco, and her personal relationships—in a voice that is melancholy and surreal. Images of fall leaves in an industrial landscape are juxtaposed with a young boy’s glassy stare. A description of nocturnal wanderings illuminates the artist’s haunted sense of displacement wherever she goes.

Zhang has exhibited her work throughout the United States. Here she discusses her future projects and reflects on how her time at CCA has shaped her practice.

Since I was little, I was always longing to go to a faraway place—to be a stranger in a foreign country. I was unsatisfied with my hometown of Hefei. It’s a smaller, inland Chinese city. Young souls would leave for a bigger place after high school, and there was nothing new really going on. I felt so trapped by the place.

My father was a journalist for a local radio station. He traveled a lot and often took me with him. In 2004 he gave me a digital camera, and I used it every day. I would take photos and try to interpret my environment, to create a new little world with my camera in order to get away from the mundane. When I was in high school I would take bus trips with my best friend to the boundaries of our hometown—to the suburbs and the countryside. Student bus tickets are very cheap, so we would go the furthest distance we could by bus and take pictures of each other as our own story characters.

When I came to San Francisco, I discovered that escaping is not the end. It’s not like I came to a new world and became a different person. The freshness and exoticness didn’t last long; I needed to construct my new story. In my current project, The Novel I’ve Been Working On, I portray via photographs and short stories an imaginary mansion set in both San Francisco and Hefei. The mansion is the materialization of my claustrophobic illusion, meaning that fleeing one place always means you are going to another, just like wandering in a mansion of a thousand rooms. By interweaving writing and photographic works, the narration shifts from mundane spaces to fantastical, imagined ones, exploring the gray area between reality and fiction. The writings and photographs do not form a linear narration, but they do overlap, and echo against one another, just like the struggle between escape and return.

I studied landscape design for my undergraduate degree in China. I was interested in space created by human perception, and how it relates to the wilderness. After I finished school I spent a year at a large firm, working on landscape design projects for real estate companies. I couldn’t bear what I was doing, which was basically creating luxurious living environments for the one percent who already had maybe three or four houses. I realized that photography was my passion—that I could express myself and have adventures with it.

So I thought, “OK, maybe I should try to apply for art school in the States.” I applied in the U.S. rather than in China because all art schools in China require an undergraduate degree in the arts, and although I wanted to study photography, they required a solid background in traditional Western painting.

I felt very lucky that my CCA interviewer was Jim Goldberg. He is a world-renowned photographer, and a great professor. I ended up having him as a teacher for several of my courses as an MFA student, and he introduced me to a lot of wonderful photographers in the Bay Area. My other main mentors were Sue Ciriclio, Abner Nolan, and Esther Teichmann—great artists who critiqued my work and helped me solve practical problems during art making. I also got the precious chance to work with artists outside CCA, such as Katy Grannan and Alessandra Sanguinetti.

I only shot with film at CCA. I really like the weight of it. And it gives me a lot of privacy, meaning that I don’t generally want to see my own pictures while I’m shooting, nor do I want to show them my model during the shoot. Ha, not all of my pictures are gorgeous! And by using film, I can hide the harsher ones.

I shoot both models and friends. I was a very shy photographer before coming to CCA. I wasn’t taking many portraits of people. Most of my photos were street photography or landscapes. Also before coming here I didn’t know how to analyze photographs, intuition was all I had. At CCA I set a higher standard for myself and became very conscious about the photographs I choose for creating a cohesive project.

After graduating I had no idea what I was going to do. But I was very lucky to be accepted to Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers in Minneapolis. On Alec’s website there was a call for storytellers of all kinds. Of the 450 people who applied, 15 were selected to come to the Twin Cities for a week and make new work. That was a very precious experience for me after school, to know that I could still be connected with people all over the world, to see what they’re working on and get inspired. It was also inspiring to see how Alec works. He’s not only a photographer, but also the owner of a shop that does drum scanning and printing, and a book publisher.

After returning from the camp I started doing freelance work. While at CCA I interned for a semester at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, and now they contacted me to work as an editor and videographer. A friend from school introduced me to photography jobs for San Francisco tech startup companies. I’m happy with the balance that I have between my professional work and my personal projects.

I still consider myself an early-career photographer. I try to take a lot of chances and work very hard. I respond to a lot of calls for entries for gallery shows while keeping my own pace and independent judgment when I make work. I think it’s very important to be in a community. When the people around you are energetic and have strong opinions, it gives you focus and helps you approach your career in a supported way.