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Impossible is nothing: China’s theater of consumerism seen by Priscilla Briggs


Over a span of six years, American photographer Priscilla Briggs traveled along the eastern seaboard of China to explore various facets of Chinese society within the context of a new brand of Communism that embraces “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” The resulting work is published in Briggs’ first monograph, Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism.

Globalism connects people from all corners of the earth, and the bilateral relationship between the United States and China, the world’s largest economic powerhouses, is one of the most important of this century. As an artist, Priscilla Briggs questions the impact of economic systems and advertising on identity and culture. In 2008, she traveled to China for the first time to investigate visual representations of Capitalism in this Communist country that engages in what it calls “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Each time she returned to China to continue this exploration, she discovered a new subject that furthered her vision of this vast and diverse country and became the content of a series of projects that live at the intersection of East and West.

The sixty-two photographs in Impossible Is Nothing were selected from thousands of images, created over a span of eight years, focusing on constructed realities within contemporary China as they relate to ideas of luxury and status, with the West as a model of Capitalist values. At the same time, there are hints of what lies beneath the surface and the costs of global consumerism. Portraits, still life images, and urban landscapes, rich in detail, are woven together to create a lyrical ode to the optimism and imagination of contemporary China.

What first brought you to China and how did you decide to start this long term project?

Much of my work examines how identity is influenced by consumerism and/or economic systems that control our daily lives. Initially, I was specifically looking at American Capitalism and consumerism as a foundation of our collective ethos. In 2003, I moved to Minneapolis and embarked on a project about the Mall of America (the largest mall in the US when it first opened in 1992) as an icon of conspicuous consumption. In 2005, I read a news article about a shopping mall boom in China with tales of mega-malls subsidized by the government as part of an effort to build the middle class, but in which no one could afford to shop at the time. I was also intrigued by China’s economic experiments with Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and decided to go to China to see what this all looked like. I spent most of my first trip in Beijing at an artist residency in Caochangdi, but traveled to Shanghai and Wenzhou as well, focusing almost exclusively on photographing shopping malls. On this first trip to China, I realized there was so much that interested me about this moment in time in this particular culture. I went back three more times to pursue a more expansive view of this complex and fascinating period of rapid growth and the resulting transformation of culture. I explored the massive export market in Yiwu as well as areas of manufacturing (lingerie in Shantou and oil painting in Xiamen) in order to look at the businesses that were growing the economy and creating the middle class. I was also interested in how the influx of Western products and advertising was affecting the formation of identity for the new middle class in China. The more time I spent there, the more fascinated I became.

When did you start working on the representations of consumerism and capitalism?

When I started graduate school I was primarily focused on making environmental portraits. At some point I became just as interested in the stuff with which people surround themselves and what that communicates, not only about the individual, but also about our values as a culture at large. I purchased items I thought had cultural symbolism and used them as props for my portraits so that they became more directorial. And then I just cut the people out altogether and focused on the stuff.

What has been the reaction in China to your work?

I haven’t exhibited my photographs in China, but when I’ve shown my work to Chinese citizens or Chinese immigrants in America, they have been very enthusiastic about it and said that it rings true to their own experience. Rob Schmitz, the Shanghai-based NPR correspondent who wrote an essay for the book and has lived in China for many years, expressed a similar sentiment.

The images in Impossible Is Nothing echo the optimism of the title, sometimes with humor. To what extent does that reflect the reality?

My impression is that the majority of urban Chinese people are very optimistic (I did not spend time in the countryside so cannot comment on whether they share in this optimism). Chinese citizens have experienced rapid economic growth that has lifted many out of poverty, as well as an increase in personal freedoms, and they expect these conditions to continue improving.

Because the media is censored and government propaganda influences public opinion in China, many issues we in the west see as urgent may not be on the radar of the individual Chinese citizen. For example, I was surprised one day when my interpreter asked if it is true that one can drink the water right out of the faucet in my country. When I said, “Yes”, I was surprised by her follow-up questions, “Isn’t that a waste? To clean all that water?” I find this kind of reversal of perspective humorous and I look for these kinds of ironies as a source of tension in my work.

How have people been reacting to the changes in their surroundings, the construction of malls, factories etc. over the six years you spent working on this project?

It would be difficult for me to answer this question with any kind of authority, in part because I went to different places and was not tracking any one community’s reactions. I can say that during the span of years I was photographing in China, I noticed that the shopping malls became more active because people had more money to spend over time. Consumerism has been embraced by the general public and people are very focused on money. When visiting the manufacturing district in the Pearl River Delta, I encountered all-encompassing pollution—air, water, noise, even the locally grown vegetables tasted metallic because they were fed water from the polluted river—however, people working in the factories seemed grateful to have the jobs. Because I was only permitted to photograph in the smaller factories, which were somewhat relaxed and open, I didn’t see the oppressive or sweatshop conditions we read about in the news.

I did spend a lot of time working with the oil painters in Xiamen who operated out of a community of live/work spaces in a cluster of large apartment buildings (in an area called Wushipu). When I first met them in 2010, the painters were very much at the mercy of middlemen who would show up to the community, ask for 100 copies of a painting, and leave without offering any details about the destination of the paintings. Because there was a lot of competition and the painter’s had no access to their market, the pay was low. However, that changed somewhat with more access to the internet. Now the painters aren’t as concentrated in the same place and they can conduct a lot of business online.

There is an unprecedented age gap between the young and old in China, because things have changed so fast. The younger generation has very different concerns, preferring to look forward rather than back, and you can see this in the lack of effort to preserve the past. I suppose a lot was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and that kind of destruction continues as old neighborhoods, such as the hutongs in Beijing, are razed to make way for huge building projects. Many elderly people have been displaced, losing their support structure and community as a result of some of these big building projects. Some have been forcibly relocated to apartments where they don’t know anyone, have no transportation to get to the grocery store, and are not equipped to navigate this new world.

Another noticeable gap is between those who live in the SEZ’s and those who live in the countryside. The money and jobs are in the SEZ’s so there has been massive migration that occurs for work.  Many families spend most of their time apart. When I was in Shanghai, there was a lot of building going on and many of the workers would come from the countryside and sleep on the street during the week and then return home on the weekends. Factories are filled with young women from the countryside who leave home to find work, only returning for the New Year holiday. Their lives are often transitory and unstable, but they enjoy an economic and social freedom that has historically been unprecedented for women in China. In reading Leslie Chang’s fascinating book Factory Girl, which takes the reader deep into the factory culture, I was struck by the story of a girl who lost contact with her factory friends and boyfriend simply because she lost her mobile phone.

Who are the photographers who have influenced you, in Western and Eastern cultures? 

Martin Parr has been a big influence from early on–his book Common Sense struck a deep chord in me while I was a graduate student working to articulate my vision. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs have been of great interest to me, and his images of China, in particular, inspired my work in manufacturing areas there. Brian Ulrich and I started working on issues of American consumerism at about the same time. I felt a great simpatico with him, especially after realizing we had responded to the same quote in our artist statements–a quote from a G. W. Bush post-9/11 speech in which he encouraged Americans to go out and shop as a way to keep our economy strong. Brian’s photographs resonate with me quite a bit. Other influences would be Lauren Greenfield, Rineke Djikstra (my beach portraits of young Chinese women are kind of a shout out to her), Cao Fei, and Michael Wolf.

Where will your investigation of the representations of capitalism and consumerism take you next? 

I’m interested in developing a more global perspective in my overall body of work. I went to India for two months this past winter to research for a new project, intending to address issues of rapid growth parallel to those of China. I’ll return there next January to continue working on that project. I would also like to photograph in various countries in Africa and Asia that are experiencing Chinese investment in infrastructure. It is these kinds of intersections of culture that are of interest to me.

Interview by Myrtille Beauvert

Priscilla Briggs, Impossible is nothing: China’s theater of consumerism
Published by Daylight Books

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