Stefanie Schweiger has been on an emotional journey and a half. The Shanghai-based photographer’s book, Chicken Are Not Naked
, documents the lives of nine Chinese artists over three years, following them across the country to exhibitions, rock concerts, parties, studios, rural villages and even hospitals. Three years is a long time to follow anyone, especially those of an artistic temperament, and Schweiger describes the fallouts, tears, jealousy, screaming fits, hangovers and plain all-out exhaustion that went together with creating the book. One artist almost got cut out of the book completely after a row over picture rights.
Many of the artists have now become good friends, but she admits; 'If I’d known that it would be this intense beforehand, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. It’s just so hard to remain distant when you spend that much time together.'
Luckily, she stayed the course, and the finished book is full of striking and insightful intimate portraits and a rare insight (impressively in German, English and Chinese) into the lives of China’s bohemian, artistic crowd.
1 Gao Ping
'This is Gao Ping, an artist who works in Ditan Park in Beijing, doing ink paintings. Her husband is also an artist and they are a very special, sensitive couple, traditional in many ways. This is in north Beijing, where
they have a courtyard with a garden and plant vegetables.
I think this portrait really shows her both inside and out. She’s really thinking deeply here; I can see her personality and her character. It is a gift, to know these kind of people and learn from them.'
2 Tong Kunniao
'Tong Kunniao is the youngest of the artists, but already quite well known. On this day we were at his studio, and we went to get a coffee and found these things near the lake. We don’t know what they are – in this village you could find so many weird things – and he straight away said "I have to have them!" We brought them to the studio, and he later used them in an installation in Beijing. He was walking like this for twenty minutes, dragging them behind him.'
3 Liu Donghong
'Liu Donghong is a rock ’n’ roll musician, a role model across China. His lyrics are very smart – he really paints with his words. I like the mood in this picture, I think it shows a lot about him. He was having some trouble with his girlfriend, we’d drunk quite a bit the evening before, and we were just sitting, smoking, watching the smog outside.
He gave me the name for the book. One time, he started to explain what Chairman Mao said about pigs and chickens, and East and West, and how China looks like a chicken on the map. At the end he said, "And you know, chicken are not naked." He didn’t explain it; it was just a statement. I kept thinking about that phrase, and I just had to use it.'
4 Dong Dong
'This is Dong Dong, a tattoo artist who studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). He’s very special because he doesn’t transfer a design, he really paints on skin. He is always drawing, he is an artist first and foremost – although there is a four-year waiting list for his tattoos. He’s small and quiet, but he has a very special personality and when he enters the room everyone notices him. He did a tattoo on this friend on the left, who just fell asleep while everyone else was crying out in pain. This photo is funny in a way – you can see this massive guy and fragile Dong Dong, but it talks about his personality.'
5 Li Binyuan
'This is Li Binyuan, a behaviour and performance artist. He needs to perform, exhibit and express to create his art, so he is always doing these crazy and creative things.
We visited his little village together, in the south of Hunan, and stayed with his grandparents. One day, I went up to the roof and saw him climbing a tree in front of some cameras he’d set up, climbing so high the tree bent low and he could jump the last metre to the ground. But when he did it the fifth time, he started calling for help. I realised something was wrong, and I saw him fall and hit his head on the concrete below. I really thought he was dead – it was very traumatic. We went to hospital, I was outside during the scan trying to calm his mother down. He had broken something in his neck. But he wasn’t worried. His neighbours were like, "What the f**k is wrong with this guy? He could be a painter, a poet – why is he filming himself climbing a tree?" He later used that video in an exhibition.'
Chicken Are Not Naked is available to buy directly on WeChat: (ID: stefanieschweiger)
By Helen Roxburgh