OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Priscilla Briggs

Opening Soon (Grand Gateway Mall, Shanghai)
Lightjet Prints
Grid of 4, 20" X 30" each

PRISCILLA BRIGGS investigates representations of capitalism, consumerism and the global market in her photographs of malls, tourist markets and manufacturing districts throughout the world. She emphasizes the role of advertising imagery as an influential backdrop in the creation and reflection of personal and collective cultural identities. Priscilla’s photographs were most recently seen in the group exhibition Art in the Age of Globalization at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and she has had solo exhibitions at The Phipps Center for the Arts (2010), the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, (2009) and Minnesota Center for Photography (2008). Her work is included in the rotating Midwest Photographer's Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the permanent collections of the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Hillstrom Museum. Priscilla is currently at artist-in-residence at the Chinese European Art Center  in Xiamen, China, but her home base is Saint Paul, Minnesota.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You've spent a lot of time photographing malls and other market spaces throughout the world. I'm curious about your personal experience being in spaces that revolve around consumerism. Can you tell us about an early shopping memory?
Priscilla Briggs: I grew up by the seashore in Maryland where I spent a lot of time on the boardwalk—a carnivalesque tourist haven. There were a few shops that I visited over and over. My absolute favorite store sold a menagerie of horribly kitschy blown-glass tchotchkes, such as a pair of translucent pink swans made doubly fabulous by a spray of optic fibers. I spent many magical hours in that store, but I never actually bought anything. I wasn’t interested in owning a single glass figurine. It was more the experience of being surrounded by a room full of beautifully reflective and colorful glass objects that I enjoyed. In retrospect, I equate that experience to my adult enjoyment of art installations by artists like James Turrell or Sarah Sze

Singing Buddhas
(Gift Shop, Bangkok, Thailand)
Color Coupler Print
9" x 13"

What's your personal experience with malls?

PB: Malls are akin to museums. They are designed spaces full of objects for sale that are really artifacts of our culture, reflecting what we value, what we find desirable, how we live. The accompanying advertising inserts these objects into our lives, and embeds them within mythological narratives that most of us can’t help but internalize in some way. These affect and reflect our sense of individual identities and our collective identity as a culture.
Most malls feel like safe, contained spaces. They are primarily occupied by chain stores that you can find nationally, if not all over the world. Many people like the reliability of that kind of consistency; they find it comforting and efficient. My work is fairly critical of these spaces and the unbridled consumerism they are designed to encourage. Although I do shop at malls occasionally, I try to frequent and support stand-alone locally based businesses that are less corporate as much as I can. I rarely went to malls before I started photographing them and now, after spending so much time there for work, I have no desire to linger.

OPP: What drew you to malls as sites to photograph?

PB: My work has evolved from a foundation in environmental portraiture, with a shift in focus from the unique individual to consumer culture identity. Because the market drives a capitalist society, I was drawn to that as a subject, initially looking at how advertising narratives influence one's personal sense of identity. When I moved to Minnesota 10 years ago, I couldn’t resist the call of the Mall of America, such an obvious icon of capitalist consumerism. Then I read an article about a mall craze in China: over 500 malls were built in a five-year period, some five to seven times the size of the Mall of America. I was intrigued by what this would look like in a country with a history of communism, and that’s how my work segued to China.

Levels (MixC Shopping Mall, Shenzhen)
Lightjet Print
36" X 54"

OPP: Your 2010 series The Road to Shantou juxtaposes interiors and exteriors from "a manufacturing district in Shantou where most of the brassieres in the world are made within the 50 square mile area between Chendian Town, Chaonan and Gurao Town." The fact that all the billboards feature white women and all the garment workers are Chinese makes the discrepancy between worker and customer so evident. You mention the Chinese history of valuing female modesty in your statement. In photographing in the factories, did you get any sense of how the people there experienced the advertising that surrounds them in their daily lives? What did you learn that isn't in the photographs?
PB: The Chinese are very matter-of-fact people. I think they take the advertising at face value and probably tune it out. What’s striking about this area is not so much that the billboards show scantily-clad women—this has recently become common in cities all over China—but that the sheer amount of this imagery makes walking through the streets like living in a Victoria’s Secret catalog. One thing that is perhaps not evident in the photographs is that the advertisements are directed at the Chinese distributor rather than the end-customer. Most foreign wholesalers will place their orders at big wholesale export fairs like the Canton Market in Guangzhou, so there are very few foreigners who come to this area. The use of primarily Caucasian and Arabic models is partly due to the belief by many Chinese that these women are sexier and more curvaceous than Chinese women. In the same way that many American women wish they were as skinny as the models in magazines, many Chinese women often wish they were curvier like the Western models in their advertising.

Untitled #30
Giclee Print
18" X 27"

OPP: Global Market pairs images from the Mall of America in Minnesota with images taken in various outdoor markets and shopping centers in Cuba and Thailand. Talk about the overlap of consumerism and tourism in this body of work and your use of postcards in the 2008 installation at Minnesota Center for Photography.

PB: I first used the postcards in the Market exhibit, which was comprised of photos from the Mall of America only. The postcards referenced the MoA as a tourist destination—people actually fly from other parts of the country to spend a week at the Mall of America. I included text on the back of the postcards, providing statistics about American consumer habits, and used titles to connect the image and text conceptually. The postcards made the exhibit more interactive. Visitors could take a postcard right off the shelf and purchase it.
Global Market expanded on the idea of the tourist market and included images from Thailand and Cuba because I had the opportunity to travel to those countries through my job as a professor.   
Tourist markets are fascinating in that the souvenirs sold there are often objects that are designed to represent the culture being visited, specifically in a way that distinguishes it from other cultures. I have often found these representations to be more a reflection of what the tourist hopes to find rather than what exists in reality—the toured have a stake in maintaining that façade in order to keep the tourists coming and spending. Gary Larson summed up this kind of performing of culture very well in his Far Side cartoon of Polynesians scrambling to hide their TV, VCR and lamp as a Caucasian man in a safari outfit walks toward their hut, with the caption “Anthropologists! Anthropologists!”

For example, Copy an image of a Long-Neck Karen woman holding up a postcard with a picture of herself on it, was shot in a refugee village in Thailand. After tour companies started dropping off busloads of tourists in their village everyday, the villagers started charging admission to the village, gave up their farming practices and each opened a stall in front of their house to sell souvenirs. They also started wearing traditional dress everyday rather than just on special occasions. When I invited a representative from the Thai tourist commission to speak with our students, he referred to the villagers as “the product.” Two of the postcard images in the show were of Hill Tribe children on the side of the road with a sign that says “Take the Photo 20 Baht.” I included information on how to practice community-based tourism in Thailand and ways to help the Hill Tribe Villagers on the back of the postcards and titled them Take the Photo I & II.  All the other postcards could be purchased for a dollar, but these two were free.

Painter #1 (Pan Jin)
Oil Painting
36" X 54"

OPP: Wushipu (2010) investigates the workspaces of Chinese production painters through portraiture and still life photography. This body of work is very connected to your other work in that it investigates a market where the East and the West collide, where Chinese workers are satisfying Western demands for luxury goods. But it also brings up the issue of value as it pertains to painting and photography, copying and originality, art and craft. What's your take on the labor these painters do? Are they artists? Is the labor the same as what the garment workers do?
PB: Your question sums up what this work is asking the viewer to think about. The work the painters do is distinguished by the Chinese oil painting community as either “commercial”—work that is a direct copy of a photograph or masters’ painting and used for decorative purposes—or “creative” work that is an original fine art composition. The painters I photographed for the Wushipu series are making “commercial” paintings, which comprise 80% of the multi-billion dollar oil painting industry.

In my opinion, this labor is definitely not fine art, but while one painter told me he hated painting and just did it for money, many of the painters aspire to a more high-profile career in which they are respected as fine artists. They see their commercial work as a way to build their skills and pay the rent. 

It’s difficult for artists in China to gain recognition as fine artists if they haven’t gone to one of the top universities. Some painters who did not go to university complained that it is elitist because those universities require that you speak English to get in. I’m guessing that the English requirement is there because texts about contemporary art and theory are generally not written in or translated into Chinese. Because the commercial painters don’t have the access to such texts, it is difficult for them to work or think within the contemporary art context or to understand how value is assigned to art work. I believe many of these painters could do more interesting work under different circumstances and with a better art education, but they are trained to copy masters rather than to experiment or think of an idea of their own. Many think a painting is good if it looks exactly like what they’re copying. In spending time with this community, I have met some highly skilled painters who are incredibly inventive people living the life of an artist, but making carbon copy paintings so they can feed their families.
What entertains me about this industry is that many of these paintings are sold in galleries in the U.S. and Europe with a fake name signed to them. For instance, a gallery in Venice may want tourists to believe they are buying a painting of the Venice canals by a Venetian artist so they sign an Italian name to the painting. No one would buy it if they knew it was painted in China.

To see more work by Priscilla, please visit priscillabriggs.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.