"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.
You've probably seen Matthew Niederhauser if you've gone to a live music concert in Beijing at any point over the last five years. He was the guy with the camera. That was a joke on the ubiquity of concert photographers. But seriously, Matthew has put out the most distinctive documents of Beijing's live music culture. He made his name with Sound Kapital, a photo-documentary of the circa-2008 Beijing underground music scene, with an emphasis on the then-burgeoning scene around Wudaokou venue D-22. His "red wall portraits" of Chinese bands are by now synonymous with that time and place, and have subsequently launched Matthew's career, which currently sees him travelling around the country photographing China's richest and most famous, and framing China's almost incomprehensible nation-wide urban sprawl.
We sat down for a Matt chat covering the man behind the lens, from his first Beijing forays to his current position as Sir Elton's man on the ground in China...
SmartBeijing.com: Okay, so let's explain this photo here… it's a picture of you… and where are you here?
Matthew Niederhauser: This is me on the deck of the former Soviet aircraft carrier, the Minsk, which is now moored off of the coast of Shenzhen. I was there working on my photography project "Counterfeit Paradises," which investigates the leisure activities of the nouveau riche and the idea of fake development… it's concerned with shanzhai cities, which are the combination of real estate development and theme park, and then new city centers, which in and of themselves are looking to offer a sense of fantasy.
But… uh…. sometimes if the feeling is right [laughs] I'll put in and have my own photograph taken by the local photography expert, and the aircraft carrier was one of the opportunities that was too good to pass up.
SmBj: So what's the story then? They've got this Russian battleship down there in Shenzhen and anyone can go there and tour around? Is it a battleship or a full-on aircraft carrier?
MN: Oh, it's an aircraft carrier…
SmBj: Like, it's the main piece thing in the game, "Battleship"?
MN: Yeah, it's the big deal. Actually there's two in China that are theme parks -- there's one in Tianjin and there's one in Shenzhen. But they're straight-up theme parks. They're filled with nationalistic military propaganda.
SmBj: It's a Russian aircraft carrier that someone has purchased, hollowed out, and filled with Chinese military paraphernalia ?
MN: Absolutely. It's kind of awesome. The irony is at full height, in that they're using an old, burned-out Soviet vessel as the display device for their own military prowess.
SmBj: Is it… like… a 'ha-ha', one-upmanship over the Soviets?
MN: No, not really. It's more of it's own serious and separate thing. It's weird, especially over the October holidays. When I was there, every three hours they would have a six-person machine gun twirling event go on -- Chinese military in Chinese military uniforms.
And it's quite strange because the Chinese military has just gotten their own aircraft carrier going -- the Liaoning -- which is the next generation sort of thing -- the pearl gem of the navy right now -- which they've only just recently been able to land an airplane on in the first place.
But, anyways, I got the photo taken and then I got to sit down with the crack photoshop guy, and if you look at the other examples, maybe they'll have like one line of troops, or maybe just one helicopter, but I was like, "No, no, no, I want the works" -- the tassel, the medals, the epaulets, that's all photoshopped. I was wearing a white suit, but the collar and tie is theirs. It's a small little neck thing that only goes as far as there. And the hat, of course, is theirs.
But, yeah, I was directing them like, "Yeah, we need more. More, more, more. I want eight fighter jets in formation, I want helicopters, I want an army, I want more helicopters… and then by the end, the other attendant and the photoshop guy just looked at it: "This is the best one we've ever made."
I said, "You're damn straight it is. You can print that and put it up in the window".
SmBj: So maybe to start over, maybe we could take care of some of the housekeeping questions… When did you come to Beijing? What brought you here? I understand you originally came to Beijing staying with a host family?
MN: Yeah, I first came to Beijing in 2000. Did a gap year here before college and I stayed with a host family, and then when I was in college in New York and after that I was sort of in and out of Asia a lot. And then I moved back in late 2007. So I've been based out of Beijing for the last five years or so at this point.
SmBj: What do you remember of Beijing in the year 2000?
MN: Well, there wasn't really much going on back then in general. I remember when they opened up the first bar in Houhai and it was like, "Hey! They opened a bar in Houhai! Have you heard?" It was the big secret thing. There wasn't really much music going on outside of Wudaokou… Sanlitun was still there. Sanlitun was always there. I mean that strip of shitty bars, which I still think is some sort of huge money laundering thing.
SmBj: You mean the bar street.
MN: Yeah, the bar street. The "village" wasn't there or anything. But, yeah, I guess on a cultural level it was a time when things were first starting to take root but there was no way of knowing about it… plus I was in school and living with a family with certain expectations. I wasn't really hitting the bar street at all.
SmBj: How about the galleries and visual arts type stuff -- 798 and all that.
MN: Well, that's when people were sort of living in the east village squats and stuff but I didn't really have the know-how about all that stuff then. It was really underground. There was no way to really pick up that knowledge unless you were brought into it. It was word-of-mouth and hearsay. It might have been mentioned in local magazines or something but there weren't many outlets for it in larger media.
There weren't really any over-enthusiastic hipster types searching out all the craziness that was occurring. Back then you could still get stared at on the street a bit for being a foreigner. Finding the ATM was difficult, you know what I mean. Beijing was almost a place that foreigners would come to hide and lay low, you know what I mean. Not really a destination for high cultural rolling or entrepreneurship or anything like that.
Like, the fourth ring road was the boonies, you know.
SmBj: Isn't that still the case?
MN: Yeah, I guess it still is to a certain extent…
SmBj: Nah, I don't know.
MN: Yeah, it's not anymore -- the FIFTH ring road is the boonies. But, yeah, even back then, even the third ring road, there was still farmland and stuff. But, yeah, back then there wasn't too much going on for me. I didn't see Reflector or Brain Failure or any of those early punk bands. Even if they did play it seemed like it was pretty random and word-of-mouth.
SmBj: So 2007 is when you came back.
MN: I actually came back in 2002 and I was working at Ogilvy & Mather for a while, in this sort of horrible office in the north of Andingmen, you know. This was back when you had all these Western luxury brands who were just entering China and they were trying to ramp up their brand recognition about the culture and history behind their product. Cartier and whoever else were doing these traveling luxury museum-type shows around China so Chinese people could see how Westerners and Europeans, socialites and aristocracy had always worn their stuff, you know.
At this point I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do…
SmBj: What's your academic background? Asian studies and political science, is that right?
MN: Well, i actually started in math and economics. I was doing Chinese in high school and then on to college, I was doing math and econ, sort of envisioning a career in business and finance type of stuff. But I was just hating classes and hating the people in the classes. And I was thinking, is this who I want to surround myself with? And I had a sort of epiphany in my sophomore year… I had this extremely dry German sociologist, basically, teaching me Nietchzche and the bottom fell out for me in terms of language, culture, society, morality, reality, truth…
SmBj: Thus Spoke Zarathustra?
MN: Actually it was On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense -- some of his earlier, more succinct works [laughs]. And then I realized that if you want to get involved in business and finance, either you get it or you don't and you're going to learn it through on-the-job training. You can only be so generalized with studying economics and then you're going to have to figure out how to apply yourself in a real working situation. Things get specific extremely fast and you can get the knack of it or you don't. And then I was also thinking about how consumers are not rational anyways -- it's a whole pseudo-science based on some precepts that are imperfect, and there's a whole lot more going on -- cultural factors, statistical factors -- a bigger picture of what's happening.
So I switched into the anthropology department. And there were just better people, that were just having a better dialogue that I was looking for.
SmBj: To get back to the photography stuff then, does the anthropological background influence your projects -- the ideas of counterculture and people's reactions to the physical infrastructure of their living spaces…
MN: Well, I wasn't doing much proper photography in New York. I was sort of doing concert photography for rock concerts and things, more as a way to get in and get good seats, you know what I mean. I would shoot at Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza sort of thing…
SmBj: What sorts of bands were you shooting?
MN: I was big into the scene around Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and all their outlets. Karl Denson, jazz but also not… I would also go see Beck anytime I would get. Beck used to play these amazing Halloween shows. Beck, Radiohead. I went to Manhattan to see a lot of music, you know what I mean. I used to work at the radio station as well -- WKCR -- which was this pretty major station in New York. It had a huge reach… I was in the jazz department. I was doing a radio show.
SmBj: What were your hours? Were you doing the sweet 4:30am - 6:00am smooth jazz Sunday night ride?
MN: [Laughs.] Yeah, the New Music Department -- really tonal stuff, you know what I mean. That was my first introduction to the knob twisters and the noise and tonal work. John Cage and all the silliness that came out of it. Yeah, the transfigured night would lead into the daybreak express…
SmBj: So you were back in Beijing 2007...
MN: Well, it's a real wake up call, when you go from being a student in New York to trying to live in New York. It really sucks. So I was working at the National Committee for US-China Relations, which was a big think tank in New York that handled China entourages and missions and stuff like that. And then I was also getting back into photography again -- not that I'd really stopped doing it, but I just made a big push to get my photography going, which at that point and still is to this day driven by my anthropological training. I mean it inflects what I do -- trying to visually conceptualize culture and urban spaces and force people to think that I know what I'm doing… no [laughs]. Just trying to create words, text, an angle or a critique through images.
I was at the International Center of Photography, working as an assistant teacher and taking classes. At this point I was rapidly working on the technical side of it as well, doing advanced classes in everything… lighting as well, strobe lighting…
SmBj: In developing the technical side of it and working on skills, were you looking towards photography and photographers that came before you? Aesthetic influences? Visual art world?
MN: Well, yeah, for sure. You study that stuff -- I took a History of Photography survey. I could point to a lot of big names that I love, you know -- Henri Cartier-Bresson -- people who have explicit framing, how they frame their subjects. You know, you look at a photograph and you can tell who did it -- people like Robert Frank.
Photography is about creating a sense of space that goes beyond what you were originally seeing in that environment. In many ways, what you try to do in photography is turn the mundane into the extraordinary -- turning what many other people would see as the pedestrian into something extraordinary through framing, angle, and perspective. Ideally, it makes the audience want to readdress the subject and look at it a second time.
But the people who for me were like 'wow, that's something different' were like Edward Burtynsky who did the manufactured landscapes work -- he had a specific angle to it, trying to answer the question, "How does our industry shape our landscapes?" And then was able to elicit it very explicitly.
And then I was always into big prints, like printing out big, hyper-real type imagery.
SmBj: So, generally speaking, is it fair to say you're more creatively motivated to do photography that's going to end up in a gallery show?
MN: Yeah, well, it's an ongoing thing: Are you a commercial photographer? Are you a photo-journalism photographer? Are you an art photographer? I don't believe in the rigid differentiations of these categories. I think you can create in different ways with different goals in mind.
SmBj: So you were back in 2007 --
MN: At the time in New York I was doing a lot of fashion work. I mean I was doing my own stuff as well at the time -- man, who knows what my photography was like back then, probably pretty awful. And I was also plowing through these news feeds on China for US-China Relations, just going through all this stuff, and it dawned on me like, "Why the hell am I sitting in an office all day, just reading about China stuff when I should be the one creating this content," you know what I mean? Not just be a passive receiver on 23rd street.
Plus it's just a big crunch, starting at the bottom rung in New York, especially in a creative field. There's so much nepotism and in-fighting. I was starting to assist at that time for some fairly well-known photographers and the advice I was getting was that it's going to be such a slow-burn, even if you get anywhere in New York, but if you go somewhere else and make a name for yourself…
Any success that I've had is from going after things and covering things that other people are not already doing in the first place.
But, yeah, I made the decision to just go for it and do photography full time -- fuck it, go for it. And if it didn't work I would end up in… I don't know… some god-awful PR firm.
SmBj: Is the Sound Kapital thing and D-22 the first thing you got involved with when you moved back?
MN: The project I had in mind coming back to China was urban development leading up to and during the run of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. How the environment was being shaped in the preparations for the Olympics.
SmBj: Did you have a thesis or a slant to it or…
MN: Well I was taking photos of everything but it was always that I didn't know what was going to happen until I got on the ground and started into it. But, yeah, at that point, I was sleeping on floors up in Wudaokao and pretty much petitioning expat mags to take restaurant photos… it wasn't a very pretty start.
SmBj: Party photos?
MN: I'm pretty sure I might have shot a party photograph or two...
SmBj: [Laughs.] That's not something you forget.
MN: Yeah, it's so demoralizing… but I was also teaching photography as well at an expat learning center. But I came eight months before the Olympics and I knew there was going to be this huge demand for photography on the lead-up to the Olympics. And that was what I was really banking on, that there would be this mad scramble across the board to get a hold of photographers.
But then also my first week here I went to D-22 -- you remember Justin Padro? The drummer from New York? He was in a bunch of different bands -- he played with Shouwang for a bit… he's a pretty fiery dude, I'll just say that. He was working the soundboard for D-22. I went to college with him and he told me to come check it out because it was really popping off at that point. That was in 2007. And so I went to the holiday run -- they used to do a week-long thing during the holidays.
And my first two nights up there were like SUBS, Joyside, Hedgehog, and I was just completely floored, you know what I mean. Obviously, I think there are better bands out there in the world, but I wasn't expecting anything at all. Low expectations are a good thing to have in the first place in China [laughs]. But I was generally impressed, especially by [SUBS front-woman] Kang Mao, Joyside -- they were just ripping into it. And I thought that some of them had their own sort of distinguishing sound -- Hedgehog back then -- and I started photographing…
SmBj: So after that initial experience, were you like, "oh, look at this, I can latch on to this and it can be my thing"?
MN: Not at first…
SmBj: Not to make it sound opportunist or cynical…
MN: Yeah, not at first but, yeah, that realization did come -- I had a distinct purpose in doing the later work. But at first it was just like… we need some… I had met Charles [Saliba, Maybe Mars] and Nevin [Domer, Maybe Mars] and they needed photos to put on MySpace…
SmBj: They couldn't handle that?
MN: Well, yeah, they could, but this is another thing, and for me it was a distinct moment that, despite your inhibitions or lack of skill or expertise, you just have to be like, "I'm a professional photographer," you know what I mean? "I'm a fucking professional"… "I'm going to take much better photographs than you and I'm going to provide you with this service."
But that was right when the first CDs were coming out and they were trying to step up their game as well, Maybe Mars. And so I went out there photographing that whole week and I went back there to meet with Charles… this is just shooting stuff on stage.
And I was like, "I have lighting equipment and I can do this." And actually, I don't know if you remember but they had band photos on the walls -- they had ones on there before mine that were kind of shitty and I said, "I'm going to shoot new, consistent photographs for your wall," you know. They still had that format already, with the name of the band and a picture, but the pictures themselves were all sort of ad hoc and shitty, you know -- no sort of rhyme or reason to them.
So I was like, I'm going to re-shoot these for you. And one of the first ones I did was the Hedgehog portrait with the boxing gloves, which is still one of the best ones.
photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser
And I took that and was like, "fuck this is awesome'" and that's when I had the idea to go all out and do everyone. And at that time I was seeing some amazing music -- some amazing live sets went down in D-22
SmBj: For example...
MN: Xiao He… Carsick Cars… Snapline… Demerit… the anniversary shows. For me there's only like a dozen bands out of the hundred that I thought, you know, these guys are doing something. But no matter what, at the base level, I was so impressed that it was even occurring. Even comparing it to being here in 2000, which was like nothing.
You know, I don't want to use the low expectations scale for it. On any scale I was so impressed with anyone who wanted to take that creative risk and go on stage and try to express themselves, in light of what the fuck's occurred in China in the last 20 years, you know. And aside from that there were some amazing musicians…
SmBj: D-22 always gets compared to CBGB… is that accurate in your experience? It was like a counter-culture community kind of thing?
MN: Well, there was a sense of community that's for sure, which has since fractured and split up. But at the time, everyone was showing up…
SmBj: So how did the red wall portraiture series come about then?
MN: I was just there. That's it. I struck a deal with Michael [Pettis, D-22, Maybe Mars owner]. I said, "Hey Michael, I'm going to be coming here and providing you with a service."
And I recognize that to some extent Michael as well, he was looking for someone to help mythologize it -- for someone to provide the imagery for this thing. He'd already brought in Ca [Chairman Ca, graphic artist] and he was already doing these crazy-ass posters. And I come in there with my pro photo kit and I was like, "Hey you just pay for my taxis" because my lights are heavy. "Pay for my taxis and feed me alcohol. Make sure I don't have any costs and I'll document the whole thing."
SmBj: Why do you suppose the red wall photos have the traction they do? What do you think of when you look at those photos?
MN: Well, they're just raw. It's raw. And I was sort of naive too. This was the first time i was trying to take myself seriously as well. There wasn't any artifice, you know what I mean. I just cleared out a bunch of fuckin' furniture, set up my one light and, boom, that was it. I wouldn't even really talk to the people at first. Eventually, I knew everyone… but actually the nature of the portraits changed about a year into it because everybody knew about it…
SmBj: They sort of took off and bands wanted them done?
MN: Yeah, like, everyone wanted one done at least by the end. But it was raw and it was the first time these guys, these bands, had been put in front of a strobe and done a professional shoot too, so it was like both me and the bands feeling our way through it.
And I wouldn't try to pose them or anything. I just got them to stand against a wall and they would do whatever. Or they would do nothing. And those are some of my favorites, when they're not actually doing anything. Or even know what to do.
SmBj: Any particular shoot stick out in your mind?
MN: You mean like the crazier dudes?
SmBj: I suppose most of the bands are half-drunk because they've either just played or are about to play…
MN: Yeah, they were usually half-drunk. It depends on the inebriation level. Ma Fei San. But the most notoriously difficult ones to work with were always Ourself Beside Me -- those three girls, couldn't get them to do anything. Either that or they were falling over drunk.
SmBj: Like uncooperative?
MN: A bit uncooperative.
SmBj: Why, 'cause they were like tortured rock stars? "Oh this is such bullshit. Such bullshit."
MN: Basically. I don't know. I had good enough humor to pull it out of them, you know what I mean. But even then there wasn't that much weight around it. Even then, we were just taking photographs.
But, yeah, I got obsessive-compulsive about it. I would wait for bands coming in from out of town… it got obsessive -- that's what happens to me getting involved in a project like that.
SmBj: So as it progressed on, you were really researching out the bands? Was it difficult to communicate this larger idea to bands from outside Beijing?
MN: Yeah, but also I had the photos on the walls, so that was the thing with meeting the bands. I could say, "Hey, what's up, I'm that dude who takes those," and then people could see that they were nice so it was okay…
SmBj: These photos get associated with Maybe Mars and I guess D-22 obviously, but you've got some pretty far-flung acts in there…
MN: Oh, yeah, well, D-22 played everybody. People falsely accuse D-22 of just being a grand-stand spot for just Maybe Mars bands, when, actually, just everyone was playing there. Absolutely everyone. Except like… Pettis had beef with Re-TROS or something like that. And obviously some of the Modern Sky bands… I don't think New Pants ever played there. I mean it was… it wasn't until this book was even coming out that I got Brain Failure, who finally did a set there near the end.
With New Pants, I had to drag them up there to take a photo. I had to literally bring them myself. But they're very design / fashion sense. I showed them the first version of the book which Pettis funded and I printed DIY with this printing place up there beyond the 6th ring road. But I showed the first version of the book to New Pants, so they wanted to get in. But they'd gone to D-22 to see shows…
The only people who were just like "NO" were Re-TROS. So I was trying to get in touch with them to be in it -- and they're in it, because there are some live shots as well from Mao Livehouse, 2Kolegas, Yugong -- but I finally arranged for like an afternoon shoot…
SmBj: Did you have to call Pettis and say, "Hey I know you don't like these guys but they have to be in this book, so I'm bringing them down. I have to use your wall…"
MN: Nah. Pettis doesn't care. Pettis has no problem with them. The legend goes that Pettis made some sort of off-hand comment like, "Oh the Re-TROS will never play in here" and it got back to them somehow or whatever… supposedly. Or something like that. And things were never right.
But, whatever, their music is great, and Pettis, well.. he's a bit a puppet master sometimes. I think he realizes that conflict is good for the music scene. But his overall mandate is to promote all music, wherever it comes from.
Maybe as an economist he understands that monopolies aren't good for anyone, you know… [laughs].
SmBj: [Laughs] Depends what kind of economist he is.
MN: Yeah, that's true. But that whole Sound Kapital side bar, the end of that was that some of my first big publications came from people who knew of my work with this music scene stuff.
SmBj: Yeah, I was going to ask… not to use a cliche here or anything, but is it fair to say that Sound Kapital launched your whole professional career? You're the D-22 red wall rock guy…
MN: Um… It's… It was the first thing that I managed to get people to see that they could identify me with something completely different. Something that no one else was doing. That helped a lot. You know, cause as I said with photography, the last thing you want to be shooting is what everyone else is shooting. So I got attention… and at that time, journalists started showing up, journalists started coming in, and Beijing was getting a lot of attention -- D-22 was getting a lot of attention. My red wall portrait of Shouwang was in The New Yorker. Had a half-page shot of Carsick Cars in Time Magazine…
But this was my nighttime thing. During the day I was still working on my urban landscapes thing. Traveling to all these fringe areas in Beijing, documenting this development… but I also started going after journalists. Hanging out with journalists and bringing them stories, and working through them…
But the reception in the States was great. It was really easy to run with. And when we released the book in the States, we went on tour with Xiao He, P.K.14, and Carsick Cars, who were the sort of vanguard of it. And we could have a perfect storm of media… here are the images, here is the music, and here are the bands themselves… NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Wired -- all were on it.
In the States, we had this big RV, it was funny. Having P.K.14 and Carsick Cars racked up at my mom's house and she's cooking them breakfast… bacon and eggs. This is 'merica.
SmBj: You mentioned Carsick Cars in Time Magazine. It seemed at that time there were lots of "Voice of Young China" stories. "Punk Rock in China" set against the generational narrative of China's youth shucking off the Cultural Revolution. And the associated images from that time … I don't know how many times I've seen the picture of the guy from Angry Jerks / Demerit's "PUNK ROCK" tattooed across his fingers. Or the Misandao boots in TAM Square… is that gone? Has that dried up?
left: Liu Liu, Demerit; right: Bian Yuan, Joyside (photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser)
Misandao at TAM -- Not one of Biederhauser's but a fine photo all the same...
MN: Um… yeah, well it was a sexy story. There were a lot of parachute journalists at the time looking for politically-charged quotes and things. There was a big question back then of what is going to be the voice of Generation Y, you know. What do these kids want? Will they be outspoken? And radical? Lots of drum-beating and sensationalism… but, yeah, in a sense, yeah, it has cooled.
But the thing is, people are no longer speaking about it in terms of generalizations… there are people now coming in and doing just one band. People are coming in and doing real journalism. Hanging out with Buyi for a week or Bedstars. And people are now paying more attention to the materialism of Chinese youth.
The post-Olympic fallout has been to focus more on things like how young people find girlfriends and boyfriends, and their attachment to luxury items. It's about how people put up with massive amounts of censorship in exchange for material well-being… the new materialism.
SmBj: This is going to be a great segue into the next topic, which was to talk to you about your "Tigresses" photo shoot -- the photo shoot of the most wealthy women of China…
MN: Oh, the tigresses…
SmBj: Actually, before we get into that, this might be a bit of a loaded question but it seems one prevailing opinion is that the music itself coming out of Beijing has cooled somewhat… like, there was this sort of high point that we're past now. As someone who was involved with the so-called high point there what are your thoughts on that?
MN: Right, they were the fifth generation bands… well, I don't know. Yeah. It has to a certain extent. I feel that the fifth generation bands, and I'm a part of that generation as well, we were coming from a larger generational place were there wasn't anything at the start. I mean, just getting cell phones and stuff… that was the tail end of it really, those years, where there wasn't already this huge amount of content already available on the internet, that you could call up in an instant. Back then it was more working out of a void, whereas now, the sixth generation is already out of it from the start with all the music and the rest. They have it from the start. I don't know if that is quite what it is or if that even has anything to do with it...
Even if by some standards those fifth generation bands still resembled a lot of the Western canon already, I think there was a lot of differentiation to be made. I don't know, man. There was a lot of excitement. And you would think that it would continue…
But, also, maybe it has something to do with the state of music around the globe, you know. The turn to laptop production, electronic compositions. A lot of the live-act-type composition and performances are now on the out-and-out. I mean, I look to the hip hop scene and the electronic scene as well, but for me it's hard to catch my interest in that realm… If there is any realm that is highly derivative, globally, it's the electronic realm… Obviously there are stand-outs…
But, yeah. I wouldn't even say just music. Even in the contemporary art world, it was real hot and galleries were getting younger and younger kids out of school, but amongst the youth there hasn't really been a stand-out. And that's a different situation, but, yeah… I don't have the same excitement right now.
And my photography now is coming out of my original projects and concepts of urban development, consumerism, and the sustainability of new cities across China.
SmBj: Before looking at that stuff, after Sound Kapital you started looking at hip hop in China and were working on a film documentary project with it.
MN: Yeah, I was looking at freestylers in hip hop from Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou, and the ideas of freedom of expression and speech inside of China. But also looking at improvisational hip hop in the cities and the linguistic differences with local dialect, specifically with Beijing versus Guangzhou. It was going well, but what I think, and it goes hand-in-hand with the nature of freestyle battling and hip hop, it was too divisive to deal with...
SmBj: So the situation is that crews in different cities don't get on at all.
MN: Sometimes, yeah. Beijing and Shanghai do not like each other at all…
SmBj: How does this antipathy get expressed?
MN: There are no killings or anything. Altercations. Tense moments. People generally keep the peace. But, yeah, it's tense and it's occurring at a time for hip hop in China where there's no money to be made and there's nothing to really beef about -- you'd think that people would be more inclined to support each other.
And for hip hop… the gov's control of language feels that it's most powerful in hip hop. People release albums saying, "Whuddup teachers, we don't like you a lot." Imagine if they really address social situations like, "Fuck the --------- " or whatever else. Really assume the power of rhetoric. Especially in Beijing -- they love early '90s hip hop -- Big L, Biggie Smalls, Wu Tang, Jay-Z -- and that derives all its power from addressing social situations like the crack epidemic, poverty, racism, and violence.
So self-censorship reins in the hip hop scene still at this point. It can get pretty crazy at freestyle shows but it's still very underground. For rock stuff, critique can come through the texture of music or the angular tonalities in something like a Snapline CD -- they get expressed in a way that someone at the bureau can't really put their finger on. With hip hop it's about being direct and there's nowhere to hide. Like, "Fuck the ----". It could be an extremely powerful statement. But at this point it's very rarely realized. And thus hip hop in China now feels like it's living in a world of fear. And on top of that, out of all performers, hip hop performers see the most interaction with police.
So it was difficult to penetrate that world, and, which as I say, at the same time, was splintered and fractured instead of working together to do something crazy. There was too much beef.
Beijing's DJ Wordy and Soulspeak (photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser)
SmBj: How deep were you in that project before you decided it was something that couldn't be realized?
MN: I had a load of material and had travelled to all these places. But I was traveling back to New York and I had a massive hard drive failure as well… [ laughs]. Which I had almost welcomed at that point. I had a lot of stuff but most of it was B Roll and first explorations, and I would have had to go back in for the kill on second and third interviews and things.
So I took it as an opportunity to step back and think, "if I want to make a movie of China, is this were my heart really is and is it going in the direction I want it to?" And the answer was no…
SmBj: So what's this new project then?
MN: We're calling it Kapital Creation -- the same sort of Marxist terminology sort of thing. A non-linear documentary driven by interviews with Beijingers, anchored around the crazy structural juxtapositions and movement of the city. City scenes that are almost Baraka-esque, time-delay, re-purposed CCTV clips… it's hard to give an explicit statement on it. Thinking about incorporating a fictional narrative as well… it's something we're still discussing. And we're folding the hip hop stuff into that.
SmBj: Back to the tigresses… top female billionaires of China. Do you do a lot of portraits now?
MN: I do a lot of portraits now. I get approached a lot for portraits. What's most important with portraiture is that you have to exude the utmost confidence in what you're doing. If you're confident, they're confident. If you're nervous then they're nervous that the pictures are going to come off shit.
And then you have to make sure your assuredness matches your own ability to actually do it.
But the tigresses, that was intense. And I was told that I would literally only have five minutes with them.
SmBj: Busy ladies.
MN: Very busy ladies. Busy female entrepreneur billionaires. So I was there three hours early at Capital M, setting everything up, and then they came in. And they didn't even know if they wanted to be in a photo together for a group shot…
SmBj: You can't put tigresses in the same cage. That's real beef.
MN: Yeah, right, but no one really knew what was going on. But I said, "Hey, let's do this" -- the set-up looks good, the shots look good. But what started loosening it up was Zhang Xin's husband Pan Shiyi -- he's the real mogul behind SOHO -- he's got one of the most followed Weibo accounts or whatever. This big industrialist pundit, and he busts out his camera and starts taking photos next to me. He's into photography and he's trying to get in on the shoot.
Tigress Tycoons (photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser)
SmBj: Is that a bit gauche? Isn't that a party foul?
MN: [Laugh.] Yes. Yeah, it totally is. Believe me, if it was some dork, I'd be like, "get the fuck off the set." But it lightened everything up. I took some pictures of him laying down on the couch with the four ladies sort of standing around him -- those didn't make it into Newsweek.
But the most intense portrait I've done is when I did Han Han for The New Yorker...
SmBj: This is Han Han the famous blogger / race car driver?
MN: Yeah, I went down to Shanghai. It was my first assignment for The New Yorker, which, for me, had always been the top rung in terms of things you want to be able to email your friends back in New York City. And I did it completely ad hoc. I was looking for internet cafes around The Bund because he's this huge blogger and I wanted to photograph him in an environment and setting where most of China's youth actually reads this stuff.
SmBj: Like a dingy fuckin' internet cafe.
MN: A dingy fuckin' internet cafe. Han Han is used to, like, fashion shoots for Esquire Magazine, but I was like, "Hey, let's go" and it's just me and him and my assistant rolling on these internet cafes. The assistant would be running distraction on the people working at the cafe while we did the shoot.
SmBj: Did people recognize him when he walked into the cafes?
MN: The first one they didn't because it was just a bunch of kids on their computer -- they didn't even look up. The second one we went into, the guy is like, "Hey, he cannot be in here." This is when he had some controversial stuff on the internet. The second guy was like "Hey, no way, he cannot be in here at all."
SmBj: He wouldn't even let him walk in the place?
MN: He wouldn't even let him sign up for a computer.
SmBj: Really? He wouldn't let him sign up for a computer? There's some great, beautiful poetry there in that somehow.
MN: Yeah, exactly. And the third one, my assistant was trying to distract the people working there like, "Oh uh... give me a computer…" but they looked around her like, "is that Han Han!" and they were huge fans of his, saying, "Do whatever you want. Do whatever you like," and that was the shot they used in The New Yorker.
photo courtesy Matthew Niederhauser
SmBj: I wanted to ask you about one more portrait assignment -- the one for which you won the 2012 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portraiture Prize. How was it with He Who Cannot Be Named?
MN: That's a great portrait. I really do love that portrait. I knew him from before the shoot, and a lot of my friends at various times had been assistants in his studio. That was an assignment for Foreign Policy Magazine, who were doing this thing, "Top 100 Global Thinkers," and that was for that.
Yeah, I don't know, he's so often photographed… Yeah, I already tried two different cats [laughs]. I came in that morning 20 minutes beforehand to his studio, scouting around. He comes out and I already have about three or four different set-ups that I want to do. He comes out and immediately starts photographing me… like he starts taking pictures of me….
SmBj: What a puckish, famous artist gesture.
MN: Yeah, he apparently has all these photographs of photographers taking photos of him. Like a collection. And so I start moving him around -- I only have like 45 minutes or something like that. I already tried one white cat -- he has these cats everywhere. These cats pretty much run the studio.
SmBj: You're just moving him around and getting him to hold these cats? Is that a little awkward?
MN: He's like a media savant...
SmBj: He knows how the wheels turn.
MN: He knows how the wheels turn. He's not going to put up with a three-hour photo shoot, but, yeah…
SmBj: You could be like "Okay, Voldemort, now it's time to pop that top off…"
MN: Well, we've since gotten a little closer, I can try to do some nudie shots. But he seems to have embraced the absurdity… I told you what that whole situation spun into?
SmBj: No, what happened?
MN: It's the lead photo in this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and two weeks later I get this email. And this email is from the Head of Sir Elton John's Photography Collection.
SmBj: The Head of Elton John's Photography Collection? This is a position that one is able to occupy?
MN: Yes, Sir Elton has one of the largest collections of photography on the planet -- very respected. And I get this email like, "Sir Elton John visited the exhibition and he loves your photograph. He would like to procure it."
And I'm like, "Oh, well, absolutely. You can work with me to procure it. It's not represented by a gallery and I'm based here in Beijing."
And the next email is like, "Oh, that's great, Elton is in Beijing next week, playing a concert. He would like to meet you and [He Who Cannot Be Named] for the first time."
SmBj: [Laughs.] Fuck.
MN: I said "Yes, I would certainly be very happy to arrange that. I will put you in touch with his people."
SmBj: So at the root of this whole Elton John and Voldemort concert fiasco thing, there is a Matthew Neiderhauser portrait?
MN: Yes. Exactly. And so two weeks later I show up at the Wukesong Arena with backstage passes waiting. Immediately escorted in Elton's, what I can only describe as--
SmBj: An inner sanctum?
MN: A boudoir. It was a boudoir. He's got a table of sunglasses and a table of scents and perfumes, racks of bedazzled clothing, oriental furniture, and so I just kicked it with him for an hour. We talked about everything, art, photography, just down to earth…
SmBj: Nice guy?
MN: Totally nice guy. He gave me his personal email address.
SmBj: Which is?
MN: I cannot divulge that information. But, yeah, I was there with Elton, and [Voldemort] comes in with his entourage. And they have this awkward interaction -- it was the first time they'd met but Elton's a big fan of his work -- and then they just hang out for an hour. Then Elton stands up, does some vocal warm ups, walks out on the stage, and it's "Benny and the Jets."
...and then he, of course, named the unnamable in his show… and you know that.
But he was genuinely excited to meet him being a big fan of his work.
SmBj: Did it go the other way? Is Voldemort a big Elton John guy?
MN: Actually I was back in his studio like a week after interviewing him for something about architecture and we were joking about the entire situation and he mentioned that he wasn't really familiar with him… he sort of knew him but had no idea about his music. He really enjoyed the concert, though.
And the next day I got an email from Elton John, who said, "It was great to meet you. You're such a free spirit."
SmBj: Well, that's a fine thing.
MN: It's going on my grave. Elton John called me a free spirit.
That was a long one... You still with us? Mr. Niederhauser is curating a Beijing Photographer's Night tonight at Dada Bar.