The debate about how one might define art has raged on for centuries and centuries. Naturally, given the inherent subjectivity to the argument, it is one that will never have a definitive answer. Shxpir has no preoccupations with this debate. He proudly labels his Perception series, a collection of works that uses photogrammetry to cast various models in fantastical virtual worlds, as “fake art for the people.” Tired of the pretence and elitism of the ‘real’ art world, the photographer has been embracing the virtual in the name of inclusivity. We spoke to him about the daunting future of technology, the crude origins of his seemingly sophisticated moniker, and the limitations of commercial art.
How would you define your career and work? Are you primarily a photographer or a director? Or perhaps a multidisciplinary artist?
I’ve done all sorts of things, but I started out assisting contemporary artists. I was taking photos to record their whole processes, for installations and such. Then people actually liked my photos, a few magazines got hold of me, and that’s how I got into fashion photography. But now, as well as this, I’m looking to get back into the world of fine art.
Your recent Perception series uses the practice of photogrammetry to create stunning 3D virtual art. How did you start working with photogrammetry?
It all started 2 years ago, just before the pandemic. I’d had an idea for an editorial and was looking for 3D scans and I found a few studios. After this one specific editorial, even though the scans came out pretty badly, I really got into it. I majored in Contemporary Media Arts at university, so I already had a bit of basic knowledge and then, even though I hated it back then, it all just clipped together.
You’ve referred to your ventures into the metaverse as ‘fake art,’ claiming that “real art is only for the rich, fake art is for the people.” What makes art real in your eyes?
I originally came up with the ‘fake art’ concept a long time ago. I had studied very traditional arts throughout my childhood, so when I did contemporary media, I didn’t even really know what it was. I just ended up with it because in China you don’t really get to pick your major, you just take a test and get given something. I got my safe option because nobody else wanted it.
I actually wanted to go into animation originally because I was heavily influenced by Japanese anime. We did coding and worked with 3D software, then combined this with installations, paintings and the like. I assisted some British artists for an internship, and they took me to dinner with all their traditional artist friends, and they’d see my work and argue that if a computer had made it and there was no physical iteration of it then it wasn’t real art.
I was really young, so I didn’t get to talk and just sat there and watched them argue, just thinking: “I don’t really care what real art is! This is fake art? So?,” I never take myself too seriously. And who draws the line? Now I’m a bit older and I know how the ‘real’ art world works, it’s just dictated by the needs of the super-rich (often for tax reasons) and I always have this alter ego telling me that it’s all bullshit. This whole circle just caters for this one group of people and if that’s real art then I prefer fake art.
What do you make of NFTs? They’re a key part of the virtual art world right now but seem to go against your ethos of art for the people.
People from the traditional art industry think that NFTs are bullshit. I haven’t released any NFTs yet, but maybe in the future. I’m not totally against it, I liked the idea of a decentralised blockchain, and I think it will be the future. It’s definitely art but it’s almost too easy to make. It helps the artist if you can separate one painting into a thousand separate NFTs that a thousand people can contribute to.
Your presumably self-awarded moniker Shxpir (pronounced Shakespeare) gives off the impression that you think rather highly of yourself. Are there any similarities between you and your Elizabethan namesake?
(Laughs). It was a joke and then I kept it, it’s not really funny in English, but in certain Chinese dialogues, Shxpir sounds like “What is a vagina?” There’s a very lowbrow Chinese joke about a kind old man in a rural village who never got married or had any kids, and when he was on his deathbed, the whole village came to see him and asked what he wanted to say before he passed, and he said: “Shakespeare.” No one could understand because he never went to school or anything, but they realised he was actually saying “What is a vagina?” So, when I was at school, because I was gay, everyone called me Shxpir, and I thought it was funny, so I kept it. But now I don’t usually tell people that story, as it hasn’t aged well and could actually be quite offensive to parts of the LGBTQ community. It’s been my name now for 15 years!
Over the last decade or so, you’ve lived in cities such as Shanghai, Sydney, and New York. Which of these have you found to be the most creatively inspiring?
I really like Sydney; I think I might go back there for my retirement. But Paris really feels like home to me, because I learnt French for 2 years and I’ve spent a lot of time there throughout my career. I ended up getting a tattoo on my wrist of a French rooster, my thing is that if I live in a city long enough, I get a bird from that city. I got a kookaburra for Sydney, a swallow for Shanghai, and a sparrow for New York City, I didn’t want to get the ugly American eagle.
You recently worked with Isabella Boemeke for the cover story of Cyber magazine, in the article she strongly advocated for nuclear energy as a necessary tool in the fight against climate change. These views are fairly controversial: do you support them?
It’s not much of a debate in Asia. Seventy per cent of South Korea’s power is nuclear. A lot of people’s bad perception of nuclear comes from Chernobyl. But the building was designed a long time ago and it was incredibly old technology, now nuclear is a much cleaner energy source and a much safer one.
Do you think that true artistic integrity is possible when working on commercial projects?
It can be but it’s very rare. It depends on whether your clients are open-minded and willing to collaborate. A lot of the time they just think their ideas are better than yours and keep asking you to change yours. Then when they complain at the end, I’m like, “No, you did this to yourself!”
But I still have very good clients who will just say: “take this idea and do what you want with it.”
You’ve said that one of the overarching goals of the Perception series is to create a truly inclusive environment, on both sides of the camera, rather than just projecting a faux diverse image, as many in the fashion world do. Do you think this is more achievable in such a young industry, which is yet to form any real conventions or limitations?
When the industry talks about diversity, they always just put one or two people of colour in front of the camera I’m an Asian immigrant gay photographer in NYC and I’ve faced a lot of discrimination over the years. ‘Diversity’ is just about brands selling their products and using people who have ‘clout.’ So that’s why I started this project because I wanted something truly inclusive, involving anyone who wants to contribute: different races, sexualities, genders, body types and even professions. I’m using a lot of non-models, using my set designer and my producers. I think it will improve in the future because the younger generation is more willing to acknowledge their problems.
You previously worked as a professional dancer. Do you think that this experience influenced the aesthetic of your artwork or was the job ultimately just a paycheck?
Funnily enough, I worked with a whole lot of dancers on set today. I think working as a dancer helped me understand how the body moves and how to create interesting concepts and shapes with it. That’s why I can work with almost anybody because even if they are awkward, I can come up with an idea to help them relax or find a way to make them look good. Also, dance has really given me confidence in general. Especially for photogrammetry, you only get one pose, so my speciality is to find just one pose, and I can give them very specific instructions – it’s a piece of cake.
The world of virtual art and the metaverse is still in its infancy. Where do you see the future of the industry (if you can call it an industry) going? And how do you see yourself adapting to that future?
I’m not entirely sure. But, I am positive. Looking back, people always talk shit about every new art movement. Look at Andy Warhol, everyone just said, “What the fuck is that?” But now his works are classic and, if anything, you almost see them too much. I think the metaverse will be huge.
The internet has helped us a lot, even right now having this interview. This wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, an overseas call would be too expensive, especially a face-to-face video, and the metaverse will be the next level. We’ll feel even closer to people on the other side of the world.
But everything in this new world still needs to be created, just like we had to build apps and websites for the internet. It will be much more visual than the internet right now, with augmented reality. Some companies already have contact lenses that let you see AR, I think in 10 years things like that will be normal, you’ll need your VR avatar or whatever, but all these things still need to be created, and that includes art.
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