Interview with Pan Jianfeng, a social writer, an artist
A few days ago, I could talk to one of the artists who has been intriguing me lately, ever since my friends in Shanghai introduced me to his works. Pan Jianfeng is a graphic designer, visual communicator, and, as he prefers to be considered today, a social writer, an artist.
In this time when the new normality is to meet online, we actually met on zoom, me from my studio in Shanghai and him from his exquisite wood house at Porvoo, in Finland.
Enza: Pan, you leave in between two countries, China and Finland, so distant and so different. How does this influence your work and approach?
Pan: The two countries are both important for nourishing my life and work. Finland is peaceful and calm, Shanghai busy and energetic. I am still trying to find the balance between two lives.
Me and my family are based in Finland now, where we bought a house in the old town of Porvoo, close to Helsinki, but I still have my studio in Shanghai where I travel very often, made exception for these years of Pandemic.
Enza: I have a book of yours from 2013; maybe a bit old, but I could start go deeper into your world, besides the images and the information I have been reading online. It is impressive how you could possibly find a balance between western and eastern visual world combining them in one language, your visual language.
Pan: This book represents my previous life. It was published in 2013 when I still had my graphic design studio in Shanghai. From 2015 I started to move towards art.
I can say I have two lives basically, one in the direction of cross-cultural visual communication and one, which I am living today, is about cross-cultural writing, based on traditional calligraphy and calligraphic painting. I have a family tradition about that. I try to bring the technique of brush calligraphy, which is a cultural heritage of East Asia, into the contemporary image making field.
Enza: So, do you use calligraphy to produce new images?
Pan: Yes, you could say that. This operation calls for a lot of knowledge, from techniques to philosophical thinking which have been developed in East Asia in the past centuries.
When I was working as a graphic designer in Shanghai, I manly used the mouse to design images and communication. At one point, especially after my father passed away, I realized that I was missing something in my work process, in my career. But what? It was the human touch. As you can see, Shanghai is a packed city in terms of design and visual communication, mainly in commercial directions. I was no more interested into commercial communication, and I decided to switch to writing, to experiment with writing.
Enza: Actually, reading this book belonging to your “previous life” as a graphic designer, I can tell that this direction, towards a more reflective and artistic approach, was already very clear. You start the book with the statement: “To keep the freedom of thought and the pureness of mind is far more important than to be an outstanding designer”. This tells everything about your attitude. I can see a philosophical approach behind all of your projects, and I really like the experimental path of your career; you have also worked with some objects, right? As a product designer, I could not avoid noticing this transient moment when you experimented with images and materiality through objects.
Pan: Yes, actually I believe that all objects and materials of our life can communicate something and so can be used as a means to penetrate our life with messages. I think that one of the main problems of contemporary art is its distance from the general public, from people. It often doesn’t really speak to people. In this sense, my background and skills as a graphic designer, help me to bring my art closer to the public. For example, I am doing some artworks in public space of the city, like on the windows of museums.
Enza: It seems you are undertaking the direction of public art
Pan: I call it social writing. Joseph Beuys created the term "social sculpture" to embody his understanding of art's potential to transform society. The central idea of a social sculptor is an artist who creates structures in society using language, thoughts, actions, and objects. My tool of social sculpture is writing to reactivate human touch and thought. Since I have grown up in a family with a tradition of calligraphy, I can understand characters as images and vice versa, but, at the same time, I couldn’t become a calligrapher, as that art is too much linked to the verbal language and so it belongs to the Chinese culture only. I want to create universal languages; I want to break the box and write images rather than characters.
Enza: So, you are working on the sign as a language by exploiting traditional techniques.
Pan: Yes, exactly, and living in Finland is helping me a lot to simplify the signs, to shift from Chinese characters to pure images. Scandinavian design is well known for its focus on simplification, which reflects also in the lifestyle, based on a minimalist and simple approach.
Enza: It seems to me that your work is driven by technique, the calligraphic traditional techniques, and this makes it very powerful in our time, when we have lost techniques, crafting and any manual skills. It is well known that the act of making, using our hands and different tools, move our thoughts and can stimulate our thinking and ideas. What about your process? Does the writing action itself, your hands’ movements with the brush activate new visions, reflections and goals?
Pan: This question raises the important topic of the evolution of the technique. You know, calligraphy has a long history of evolution to end up with different way to handle the brush, different kind of brushes themselves, different support for writing. Me myself I am working on the developing new techniques to support my work, my intentions and ambition; I am experimenting new ways of holding the brush, since I am writing on vertical surfaces, like on windows, rather than on horizontal ones, like on the table. Also, the size of the surface demands for a new scale of movements, I need to make big movements, as for example large rotations of my arms. My whole body becomes the brush. Also, I am trying to write on any support, from glass to wood, and in any kind of space.