Isolation Interview with Qian Jiang

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

During Lockdown 3.0 in the UK we asked photographer Qian Jiang to share her day to day studio practice with us.

SEAM: Last year you graduated from the RCA with an MA in photography and have just begun a research programme at the RCA too. How have you found graduating and starting a new course during this year? Has it been difficult to gather momentum for the research project at home?

Qian Jiang: Everything works well during this year, although the pandemic is still worrying. I have quite enjoyed the new research course. While it is online, the college guarantees the quality of teaching. In my daily life, I would make sure to study for a certain amount of time per day, then go into full rest on the weekend. This gives my life rhythm and keeps me energetic. Also, conducting a research project is like digging for gold, which makes me feel that I could gain something out of my sight every day. Hence, every day becomes different and fresh for me.

SEAM: Have you found much time to take photos recently? Are you working on a particular project or series at the moment?

QJ: The research course is quite intense so I spend most of my time reading, writing and attending classes. However, I arrange a shoot every month at home because my studio in the college is closed. Before taking pictures, I need to set up a small shooting space in the room and prepare the camera and lighting. After the shooting, I would scan and print the photo and then probably re-create it on the white wall. In lockdown, every step of the process becomes more difficult than before, so it takes more time. So I have begun experimenting with a traditional photographic process, like Cyanotype, which only works with sunlight and you don't need many facilities.

Currently, I am still working on the same project about Time and Nothingness that I started on my MA. Based on my previous practice, I am building a systematic literature review on my theme using the research methodologies I learnt from my research course and lectures, finding the position and the underlying contribution of my work in the contemporary context. Besides, theoretical research also feeds my photographic practice, bringing me new perspectives and inspirations.

( Work in progress of new still life work.)

(Experimenting with Cyanotype)

SEAM: Where did your interest in photography begin?

QJ: I think it began in my BA. I was influenced by my roommate, who was addicted to photography. At that time, we often hung around all day with our cameras to explore our surroundings and cities. Although we didn't have any professional photography training, we enjoyed the contact with the camera. Also, we did a lot of experimental photography together. I felt that I had a good start with photography, it felt like a fancy toy which I could always have fun and explore myself and the world with.

SEAM: You talk about how photography for you is a way to relieve mental stress and make you feel grounded. Has this creative output been useful during the pandemic and in times of isolation?

QJ: Yes, it is still useful. Taking a shoot is like going on a trip, leading me to jump out of my daily routine and into the photographic land. Although the creative process has become more troublesome during the pandemic, I feel happier and believe that the time I have lived and spent is meaningful when I got a satisfactory outcome from my work.

SEAM: One of your photographs that we saw at the Saatchi Gallery, ‘One Minute of Photographic time’, explores concepts of time and nothingness. Can you talk to us a bit more about this and how this project came about?

QJ: The concept of Nothingness is a persistent research interest from my undergraduate degree. At that time, I started reading Buddhism classics and encountered Nothingness which somehow changed my thinking and healed my heart. From then on, I have been researching Nothingness’s concepts in the broader range of Chinese and Western philosophy.

For me, Nothingness is an experience which cannot be described through words or understood analytically, so I choose to approach and present it through the artistic media of photography, painting and sculpture. In the end, I realised photography was the ideal medium to explore Nothingness due to its mode of production and paradoxical nature. I also found contemplating time and presentness through photography is an appropriate way to involve the state of Nothingness. The work, ‘One Minute of Photographic time’, is one of experiments based on these thoughts. I chose water as my subject in this work since I often sit at my table and look out the window at the river that inspires me.

SEAM: Is there any artist in particular who has had an impact on you and your practice?

QJ: It should be Fan Kuan, a Chinese landscape painter of the Song Dynasty. His masterpiece ‘Travellers among Mountains and Streams’ always comes to my mind. I could feel the fusion between humans' spirit and nature from his painting, and I consider this fusion as true beauty. Also, it says in the old book that he spent most of his life on a mountain. He usually sat in the forest all day long to observe everything around and seek the truth of nature and art. For me, he is like an idol or a teacher, enlightening me that how should I get along with art and what kind of attitude should I have towards my works.

SEAM: How does a series or project begin for you? Does it start with ideas in the studio which you then go and shoot or does the creative process begin when you are out and about experimenting with your camera?

QJ: I work through both ways you mentioned. Currently, I mainly work with ideas first and then go shooting. This way could examine my presupposition or assertion that I put forward in my research paper. This makes my experiments more logical, so that each practice does not repeat itself but involves different aspects of the research theme. On the other hand, I also usually take my camera with me for a walk after dinner and shoot aimlessly, which often surprises me.

SEAM: Thinking of your work outside of the gallery, where would you most like to work or who with? Be it a residency, company or space to exhibit in?

QJ: I would most like to show my work in public spaces, especially parks, gardens, or riverside. We could be close to trees, water, soil, and others in a park. These natural existences can calm the audience down and help them better enter into the dialogue between my work. By combining the work with the natural environment, I hope my work could sink into people’s daily lives and bring them peacefulness in the fast-paced cities. I have some public works, and I will continue experimenting soon when the lockdown finishes.

SEAM: What is one thing people might not know about you?

QJ: I write poetry, but I hardly share them since I think a poem is a secret.

SEAM: Is there one idea or narrative in particular that you try and explore through your work?

QJ: Although I explore various ideas and narratives in different projects, there is a most important thinking in my artistic creation: exploring and reflecting who I am and how I should spend my life.

SEAM: What do you listen to when you work?

QJ: I like listening to white noise, especially the rain sound in the forest, or some meditation sounds. When I turn on these sounds on YouTube, I can easily enter a state of concentration.

SEAM: What has inspired you most recently? Be it a film, book, quote or person?

QJ: Contemporary artist James Turrell. He has made a land art project in a 400,000-year-old and 3-mile-wide land crater. Over the past 40 years, Turrell has since been transforming the crater's inner cone into a massive naked-eye observatory——a space for contemplating light, time and landscape; however, the project remains far from finished.

I would like to describe Turrell a dreamer, a personality that is rare in real life. In a way, his persistence and enthusiasm are broadening the limit of art. I am also inspired by his large light installation, I am now thinking about combining photography and installation to create a sense of immersion.

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