Artist and poet An Xiao on photography as a form of practice. See her photographs here.
An Xiao might be described as a triple-threat. A poet, photographer, and Zen Buddhist, Xiao was raised in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and urban Los Angeles. Encouraged by her mother to pursue her creative interests, Xiao believes that her photography reflects her natural curiosity. “Every time I point my lens somewhere,” she says, “I’m really just eager to learn more about my subject.”
In college, Xiao joined a small sangha and began practicing meditation. At the same time, she began to dabble in photography. Nine months after purchasing her first camera, she was showing at I-Gallery in the West Village.
Xiao’s photograph “Departure” was featured in the Spring 2008 issue of Tricycle. The winner of GLAAD outAuction’s award for Best Emerging Artist in Photography, her work has appeared in galleries internationally and throughout the New York City area. In this interview, Xiao talks with Tricycle editor Sarah Todd about how both her poetry and photography “seek the Zen of the present moment in the hustle and bustle of busy city streets.”
How does Zen Buddhism inform your work as an artist?
I began studying Zen more seriously when I started to correspond with Dogo Barry Graham, a poet, journalist and Zen priest now based in Phoenix. He taught me to open my eyes to the world by following kado, or the way of poetry. I’d always struggled with sitting meditation and living in the moment, but when I began practicing haiku and later tanka, I started seeing the world differently. I found find richness in everyday things, like walking at night or chatting with friends.
I think the very act of sitting and being fully present makes me a better artist. In sitting meditation, my mind wanders a little less, I become a little more aware of myself and my surroundings, and I start to experience things as they are. When I find myself engaging with the world like that, my photos and poems come out the best.
Art helps me to focus my mind just as meditation does. I live a typical New Yorker life, with a million things occurring on any given day. I’m very much prone to the monkey mind! But art, like my breath, centers me, puts me back in the here and now. When I’m looking through my lens, the distinctions between me, the camera and the subject all disappear. The monkey mind takes a little siesta.
You refer to many of your photographs as street haikus. How is the haiku aesthetic captured in your artwork?
My photos express two traditional haiku aesthetics. One is aware, the experience of observing the transience of the world. The other is yugen, a feeling of awe or wonder. People tell me there’s a quietness in my photos that distinguishes them from the work of other street photographers, especially those working in busy, hectic Manhattan. I think that’s a direct result of my practice of kado, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, and my background in short Japanese verse. I like to draw back from the chaos and find what I call those little “haiku moments.”
How did you come into street haiku photography?
When I moved to New York, I didn’t yet have a camera. I’d been writing poetry for many years by then, and I could normally articulate myself that way. But as I roamed the streets, I started seeing things that left me at a loss for words. Little cigarette fireworks when people toss them on the ground. Commuters in clean rows of black coats. I wrote haiku and tanka for these moments, but something was missing.
That’s when I realized I needed a camera to capture what I was seeing. Short Japanese verse, for all its richness, has a certain scope that couldn’t quite contain everything I wanted to say about a moment; sometimes the image I want to express needs no words at all. So for Christmas of 2005, I bought myself a Panasonic Lumix, and I’ve been photographing ever since.
What do you think your photographs express about contemporary life in urban America?
Two things. One is that it’s a very peaceful and centering place, if you open your eyes to it. I grew up in two of the largest cities in the world (Manila and L.A.) and now I live in the largest city in the U.S. I live daily amongst noise and chaos and poverty and wealth. But there’s a peace in the city, if you’re receptive to it.
The second is that, as I photograph New York and Los Angeles in the midst of their rapid gentrification, I’m also expressing the rapid change of contemporary urban life. Restaurants and bars I used to frequent when I first moved here are gone. My childhood neighborhood in Los Angeles, once so unsafe, is now trendy. I try not to make a value judgment with my camera; I simply want to observe.
“Departure,” which was published in the Spring 2008 Tricycle [“Everything Ends“], is a perfect example. It’s this peaceful, quiet moment in the middle of the summer in Coney Island, which is usually a hectic place. Birds are rising in unison from the beach, a man appears not to be watching them. Little figures of people are scattered along the sand. And yet what we’re also seeing is a symbol of Coney Island’s gentrification. Astroland Park, a key feature of Coney Island for decades, will likely be bulldozed away after this summer. The city is changing once again.
How much do you intentionally structure your photography? How does that relate to Zen aesthetics?
I follow the basic rules of composition and lighting and exposure, but to be honest I’ve internalized them so much that I’m not consciously using them in the moment of shooting. I can only explain them later, when I’m editing my photos in my studio. In many ways, my photography follows in the tradition of the zenga, a style of Japanese calligraphy and painting, which is supposed to be painted spontaneously and without structured thought. I like to walk with my camera in my hand so I can “shoot from the hip” whenever something catches my eye, before it vanishes forever. There’s something beautiful about experiencing that fleeting moment, and responding to it in a very spontaneous way.
You’ve said that, because you’ve always lived in urban areas, nature—in the sense of wilderness—seems remote. How do you represent nature in your work?
Traditionally, haiku poets focus on nature, but I’ve always been such a city kid that I primarily experience nature through the city. There’s the literal way, of course: a gathering of trees, a leaf on a grate, snow falling on black coats.
But I also get the sense that the city itself is nature, that I’m forcing a duality where none exists. As artificial as it is, the city and is composed of natural materials. Wood, concrete, metal, cotton fabric and leather. The city goes through seasons and ebbs and flows. Instead of red leaves for autumn and pink blossoms for spring, we have stiletto boots and espadrilles. Instead of high tide and low tide, we have rush hour and late afternoon. Maybe this is why I find so much meaning in short Japanese verse, despite its traditional focus on nature and my urban upbringing.
How do you think about your role as a photographer from a Buddhist perspective?
I see my role as one of compassion. Almost all my photos include people and animals, or suggest their presence. The best example is my ongoing Coney Island series. Over the past year, I’ve gone out to Coney Island every so often to photograph it, as it seems more and more likely that Astroland Park will be torn down entirely. There are still plenty of people who live and work in the area. What will happen to them when the new developers move in? And yet, Astroland Park itself arose from an older development on Coney Island. Isn’t this just the cycle of urban change?
I try not to make my work didactic, but I do try to encourage my audience to develop empathy for the subject and to examine its causes and conditions, and to ask themselves questions about the permanence and impermanence of urban life. Having grown up in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles that is now considered hip, I know on a very personal level what we gain and lose when the old neighborhoods gradually become something else.
What are some recurring subjects in your work?
Above all, I love silhouettes and shadows. They’re very much like haiku, in that they merely suggest the subject. This is why I like photographing at night, when the city becomes a series of shadows and silhouettes, crossing streets and passing by store displays, and in the late afternoon, as the sun sets and casts everything into contrasts of shadows and light. Talk about fleeting beauty.
An Xiao’s website is anxiaostudio.com. Her photography was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum as a part of an experimental exhibit, “Click!”, which runs from June 27 through August 10, 2008. View more of her photographs here.
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