Sophie Tianxin Chen

Sophie Tianxin Chen was born in China and resided there until the age of 15. She has lived in Singapore, Canada, and moved to the United States in 2007. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

In 2010, Chen reveived Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Film, Video, and New Media. In 2014 she recieved her Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Los Angeles in Photography. Her work has been exhibited internationally including Royal Ontario Museum, Ottawa, Canada; Hexianging Art Museuem, Shenzhen, China; Get it Louder Biennial, Beijing, China; Three Shadows Photography Center, Beijing, Ching; SF Camerawork, San Francisco, CA; Materia Gallery, Rome Italy among others.

Today we’re sharing Sophies project I, etcetera and she answers a few personal questions about the work.

I, etcetera

To make photographs I have placed a button in my belly button; sandwiched shoes between pairs of socks; and thrown a drowned water bird into a hole. Performance, staging, and a large format camera are the tools I use to create images. In my work I confront significant personal experiences. I turn emotions from the experience into ideas rather than documenting the real event itself. Choosing not to document I instead re-stage scenes by combining reality with artificial props and simulated effects.

Although highly constructed, my practice does not stem from a studio setting, it begins with observations made in the simplest domestic environment. The process of composing the image blurs distinctions between the literal and the metaphorical, allowing me to delight in the absurdity of disorientation.

It often appears to me that when something is forced upon us as solely literal often loses its power to effect. Influenced by films and music, I understand the importance of triggering an affect. I am interested in presenting an image through artifice, which allows me to distance and depersonalize myself from the experience to pursue an allegorical method of revealing.

I, etcetera was made in Los Angeles while becoming an American Citizen. After 10 years of living outside of my original country of birth including 5 years of dealing with the immigration services, I was left in an awkward in-between space of not knowing how to identify myself politically or culturally. Embarrassed often by the vagueness of my understanding to almost everything, I took this ‘lack’ and disorientation as inspiration for making images.

You describe this project as a representation of your identity as it related to your process of becoming an American citizen, can you speak more on how the idea of America informed these scenes?

I would not simply describe it as a representation of my identity. The work was made while becoming a citizen, but it does not speak directly of the idea of America nor its culture. It is not about America, it is just about me. A person who is always clueless, confused and not understanding anything, because all her experiences from various cultures clashed into each other. It is more of this mindset that I am trying to depict in the work.

You shot this project with a large format camera, which requires a lot of patience. Do you think this method of shooting lent itself to the overall theme of the project?

Yes, I used a 4×5 field camera for this project. I don’t think 4×5 camera ever takes candid photographs really. What comes out from it has the nature of being staged because of how long the process can take, so much more detail is taken into consideration than a 35mm or medium format when you can just snap photos. I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of patience, only about enough to take photographs with a 4×5,  comparing with a lot of other photographers who also construct scenes to be photographed what I do is actually quite minimal. I think that’s why my work is staged yet you still find candidness in there too.

The subtlety of the absurd elements in each image seems very intentional. Can you speak more on this?

For me it is important for people to know that I am not a studio photographer, I am more of a backyard photographer, even though I construct scenes to be photographed. I don’t go out my ways try to be creative and productive, I pick up things around me and try to see what I can do with them. I am a very domestic person and I don’t leave my environment to make work. I spend most of my day following the same routine, it is already absurd when repeating anything so familiar hundreds of times if not more, and is probably extra strange when I reconstruct multiple observations made on different occasions into one image.

How do you initially go about representing emotions in these constructed scenes?

I still don’t know if I succeeded in evoking emotions from my viewers as a lot of them find the images to be “funny” or ” jokey”  (bitter jokes at least, I hope) but I was in an emotional stage when I made them. I find it very difficult when you want to invoke something emotional with subtlety and poignancy through constructed scenes because a lot of times they just end up too heavy handed. I am aware of the risks of becoming overly literal and cliche when you communicate through metaphors and signs. It was probably the biggest challenge to keep myself from falling into that realm.

To view more of Sophie’s work, visit her website.