Picture perfect

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am

British-born photographer Hugo Tillman first saw Chinese contemporary art when he was studying for his master's in fine art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2003 and it wasn't exactly love at first sight. It was an art magazine article about a certain cynical realist and he was hooked - but not by the art itself.

'I thought it was very kitschy and I didn't understand the aesthetics at all,' says the New York-based 34-year-old, 'and that's what really intrigued me and I tried to understand why I didn't get it and why everyone was talking about it.'

Although he was previously exposed to works by conceptual artists such as Ai Weiwei and Cai Guoqiang, Tillman says that somehow Chinese contemporary art 'just hadn't clicked'.

And it was his curiosity about this particular genre that later propelled him into a project that would take him not only into the heart of the action, in Beijing, but into contact with some of the biggest names in China's contemporary art scene.

On show at the Louis Vuitton Gallery in Tsim Sha Tsui until October is Hugo Tillman: Mind Games, a selection of colour prints featuring the likes of Ai, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Cao Fei and Zeng Fanzhi, whom he met between 2005 and 2007.

During this two-year project Tillman had conducted in-depth interviews with about 80 mainland artists, asking what drives them, where they get their inspiration, what experiences and memories have coloured their view of the world, and what were their secret fears and dreams.

The photographer then captured his subjects on film, mostly under staged conditions, based on the conversation they had. These portraits have since been shown in Beijing as well as in New York and Los Angeles. The Hong Kong exhibition will feature 22 of them.

Tillman arrived in Beijing with a camera and a few contacts, one of which proved crucial, that of Ai Weiwei. It was through him that the photographer was able to rope in so many top artists.

He says: 'If you get a kingpin early on then the rest is kind of easier.

'For me [the kingpin] was Ai Weiwei. I met him pretty early. I have a friend and she ... knew Ai very well. So that was a great introduction. He was able to help me with a couple of phone calls.'

But some strings proved harder to pull than others. Fang Lijun, for instance, initially said no to him.

'He was difficult to get hold of for two years and then he finally said yes. After so many people have said yes, he had to do it,' says Tillman.

Even after the artists had agreed to take part there was no guarantee that their artistic vision and thinking would match when translating their interviews and conversations into a visual.

When Wang Jianwei turned up on the set at the Beijing Film Studio and saw an empty row of chairs that was meant to be a psycho-sexual torture scene, the multimedia artist said he wouldn't do the shoot.

After some persuasion, Tillman did get his way: 'It was actually perfect for [Wang]. He's very into existential philosophy so I just made it an empty picture and he [fitted perfectly].'

Zhang Xiaogang was another difficult assignment because the photographer wanted to broach a personal and sensitive subject with him, that of schizophrenia and mental institutions.

It is well documented that the artist's mother suffered from the condition while Zhang came close to death from alcoholism in the mid-1980s. Tillman also wanted to highlight the real fear the artist had of passing on the mental illness to his daughter. This fear is also a consistent theme in his famous Bloodlines series.

'It was quite difficult to get him to do that because I wanted him to wear a hospital outfit,' he says. 'I kind of knew it might not work.' But on the day of the shoot Zhang showed up with some kung fu outfits so 'he could fight himself'.

'That picture we approached with three different possibilities to do the same concept. We quickly dressed him up in kung fu [outfits] and had him do all the kung fu poses and luckily he was okay with that. For some reason he and his daughter watch kung fu movies all the time so it was a great gift for his daughter. Maybe if that hadn't been the case, he wouldn't have allowed me to take the pictures.'

The work Tillman finds the most successful, though, is one of Ai - a spontaneous, natural and candid moment captured at a dinner table.

'It's the only one that is completely real. That was [after] a long conversation [with Ai], it's his idea to lift something out of reality into fantasy as opposed to the other way round,' says the photographer who previously worked in the fashion business.

'I had some opportunities working with [Ai] and spending time talking with him. He helped me think a lot about bringing reality into fantasy.'

As it turned out, the photo project was not only an introduction to what Tillman failed to understand back in 2003 - but a journey of self-discovery that has refined his own sense of artistic taste and aesthetics.

'Throughout the process of working on this project I developed a lot as an artist and an individual and part of that was to understand my taste,' he says.

'One can see quality in many things in life and this applies to artworks. My taste became divorced from my understanding of aesthetics and quality and my understanding of good or bad artwork. That was a big thing.'

He went into the project as 'a completely analogue photographer, no Photoshop, no digital-anything'. Now he realises that whatever he dislikes or considers kitschy may work or even look better aesthetically and conceptually.

Tillman says that while he had ended this 'obsessive project' last year - he had to mortgage his house for it - there is still one more artist he wants to include in the series: cutting-edge filmmaker, video artist and photographer Yang Fudong.

'He is probably my favourite contemporary artist, not just Chinese. His choices are incredible to me, his sensitivity is very special,' Tillman says.

'I was approached by the Guangzhou Photo Biennial offering to sponsor me to do more pictures. So hopefully, I will catch up with Yang in winter.'

Louis Vuitton Mansion, 5 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Opening hours Mon to Sun, 10am to 9pm. Until Oct 19