A year ago Emily Hartley-Skudder had just arrived in Xiamen, South China for a three month artist residency. She was dealing with language barriers, culture shock, and the heat.
Now that she’s back in Aotearoa, we caught up with her to see how it all went.
Please explain your proposed residency project and the process it took?
I discovered that Xiamen was home to one of the world’s largest oil painting production bases. I had long been fascinated by companies that specialise in ‘hand-painted, genuine reproductions’ and the fact that supposedly ‘unique’ oil paintings can be mass produced. I had so many questions!
Influenced by Heather Straka’s project The Asian (2010), and expanding on my own project Painting Unit (2013), I went to the two main oil painting districts in Xiamen to see what I could find. There were rows of shopfront-like studios with painters at work, showcasing the best of each company. I guessed there were also thousands of painters working away behind the scenes. There were pet portraits, snapshots taken at graduation, paintings of dudes at parties, loose paintings of sunflowers in massive piles and even a scale replica of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (with particularly small feet).
I was going to pay for the ‘photograph to painting’ service. I began searching and collecting plastic source objects from the beaches close to my studio/apartment. I also saved all the intricately shaped plastic bottles I had drunk from and delicious looking jelly-cups. My studio table became a rainbow of coloured plastics. I bought paper and watercolours and made pastel backdrops. I began arranging and shooting my new objects. I chose eight final photographs, contacted an oil painting company and paid them to get seven of their painter-workers to each paint one of the eight photographs. I also asked them to send me eight blank, stretched canvases.
My aim was to present 64 small oil painting multiples, that each came from one ‘original’ photograph. These source photographs were then blown up and displayed in bright light boxes. I wanted to pose the question:why is it that we often view paintings as more desirably ‘authentic’ than photographs? What is the obsession with ‘genuine’, hand-painted artworks? I wonder whether becoming a painter-worker in one of these factories is the only way to live as a full-time artist.
The resulting project Fancy Goods is now on display at The Suter Art Gallery as part of the exhibition Sympathetic Resonance.
What was one of the most interesting things you discovered during your research?
I loved seeing inside Xiamen Art College at the university. The oil painting and sculpture departments were romantically old-school. Still life arrangements sat at the front of rooms surrounded by paint-splattered easels. The sculpture studio’s floor was thick with clay and the room was filled with half sculpted figures on poles with wires twisting out of them. It was fascinating talking to the students and lecturers about their view on different mediums. I got a sense that majoring in ‘oil painting’ involved learning a craft really well, similar in some ways to the beautiful yet painstaking Chinese lacquer painting process and other ancient traditions that you can major in. Some people's attitudes seemed to imply that true ‘contemporary’ art was explored through photography, film, performance and installation, and painting couldn’t quite cut it conceptually.
What do you miss from your time in Xiamen?
I miss the excitement; the intense over-stimulation. Every time I left the apartment, it was a new adventure. Being on an artist residency meant everything counted towards my work; everything was valuable research. I could fully indulge in being an artist! I miss how each meal was a delicious challenge. I miss the bubble tea at all hours of the day. I miss the little dogs that looked like Falkor from The Neverending Story. I miss the exchange rate and the price of food. And of course, I miss immensely generous people I met.
How do you feel, back home and one year on?
It was hard, having had such an intense experience and then slipping back into life and my part-time job like I had never left. It felt like some people hadn’t even noticed I had been gone for four months. I felt deflated; like I hadn’t achieved anything. But now I’ve had time to process everything, write about my experiences and also use new materials in multiple shows, I’m feeling energised and excited by all the ideas that have come out of the experience.
I’m working on a project with Dunedin Public Art Gallery, responding to a selection of works in their contemporary collection and creating installations around them. Think retro carpet, lino, floral wallpaper and a red bathtub. This opens in February next year, so it’s going to be a busy summer.
WARE (Wellington Asia Residency Exchange) is an artist-in-residence programme run by Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. It has two facets – residency and exchange. Each year one artist from Asia will visit Wellington, and one Wellington artist will go to either Xiamen or Beijing in China.