Studio visit at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, Philadelphia
TAO HUA YUAN JI, The World’s Largest Pop-Up Book at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center runs September 14 – November 25, 2017
Inaugural Book Opening and Reception: October 12, 6-8pm.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I was born in North Brunswick, NJ, and my senior year of high school, my dad was relocated and we moved to Roanoke, VA. I got a French degree at the University of VA., and then shortly after graduation, I went to Yunnan, China to teach English. My mother was born there. I loved living in Yunnan so much, I stayed for 3 years and traveled extensively within the province picking up a passion for photography. I came back to the States to study photography at Virginia Commonwealth University and afterward went to NYC to do an internship at the Aperture Foundation. After my internship, I worked several jobs in the city – Parson’s, a production company, the Foundation Center- but as I found no time to work on my photography, I decided to go to the Rochester Institute of Technology for a master’s in photography.
After Rochester, I attended a series of artist residencies for almost a year and then moved to Philly in 2004, with the intent of working at my friend’s Thai restaurant while getting another master’s degree in art therapy. I went back to Yunnan 2008 on a Fulbright Scholarship and attended artist residencies in between – I’ve attended more than 20 now. The longest one I did was a 6-month residency in 2014 in Shanghai. Now I live in South Philadelphia.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE WORK IN THIS SHOW, TAO HUA JI
The show translates as Peach Blossom Spring, and is inspired by a Jin Dynasty poet who wrote about a village of people who lived in a valley beyond a cave that was surrounded by peach trees. They lived in harmony with nature and each other, having moved there to escape political unrest. No one knew they existed. When I did my Fulbright, I went to a village in Southeast Yunnan that claimed they were this place. You ride a canoe through a cave (they had only just gotten electricity a few years before so this was the first time tourists were coming,) the cave opens with water wheels and people bathing and washing clothes in the river, and there’s a village surrounded by peach trees. Families were starting to change rooms in their homes so they could function as hotels.
These photos [in the show/book] are from that visit, which I took with my 35mm camera and had made a smaller book about it. I didn’t have much time to prepare for this installation. I was having lunch with my friend and gallery manager Lori Waselchuk, and I told her I wanted to make a large pop-up book for another space but the space wasn’t big enough to hit the Guinness world record. She asked me if I wanted me to do it at her gallery; their upcoming exhibition was postponed and they had already acquired funding. We measured the space and it barely fit. She got approval from the director and I just started. So it was all very last minute, but I’m kind of glad about that because if not I would have overthought it. I can’t believe how stressed out I was thinking if I should do it or not as it probably wouldn’t have much of a life afterwards because of storage and transport issues. I started working [on this show] Labor Day weekend and the show opens Oct 12th.
AT WHAT POINT IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE DID YOU START MAKING POP UP BOOKS?
I studied photo at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and right after graduation I started doing a series of artist residencies and that’s where I started teaching myself how to make pop ups. I wouldn’t have had enough motivation to just do that [on my own.] If I didn’t have some sort of external support, I wouldn’t have done it, but when you do artist residencies you just do whatever and don’t think so much about the outside world or the future. I also received some small grants along the way.
On one of my first residencies, I got a good stipend for travel, materials and food, so I used it to buy books on EBay. I had just won my first digital camera in a photo competition, and had this whole system going where I would buy books on EBay and then some of them I would buy specifically to resell because I’d take good photos and repost. I bought some from used book sites, so I’d get money from selling books and I could buy the ones I wanted. I would deconstruct the ones I wanted.
WHAT ROLE DOES TRAVEL PLAY IN YOUR WORK?
I’ve been working on this body of work since 2009, but the photos are from 2008 from an 11-month trip. I went back [to Yunnan] again in 2013 for a month because my camera got soaked at a water splashing festival, and I wanted to go back and take pictures of it again. And then I went back in 2014 for 6 months and traveled to other parts of China but was based in Shanghai and an artist residency called the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. The first series of photos I did in 2008 were all about Yunnan province, so I’ve covered everything I want to there for the series.
At Swatch, my project was to travel outside of Yunnan to the other minority places and luckily I got a financial award from the Leeway Foundation the month before I left, so it allowed me to travel more comfortably and stay in hotels – as opposed to in the past where I stayed with families I just met. The residency paid for the flight, and the residents were housed in a 5-star hotel on Shanghai’s most touristic area called the Bund. I went back again in February to go to eastern Tibet for a week, and then I did sightseeing for another two weeks. I tried working in India–I did a residency there last year in Orissa, and it was to explore the tribal areas of Eastern India. So much [in India] is very similar [to China], but I never made anything from the trip because I just didn’t feel the same connection. So I thought, oh am I just going to always have to make work about China now? It may have been because I couldn’t speak the language in India, and they looked at me differently, as an outsider (although I didn’t feel so much like an outsider), whereas in China I looked like them and could speak to them, and could blend in.
WILL YOU TALK ABOUT THE PROCESS OF CREATING A POP UP BOOK?
I’ll take the photos, go through them, use Photoshop to create a collage, and at the same time I’m researching about the ethnic groups and combining it with information I already had gathered there. Then I will come up with a story to help me figure out what I’m going to put in it. I’ll then print it out in B&W- since ink is so costly- or on a color laser printer. I print pieces of the collage and put it together three dimensionally and then when I like it I print it in color and do it again. There’s a lot of back and forth, but I have to make my model big enough as size changes the engineering. My models usually start 11 x 17”, manageable but still close enough to their intended 2 ft. size. If I can, I’ll do it 1 to 1. The binding process happens after.
While I was in Shanghai, I designed a 3-foot wide pop-up book of Shanghai for an international exhibition and sale of children’s pop-up book. It was an exciting opportunity because they had also invited David Carter, a guy who made pop-up books that I had followed and admired from my very beginnings with pop up. They wanted me to make a model so that they could enlarge it for the ground floor of the shopping mall where the exhibit was held. They made it 2.5 x 5 meters. I was in Inner Mongolia when they constructed it, but it took them ten days–the guy had no experience, but labor and materials was cheap. I didn’t look at it too carefully, I don’t know why, but it was mainly cardboard with metal reinforcements, but I thought wow it actually did work. They made it seem possible.
Ann Montanero from the Movable Book Society emailed and said I should enter it into the Guinness Book of World Records. I looked it up, but it wasn’t bigger [than their record.] So this one [in the show], will be the biggest one at 14×21 feet. Guinness doesn’t come unless you pay for them to review it. You can submit visible proof. I’m currently also a fellow at the Center for Emerging Artists. My proposal was to create an interactive installation and then I thought I wanted to make the giant pop-up book at their gallery but the space was too small. I went to the Guinness site for the application and they said it would take three months for them to respond unless you pay and you’ll get a faster response. So I put down November 1st, and they wrote back I’d been accepted and I’d have to submit proof. So it all matched up with the dates.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST STRUGGLES IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE?
Trying to figure out a way to make more work available for sale, because I’m always exhibiting and teaching. I make one book to exhibit and then I don’t want to do it anymore. I have, say, 12 one-offs and no editions, and then if I go back I might not be in the mood. If I’m only making one, people say just charge more, but it’s still an artist book and people don’t want to pay so much for an artist book.
Several libraries have inquired, but say it’s out of their budget. I want to think of a way where it’s not as difficult to produce because I’ll spend about two weeks to design one book.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND YOUR WORK?
To be challenged. To be unique. To educate and to be able to travel. My pop up work has taken me around the US, and to India, Mexico, Croatia, Brazil, Belgium, Canada… To be fun–not necessarily fun to make, but fun when people look at it. To have a magical joy factor for all ages, but at the same time not just be pretty flowers–something deeper than that if people can see beyond the surface.
Like this book, you could say it’s a huge pretty book with a cave with peach blossoms, but it came from that whole idea of utopia and the inability to obtain utopia. You can’t have utopia without dystopia–the village was established when they were seeking political refuge. I think that’s perfect right now. You can come here and hang out when you’re feeling terrible about the world. Have tea inside the cave! A gallery visitor told me [the work as I was installing] was so profound and I wanted them to explain. They said the fact that it closes and opens–he couldn’t verbalize it.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE NEXT STEP OF YOUR WORK?
This was a goal, one that you could enter inside and experience the work more like I do in my head. It’ll be almost 5 ft. tall. This is something I wanted to do [for 3 years now,] and didn’t expect it to happen because I wasn’t actively pursuing it. And it’s only happening because I talked about it at lunch. The other thing is to publish, that’s been the long-term goal. I have to, to feel fulfilled. After going to Tibet there’s nothing else I feel I need to photograph for this series, so now I’m going to try to go somewhere near my mother’s hometown and stay longer and do a more in depth exploration. This [show/book] is more of an outside perspective, more of an introduction. [For the next thing,] maybe I can get more of their perspectives in there.
ANYTHING COMING UP THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PROMOTE?
I have another show at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists gallery next month. It’s part of POST (Philadelphia Open Studios Tour) weekend. I’ll be speaking about the work and will be in the gallery all day on October 15th.