Jennifer Wen Ma
Eight Views of Paradise Interrupted
New York, 14 East 63rd Street
Blending characteristics of traditional Chinese art with a contemporary approach, Jennifer Wen Ma creates delicate, ephemeral installations using hand cut paper, ink, glass, and light. In this exhibition at Sandra Gering Inc., the artist presents a body of work that borrows elements from the traditional Chinese literati landscape painting trope of Eight Views of Xiaoxiang. Yasemin Vargi interviewed the artist about her recent work and art practice.
Y.V: You work with a wide range of mediums that range from performance to public commissions. Over the years, your work has become bigger in scale and theatrical.
J.W.M: Yes turning more theatrical and larger scale had a lot do with my experience on the Olympics Beijing 2008. I was always very interested in interdisciplinary work. My undergraduate degree was in advertising design, not painting, I didn’t really have an idea of artistic hierarchy. I experimented with what resource I had, what I was comfortable and what I had access to at every given stage of my career. Certainly Olympics give you an appetite for something on a huge scale, and theatrical. It allowed me to play in arena and it influenced my work.
Y.V.: After studying advertising, you changed your focus more towards art. Do you think getting a degree in advertising was influential in your art practice?
J.W.M.: What I took away from studying advertising was really helpful in that advertising is about communication of a message that is often driven by commercial interest or a client. Similarly, art is also a way of artist communicates an idea or a thought.
In advertising the first things you talk about is your audience, the target market, and the demographics. It helped me understand whom I was talking to and how do you craft your message and the way you deliver the message so that your idea is conveyed in the most effective way. I have dedicated a portion of my practice in public art and it is helpful because I want to go to a public space not just a gallery or a museum setting and create work for people, thinking about my audience, the neighborhood, the area and how do I reach out to them.
I do a lot of research and it is an important part of my process. I love learning about the area, the history, and the people. I look at cultural aspects during that process, and try to see if something catches my interest and find resonance with what I am doing artistically.
Location gives me new ideas, but it is also tied in with artistic trajectory of something I am currently drawing or painting in the studio or worked on in the past. This cross section creates the spark that result in the work, but I always start with the research. And it is important to keep a rigorous studio practice.
Y.V.: For your opera productions, you work with many talents from different disciplines. How do you bring your team together?
I like talented people and I like making friends with artists so I mix business with pleasure. I love working interactively, cross discipline with other artists and designers. Over the years, I accumulated a group of friends and artists I work with and turn to for certain things. Whether it is a multimedia, technology based project or if it is something architectural, structural, or design, there are a few people I go to.
The opera Paradise Interrupted is a combination of both. There are people I have known for 20 years, my roommates from grad school, one of them is an architect and the other is a fashion designer and they worked on the opera with me. I met new people such as our composer who later became one of my closest partners on the opera, and the main singer - protagonist. I decided to create the opera for her when I met her. I like working with a group because you can open yourself to new ideas, can push yourself and learn a lot.
Y.V: You have a strong relationship with nature. What inspired you to incorporate ink and plants which are two distinctive mediums in your work?
J.W.M: I’ve thought that if I couldn’t be an artist, I would be a gardener, who are artists as well, especially in traditional Chinese and Japanese garden designs. Cultivating a landscape; there is something to very connected to the process of painting. Well, I live in New York City and I don’t have a garden.
I have been working with live plants for almost ten years as an important of my practice. That almost came accidentally; I was really led by ink as I was very interested in Chinese ink as a material.
The way I came at this, I was exploring ink and its properties doing videos, drawings, all these different ways of exploring landscape painting from Chinese tradition and trying to figure out a more contemporary way of approaching that. After a series of videos works, which were a time-based painting process, I wanted to bring the material quality of ink to the forefront of the work. The way ink coats my hand, the way it smells, how it is so rich and it covers everything but can just wash away with water. There was something so malleable and easy but also very powerful. I wanted in some way to share that experience with the audience.
Y.V: How did you start using painted live plants in your project in such a distinct way?
J.W.M: I had an invitation to work at Echigo Tsumari Triennial in Nigata Japan and it was in the wilderness, in the forest and there was a little patch of land and a brick structure on it. There I came up with the idea of painting the plants. Every time they did an installation in that area they kill the weeds around and on top of the brick structure, so I thought I would just paint them in black because these are to be discarded. Inside the structure, I had 21 black ink pools. I thought the painted plants looked like all of the plants sucked up the black ink and became black, and if they died at the end of the exhibition it was okay because the weeds were going to be killed anyway. I did not think they would survive.
In anticipation of that show in my studio, I cut leaves and painted it, let it dry to see how it would work. Once the ink dried, it would stay on even if you soaked the leaf in water. I did that kind of material tests and didn’t take into consideration of how live plants would interact as I thought they would die. It took two weeks to install the project on site, right before the opening we had to go back to the beginning of the patch of area we painted, because some plants were already grown out with green! I was so amazed at the vitality and the energy of this life force, this little grass. There is just so much will to live and if the root system is not damaged, in this case not, with sun and rain, it will grow and green will come into it. Right there I saw, this is a live landscape painting. Applying ink onto a landscape and it changes in time. So we left it there for three months towards the end of the exhibition half of it was already green.
Y.V: Could you talk about your current exhibition Eight Views of Paradise Interrupted?
J.W.M: This exhibition is another step and experiment into this whole trajectory of working with ink and landscape painting. In Paradise Interrupted the opera the set design is very specific. I wanted to re-create a three-dimensional version of a Chinese scroll painting—a rolled up painting that a collector can easily carry and go anywhere.
Often collectors would take the most beloved scrolls along with them on long trips. When they would want to view the painting they would open it and as they look at the painting they would roll close one side with the other hand opens the other, and they would scroll through the painting, and read through the painting, through its mountain ranges and rivers, like a movie almost. Time is incorporated in there, sometimes seasons change, and the perspectives are always shifting, as the landscape changes. It may start out in a mountainous regions and ends up by the ocean or river. So it is this whole experience that opens up in front you when the painting is open, then when you close it you just put it in your travel pouch.
I wanted create something similar for the opera set as an extension of this artistic exploration. Also, this was a women who has lost her utopia, her paradise and she is trying to regain it. I wanted to create this very surreal, fantasy garden, they could come out of nothing, not through projection, something physical that you can touch and see and it can be gone in a moment’s notice. So then in your head you can ask questions, was it real, was it a dream, was it delusion or magic?
It took a long time to figure out and invent this way of creating a landscape with a stack of constructed paper, that when the papers are pulled open it becomes an erect and fully realized garden. The hand cut paper construction can create a panoramic view. It took two years of a journey from the inception of the opera to the world premiere. Opera is going on a world tour and we are also doing workshops, so it has a continued life. But the bulk of its creative process is behind me and there have been so much thinking going into this opera, that I wanted to examine and present in an alternative way.
I borrowed this Chinese literati landscape painting trope of Eight Views of Xiaoxiang, which is a particular type of painting that began in the Song Dynasty in a region in China that dissident government officials were exiled. The idea of the exhibition came to me during 2016 election, with its uncertainty and questions in my mind. A thousand years ago scholars from China used landscape to describe their inner emotional and intellectual life, when it is at odds with the external world at large. I borrowed that idea for Eight Views of Paradise Interrupted, in creating my own mental landscape that I was in while making the opera. I created the works in this exhibition that had to with this artistic cerebral space but also my personal trajectory, one that is internal and reflective.