Santiago Barrio is a Spaniard who came from afar to China. I did not ask what brought him here; I only know that he has stayed. He lives in Gao Bei Dian Cun. He has no Chinese, nor does he have a job.
Photography is Santiago’s temporary resident permit. His photographic subjects are often related to Gao Bei Dian Cun. The area is famous in Beijing for its cluster of antique furniture markets. “Folk Park” where he lives features a precious stones market with arts schools and artist villages nearby. I also live close by, so I am familiar with the area. In my spare time I wander about, meet my friends and admire the beautiful antiques, which makes for many delightful hours.
What Santiago photographs is what one encounters, but not what one sees. The scenery is what it is, and the objects are what they are, just like ordinary nouns. When captured by Santiago, they turn into adjectives. “The creation of art stems from the rules of nature, and the comprehension within the artist.” Santiago sees something else than a mountain when he looks at it; its meaning changes. For instance, along the path to the art schools, there is a set of paintings of the scenery of Old Beijing. In one of these paintings is a street performer with a pot on his head. Santiago found some broken pieces of blue-and-white porcelain and threw them onto the ground in front of the painting, and photographed it. Abridging reality and illusion, it almost looks as if the street performer in the painting had broken his pot and left these shards on the ground. The manholes are the most ordinary objects. Santiago found some round shaped hinges of Qing Dynasty furniture and placed them in the middle of the manholes, transforming them into exceptional objects with classical touches.
Such propositions and coincidences mark Santiago’s works. He is not satisfied with reproducing reality, but sets out to experiment with, edit and challenge reality until he arrives at an existential conclusion. One can see that with every photograph Santiago contemplates and revises the setting, and he only presses the shutter when the image encapsulates his idea. His photographic works are meticulously composed, and they spell understanding and enlightenment. It is wondrous how Santiago has endless inspirations, which manifest in his mind and then in reality.
In general, the significance of photography is to capture. It is to record events that transpire and fade away, as well as fleeting emotions. Its significance lies in objective representation. Santiago’s photography captures reality but is in no way objective, and it is more akin to imagery. It seems to ring with connotations of poetry, especially modern poetry. Santiago has this peculiar temperament that illuminates the interiority of things, translating objects into language, turning what’s familiar into what’s new, bringing one from the past to the present, to a realm that lies between fluidity and solidity where all is elevated. Everything, even the most trivial, is rendered as truth when Santiago recreates it; it transcends the mundane.
Many of Santiago’s photographic works are like maxims. They are closer to motto poetry, if they are to be read as poetry. Many things need not be so clearly defined, and they have more impact when expressed with subtlety. Of course, this is an oriental perspective of mine. For Westerners, art is about concept and expression; it aims to surprise, and it thrives on both the contrast and echoes between different subjects. Western art is like linen or stone; it is direct, hard and forceful. Oriental aesthetics are soft as silk. This is also the difference between the surgical knife and Chinese medicine. In this context, Santiago’s Chinese imagery is calculated and its perspective is intended to stun. It is an aesthetic impact that we Chinese cannot create.
Santiago has another project related to China, which is photographing contemporary artists. A considerable number of works have been created for the project. I am familiar with these fellow artists as well as their works, and yet Santiago’s portraits surprise me. One can see how Santiago has studied his subjects before the photo shoot. Apart from the subjects, he also has certain insights into their artistic styles. Like his photographs of everyday objects, Santiago’s portraits show what’s real as much as what’s hidden and unexpected. This photography series fascinates with its intricacy and contrast, as Santiago’s talent shines where he conveys such richness with the photographic lens.
I am honored to be one of his photographic subjects. As I had expected, he came prepared. He showed me a sketch he drew, and he also had his prop ready. A long shoelace that he tied to my shoe and then placed on the floor. What did the shoelace have to do with me? He did not say. Maybe it was his poking fun at my procrastination. Swiftly he took his shot, and finished. It left me wanting more. Santiago has a beautiful tattoo on his right arm, a big carp. I led him to stand before my painting and placed his arm on it, as if he was leading the horse in the painting. Seen through the lens, the deep blue spelled intrigue of existing between dream and reality.
In this moment, I photographed the admiration of a Chinese artist for Santiago. After all, he was once so close to us.
Mind and heart
by Hu Ming Xin
After many years, Santiago Barrio has evolved in the photograph to a unique style that covers not only from a conceptual point of view, over time, his photos have been thoughtful and thorough, and are characterized mainly by the Association between dissimilar elements establishing unusual and ingenious analogies or crazy ties, but compelling in photographic reality, and ultimately help the viewer grasp the idea behind the image, forming those ideas is the center of his work. It’s very usual to find absences and representations within representations, around a clean style organized in a spatially ordered composition.
Some of his photographs shows the ambiguity that underlies the development of photography as a representation of reality, and evidence the decalogue between language and the thing that means calling into question the equivalence between word and image, and between it and the object. The thrill of discovery is what Santiago Barrio offers us wonderful, as Rene Magritte said years ago “for the construction of the fantastic, you don’t need a great imaginative boasting, just breaking the laws who question the soundness of the principles, always conventional and stereotyped, on which we build our daily existence.”
As for the creative process Santiago Barrio says, “Every day I try to put less of myself in my photos, it is a work of removing, draining, removing what is not important, it is an exercise of detachment, that’s the game, and when there is nothing, then, you can see things in a new way, not as you were taught to see, in a sincere way. You have to be honest with the things that you see if you want to be honest with the things that you express with your photos. ”