In her writings and photography, Wenxin Zhang describes her experiences of growing up in China, her current life in San Francisco, and her personal relationships, all in a voice that is melancholic and tranquil. Her series Five Nights, Aquarium tells a surreal, non-linear take that attempts to reconstruct what she describes as the inner journey she makes between her home country and San Francisco. We recently asked her to tell us more.
How would you descrie Five Nights, Aquarium?
“Five Nights, Aquarium is a non-linear story that consists of both photographic and written works. I divided the whole story into five mini-parts, each of which represents a micro-fiction. The five micro-fictions are intertwined with each other through hints I have buried in the photographs and written works. I try to let the audience dive into a labyrinth-like aquarium full of unconsciousness, full of hidden treasure and desire.”
There are feelings of estrangement, longing, confinement, and even boredom that seem to arise in this series. How is this work related to your journey between China and San Francisco and the feelings you encounter while traveling between the two places?
“In the book Stranger to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva wrote about foreigners; “A secret wound, often unknown to himself, drives the foreigner to wandering. He is a devotee of solitude, even in the midst of a crowd, because he is faithful to a shadow: bewitching secret, paternal ideal, inaccessible ambition.” Traveling between China and San Francisco, my life became a temporary thing. My perception towards San Francisco changed drastically over time, from exotic excitement to fatigue, and then to an intricate mixture of everything.”
You describe Tokyo and California as places to dream about and imagine yourself in. How does your relationship to certain places resemble or differ from your relationship to the people in these photographs?
“I was born in the late 1980s in China. I experienced the gradual collapse of an old system and the embracing of a new system of my country during my teenage years. The evolution of everyday life was a simmering process, which was too tedious for a claustrophobic teenager. In my young heart, Tokyo and California represented far more than two geographic locations; they are where most of the beautiful stories took place in my favorite books, lyrics, and movies. In a small landlocked Chinese city like my hometown Hefei, it was hard to live a satisfactory life without dreaming about a place that you long for.
“In the case of people in my photographs, I regard them as my characters. When thinking or writing about the story that I want to convey, I list the types of people that I need photographs of, and then I look for them. I don’t usually direct their poses, I chat with them in an immersed way, and then capture the subtle and complex moments. The people I photographed either represent people from my past or people I met in dreams.”
Internal thoughts are somewhat difficult to capture in photographs, how do you work with this enigmatic subject matter using a medium that lends itself to a pure description of reality?
“Those imaginary and intangible spaces that I describe and try to depict were not created for the project specifically. They grew with me over time, rooted and sprouted in the gaps between my inner world and the outside reality. They are inseparable parts of me and it has always been my desire to unveil them.”