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Introducing Alternative Process to the Gallery Scene

MFA in Photography & Integrated Media student Fangwei Xu explores the cultural interpretations of language through a variety of mediums in a Beijing exhibit.

Residing in Beijing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, photographer and MFA student Fangwei Xu is finishing his degree online half a world away. “My art incorporates my cultural background into the experiments in photography and other forms of art,” says Fangwei, who is focusing on curatorial studies and art theory in Lesley's MFA in Photography & Integrated Media program.

Despite the distance and time difference, Fangwei is incredibly active in the program and dedicated to completing his thesis.

In late 2020, Fangwei showcased his work and collaborated on a show titled A Crop of Fruits, sponsored by Beijing Hanchen Gallery and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. His experience curating shows in Beijing, New York, and Tokyo gave Fangwei the skills he needed to assist on this exhibit.

We talked with Fangwei about the exhibit and his experience in the MFA program.

A piece of artwork by Fangwei Xu. It is a white, spiral staircase with artwork on the wall around it.
From the exhibition "A Crop of Fruits."


Q: Tell us a little bit more about how you use Alternative Process?

Fangwei Xu: Alternative Process is a series of studio practices based on darkroom and chemicals. Due to the scarcity of domestic use and the gradual abandonment of modern photography techniques, mordancage became a unique medium in artistic practice. When sunlight hits an exposable fiber paper, the photons ionize silver halide ions and react with the developer to form a burning black circle on the 11- x 8-inch paper. A solution of concentrated hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride, and glacial acetic acid is then used to separate the exposed part sensitizer's surface in the middle from the paper itself, forming a mucus-like coating. In my work, after the paper is redeveloped and dried, an image of the sun emerges. These emulsions on paper create incredible textures. My images show the hot magma and burning gas on the sun's surface, and the flow of heat causing ripples and shatters. The coating recombines and reacts with chemicals to create color on the black and white paper. The break-off inside the layers also causes irregular abstract patterns to form on the flat surface. The final rinse causes the patterns to separate.

Around the circle, there are traces of volcanic eruptions, some places growing fungi, and the stripes' visual effect is like mycelium. The coating breaks, black silver nitrate particles flow from the surface of the paper and between the coating, as if it is a metaphor for this planet's life and violence.

A piece of artwork by Fangwei Xu titled "Chemigram"
"The Sun - Chemigram" by Fangwei Xu.

In addition to mordancage, I use chemigram and pyro-lumen processes in my work. Chemigram is a simple rinse process that fixes white space on the developed paper's surface. Water flows and brush strokes circumvent the center of the picture. I use it as a metaphor for what's possible in space. In the deep, quiet galaxy, the sun appears to be spinning slowly as a flaming gaseous star. The magnetic field and gravitational wave around the sun form endless scorching solar winds. Through these practices, the answer may be found in the process of the sun's revisualization.

Q: How did you get involved with A Crop of Fruits?

Fangwei Xu: A friend of mine, Linrui Ma, who works at Hanchen Gallery as a curator, reached out to me for advice. We have been friends for a long time and have worked together before. She knew I had experience curating exhibits in New York and Beijing, so she asked me to join this project.

Q: What were you showing at this exhibit? Tell us a little bit about your style.

Fangwei Xu: I showcased some pieces from my current project, The Sun. Alternative process is very rarely used in the domestic gallery, and Linrui strongly suggested I put them in the show. I showed the mordancage and chemigram images. The concept of my work is an argument that combines ideologies and their relation to social context, gaze, subconsciousness, and the variety of media.

A piece of artwork by Fangwei Xu.
"The Sun - Mordancage" by Fangwei Xu.

Ideology for me is nothing but a framework, and it requires the context of media to deliver the meaning. Humans have countless ways to explain an idea. In China, there are multiple words to explain snow or rain, and each method of expression, each medium, corresponds to a different cultural interpretation: superficial or cognitive, conscious or unconscious, temporary or permanent, literal or connotative. My work uses mediums like painting, photography, alternative process, and calligraphy to illustrate one idea that relates to all human beings: the sun. In my work, the diversity of media mirrors and reveals differences, meanings, ideologies.

Q: What were you most excited for during the exhibit?

Fangwei Xu: The most exciting part for me is the opening. Many more people came to the show than we expected. Lots of friends and family came by and sent their love and support. The event went really well! The exhibit was reported by two domestic art newsletters following the show.

Q: How did COVID-19 affect the gallery showing?

Fangwei Xu: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Beijing had a very short lockdown at the very beginning of December, so the show, unfortunately, ended a week earlier than planned. During the show, we took precautions to make the space safe and inviting.

Q: What are you working on now?

Fangwei Xu: I am working on the exploration of new media to complete my MFA. I am thinking of exploring AI, computer-generated images and videos, and sound art going forward. I am also working on another show which will be held in August 2021 in Hong Kong.

Q: How have your approach and work changed due to being in Lesley’s MFA program? How has the program pushed your work forward? 

Fangwei Xu: The Lesley MFA program gave me more space to practice. The MFA program gave me access to professional darkrooms and studios, which allowed me to focus more on my own independent projects. Christopher James became a mentor to me in the field of Alternative Process and helped me learn a lot.

Through the MFA program, I have greatly improved my theoretical knowledge of art. The concept of my work got increasingly concrete. At the same time, I got acquainted with talented professors, visiting artists, and classmates. The entire experience expanded my network resources and challenged me to push my art to new levels.

Q: What advice do you have for other Lesley students who may be located internationally?

Fangwei Xu: Wherever you are in the world, the most important thing is to stay busy and plan your time properly. The time difference is a particular headache if you are in another time zone but still need to participate in online courses. I am in Beijing, 12 to 13 hours away from Boston, staying up all night for classes. For anyone experiencing this difficulty with time zones, it's essential to get enough sleep and eat healthily for late nights. 

The pandemic and quarantine life make it easy to feel lost, anxious, and depressed. Take care of yourself in whatever way works for you. Personally, maintaining a productive state is especially important for me. My advice would be to keep working on what you're passionate about and confront the challenges that are holding you back. Working, studying, and experimenting with art helps me keep a positive attitude and remain committed to my career and goals.

Learn more about Lesley's MFA

Our two-year, full-time MFA in Photography & Integrated Media involves an intense focus on studio practice and seminar critique, combined with self-directed study in your area of personal and professional interest. Like Fangwei Xu, you'll go beyond taking photos, to making images with traditional and alternative processes as you pursue your artistic vision. The program begins once a year, in the fall (September).