Through a fallen leaf in autumn, one can feel the beauty of the whole season; through the color of the fallen leaf, one can evoke the sadness of memory. These are the questions and feelings that I think an artist or creator cannot avoid.
Self Portrait is the first photographic series that Hao Wen completed after moving to Germany in 2017. It is an intriguing title for a small series of six still lifes characterized by unremarkable objects and furnishings that appear hastily and cheaply assembled. The untidy pile of crumpled clothes might be more personal than other items, but the heap also suggests the clothing has been unceremoniously discarded. The coffee mug with the cat and dog motif might have been a gift, whereas the various plastic water bottles and charging cables might be found anywhere. Apart from the ubiquitous technology which can be inferred form the charging cables and the TV there is nothing of material value or cultural significance in the apartment.
Hao Wen’s apartment may resemble other student accommodation or cheap furnished lettings but his photographic approach is highly specific. He uses a very shallow depth of field throughout the series drawing attention to minor details that seem to shift suddenly into focus. Juxtaposed with the narrow focal plane are large expanses of indistinctness or emptiness. The artificial light, the absence of doors and windows emphasize a sense of isolation. The contemplative quality of the image is reinforced by the static symmetry of the square picture format. On one hand the objects can be identified with daily routines such as undressing or drinking coffee and are integrated as visual elements in the pictorial space of the photograph. On the other, the shallow depth of field implies a heightened awareness at odds with routine everyday behavior and the focus singles out, almost separates, the elements from the rest of the composition. In Self Portrait Hao Wen strikes a delicate balancebetween the familiar everyday objects and abstract contemplation, daily life and spiritual detachment.
Hao Wen’s use of the photographic medium changes fundamentally from one series to the next reflecting the shift in his artistic interests. He doesn’t use a single style or visual language throughout his work but develops an entirely fresh approach to meet the challenges of each new project. His works are not merely radically different in technical or pictorial terms but also in his occasional use of video, text, installation and performance. In A Poem (2019) Hao Wen combines 24 black-and-white images taken during a car journey through China to the former residence of the eleventh century poet Su Dongpo with short texts in Chinese formulating his own doubts, emotions and hopes. Divided into four chapters the images and texts are printed on a single 10 meter scroll of paper, that is exhibited unrolled on a low table weighed down by traditional paperweights. Hao Wen’s journey unfolds like a road movie through contemporary China, juxtaposing building sites with temples, modern and traditional materials, natural and manmade elements. Different notions of time infuse A Poem, beginning with his use of the traditional paper scroll to contemplate the breakneck pace of change in modern China, creating a multitude of cultural historical perspectives. An ancient flat rock lying in a wavy sea of tall grass, a broken window in a deserted shop, washing drying in the sun, a huge mound of bulldozed earth, a landscape irrevocably altered by a vast building project. Time racing past. Time standing still. In their tranquility and contemplation, the images and texts in A Poem address change and transformation but also enduring poetic sensibilities.
The juxtaposition of dualities or powerful oppositions to create richly textured and highly differentiated layers of meaning is also found in Hao Wen’s most recent installation There and Back (2022), which is the final work he completed before graduating and returning to China.Again, as in A Poem, a journey, this time made on foot, is central. A camera aimed at the back of Hao Wen’s head and shoulders but focused on the unfolding cityscape and remaining equidistant throughout his journey follows him as he walks from his apartment to the central railway station, Essen main station, in the center of town. Dawn is breaking and the day becomes gradually lighter during the 70 minute walk. In the second video the camera follows him in exactly the same way, as he walks the identical route home. Only now it is dusk, and the city becomes increasingly indistinct over the next 70 minutes until he arrives home in darkness. But rather than see the two films as in some sense autobiographical, addressing Hao Wen’s arrival in Germany and foreshadowing his return to China, it is important to view them as a pair representing not alternative but cyclical and even parallel processes. When viewing the two videos in an exhibition space, that is precisely what happens as one switches from one monitor to the next and back again several times. The unchanging distance between the camera and Hao Wen’s back as the cityscape unfolds before him and falls away as he walks past. The actual journey in question could be conceived of as physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual - some such movement is inevitable. Alongside the two monitors are three pairs of large format photographs, also conceived of as diptychs and dealing with dualities in terms of content. The photographs juxtapose destruction and construction, neglect and future potential, the interim states of the abandoned buildings radiating something unsettling. Such stark contrasts also lead to speculations about life and death and it should be noted that Hao Wen originally conceived of There and Back in response to the death of a close friend and fellow student. In their richly detailed mode of representation and their quiet contemplation the paired images invite comparisons on many levels. For example, the small lake caused by temporary flooding in front of an unfinished apartment building is analogous to the metaphorical sea of building rubble in its pendant image.As with the videos the two images comprising each diptych do not represent alternatives but cyclical and parallel processes.
In terms of its scale and ambition the earlier work The Trace (2018) marks a significant turning point in Hao Wen’s artistic development. It is the first work in which he combined photography, performance, film and installation and can be seen as an exploration of his relationship to the photographic medium. A photograph’s content can be regarded as comprised of myriad ephemeral traces with complex connections to external reality. This inspired Hao Wen to undertake a series of interventions at public locations in an attempt to leave a variety of traces of his own. Hao Wen filmed his interventions and photographed the locations shortly afterwards to see what trace, if any, he left behind. By the time he photographed it, the wind had scattered all but two or three of the numberless post-it notes he had stuck to a large boulder. A more elaborate intervention stacking black bricks to block the entrance of a large circular drain didn’t turn out as expected, when water seeped through regardless. What, if anything, did he do to the large weathered concrete block next to a clump of trees? Or the mossy paving slabs? Evidence of his interventions at some sites is barely visible and accordingly the photographs tell us little or nothing of what he did or tried to do there. The traces of Hao Wen’s interventions, his attempts at leaving a mark, are either invisible, unclear or unintended. Without the video record the photographs would leave us none the wiser, with it the photographed locations come to life and minor details become potentially significant. Rather than a demonstration of the futility of human endeavor The Trace explores the role of chance, ambiguity, loss of control, subliminal elements, even invisibility in constituting photographic meaning. It also looks at what these qualities can teach us in our own lives. Like the other works in this exhibition The Trace is poetic and thought-provoking in equal measure.
——Prof. Christopher Muller
Folkwang University of Arts, Essen