Song Bowen: An artist not afraid to set her own rules

Despite others' doubts, Song Bowen is on a learning curve when it comes to working on 3-D prints, and she has started to reap the benefits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 4:36am

Song Bowen is one of the few mainland artists to have won critical acclaim and commercial success with works created with 3-D printing. With increasing interest from buyers and collectors the world over, this freshly minted graduate of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts is readying herself for the long march into the world of hi-tech art - one that remains still very much unknown, or at least controversial, to many successful artists using more traditional media.

Painters use brushes, sculptors use chisels. Your tool is a 3-D printer. Does technology make creativity easier?

On the contrary, it is so difficult. It's hard to believe it's even possible unless you go through the process yourself. Many artists, probably most, create art to convey their emotions: pain and delight, love and hate, belief and confusion. But for me, I try to distance myself from the work as much as possible. I want my work to take on its own life, not mine. I want it to be as unadulterated as possible. But removing myself from the work is far more difficult than expressing myself, because it is very hard to reach and maintain an almost absolute state of peace of mind during the period of inception. For weeks, if not months, I stay at home just drawing curves, trying to find one completely independent of my influence, one that comes entirely out of the void. Searching for the "perfect" curve is an extremely difficult and painful process, full of desperation and hopelessness.

If it's so painful, what is it that keeps you going?

Once I find the curve, the work becomes much easier. I can sit back and make rules - mostly simple rules - to govern the curve's movement and development. With the help of a computer, I can see the initial line growing into a sophisticated and beautiful piece of art in the three-dimensional space all by itself. Sometimes the process might go a bit off course and the shape becomes something too extreme. I don't like extremity, so I may twist the algorithm to change the data flow. But most of the time, I don't intervene. It's an extremely pleasurable process, like giving birth to a life and seeing it grow into something big, complex, remarkable and beautiful. You have ultimate control over the outcome. But more often than not, you are surprised and delighted by the results, which frequently turn out to be something you could never have imagined.

Isn't this like playing God?

In a sense, yes. I'm not mimicking or reproducing the beauty of nature. I am nature. I conceive an idea and let it grow with the rules I make. The rules can be very simple, but few people can get what they are if I do not reveal them. I believe that when God was creating the world, he was thinking along similar lines. Once the seeds were planted and the rules set, he could stand back and watch his world grow from simplicity to complexity, from order to chaos, from nothing to everything. You can intervene when things get out of control, but most of the time you just stand back and enjoy it. Thanks to 3-D printing technology, artists can now enter a realm of freedom that was previously impossible.

How is business?

We are making money, decent money. My workshop, Glowing Studio, has grown to three artists along with numerous engineers and technical assistants. Many consumers and collectors like our works and do not seem to mind their relatively high prices. But 3-D printing art is still new and young. It will take some time before the mainstream art world fully embraces it.

Do collectors worry about fakes?

Yes, that's an issue. Just like photography, in theory, you can make as many copies as you want to with the source code. To avoid this issue, we always set a limit on the number of copies. So far we have not encountered a collector or buyer who wants to buy our source code.

Many students in art schools are interested in 3-D printing. What's your advice to them?

Be honest with yourself, that's my most important advice. Don't be distracted by sophisticated technology or fancy techniques. Find your own unique voice of expression and stick to it. 3-D printing is only a tool. What matters for the value and life of your work is your soul. Of course, some knowledge of mathematics is a must. A 3-D printing artist must understand and appreciate the workings and beauty of mathematics to gain freedom of expression. As with any art form, you must practise, keep practising, until you are familiar with the basic tools.

What inspired you to take up 3-D printing?

When I was a student, the question I asked myself most frequently was: what is beauty? In the past, people discovered natural rules that were believed to create beauty, such as the golden ratio. These rules were great, but there were so few of them. Why can't we create some rules ourselves? The standards of beauty should change with time and individuals. If I can draw a curve that is beautiful in my eyes, I can use it as a rule to create an entire work. When I was in school and first trying out 3-D printing, I ran into strong doubts and criticism from some professors. I even argued openly with them in class about the merits and possibility of art with 3-D printing. Some friends warned me that if I did not give up, I would anger the professors and fail to graduate. But I persisted, and when the professors saw my work at the graduation show, they were surprised, and now they've become my fans and supporters. Artists can no longer live with just the few rules discovered by our ancestors. We can now create with our own rules.