Growing up in a strict and traditional household in China, there were few opportunities for 30-year-old Wang Xueping—or WXP as she chooses to be called —to express herself as she became a teenager. That lack of freedom led to a love of making art in later life, and in 2017 she left for Tokyo to pursue photography, excited by the Japanese tradition. Her work since has been wrapped up in the realms of self-discovery and experimentation, arriving at the eye in a delicate spectrum of soft-focus, pink and milky-hued images.

In her latest series Relations—the fourth part in a larger project called Private Space—the fleeting period of female adolescence takes centre stage, and the gentle feminine power that emerges during that time is explored through photographs of fruit, flowers and the female form in simple domestic scenes. As well as a poetic exploration of the artist’s own experiences, these pictures are intended as a collective metaphor for the experience of impending womanhood too—fun and thought-provoking visual moments that remind us of the ways we relate to our bodies, and the way our bodies relate to the outside world.

Here, WXP speaks to Joanna L. Cresswell for LensCulture about making emotive associations between objects and ourselves, the importance of injecting a little humour into serious subjects and the imaginative space that opens up in photographs where faces can’t be seen.

Relations © Wang Xueping

Joanna L. Cresswell: Perhaps you can speak first about your early life to set the scene. Where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you?

WXP: I was born and grew up in the Shandong Province of China, where high heed is paid to traditional culture and etiquette. I lived with my grandparents, who really emphasized the traditional courtesy of ‘observing laws and discipline rites’ and that really shaped my character a lot. My grandfather often corrected my bad behaviour, including my ways of eating or speaking; he would reprimand me in a low voice, telling me to be a gentle woman. Within that context, I became more or less obedient, but nevertheless, I hesitated about sticking to the rules and broke them more once I became an adult.

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: You were born in China and you are now based in Tokyo, Japan. How does your experience of these different cultures influence your work? Do you, for instance, identify with the history of photography in one place more than the other? Do you see yourself as part of any particular movement?

WXP: I decided to quit the job I had in visual design in Beijing in 2017, and came to Tokyo to pursue my interests in photography. I was highly influenced by two eminent Japanese photographers, Eikoh Hosoe and Masao Yamamoto, and I enrolled onto a Photography MA at the Musashino Art University.

Although China and Japan share myriad common factors in their cultures, the Japanese photography system feels more complete, and so it gave me a deeper understanding of the evolution of photography. The history of photography in both places influences and interweaves with the other though, and so learning one history has been conducive to understanding the other.

At the moment I don’t think that I am part of any art movement. In other words, I have not formulated a distinct style of artistic expression yet, as everything is still being explored.

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: Your latest project Relations is about girlhood and adolescence. Did any of your own adolescent experiences or feelings inspire this work? I wonder if any of your choices of objects are born from a reaction to the seriousness you grew up with, like the false eyelashes you use in a cartoonesque way to make eyes out of roses and nipples. They feel humorous—like they’re meant to make us smile. How important is fun or an element of playfulness to your work?

WXP: I started working on Relations in 2018, and the stories are sporadic expressions of the fantasies of adolescent girls, as well as a poetic response to my own emotions and fragmented memories. In the absence of any particularly special experience in my teens, I know I’m still in quite an innocent state of getting to know myself, and am curious about everything around me.

The eyelashes are a metaphor for feminine bashfulness, like a maiden casting down her eyes. I’m definitely the sort of person who likes to spoil seriousness with a touch of humour. All of my work combines these feelings of enjoyment and seriousness, coming together to create a visual style with a dry sense of humor.

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: The way you place objects in relation to the body feels very considered, and there’s a satisfying sense of things fitting perfectly into the little gaps and spaces of bodies. But at the same time there’s also a tension to your pictures, like a precariousness or an impermanence. This can be seen in specific pictures—like the one of the body lying on a balloon that could pop any moment, or the ones where water is held between legs or in the crevice of a collarbone. We know these positions can only last as long as it takes to make the picture, and we know they could fracture or end at any moment. So, why is that tension important to your photographs? Does it have something to do with exploring vulnerability, or trying to visualise how fleeting that unique moment between girlhood and womanhood feels?

WXP: The answer is absolutely—a certain instantaneous and vulnerable expression keeps showing up in this work. No matter if the subject of the image is youth, desire, the lifecycle of flowers, or the lifecycle of fish, some instability and transience always exists. The essence of photography for me lies not in the beginning or the ending, but in capturing the instant when a moment is just about to erupt and end.

Talking of goldfish, I have to say that the creature has become an almost philosophical symbol in my memory. It’s as if the goldfish is a species that has the power to fill me with weird dreams. It’s almost like I’m somehow linked to it. I think this is because my father once put a large glass fish tank in our yard in which there were some small goldfish, and every time I had to change the water for the tank I picked them up one by one, put them in a clean basin while I cleaned, and then gathered the group back into the flushed tank.

Relations © Wang Xueping

The life of a goldfish is fragile and I sometimes found one or two dead ones while I was changing the water. These moments were hard to face, because it felt cruel back then to handle these dead beings. All I could do was to bury them under the little garden at the doorway of our house, which was filled with Chinese roses cultivated by my father. When I held the bodies of those goldfish and buried them under the roses, I believed that their fragile lives and my vulnerable emotions became strangely associated the instant I covered them with soil. At the time, I thought that there was nothing that could make me feel more upset. And later, when taking these pictures—not knowing if the balloons under the bodies were about to explode or if they were safe—I felt the same kind of emotion.

JC: It’s fascinating how many of the visual symbols from that story pop up in Relations! Water, fish, roses… and on that note, objects like fruit and flowers often recur in your images. These are archetypal art objects, but they’re also symbolically related to femininity or sensuality, aren’t they? Was it important to you for this work to have a sensual or dreamy atmosphere?

WXP: I would say those associations were unconscious ones to some extent, but I’m not denying that I have managed to create a vague, dreamlike and even romantic atmosphere with some metaphors of female idiosyncrasy and adolescent fantasy…

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: Does that vagueness also extend to the way you photograph bodies? All of your pictures are anonymous in the sense that no faces are seen. Also, you use the word fantasy quite a lot in reference to these pictures, and this leads me to wonder how you wanted these pictures to be seen. To me, they feel more sensual and sensitive than erotic or overtly sexual. Do you think that would be a fair reading?

WXP: I appreciate your interpretation of this work; indeed, the work is a sensitive expression of self-image and inner emotions. It does explore the complicated emotions of fantasy and curiosity of adolescent girls too—some of which could be read as symbols for sex. Most of these photographs are of my close friends, and only one of them is of me. What I wanted to convey here is a sort of collective metaphor, instead of individual identities. A larger space for imagining exists when there are no faces. It’s like magic; no one can see through the illusion to know what’s behind it.

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: Looking at your images, and thinking about how important the idea of touch is to your work, the word I keep coming back to is softness. It’s as if we can almost feel the softness of the petals and cotton underwear, the skin and liquid. How does tactility come into the way you think about your photographs?

WXP: It’s difficult to give an answer for certain, but I really like the notion of what tactile sensation means, because, although it’s about tangibility, it’s innately connected to equivocal and amorphous emotions too. In my work, it is the interaction or friction between two seemingly unrelated things that generates a fantastic connection. Whether expressing desire, or anything else, essentially I intend to convey a gentle power—the power found between weakness and force. Tactility helps that.

JC: And is your use of lighting—that milky, bright, warm-hued light that unites all of your pictures—another important facet in conveying that soft power?

WXP: Light is essential in this work because I need to express my thoughts with soft elements. And light, I suppose, can be a natural reminder of beauty and fantasy.

Relations © Wang Xueping

JC: How do you place Relations within the evolution of your work as a whole? How is it different from your previous works, like Dust and Light, for instance?

WXP: Relations and Dust and Light are actually two parts of a larger project, called Private Space, which is about the exploration of the body. Relations is the fourth part of the series. Private Space is my first photographic creation after turning to photography, and all of the chapters in the series are works conveying different emotions and things through the combination of bodies and objects. Compared with the first three series, Relations is brighter and more tender, which also reflects a change in my own emotions and psychological state.

JC: Lastly, you often refer to perceptions and inner emotions, dreams and memories, and the intangibles of human experience and psychology, when talking about your work. How has photography been a useful tool to help you try to visualize these invisible things?

WXP: When conceiving these photos, I usually drew multitudes of scripts, including the types of scenes I wanted to shoot in. Some ideas came from previous poems I had written based on my own dreams, memories, feelings and experiences, while other thoughts cropped up in the process of sketching. Drawing and writing can be more capable of embodying the image of the invisible, but photography presents a different experience. It’s more than taking an image—it’s an intuitive process that can reveal the hidden aspects of things.

Editor’s note: Relations was a finalist in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. To explore more inspiring projects, check out the rest of the winners!