Meeting the artist: Saana Wang

Hujialou 2009

© Saana Wang

In your works you are particularly inspired by Asia and China. How did you end up there in the first place?

Since I was a little girl, I have spent a lot of time in Asia, thanks to my parents’ work: I went there for the first time already in 1984. So, the interest towards Asia and particularly towards China developed early in my childhood, and has grown ever since. I have always had this urge to live in other countries, and when I had my chance to install in China for a longer period in 2006, I knew I had to go. I was fascinated by their different culture, and what especially intrigued me, was the transformation which was, and still is, taking place in Chinese society. The transformation which I have seen during these past twenty years has been amazingly fast. In the beginning I was wondering how I could capture these changes in my pictures. And once I was there, in China, I found the natural way to photograph it… However, I wanted to do this in a non-accusing way, bringing along my own point of view. When you are a native, you can take notice of these transformations as well, but when you are an outsider, you see them perhaps differently. However, I guess that my vision is in a constant change as well: nowadays, since my husband is Chinese, my vision has once again transformed.

In your Hujialou series, you have captured the confrontation between traditional Chinese community and modernisation. However, at the same time, the series is a confrontation between the real life and the dreamworld, when you have transformed the characters into actors, rooms into stages. Where did you get your inspiration for this series?

I’ve always been fascinated by the theme of home and room as a space, by its symbolic dimension. How can you reflect the concepts of space or room as a state of mind? This is something very essential in my Hujialou series. I wanted to create a coherent series, basically to create a surrealistic series of different kind of spaces. The notion of time doesn’t matter anymore, and we don’t know whether things are taking place in the future or in the past. Of course, when art is created, it represents this moment, even if we don’t know if any signs of it will remain in the future. The speed, on which things are developing right now, is inconceivable. There is a sort of nostalgia between the past, the present and the future, even fear I’d say. How can we move forward so fast, leaving everything behind?


© Saana Wang

Sometimes people ask me why I photograph misery. I’ve lived in same kind of places in Hujialou as I’ve photographed, so for me it seems more natural, I don’t perceive it the same way. However, the fact that I’ve photographed in Hujialou, is finally of no importance, it could be anywhere. Of course always when I start working, I have a certain vision or image in my head, but when the work proceeds, the theme always develops from its original form. This can be surprising sometimes. Obviously I’m following my intuition, and if you ask me whether I’ve chosen deliberately a certain kind of style, for example a documentary approach or a more political one : everybody can decide what they see in these photos. Of course, when a so-called westerner is looking at these photos, certain associations might show up. This idea, of making a statement, turns up when the characters are looking towards the spectator.  Is he or she looking at you or someone else? This is also the meaning of the mask that I’ve used, there is a certain ambiguity, whether characters are recognizable with it or not. I want to depersonalize my subjects, to render the subject from one girl to all girls. I wouldn’t say that my intention is to create a universal theme, but rather move away from that particular identity. One person that I’ve photographed can tell a story of several women, men, girls, it can regroup all the stories that I’ve heard throughout the years. My pictures are, at once stories of these people that I’ve captured in my pictures.

Of course, at the same time, I’m reflecting myself through these works. The role of the masks is also something cultural: I want to highlight the fact that their traditional culture is rapidly disappearing: an essential element of their culture, which has before been almost an everyday object. With the masks, I also attach the subject to previous generations. Even though these masks are homemade and simple, they carry a strong element: with this theatrical element, the subjects in the in the pictures are able to talk about difficult things, to criticize, which wouldn’t be possible without the masks.


© Saana Wang

Your pictures are an interesting dialogue between modern and decayed, oneiric and reality, even between kitsch and sensibility.  Do you want to romanticize the past, or have the motifs of time and place become meaningless in your pictures?

I think this romanticised element comes from me, it’s my own style and voice who speak through the pictures. Of course I do things which please myself and my aesthetic vision, and maybe for me, personally, this is something inevitable: I’ve had this same style more or less since I was a child. So I’m not controlling it anyhow. Of course I follow what happens in photography, styles and modes, but I don’t find this necessarily so interesting. At the moment, conceptual and minimalistic styles which are in, I don’t find them so inspiring. For me, the most inspiring thing is painting, for example the world of impressionism, I find it really inspiring and fascinating with its colours and light effects. The most inspiring artworks are the ones which are made with love and passion, because these kinds of works evoke feelings. After that, it depends on the viewer if this feeling is transmitted or not.

You work mainly with a film camera. Are you doing this for artistic reasons, or is there some kind of a statement hidden behind this choice? How do you proceed when working?

For me, working with a classic film camera is a way to work in peace. Even though, from time to time, I also work with a digital camera, a traditional one gives me more pleasure; I’m more concentrated than when working with a digital one. Also, since film is quite expensive, it also conditions me, forces me to concentrate on the moment. I use a lot of different kind of cameras, because they give different kind of atmospheres; generally, if I’m doing something more artistic, it’s always on film. Also, for example the size of the camera has its effect on people who are being photographed: if it’s a huge camera, people tend to freeze in front of it. I’ve also started doing some videos, which are naturally done on digital format.

For me, working starts from a vision, even from the smallest of image in my head: for example when I see an old man walking in the street, I wonder to myself where he might live, what has he experienced and seen in his life. Of course I am always colouring these stories in my mind. Now when I have Chinese in my family, I’ve heard and seen different kind of stories, gotten more involved in the society.


© Saana Wang

Even though there is a feeling of emptiness in your pictures, one wouldn’t characterize them instantly as being sad. Despite the masks, one can read different kind of emotions on the faces: pride, happiness, indifference … You also photograph a lot of kids and young people. By doing this, do you want to feature something compassionate and humane?

When photographing, I can’t really control the situation. I take the picture when I feel like it is the right moment. The encounters with people; I’m not sure whether it is something that you can control, but it is amazing how you can affect the situation with your energy. So my behavior matters a lot, since people that I photograph don’t know me. Of course also the cultural and linguistic barriers have their impact on the situation. After all, I am an outsider, even though less than before, since through my husband’s family I’m a part of the Chinese community. Since I’m a so-called westerner after all, I guess that there is always some kind of a tension present when I’m working. If I was Chinese, doing the same thing, I guess that my photos could look very different. For me, through these kinds of encounters, bridges are built between different cultures: when I’m working, I’m always reflecting my culture and my personal values, for example from those rooms that I photograph. Emotions and humanity are after all universal things, we’re always reflecting one another.


© Saana Wang

You’re a Finnish photographer, living in New York, working mainly in Asia. This so-called cosmopolitanism, does it bring something additional to your work?

For me, life is a journey, where we can constantly learn new things. However, even if we’re living in different cultures, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will learn something from it: you can live in different places with eyes covered, not being aware of things, or without projecting them to your own starting point. Or even more, once you’re living in a different culture, you don’t understand its meaning just right there; it is only afterwards when you realize its importance. A certain curiosity is also essential: leaving the comfort zone, trying to understand humanity and its problems. Obviously, the possibility to live in a big city such as New York, the possibility to see different cultures, it opens your awareness, not only in the domain of arts, but also more universally, concerning humanity. At certain point, when the situation becomes too comfortable, for me, it is time to leave. Not to run away, but to understand, and to get some perspective. As a summary, yes, I guess that my experiences widen my perspective, and I really hope that this is somehow transmitted in my works, perhaps not in concrete terms but on an emotional level.

© Saana Wang

© Saana Wang

Where do you get your inspiration, other than from travelling?

It is not so much travelling, but stopping somewhere and looking around. To pause somewhere to experience the cultural differences. I’ve always said that I don’t just want to go from one place to another, but rather, to stay and to understand, to live the local everyday life. When you have to create the basis in a different environment from where you’re used to, it’s quite challenging. When getting older, I’ve noticed that on certain level, I miss also the fact of staying still. For example when coming from New York to Finland, I appreciate the amount of space and tranquility. I’m also really sensitive when it comes to the level of noise; this is something that affects me a lot when living in New York. Of course, also everyday things such as friends, family, books, are something that I find inspiring.

When living and working abroad, how do you see the state of the Finnish fine-art photography? What does it mean for your work to be a part of the Helsinki School?

I find the current Finnish photography really inspiring, I feel like we have succeeded in creating a certain kind of individuality combined with high quality, where perhaps also a certain Scandinavian character is visible. I find that the teaching at the Aalto University is of really high quality. It was essential for me that I had the possibility to have my own space, and they’ve also understood something essential there: students are not machines. Professors give you time and space, and they let students to grow up freely, all the time encouraging them. I’m really grateful for that. At the same time, I’m quite worried about the future of the Aalto University with all the changes which have taken place recently. Artistic domain is quite specific: you need to work basically all the time by yourself.

When it comes to the Helsinki School, I’m so happy that they have given me this possibility to participate in it. Timothy Persons is determinedly developing this project, and gives possibilities to young artists. Luckily, there isn’t any model in which they’re forcing you, the growing process is something that one must live through all by himself and develop as artist. Even though the artists of the Helsinki School represent very different kind of styles, there is a strong interaction between them. Hopefully this will continue, I mean, if you want to create your career abroad, it can be quite difficult to stand out all by yourself. All in all, the Helsinki School gives a lot of support for the artist, but in the end, everybody needs to travel their own path.

Hujialou #56

© Saana Wang

Hujialou series was followed by a series called Vitrio. How your attitude and your vision towards China have changed during all these years, and is this something visible in your works? Can we expect the Chinese-inspired photography to continue in the near future?

In my future works, yes, I will still concentrate on China, and I will also continue with the same symbolism that has proven to be very inspiring for me. The question for me is how can we reflect Chinese culture from Finnish one, and the other way around? This is quite hard to put into words, but this is the main theme on which I will concentrate in the future. The idea is to bring forward, visible, a sort of polarity: nowadays we’re living in such a globalized world, but we’re still so far away. Sensibility is diminishing all the time, because everything is happening so quickly. This is the theme on which I will concentrate.

Next year I will have a baby, and two families, Finnish and Chinese, will become one. I bet that this will also affect to my visions and to my work. Next spring I also have the intention start a new period of work, for which I’ve already prepared some works. I planned to go to China already this fall, now I’ve willingly postponed it to next year.

Even though I said that I photograph the transformation which takes place in the Chinese society, after all, this is something very superficial: for me, art is universal and I hope that through my work, one can reflect him or herself. For instance, if there is a so-called westerner looking at my pictures, I hope that the experience would be, finally, like looking in a mirror. We are using other persons as mirrors: but perhaps when something is profoundly different, it makes us stop and think. Then, the curiosity, which is directed to other people, makes a turn, and in the end, we’re finally observing ourselves. So I guess I could say that I aim to promote a certain kind of universalism instead of otherness. Art can function also as a bridge between different notions and cultures: for me it is a way to break the stereotypes. A sort of micro-macro-cosmos is opening through this: we can be dealing with big questions, but on an individual level. By stopping, observing and experiencing.

Saana Wang

The Helsinki School


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