Anchoring the force of zenith in mankind, Xiner Xu photographs to capture the analogy between the time of nature and the time of human endeavour. She purifies the spirit of one’s beliefs on how growth, identity and the meaning of home flow through images that spiritualize the living beings, capturing their modest movements and unperturbed stillness in the wake of dusk and dawn. In her compendium, the pendulum swings between the revocability and irrevocability of one’s congruence with nature and life, summoning reconciliation with one’s youth.
You graduated with a dual degree in Graphic Design and Photography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but your feed brims more with photographs than designs. How do you incorporate both elements in your creative endeavours? What engaged you in focusing more on photography?
It might feel personal to answer this but I knew earlier as a teenager that photography would be my main career to pursue. As a person who is good at language expressions or writing, I was lucky enough to have visual arts as a solution to deliver thoughts in a subtle way, but also to find the audiences potentially to connect with. My undergraduate study on graphic design informs more on narrative and human-centred design concepts which later become a clue and guide that I consider in making my photographs work.
You are continuing your studies in photography at the Royal College of Art, a signal of dedication to your craft. How did you get into photography? What features of photography cemented your decision to continue pursuing this? What happened to your background in graphic design?
I was first drawn into the surface of photography since it almost works like a dreamland for me, where possibilities are rooted in the images themselves. I was fascinated by how photography is closely related to light, and light is like a perfume that may guide a story or bring us back to a beautiful memory we miss. The medium of photography contains a certain quality of randomness that I can steal something from and in which the viewing can be rather subjective or reflective, and enchanting as well.
Further studying in the Master of Arts programme at the RCA, I was encouraged to reflect more on the relationship between the ontology of the media itself and the care of the practice of images which is being beneficial to my observation and creation process. I am not working on specifically graphic design products or results, but I would say that the experience made me learn how to decide what not to include because being a photographer or an artist is to know what you do not want and let the images flow by themselves.
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Rifling through the images of your anthology, two scenarios garner attention in your seamless body of work. Your earlier works foresaw cinematic and Asian-flick-inspired images, from a young woman in her blossoming phase to a silk-wearing lady eating French fries. What inspired you in these shoots? How do palettes and moods affect your photography? How do past memories and nostalgia fuel your imagery?
Femininity was what I focused on, and I used to work with people that I knew, mostly my friends in college. These images are, in a way, a direct portrait of how I see the combination of fashion and photography. I tried to play with colour palettes and image settings to explore the characteristics of femininity and its impression of the prototype. I remember that one of my tutors told me to work like a film director which gave me the courage to think boldly.
Your Kid series explores the unshackled inner child in one’s living body. As the lady jumps with her hula-hoop, blows the bubbles under the blue sky, and hangs out outside the empty parking lot, the youth never runs out but overflows. How do we keep our free-spirited outlook in life? Why does the anthem of youth penetrate your photography? How would you define ‘youth?’
I cannot define youth but one should think if they still are in their youth in a myriad of ways. I wish to hold onto my youthful intuition but at the same time not miss the beautiful journey and experiences in my life later on. I see myself as a positive person, and I always restrain myself from negativity, and that is quite enough to keep one young and believe in what they are pursuing.
As one moves through your compendium, the shift from high-contrast shots to mellow monochrome ones becomes evident. How did the transition happen? Did you perceive it as necessary? What does monochromaticity exude that colours do not?
It may not have been a necessary transition, I would say. It always comes after the intention of how I want the image to appear. Monochromaticity might leave spaces for imagination and invite people to add colours to it.
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 17.jpg
“Vulnerability is about perception, thus a subjective decision and reaction, either by subtracting it to leave a negative space or emphasising it to attribute to a certain effect.”
As your photography flows towards subdued colours, drama and tension begin to escalate. The photographs themselves narrate unspoken stories about the highs and lows of life, never settling and always going, such as A-Gravity and His Hand. How do you embrace the ups and downs of life? Do you envision capturing everyday life in your photography? Why?
These photographs are drafts and tests on a project about the relationship between someone and their family. Like these images, I talk to friends who may help me take the journey of my ups and downs in life. As for photography, it can resonate with everyday life because it captures the ‘everyday,’ not by the means of one’s daily life, but the common emotion or affection people share.
Then, here comes the self-portraits such as your shot in the lounge area for work in progress. It evokes the rawness of who you are and the revelation of who you wanted to become. Capturing oneself for others to see creates a transaction between the author and the viewer, connecting and reconnecting to personal fragility. How do you perceive vulnerability? Does showing less of it truly make us more masculine, a somewhat preferred attribute by many? How can your photography showcase the acceptance of one’s right to vulnerability?
Vulnerability is about perception, thus a subjective decision and reaction, either by subtracting it to leave a negative space or emphasising it to attribute to a certain effect. I love soft and gentle affections, which subtlety is the most powerful force for me.
The pandemic halted communities across the globe including the neighbourhood that you live in. As primary schools resumed post-lockdown, children and adults came rushing out of their homes, enjoying their renewed vigour in social life. While adults may hold back, drawn from the fear of being infected, children see the world in colours and bliss. As you photograph the joy they feel after having locked inside their houses, their innocence about what the world faces ebbs naturally. Why should we embrace innocence? Does it ever expire? What was running in your mind when you photographed this series?
The pandemic has definitely left an imprint of trauma on the collective memory and transformed the way people live globally. We see people lose the one they love and miss the ability to touch or form any physical contact. The incident has also taught us to be humble. I went back to China in early March with my friend and had to undergo quarantine for 14 days. During those days, I was only able to look at the park from the room or gaze up at the stars. After experiencing this, I found the importance of ‘playing’ and how it is innate in children. The innocence, as you mentioned here, maybe the nature of our mind and what we should embrace to believe.
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 2.jpg
As one leaves the portraits, the intertwining relationship between nature and humanity permeates the subsequent images of your work, more so in your Scaffold collection. The stillness of nature morphs into a living emotion no one should fear. The rustle of the trees, the growth of roots, and the crawl of tendrils imagine a life brimming with tranquillity and spirituality. What purpose does nature serve in your life? Do you feel at ease in silence with nature? How does nature inspire your photography?
Scaffold is an ongoing project aimed to investigate growth, identity, and the character of home through the analogue between the time of nature and the time of human endeavours. Nature, especially the tree, is an element I have always connected and talked to. Here, trees are living entities and a portrait of myself to question the way one could live. Surely, the tranquillity could calm, and the possible union of the opposites between the body of trees and scaffolds suggests the power of support and restraint in a subtle way. I am going to show this project on our online grade show, so please keep an eye on it.
Then, the blooming season comes, displaying its grandeur. As you capture the spiritual moments of spring before dusk, nature interacts with you, forming part of the wholeness of Earth. While conversing solitarily with nature, your spirituality may be summoned. What is the role of spirituality in your life? How do you perceive living beings? Do photography and spirituality ever intertwine?
That image was captured via a smartphone after a shooting, and the light of dusk was so gentle and caressing to me. It was just about that moment. Spirituality in my life is a bridge to reach what I cannot speak of or fulfil. It allows me to stand within unrealistic fantasy while having the hope to change the past as if I could.
You remind me of what photography can do to preserve a fragment from the past and to almost extract a piece of time from the past. Spirituality might have been born within living beings, but the pandemic has made living beings almost untouchable as if they were as distant as or as erratic as one’s spirituality. I believe both photography and spirituality speak and produce meaning for themselves.
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 21.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 22.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 20.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 23.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 11 2.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 24.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Xiner Xu Metalmagazine 15.jpg