Dynamic and dangerous, Colette Fu’s pop-up books are anything but child-like. These shifting, stretching collages mark her professional maturation from an amateur photographer to a skilled artist.
Now, however, she is preparing to use this novel medium to explore her personal maturation, creating a series of pop-up books that draw on her tribal Chinese heritage. Fu remembers an adolescence spent struggling against the confines of her Asian identity.
“Growing up, tired of being Chinese, I peroxided my hair and went through one Supersaver bottle of Aquanet Extra Hold a week and tried to alter my appearance and my identity,” she says. “I wondered why other Asian girls were so much more petite, pale-skinned, and straight-haired.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Fu visited her mother’s hometown in Yunnan, China in the fall of 1993. There she discovered Chinese minority tribes for the first time, including the tribe of her mother, the Black Yi (彝).
“As an instructor at the Yunnan Institute of Nationalities, I taught students who all came from minority tribes in Yunnan. My students encouraged me to travel to their villages and meet their families; before long, as my language skills improved, I was able to explore other regions alone. For the first time, I found people similar to myself; they did not fit the stereotypes, the archetypes, or categories that I was taught to be ‘typically’ Asian.”
“I wanted to literally transform flat psychological states, images, and perceptions captured with my camera and computer into a more interactive, collaborative, three-dimensional experience.” – Colette Fu
In her early days in Yunnan, Fu’s passion for documenting her mother’s people ran up against technical challenges.
“I didn’t know how to use a camera back then, I started with a point and shoot, and then my sister gave me her camera and I just had it set on program. Then some photographer told me one day to set the aperture to f11, so I just kept the settings there until I left. A lot of my photos to come were overexposed.”
Fu returned to America to study photography properly, graduating with an MFA from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2003. She spent the next year doing four consecutive residencies before moving to Philadelphia. During one of these, she conceived of “Photo Binge,” an installation in the Los Angeles Metro station.
“‘Photo Binge’ began as seven large-scale digital collages displayed in lightboxes that are typically used for advertisements…This title mirrors my state of mind while photographing – an impulsive, out of control state that arises from similar rituals like binge eating, smoking, speeding, drinking, and shopping…The work satirizes an urban, commodity-driven culture that focuses on food, health, nutrition, beauty, and the surface of things.”
At first glance, photo compilations like “A Colorful Dish is a Balanced Dish” appear frenzied and grotesquely candy-bright, but they are neither impulsive nor haphazard. Beneath the media-saturated, information-intensive surface, the photo collages are elegantly balanced and harmoniously arranged. The three circus rings in “A Colorful Dish” and the three female figures in “Golf and Games” anchor the pieces, as does the plaster girl in “High Performance.”
The flat lightbox panels also hint at Fu’s later fascination with pop-up images. The collage’s two-dimensional figures appear restless, ready to break out of the picture plane. Seemingly released from their flat billboard backgrounds, figures like Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Dough Boy roam eerily realistic suburban landscapes of dying grass and sprawling highways.
“Soon after finishing the lightboxes, I experimented to find a medium that was more three dimensional and portable, where I could work more with my hands.”
Fu (pictured left) settled on the unlikely format of pop-up books.
“Pop-up and flap books arose in the 13th century and illustrated ideas about astronomy, fortune telling, navigation, anatomy of the body, and other scientific principles. This history prompted me to make my own series of twenty photographic pop-up books reflecting ideas on how our body relates to society today.
“I wanted to literally transform flat psychological states, images, and perceptions captured with my camera and computer into a more interactive, collaborative, three-dimensional experience. The contradiction is that I believe my work satirizes an urban, commodity-driven culture that focuses on the surface of things.
“‘Photo Binge 2’ was all done at artist residencies over the past two years. Each book has pull-tabs, rotating disks, and foldouts – all essential elements of a standard children’s pop-up book – and has titles that are heat foiled with copper letters and numbers to mimic volumes of an encyclopedia. I scan my 35mm negatives and use Photoshop to add, remove, and alter areas of an image, sometimes collaging and masking several photographs together. I engineer mechanisms with cardstock, scan these prototypes on a flatbed scanner, and with Photoshop I fit my imagery to match the mechanisms—or vice versa.”
The sprawling “Fort Mifflin” is from Fu’s newest series, “Haunted Philadelphia,” a study of supposedly haunted places in Philadelphia as a backdrop. Like her earlier “Photo Binge” pieces, it has an underlying symmetry and harmony beneath a surface of color and confusion. But this time, the background is no longer confined to one flat panel; Philadelphia’s troubled spirits stretch towards the spectator.
“That whole ghost thing relates somehow to the path I’ve taken and am following, my spiritual beliefs, my ancestry, anxieties of being an artist, and just the feeling of something haunting me [and] hanging over me all the time.
“During my time in Yunnan, one old Yi man told me, ‘Although an eagle flies far into the distance, its wings will fold back.’”
After spending her adolescence trying to distance herself from her ancestors, Fu is returning to the land of the Yi twelve years after she last left on a Fulbright scholarship to create photographic pop-up guides to Yunnan’s ethnic minorities. Fu will return to China in September of this year and work through June 2008, revisiting her own ghosts and those of China’s past.
– Summer Block