Interview by Claudia Bigongiari
All images © Taca Sui
In collaboration with Paris Photo, for the 25th edition of the fair, we had the pleasure to interview Sui Taca and delve into his last project Sere / 墜簡. His work Grotto Heavens / 福地 will be exposed during the fair in Paris in the Curiosa Sector.
Born in 1984 in Qingdao, China, he’s a fine art photographer and explorer of natural landscapes related to the ancient and traditional Chinese culture. He analyses the effects provoked by the human intervention and civilisation on the Earth but always discovering new relationships with a past that seems invisible but also indelible. His series are gateways to suspended and fascinating dimensions.
He has been shown at various exhibitions in both China and USA: for example, the series Odes was recently collected and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Taca Sui’s work is represented by the New York’s gallery Chambers Fine Art.
Claudia Bigongiari (CB): Welcome to Pellicola, it is really nice to talk to you in occasion of the Paris Photo fair. Photographer dividing your time between Beijing and New York, tell us something about yourself and your first approach to the camera. Did you always know, since your young age that you would have been destined to photography?
Taca Sui (TS): I immigrated to the US from China with my family in 2003 and was introduced to photography in 2005. Before that, I always studied painting and film in college. But when I was finally exposed to photography, I found it to be a more suitable medium for me. Compared with film, photography can be done independently. It is also different from painting, which makes you stay in the studio and unable to keep contact with the outside world.
(CB): Before talking about the historical and cultural documents related to your projects, can you mention some visual reference that influenced your photographic process and aesthetic?
(TS): Probably because my father was the first generation of art school students after the Cultural Revolution, there were many art books and magazines about Western contemporary art and ancient Chinese ink paintings at home since I was little. Before I left China, I was interested in Western modern art theories and works, but after I actually started creating art, I realised that Chinese ink from hundreds of years ago still has an implicit influence on me.
(CB): All your series collect square pictures printed on black and white fine art paper that give them a touch of ancientness as if they belong to the past you attempt to capture. Is that something intentional? Do you maintain the same aesthetic choice through all the projects to creare a continuity of the unstoppable story?
(TS): This aesthetic choice comes from my tendency as a nostalgic person and my first large-scale project, Odes. The inspiration for this project is the Chinese collection of poems from over 2,000 years ago, Book of Odes. In fact, almost all Chinese children are asked to recite these ancient poems, even though their complexity are beyond the comprehension of a child.
When I re-read these poems as an adult in a foreign country, I could feel both the nostalgia for my forgone childhood and the lost ancient civilisation implied in these ancient poems.
So I deliberately chose a low-contrast tone when presenting the project’s images. I hope that these works, when viewed, will give a more subtle feeling of reading old archival photographs that have been in the dust for many years.
(CB): Since your first work Odes (2013) exploration and travel have become fundamental elements of your research, moving around China and looking for landscapes described into the texts. How do you general plan your days of travel? Do you take pictures every time out, or do you prefer to explore before and produce after?
(TS): I enjoyed traveling around a country that was changing dramatically, especially when I was carrying a poetry book that was considered “immortal” or “classic”. The contrast between the “momentary” and the “eternal” was intense and fascinating, but it was not always a pleasant experience.
Many of the locations in the Book of Odes lasted for thousands of years, such as an ancient city, a spring, or even a mountain, but in these last few decades, they have changed or even disappeared. The Chinese government used to claim that these are the necessary costs of social and economic development, but they are not. Most of these things have been destroyed and disappeared because of short-term utilitarianism and its consistent disregard for culture and history.
(CB): Regarding now your last series Sere (2021) where you traveled along the Gobi desert to testimony what has remained of Han destiny’s beacons, which historical documents you followed this time to start the project?
(TS): Sere is actually a commissioned project in which the Museum of Contemporary Art of Yinchuan decided to have an exhibition of images in Northwest China from 1870 to the present. They wanted a work that echoed the images left by the famous scholars and explorers who first came to China, such as Stein, Bösch and Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, Gustav Mannerheim…The route these early explorers took was basically along the Silk Road, so I did the same thing.
Sere was supported by many institutes and universities around the world that have collections of images of early Northwest China, especially by the Dunhuang Research Academy. I spent a few days there, and they not only helped me organise historical images and information, but also took me to many historical sites.
(CB): As in other series, Sere‘s landscapes seem to be suspended in a fleeting dimension without specific time and space. Historical references are given only by the texts accompanying some of the images. There are passages from Dayuan’s biography, a letter from a Sogdian woman left behind the lighthouse of the Great Wall, the description of the clouds as vital energy… Are they insertions to define specific times or mixed with photographs to maintain the invisible presence of the past?
(TS): I have to say, the Northwest, especially around Dunhuang, is really special. There is a lot of evaporation all year round, but basically no rainfall, and all the historical sites are as well preserved as if in the vacuum. Even the straw stacks in the beacon towers under the Great Wall from 2,000 years ago are still intact, which is unimaginable in central China. For example, the letter from a 1,700 year old woman from Suthep found by Stein under the Han Dynasty Great Wall in Dunhuang in 1907 is as good as if it had been sent yesterday.
Time, which can overcome anything, seems to be invalid here. The clouds that occasionally appeared in the works, ever-changing but eternal, are like signs of these places.
The “past” has not disappeared. It is just invisible. All the existing scenes hint at their existence, and for me, photography is the best way to capture these traces.
(CB): What is the role you give to photography, can be as reliable as written texts? Maybe more reliable because it can’t deny what time and space has become? What is your approach to present time and space, which are not yet described in your projects?
(TS): In the past few years, I just realised that I have been searching for the moment that blurs the line between “history” and “present” in my works. Photography has the ability to build “bridges” across time and space.
The ancient and the modern meet in a photograph, and they speak to each other, superimposing each other like an echo, giving the audiences a brief trance. It is like driving on a country road at dusk, when the scenery outside the window is switching between subtle familiarity and unfamiliarity. But when the light is dimmed a bit, the feeling is completely different. This subtlety is very fascinating to me.
(CB): Finally Taca, living the Occidental culture since 2005, when you moved to United States, is there something that you would like to discover in future related to it? Have you ever thought about?
(TS): The recent projects of mine are looking for the sacrificial sites in earliest Chinese civilisation, when the concept of “China” did not even exist yet.
One night last month, I waited for hours on a hill where people worshiped the moon thousands of years ago, waiting for the moon to climb to the top of the mountain. During that time, I suddenly felt that the environment at the top of the mountain was like the hill in the park next to my house in New York, even the trees were the same.
I suddenly realised that the essential elements of Chinese sacrificial sites from thousands of years ago can be found all over the world, such as the “sun”, “moon”, “sky”, “earth” and even “the changing of seasons”.
Therefore, I believe that the similarities of human thoughts and civilisation is far greater than the differences. The uniqueness and respect for each “individual” thought is more than the conceptual sense of “East” or “West”.