He wore out three street maps — folding and refolding, finding new territory and retracing his steps — as he explored Nanjing, China. Professor Sean Wilkinson spent six weeks in fall 2012 as an artist-in-residence at Nanjing University of the Arts, but his desire to make photographs drove his explorations and discoveries. The resulting 66-piece exhibit, Here and There, Now and Then, will be on display, alongside select images from his Dayton work, in Nanjing in November. Click the image at left to view images from the exhibit.
My purpose in going to China was not to produce a documentary record of my time there, nor was it to create a flattering or a critical portrayal of that country. I sought simply to make images of what attracted my attention, just as I have done for many years in Dayton.
I have constructed a sequence of images that begins with overt references to traditional Chinese aesthetics. This influence gradually dissolves, but never completely, as the pictures come to reflect my own sensibilities more overtly. The majority of my images are rooted in modernist, Western explorations of form and abstraction, and in postmodern examinations of illusion, appropriation and irony. So there is a fusion of ideas and perceptions, the historical and the contemporary, the foreign and the familiar. I seek to immerse myself in what I find to be beautiful, intriguing, provocative, evocative and compelling. And I hope that those who encounter this work will find those qualities in my pictures and in themselves.
Photographs, at least in their traditional form, are precise coordinates on a grid of time and space. They mark a point that identifies a here and a now, which became, in the moment the picture was made, a there and a then.
While these relationships are intrinsic to every photograph, the pictures I made in Dayton and in Nanjing are particularly concerned with the meanings of here and there, and the way the locus of those terms shifts back and forth, as each set of images informs the others.
Every photograph is also about a particular then, but by being present with it, we may revive something of its original essence as now.
Photography, as an apparently neutral witness, seems to have no need for interpretation or imagination, and is thought to rule out invention. It has always, however, been a medium that serves the proclivities of fiction as readily as it provides objective data.
I make photographs entirely within the traditional framework of straightforward representation. There is a direct correspondence between what was in front of my camera and what appears in my pictures. And yet, even as they are rightly seen as statements of facts, I believe that my photographs constitute a form of fiction. I fashion my pictures from things I find into things of my own.
The practice of art, after all, is one of trans- forming the world one finds into a world one makes. Taking in the results of this process, the observer, the listener, the reader, the audience that apprehends a work of art may thus in turn become, to some degree, transformed.
Many of the photographs I made in Nanjing depict marks. They were often just remnants or fragments of marks, or they were marks that were made in an effort to cover other marks. I am intrigued by defacement and effacement, by cancellation and obliteration, by assertion and negation, and by overlapping layers of condensed histories. The walls I photographed announced and declaimed, they whispered and they shouted, and they were shouted over, muffled, and silenced; yet they continued to speak.
Most of my photographs of marks are about the gestures of making those marks as much as they are about the marks themselves. We can feel in our own hands and bodies the movements that other hands and bodies made in the making of these marks.
Perhaps one reason I was drawn to in- decipherable marks on walls in China is that they represent my experience of being cut off from language. I could not understand anything people said as they conversed with one another in the street and on the bus. I could not read a word of signs that appeared everywhere. All this communication was unintelligible to me, impenetrable yet eloquent at the same time, very much like the language of the marks that I photographed.
There is in photographs an odd conflation of intimacy and distance, the real and the surreal, and of revelation and deception. I am drawn to each of these elements as well as to their contradictions, and to the impossibility of reconciling them completely.