On the surface, Shanghai-based photography duo Birdhead’s images appear seemingly unremarkable. From a stylistic standpoint, they often appear to have been shot blindly without care for composition, while their subject matter is indiscriminate and ostensibly selected at random. However, in an artistic landscape dominated by heightened saturation, clarity, and perfection, it is this unexceptional style that makes the duo, consisting of Song Tao and Ji Weiyu, the exception.
What would seem almost anarchic to visual storytellers of the photographic medium, the duo shows no desire to tell any story through their snapshots, neither vicariously narrated nor manufactured, and instead approach the spontaneity of capturing images as the art form itself. Having works included in the permanent collections of London’s Tate Modern, New York’s MoMA and Switzerland’s Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, the pair make their inaugural appearance in Singapore at ShanghART Gallery Singapore with the exhibition, Welcome to Birdhead Again – Singapore 2016, presenting a collection of works taken throughout their recent Southeast Asia residencies. We speak with Song and Ji to find that we end up with more questions than answers.
What is your relationship with Shanghai? Do your photographs serve to preserve a city that is becoming radically urbanised?
It just happens that Shanghai is where we were born and grew up, and where we live and work today. We didn’t really have an intention of preserving or recording the city.
Why do you choose to capture your scenes predominantly in black and white?
We feel that our recent works are more suited to being rendered in black and white. In terms of technology and equipment, we have more control and options when processing black and white images.
The colour profile of a photograph can sometimes help viewers identify the city in which it was taken. Because your photos are in black and white, the location of your photographs become a bit more obscure. How, then, do your photographs tell a story that is unique to each place you visit?
We don’t consider ourselves as telling stories through our photographs.
“We see our photographs as documents of an interior journey and a form of personal exploration. The final works are the result of this process of reflection.”
Some of your works have very interesting, cryptic titles. Could you share with us the ideas behind “Passions Bloom Ambitions from Vagina-5”?
Since the titles are interesting and cryptic, we’d like to keep it that way!
Your photographs seem to be taken with compulsion, capturing scenes and objects that don’t seem to have any particular significance. Is this a critique of the compulsive habits of today’s smartphone users?
We never had the intention of any kind of critique. We see our photographs as documents of an interior journey and a form of personal exploration. The final works are the result of this process of reflection. Besides, how can compulsion or spontaneity be defined? The photographs in our works are always unplanned.
Many of your photographs depict seemingly insignificant things – and while those trivial things make up who you are, how do you decide what is ‘significant’ enough to include in an exhibition?
The importance of the photographs is that they capture our feelings. We shoot whatever we feel like shooting. Any sense of meaning is only refined and deepened during the subsequent process of arranging and mounting these photos to form an artwork.
Despite the seemingly compulsive way in which your photographs are taken, they seem to be much more candid than the posed manner in which today’s photographers and smartphone users capture images (e.g. for Instagram). What are your thoughts on our obsession with posing the ‘perfect picture’?
To be honest, we have never considered this. We feel that each individual has a right to their own personal needs and aesthetic standards.
What is it about analog cameras that prevents you from shifting to the digital kind?
We find digital cameras clunky and ugly, and we do not need the advanced functions that these cameras provide. Hence we reject both their function and aesthetic. We refuse to use objects that we find ugly, whether for work or leisure.
Having travelled Southeast Asia for your residency program, is there a particular city you’ve visited recently that you feel like would make an interesting photo series?
The residency gave us the opportunity to travel across Southeast Asia and capture many interesting photographs. Vietnam was a particular favourite, and over the course of our travels from south to north, we found its people and landscapes to be multifaceted and multi-layered. We had many interesting encounters.
Welcome to Birdhead World Again – Singapore 2016 runs until January 22, 2017 at ShanghART Gallery. For more info, visit shanghartsingapore.com.