Alec Von Bargen is one of those cool artists who I met through social media. I saw his work www.alecvonbargen.com and knew I had to chat with him. He travels all over the world and is always creating great art and showing it to the world. Here’s our cool chat ...
MICHAEL: Hey Alec, first of all, are you in China? Where are you exactly?
ALEC: Yeah, Shanghai. I've been here for the past six months. I was invited by Francois-Henri Pinault, George Clooney and the Pinault Collection as guest artist at The Swatch Art Peace Hotel. I have a solo exhibition at the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal Museum here. Not a bad gig if you ask me.
MICHAEL: What's it like to be in Shanghai? Do you speak Chinese? What's the art world like there? Shanghai is a huge city, isn't it?
ALEC: I'm fortunate enough to have been to China quite a few times, so this isn't my first encounter with Shanghai. Of all Chinese cities, Shanghai is most definitely the most relatable in the sense that it's much more westernized - a melting-pot between Asian and European cultures. Due to the huge amount of development going on here and the rapid pace of the
city, it's hard for you to actually feel like you're in this faraway, exotic foreign country.
MICHAEL: Hmm. That’s interesting.
ALEC: Coming from a European family I feel quite at home. That said, it's still China, and as much as it masks its everyday reality behind mind-blowing skyscrapers and the most trendy fashion boutiques, it still has an overpowering 'big brother' feel to it all. You are always being watched, citizen and police patrol are constant and as artists, we're always being reminded that we should be 'cautious' about what we produce and how we present it. Exactly the warning one needs in order to go in the absolute opposite direction and try to stir-up some controversy!
MICHAEL: Yes, but I think it’s probably better to stir up controversy at home. Do you speak the language?
ALEC: I started studying some Mandarin years ago and then tried to take it up again before coming this time, but frankly, I know for a fact that I will be here for a set amount of months and then I will leave. My focus is elsewhere ... on my work, on my exhibition here and on traveling. I have however, quite proudly, dominated the ability to say Ni Hao (Hello), Ni Hao ma (Hello, how are you?), Xie Xie (Thank you) and Bye-Bye 500,000 times a day and it's appreciated. That and 'Nanjing Dong Lu, Wai Tan' which is my current address. Not bad, huh?
MICHAEL: Nice. What’s the art world like there?
ALEC: As for the art world here, it's still in diapers. It lives in the shadow of Beijing's saturated marketplace and is struggling to stand up on its own two feet. That said, the galleries, museums and art spaces around the city that are good, are extremely good … much better than Beijing. The Shanghai art scene has learned that teaming up with foreign curators, collaborating with important museums in the U.S. and Europe and creating a dialogue with 'Western' artists is not only productive, but fundamental to the growth of their own institutions and artists. If you arrive here with a somewhat 'established' career and tightly presentable project, doors are opened relatively quickly and you wouldn't believe the amount of art-related events that go on here in the city. I've been here for six months and I do not exaggerate when I say that I have at least one invitation per evening to an opening, a finissage, a public art space presentation, a happening, an installation in an old bomb-shelter, painting in the park ... it’s unbelievable the variety of proposals coming out of this amazing place.
MICHAEL: That sounds like my kind of place. So where do you live when you're not in China? How does your native city or hometown inspire you? Or does your hometown inspire you?
ALEC: I'm actually what some call a 'third culture kid' or a 'global nomad,' in the sense that I was born where I didn't grow-up, by parents that were ex-pats in that country, speaking a language not native to the place I learned to call home. New York City is my birthplace, but I've never really lived in the USA. My parents are German and I grew-up in England and Mexico. Since graduating high school, I've spent my entire life living all over the world ... from Milan to Tokyo, from Sydney to Barcelona. At the moment, my 'base' is in the Mexican Mayan Riviera where I have a house on Yal Ku Lagoon, but that said, I haven't been home since last October. Though it sounds like a cliche', the world is actually my playground and everything about it inspires me, especially the common need we all have to 'belong.'
MICHAEL: Short of having a trust fund, how does one go about traveling and living in various countries like that? Sounds fantastic, but even budget travel costs money. How are you supporting yourself? My guess is you're not 19.
ALEC: Where I come from, 'trust fund' is synonymous with 'work-your-arse-off!' You are correct in assuming I'm not 19, but even at 19 I was funding my own travel. I dislike the word 'lucky' as it almost implies that one has nothing to do with the outcome of things, but I do believe that a certain amount of good fortune helps when one is focused, dedicated, talented and above all, passionate about the things one does. I always knew my future was in the arts, so I really didn't spend any time trying to play the whole 'society says' game. I studied performing arts and before even graduating was booked as a lead in a series and that just parlayed itself into one job after the other. When I decided to dedicate 100% of my time to the visual arts, again, I won my first award and was given my first exhibition and I just ran with it. It's what one does with the opportunities given that makes the career. There's no sense basking in the glory of exhibiting at the MOMA in New York if in your mind you're not already planning on wanting to conquer the Louvre in Paris. Make sense? My work hit a chord and I was able to find a niche where collectors wanted my aesthetic dialogue to be a part of their life, their collections. That said, I take none of this for granted and am fully aware that all of this could disappear tomorrow, I simply don't waste time thinking about it. I'm way too busy for that ... and if it does all end tomorrow, I'll still find some creative outlet to express myself in order be able to continue traveling.
MICHAEL: I'm intrigued by your work. Is it more about photography or using photography to create art? How do you describe what you do?
ALEC: Photography is an art-form which causes so much controversy it's almost tedious. The 'orthodox' photographers, or 'techies' as some people call them, are so fixated on the focus, the shutter speed, the lighting, the film, etc., that anything that goes against their formulaic education is quasi-offensive. Then you have the digital artists who are turning the whole concept of photography into a visual pastiche which at times hits the mark, but has yet to fully convince. You also have those using digital in the exact same way they were using analog, simply for the convenience of it. You have those married to analog and those loving the DSLR.
I'll be completely honest. I work with a point and shoot generally placed on automatic. You'd be amazed what you can do with a tiny $100 camera. It's not about the equipment, it's about the artist and the proposal. I never light, prep, pre-produce or stage. I run around and shoot what inspires me ... I then work with the images taken to create my aesthetic proposal.
It's important to say that I studied photography. There was nothing I loved more than spending hours in the darkroom with the red light and the chemicals and the beloved Ilford paper... I was always obsessed with ASA 3200 film. I loved to blast the grain as much as possible. I still blast the grain to death, but now I just do it in post. Photography is generally about 'capturing the moment' whereas my work is about representing my emotions and my place at the moment the image was captured. Make sense? I never claim to be a ‘photographer,’ I always say that I'm a visual artist using photography as the base to create my pieces.
MICHAEL: Your work seems really focused on humanity, particularly the underprivileged. Why is that?
ALEC: My work is definitely focused on humanity, on our place as human beings in the larger scheme of things and on my path through this thing called ‘life.’ I don't know if 'underprivileged' would be the right word, but I do tend to gravitate towards more socially and politically-sensitive subject matter. I guess it has to do with all of the research I do. When one travels to a place like Cambodia, it's easy to get lost in the beauty of its countryside, the majestic nature of its temples and the warmth of the Khmer people, but to realize that not too long ago over 25% of the population was massacred by the Pol Pot regime and that lying beneath the perfect tranquility of their breathtaking lakes and waterways are the missing bodies of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, the perspective just changes ... and therefore so does the purpose of my work.
I try to present images which work on different levels, the primary one being the aesthetic importance of the piece. I'm all about the visual stimulation an image produces. The next layer is the story behind the image itself - a story which can be read differently by every person who sees the piece. It’s basically a universal language that creates dialogue between the spectator and the artist and finally, the backbone to the piece or the whole series, which is the research, the investigation that goes into the production of the work. My hope is that one is taken in initially by the image itself, the aesthetics and then once the surface is scratched, you become captivated by the story behind it. Like life, the more you read between the lines, the more unforgettable things become.
MICHAEL: What have travel and experiencing different cultures done for you that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise? At this point, do you even think that you could settle in one place from now on?
ALEC: This is a great question, especially because I am currently close to leaving Shanghai after living here for the past six months. I have yet to define what my exact next step will be. I have many professional obligations which I guess become my personal ones as well. As for travel and experiencing different cultures, all I can say is that it is my everything - my only vice. It has made me who I am and it has given me an appreciation not only for others, but also for myself and what I have. Seeing both the privilege and needs of others makes you put your own worth into perspective.
I am fortunate, extremely fortunate. How would I have been different without the travel? I'd like to believe I wouldn't be much different as a lot of who I am came from the education given to me as a child, but I believe I may have been somewhat less tolerant, maybe less curious. I find myself questioning everything and never settling for someone else's answer. I need to see and live for myself rather than just settling for the tales of others ... and speaking of settling, without trying to sound pathetic or corny, at this point in my life, I believe my soul is at peace, so basically I am settled... yes, that sounds corny. Let's just say I'm fine with the life I lead and then if I need to settle down physically, I can always go back home to my hideaway in the Mayan jungle.
MICHAEL: Very cool. This has been a great chat Alec. Please stay in touch and let me know how you’re doing.
ALEC: It's been an honor my friend. Warm regards from Shanghai and hopefully one day our paths will cross.
Check out Alec and his work at www.alecvonbargen.com.