A conversation with
Bruno Zhu

Wishing to be fabulous too, but not in pink

A conversation with Bruno Zhu

By Zippora Elders

With New Arrivals, Bruno Zhu (Portugal, 1991) remodels the Foam 3h library into another reading room – one that flattens the representation of reading itself. Twisting time and space, both physically and conceptually, the installation juxtaposes visual motifs from the private space into the public and vice versa. This way, Zhu light-heartedly explores his fascination for photography’s ambivalent symbol as surface and object, representation and appropriation.

During New Arrivals, the Foam 3h room is occupied by flat and impractical representations of carpets, bookshelves and lamps. These image-objects conjure an alternative consumer circuit: found furniture imagery is scanned and reprinted as a sticker to the furniture’s original sizes, creating a blur between what is apparent with what is symbolic. Reducing their existence to a spectral impression, these objects exist in a world of ghostly functions. Meanwhile the texts and music of the artist’s great inspiration, Beyoncé, are somehow haunting the library too.

New Arrivals welcomes a new chapter into Bruno Zhu’s research on how desire manifests within consumer cultures. His previous installations were largely focused on subverting the topology of the space. By assimilating decoration as a critical position to activate personal spaces, Zhu’s uncanny rooms become populated by unbreakable mirrors, dancing tables, photographs, pillow books, and so forth. Outsourced from catalogues and lifestyle magazines, the images of styled furniture invite readers into a world of brightness and positivity, to imagine the juicy bookshelves in our living rooms, and how enriching they would be to our environments.

Zippora Elders (ZE): First, I saw your work, then I met you, and recently you told me that you initially went to study fashion Design at Saint Martins in London, and are now in the Fine Arts Department at the Sandberg Instituut here in Amsterdam. I’m curious, what is your background? How were your childhood and teenage years? What were your fascinations?

Bruno Zhu (BZ): I grew up in a quaint city two hours’ drive from Oporto called Viseu. It’s a place where nothing really happens. It recently polled as the healthiest place to live in Portugal and it is also nicknamed ‘Roundabout City’ for having a network of roundabouts that circle the city centre. Between these circular metaphors I led a very banal and suburban childhood. I was not an active child, so I started a relationship with television quite early on. An early memory was the transformation scenes in Sailor Moon, especially their body movements and how the drawings were so graceful, supported by a sparkly background and melodramatic timing. I guess that was the awakening of my sensibility, suspiciously queer... Over the years, fiction was fed into my days through friends that also shared my televisual habits. We would spend most of our free time re-enacting comedy skits and music videos in the schoolyard. That was great, because both the popular kids and the average crowd would come together there. We were in the early 2000s, so by the age of thirteen most of us had a phone with a camera. Nokia models were the norm, and a techie hierarchy was established. I had a good run with my Nokia 6630. School intervals were spent recording and doing impromptu fashion shoots by the trees and the soccer field, followed by primitive photo editing sessions playing with brightness and contrast. In that sense, producing images was our way to belong to each other, to fit in. And this was carried out onto my high school years, when I bought a DSLR. We kept doing shoots inspired by fashion magazines for fun, but things got slightly more artistic with colour filters and weird crops. Eventually, we found the online communities of DeviantArt and Flickr, and the world became bigger. The diversity was fascinating. It had its own micro-mythologies between users, their skills and works, which just renewed the anxiety of belonging that my friends and I were already feeling between us. It all came down to learning via imitation, imitation of higher standards, of broader images in order to understand the present condition of the image itself and the image of us. I eventually went on to do my Bachelors in Fashion Design, which evolved from this community-based culture. But, of course, this is me looking back now, because back then I thought buying a printed t-shirt every two weeks was enough to declare myself as a fashion designer. I guess that is ultimately a manifestation of a different anxiety, one rooted on newness and taste as a consequence of the speed of things.

ZE: At first thought, it seems ironic that such a lovely and dull city in a far corner of Europe drove you to television, mobile phones, and ultimately the Internet, which in turn made you very aware of the ‘speed of things’ and appreciative of the apparent importance of the new and the now at a relatively young age. As you said, this simultaneously shaped your taste and your understanding of how image works. Would you say that this awareness in general increased during the early 2000s? Was our generation the first that had to deal on a large scale with, say, the ‘identity shaping’ consequences of the digital? Is this another ‘2000s version’ of street-smart? When I was thirteen, five years before you were that age, I had a Nokia 3330. We couldn’t make pictures yet, but I was completely addicted to ICQ, MSN Messenger, Geocities, Napster. I guess it was more about text and gifs back then.

BZ: I think it resulted from a certain parenting style and lifestyle. I was never shown how to appreciate nature, even though being surrounded by it. My friends and their families would go to the beach every summer, while I would be at home memorising the top 250 films in IMDB or Nokia phone specs. Coming from a commerce-oriented family, it was more important for my dad to buy a great car, or my mom to carry a luxury handbag. These were intrinsically linked to owning the latest technology, since all of them together would paint our social status between my parents’ friends. In my case, the ‘speed of things’ didn’t come solely from a place of pure curiosity, but also from a place of social relevance. It trained me to become passive towards images, consuming anything that was thrown at me, and to be ready to assimilate the new, almost as if I were in war mode. I think these fluctuations are always gradual and ongoing, so I see this awareness being parallel to historical moments like the invention of printing press or the telegraph, because they are the visceral moments when technologies of communication raise the stakes for the speed of information transmission. I don’t think we are the first generation to face the consequences of the digital. The scientists and engineers behind these infrastructures will forever be the first ones that dwelled with the limits of human identity. I think that moments like the birth of television, or even going back to the establishment of cinema, allowed the viewer to restructure notions of fiction within their own surroundings and personal fantasies that affect their identity. If we read ‘digital’ as the language that involves coding, computer interface, HTML design and social media, then we are in the moment where these tools are manifesting their abilities in a global scale, allowing hybridity to form outside high-culture discourses. I had a Nokia 3340! And have also been through the collecting ringtones mania, primitive black-and-white phone images you could buy, and coming up with crazy text messages filled with punctuation marks that would form images. But texts and gifs were the pre-digital images, and today they all coexist in the same realm. Also, street-smart is timeless!

ZE: Actually, I never felt that ‘street’, having spent my teens inside my room behind my computer, and playing with my cell phone when outside. I skipped class a lot, but mostly to go to the cinema. Yet, looking back, although you rightly point out how these developments are part of a long history, I definitely feel that things have changed very rapidly in the past fifteen years, indeed because of this realm becoming accessible on a global scale. And we were part of it. Now, these tools surround almost everyone everywhere, and lately, reflecting on the so-called ‘post-digital’ seems to be quite popular in the institutional art world – while indeed authors have been writing about this much longer, and yes, before that, there were already the coders and the scientists, and eventually the artists. Anyway, back to the post-digital… I heard people relating your work to this terminology, too. What do you think?

BZ: Well, isn’t street-smart a personality trait? You skipping school for pleasurable things is very smart. You are now a curator, and having watched that random films has probably brought you to where you are today. I remember watching Legally Blonde 2 in the cinema and coming back home wishing to be fabulous too, but not in pink. Also worth noting, 4 a.m. summer reruns of Six Feet Under and facing the nuances between living and dying. But going back to institutionalising the post-digital, in the bigger landscape of art history, I think it is just another necessary wave that will open new territory for progress to subsist. I am thinking of the controversy surrounding Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, the critical position of Parisian Salons, the establishment of Impressionism, ready-mades, how Minimalism was advocated through the gallery circuit in the ’60s, how museum public programmes have become platforms for more ephemeral practices like performance, ‘situations’, events that are neither this or that, and photography’s own development from an instrument to a polymorphous artistic medium. It is exciting to see the landscape being threatened and evolving. Hype, controversy, populism and eclecticism are just scenes between many we all navigate through trying to find ourselves. We are a product of our time. Regarding people relating my work to the term post-digital, I think it’s just lazy. It’s not wrongful, but it shows a lack of understanding of the peculiarities of artists who instigated the ‘post-digital’ discussion. This shouldn’t be pinned down to a basic aesthetic assumption. We are all ‘post-digital’ today. I actually think my younger sister is more so than me. She is so fluid with her gadgets, I feel old looking at her. I am highly aware of the visuals that my work has taken on lately, but I see this as a development of my interest in narrative tropes found in daily life, television and advertising. Taking photographs, conceptualising books, or dabbling in object-making are reactions to a fast-changing environment that is producing so many fascinating moments and encounters. I want to participate, engage and, in the process, situate my own identity. Things are getting more awkward, more humorous, more visceral and more urgent, so why rely on a label to box all these things up? I was thinking of Louise Lawler’s work recently and how it resonates so much today in relation to what an artwork is/means, and how it is depicted/consumed. I also like to think what would the Surrealists do if they had access to the technologies of today.

ZE: True, I believe Lawler’s work is very relevant and inspirational, of course, also for my work. And the Surrealists, well, they might still be among us… Which makes me wonder, if you were raised in a commerce-oriented environment, how did you end up going to art school? It seems that, at a certain point, you were able to switch to a more distanced perspective and reflect on your own identity and development, too, even while simultaneously undergoing it all. You haven’t reached your mid-twenties yet, but besides being very hands-on, very well dressed and very aware of low culture, you’ve developed a conceptual approach as well. Your affinity with ideas and theory is evident. How did you get to this point?

BZ: That’s why I did Fashion Design first. I was brought up sceptical of immaterial actions, but I wouldn’t blame my parents for that, it was more a societal thing – Portuguese culture is heavily sports-based. Throughout my education, to do or to be related to art was always linked to the romantic stereotype of an artist as precarious and poor. By following that logic, anyone who has a vague interest in art immediately breathes rebellion, which is largely projected through the assimilation of subcultures by art students. So I never really thought about art school. Design felt more tangible, ‘useful’, and more relatable to negotiate with my parents, since it’s something they can own, touch and show. Artistic meets commercial. But after I finished my bachelors, I asked myself if I had something to ‘say’ in fashion, and I realised I didn’t. I have a deep appreciation for the industry, especially the design process, which is currently the blueprint for my thought process. Designing a product intersects functionality with symbolic value. We used to ask ourselves, who is she, where does she go, who are her friends, what’s her taste? These questions touch upon market positioning, body image and identity, which translates into fabric textures and colours, silhouettes, shapes, clothing details, and so on. To design a garment with workwear details made out of velvet tells a story that denim is not familiar with. High and low cultures become parallel narratives, and we were taught to be curious and learn them. It was crucial to be aware of history to produce actuality, and this mentality is what feeds the speculative strategies behind my work.

ZE: Now that we've reached 'actuality', it seems like a good moment to round up. High and low becoming parallel narratives… it makes me wonder: what are your plans for this weekend? And for the near future?

BZ: As I type this answer on a Saturday, I wonder if there is anything worth checking at the cinemas. I also need to clean my house and redo my wardrobe for the coming winter. I was meant to get noodles at some point, and I will probably get some bubble tea on the way. I am working on a couple of projects: an exhibition curated by my mum, where my sister is the lead character, a new book series where I am rewriting Jane Austen’s works without having read them, and wondering if it would be interesting to start a clothing line made out of canvas found in construction sites. Last, but not least, I feel gradually more gestural as a person, and I wonder if I should start painting soon.

ZE: That sounds nice actually, I'm intrigued... Perhaps you could paint me as Emma Woodhouse one day? As a kid, I loved to dress up Empire style.

Text © Bruno Zhu and Zippora Elders

New Arrivals, by Bruno Zhu is on show until 13 December 2015 at Foam.

Foam 3h is a project space where young artists and photographers are invited by Foam’s curators to present their first solo museum exhibition. They are challenged to experiment, surprise and push the limits of photography.

Bruno Zhu has a degree in Fashion Design from Central Saint Martins in London, and is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. He lives and works in Amsterdam.

Zippora Elders is the curator of the exhibition Bruno Zhu – New Arrivals. She studied visual art of the 20th and 21st centuries and museum curating at the University of Amsterdam and the VU University. She works as a curator at Foam and focuses on visual culture, network culture and new media.

This project is made possible by the Van Bijleveltstichting.

Foam is sponsored by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Delta Lloyd, City of Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.

All Images © courtesy of the artist and Jeanine Hofland, Amsterdam