Interview by Zhenjie (Jey) Dong Muge was born and raised in Chongqing, China. He graduated from Sichuan Normal University with a degree in Broadcasting and Television Directing. Since graduating he has worked as a photographer, photo editor and lecturer; he has held solo exhibitions at Zen Photo Gallery in Tokyo, the Anastasia Photo Gallery in New York, and has participated in Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. He was nominated for the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2011, selected as a Juror’s Pick for the 2012 Daylight Photo Awards, awarded the Dali International Photography Festival Photography Award, and selected as First Edition 2012 Hey Hot Shot. His photographs have been featured in publications such as the New York Times, EYEMAZING, Le Monde, FOTO8 and Chinese Photography. Muge’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Ontario Toronto Canada. In 2005, Muge started his project Going Home, documenting the displacement and upheaval caused by the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River—on his way back home. Five years later, feeling lost in the changes of the Three Gorges, Muge turns to nature—searching for an answer—and continues to explore the balance between man and nature. JD: You studied Television Directing in college. Why did you choose photography, the still form, as your way of expression? M: I chose the still form back then because making a moving image requires a team. It takes time for the team to fit together, which will affect the initial state of thinking. Photography fits better with my need for personal thinking. It is more experimental and is closer to my current state. JD: When and how did you start the Ash series? Is it a continuous journey from your earlier projects or is it completely new? M: 2009 marked the fifth year of my Going Home series. I feel there is less and less to capture in the Three Gorges area. Redundant scenes appear in front of my lens. I went back to my hometown to take a break and figure out a way to continue. During the five years, the changes of the Three Gorges made everything seem strange and uncertain to me. I couldn’t find myself. Is it the change of reality or is it the way the Three Gorges was? I went to different regions to find my answers. Ash initially captures and shows the helplessness—smallness—of individuals in front of reality, thereby reflecting the people’s powerlessness and disorder in the rapid development of contemporary China. JD:You told me the title “Ash” came from the prayer: “we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” What do you want to express by using the word “Ash?” And why do you choose “ash” instead of “dust?” M: In reality, everything becomes ashes in front of the desire of human beings, while dust is a state of matter, an individual. JD: Does the Ash series experience emotional changes? M: Yes. The sense of powerlessness after the Going Home series and the strangeness of my hometown made me extremely frustrated. Therefore I capture the state of individuals in reality. There was no hope in sight. Although the Three Gorges Dam Project gave people some hope, they are just unknowns. The birth and love of my daughter—her innocent curiosity towards the world—has triggered a renewed willingness to explore life once again. Along with my mother’s faith, recognizing the trace that time leaves on nature and history has opened a window for me to understand reality in a new way. Since then, I’ve observed daily life slowly, “loving” this world instead of “ridiculing” it. I used to see the world with anger, considering everything in a negative light. Now, I like to watch things. Everything exists as it is. It is a simple world. JD: Do you feel differently when you photograph still life and landscape? And do you photograph them in different ways? M: Time leaves traces in my heart. When I photograph the landscape, I mainly choose the most unchangeable elements of nature: mountains, water and rocks. However, everything tends to change easily in front of human desire. When I photograph still life and landscape, I put them in an independent space to perceive their presences. JD: It seems that you are looking for an essence and eternity in constant change. Is place and time meaningful to you? M: I think the change you mention is in the heart. It will not change with place or time. Time is meaningful to me, because the trace of time is part of my work. Place is not important. The photograph itself will get rid of people’s preference of a place. My only hope is that places exist independently, mountains as mountains, rocks as rocks, water as water…I am influenced a lot by Taoism, caring for nature as it is. However, objects of nature change with people’s feelings. JD: Can you tell us more about your conceptual and artistic influences? M: Lao Tzu’s philosophy on nature influences me a lot. As for art, I am influenced by the traditional Chinese literati paintings and the reflection of personal experiences in traditional Chinese Shanshui landscape painting. The exploration of nature in 17th Century Dutch painting school has also influenced my work. However, it is life that helps me understand the state of reality. JD: What do you think is the best way to present your work? M: A photobook is the most ideal way. I am going to put my work and my thought into a hand-make photo book in order to present my process of thinking. I believe that will be very interesting. A good exhibition space is ideal as well. Ash brings objects in nature to a simple space, inviting the viewers to experience the work by themselves. JD: How do you edition your work? M: There is only one size and the work is in an edition of 8. I want to give each piece a complete presentation instead of focusing on sales. There is also a special collector’s edition with edition of 10. Each edition has 12 silver gelatin prints placed in a special made wooden box. They are like ancient Chinese scrolls, which have a taste of reading beyond appreciation. JD: Your works has been exhibited in China as well as abroad. Do the Chinese and western audiences have different responses toward your works? M: From Going Home to Ash, my works arouse more attention abroad than in China. Western audiences value individual expressions, while Chinese audiences pay more attention to the freshness and uniqueness of events. My works is based on individuals and is a reflection on the present. JD: Do you consider the Ash series completed? How do you decide whether a body of work is completed? M: Ash is like the practice of life, which has no end. Ash is not about telling a story. It reflects my thought on human and nature. It should be only the end of a certain period. Only once the work has lost the initial confusion and becomes redundant, will I know to call it an end. JD: What’s your next step? M: I will work on expanding the Ash series, exploring the representation of the spiritual core. For more information visit Muge’s website. Zhenjie Dong is a Chinese born and New York based artist and photographer exploring ways to express her social and political concerns through photography. She spoke at TEDxCreative Coast 2012 about her work Recreating Myth and the philosophy behind it. Her works have been exhibited in the Atlanta Photography Group Gallery, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and will join the global tour of the Lumen Prize Exhibition, traveling around the world in United Kingdom, Latvia, China and Wales.
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