Billy Liang is a photographer, videographer and current Business finalist at the University of Sussex. Originally from a small sea-side city south of mainland China, called Zhuhai, he is now based in Brighton and has since set up his own media outlet, CHESTNUT IMAGE STUDIO. His work predominantly focuses on finding beauty in the ordinary every day. We met in the ACCA café in order to discuss his personal and professional journey as a visual artist, as well as his current projects and next creative steps.
Could you tell me a bit about your artistic background?
I moved to U.K four years ago in order to complete my foundation year at the University of St. Andrews. During a time of massive change in life when I suddenly had a lot of my own time and space, photography became a personal therapeutic outlet. I’m a shy person, and photography became a means of exploring self-expression. I wanted to be able to reconfigure my own perception of myself in an external, objective way. Photography to me is a language system, and I wanted to be able to communicate with the would using photographic language. In essence, I wanted to find myself through the lens, and refine my overall focus. After about a year of trial-and-error, I decided I needed a clearer vision for my photography; I started to give myself smaller tasks, and using film rather than digital.
What would you like to communicate through your work?
I really want to draw attention back to the ordinary, the mundane. So much of our conception of beauty is constructed by the market of the society of the spectacle we live in. We are taught what aesthetically constitutes “beautiful” and “spectacular”, and I want my work to be a means of distancing ourselves from the systemisation of these ideas. With this in mind I created Project Ordinary, an ongoing project whereby my photography and videography aim to reconfigure a notion of what constitutes the beautiful by narrowing perspective, and rejecting the automation that links the spectacular with beauty. I like the idea that beauty found in the ordinary doesn’t ask for attention; beauty within the ordinary isn’t found in the grandiose of consumer aesthetic. Being able to find alternative perspectives in our conception of reality is a mind-set I like to bring forward to all of my projects. When asked if my work conforms to a particular style, I argue that style plays into spectacular society’s aesthetic modes. Instead, my work aims to distort the patterns that constitute our idea of what style “is”.
What is recent project you’ve enjoyed working on?
Last summer I took up an internship working in video production company in Beijing. In being constantly immersed in the city, I became aware of the reoccurring social patterns and behaviours within the typical daily lives Beijing workers. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of “work” and “rest”, and how these elements played out in the constant movement of the ever-changing cityscape. This idea became the basis of my Day 1/365 series, which aimed to distil these contrasting elements of urban life.
What do you look for when capturing a moment?
The contrast between light and dark plays a crucial role in my work. I like exploring these contrasts within my own photography in the tradition of the oil paintings of the old masters. I like to study oil paintings, sketch my findings, and reflect on ways I could apply their highlights and shadows in my own work. When taking photographs, I like to think in a painterly way; I consider the coherency of composition, contrast, colour, background, foreground and framing, and reflect on how these elements operate in the works of the old masters. Despite this, I never want my photographs to appear staged, and aim to keep the frames as organic as possible. When working with models for portrait pieces, communication is key in order to create a natural moment in front of the lens. I try to find a balance between the intentional and the spontaneous moment. I want to feel a connection with the scene, rather than proactively and obsessively seek out a moment.
Do you have a dream project?
The ambiguous relationship between “reality” and “truth” is something that constantly fascinates me. I want to work on a project that plays with the idea of reflections, whereby mirrored images are a means to materially conceive in what is actually an inverted, virtual reality. I want to find a way to combine the camera, mirrors and eyes in a single frame. I’m still thinking about ways this could be displayed, and am considering compiling it as a photobook which includes the photographs, as well as mirrors. In this sense, the viewer becomes a part of the virtual reality I’m attempting to capture – crucially placing themselves in between a systemised perception of reality and an ultimately distorted one.
Words: Elizabeth Richardson