Marguo | Interview with Artist Feng Li

Yiou LI, Marguo, 19 Nov 2020

Born in 1971 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of China, FENG Li is a self-taught artist. Feng's photos are all fortuitous encounters with the unlikely cast of reality that’s taken center stage in his native city of Chengdu.  He has an eye beyond the norm and a vision that detects the very spectacle of the mundane everyday. May he be photographing a sedative congress or moving freely through the weekend crowd, Feng Li has constantly nourished his single, unique and plethoric series White Night since 2005.


Coinciding with Photo Paris 2020, Galerie Marguo is delighted to present its first online viewing room FENG LI: GARDEN featuring 13 iconic works by FENG Li


Marguo: How did you get on the road to photography? How did you start your practice as a photographer?

Feng Li: My specialty was traditional Chinese medicine. After graduating from school, I started directly by working for the government office doing administrative work in the Health department. In 1995, I became interested in photography. At that time, I discovered the movie "The Bridges of Madison County". The lead role was a photographer for National Geographic Magazine. He drove a pickup truck, smoked Marlboro cigarettes. He had a Nikon camera, and took pictures in the wild. It appeared so cool to me. This whole lifestyle was so desirable. This movie inspired me and made me want to pursue photography as a hobby. In addition, many of my classmates were in the Tibetan area when I was studying medicine, and I visited them from time to time. I was really used to the feeling of the city, and suddenly I discovered the landscape of the Tibetan area. It was so different and mind-blowing. I felt a camera should capture this natural beauty. 


Marguo: Do you remember your first camera?

Feng Li: It was my wife who saved money for one year and bought me the Nikon FM2. That was in 1996 when this camera cost almost 30,000 yuan. At that time, the house price in Chengdu was only 1,000 yuan/m2, so the money for that camera could have bought a house of more than 30 square meters in Chengdu.


Marguo: What was your first photograph as an artist ?

Feng Li: I remember very clearly. In the Spring, there was a huge tree in DuFu Cottage. I saw a small green leaf growing from above, and the sun was illuminating the leaf. I realized that Icould take a great photo. I also developed it and framed it. I took it very seriously. This would be my first photograph as an artist.


Marguo: Do you think there is a separation between daily life and art?

Feng Li: There are no boundaries. Art should exist in life. Just like the old family photos in the 80's and 90's. Now they look very fashionable to us, both artistic and contemporary.


Marguo: Do you think art is a practice relating to the passing of time ?

Feng Li: No, I don’t think so, as old photos from the past can be very contemporary now. Sometimes, I even think that looking at the future from the past allow us to see the true future.


Marguo: You have made a series of photos White Nights, from Chengdu White Nightto Paris White Nightand Berlin White Night. What are the differences between these three series and what similarities do you perceive in them?

Feng Li: There are no real differences. Regardless of whether I shoot in Chengdu, or Berlin or Paris, for me, the geography never attracts my attention. I always care about the people. My subject is the attitude and the feeling of a person in a given city, and it is a specific moment of the human spirit. As I grow older, it is the commonality of human nature, or the inherent complexity of people that attracts me. Therefore, in my photos, the regional characteristics are rather blurred, but the feeling of the subject at that time is what catches our attention. 


Marguo: What kind of moment will inspire you to press the button?

Feng Li: An interesting moment, something special and complex, something that triggers my imagination. No matter how beautiful or ugly, I just want to seize a moment which is unique. These scenes may appear ridiculous to the audience, but to me they reflect these norms of life. Every day when I turn on my phone to watch the news, I often wonder how ridiculous and dramatic life is. I just extract these ridiculous things that everyone takes for granted, and I show them to you. And these things, that have been ignored and normalized are magnified by me. Printed as photographs, they then cause this strange feeling of discomfort.

Some people insist that art should be aesthetic, but I think contemporary art should really break the stereotypes of beauty and show a deep reflection on life. My daily life is like a silent film, I stop the film and I photograph the moment which moves me the most. I don't want to simply tell a story. Many times, I show the same perspective as the audience. I will not give an answer, I will only show what I see. The photo will make the audience wonder and let people think of it. For me, a good question is more important than a good answer.


Marguo: Do you have a favorite model to work with?

Feng Li: No. I just capture the moments of life. But if I had to say a favorite model, it would have to be my pig. This is the pig I picked. Three years ago, during the Spring Festival, a girl bought a piglet and wanted to take it home as a pet. She was stopped before getting on the plane. She eventually threw the piglet away. I found the pigletso poor,I could not bear to see it starve to death, so we saved it with my wife. First, I wanted to give it away, but after some time, I started to develop a deep relationship with him, so I decided to raise it. I now have three cats, a pig and a parrot. I think relationships with animals are more reliable than relationships between people.


Marguo:  And your favorite photographer?

Feng Li: Diane Arbus, Weegee.


Marguo: Do you only work with color photography?

Feng Li: No, at the beginning of my career, I used to work with black and white films. I thought the pictures were purest in black and white and, in a way, more photographic. Then, I turned to color, precisely because black and white was too photographic. I wanted my work being more than photographic. Color carries more information. It is also more realistic and convincing. I hope my work is close to life. For human being, reality is not in black and white but in color, I want my photographs to blend in with reality.


Marguo: We’ve seen your last show at Chengdu A4 museum about Paris.

Feng Li: Yes, that is a show of pictures taken in Paris.


Marguo: Do you think Paris is a city that's easy to mock?

Feng Li: No, it is not, but as long as there is people around, life could be laughable. Actually, it is the same thing everywhere in the world. It's not about the city. The city doesn't have a problem of its own. It is the ballet of the people who live there that is the subject of my photographs.


Marguo: Will you stop photography one day?

Feng Li: I don’t know. Maybe one day I won’t want to take photos anymore. Maybe one day I won’t have any interest in people anymore. I will raise my pigs and take photos of them. But, as long as there are people around, there will be conflicts. Conflicts are absurd but beautiful and complex in the same time. It is exactly what I am looking for. If I would stay by myself on a snowy mountain in Switzerland, I would turn crazy (laughs).


Marguo: In a word, you prefer to be surrounded by the people?

Feng Li: Yes, I couldn't stand the absurdity of life without being surrounded by people. When I was young, I bought a camera and drove a jeep in Tibet. At that time, I thought, I could escape the city and get a free life. It would be impossible for me today to do that again. I wouldn’t stand for going back to Tibet by myself. I’m a social animal, and I couldn’t live without other human beings.