Skies of Wonder: Reuben WU

Type7 Vol.3, 2021 (PDF)

“I’m trying to do these places justice,” British-born, Chicago-based artist Reuben Wu says, explaining his land- scape photography. “I don’t want to just point my camera at a sunset and say, ‘this is my creation. I’m a genius!’ Not when there is this incredible ancient landscape that has exist- ed way longer than any of us. It just feels a bit arrogant. I’m not waiting for the right moment to capture the landscape. What I am trying to do is involve myself in the creation of the moment in a way that doesn’t alter or damage the landscape.” In his work, Reuben captures what the eye doesn’t see, but what the soul knows exists —it’s something even he can’t precisely explain. Perhaps it’s consciousness or an ancient spirituality. Either way, it is a side of reality that feels so alien, our default reaction is to question its sincerity. “I’ve always experimented with ways that try to reveal a different side of reality that is invisible to the eye,” he says. “You know, this idea that maybe with a certain type of film, light or low expo- sure techniques, or whatever, I can capture something that I couldn’t normally see or hadn’t seen before.”

In addition to being an artist, Reuben is also a musician, producer, director and founding member of electronic band Ladytron. “I was working a design job when we got signed to a label in the US,” says Reuben, who studied industrial design at university. “That’s when I chose to step away from my job and do music full time.” Touring for the better part of a decade, Reuben found himself yearning to connect with his visual roots. “Rather than taking my pencils with me, I picked up my camera and began to document the places that we were travelling to.” This, he says, trained his eye to view highly-populated areas, major cities and well-travelled streets differently. Particularly since his time in each loca- tion was fleeting. “Pictures were my way of creating a visual record of where we’ve been, but I started getting a lot more interested in being more experimental, rather than it being a documentary experience,” he recalls. “It became a lot more rewarding doing that than the music, because when you’re on tour, the music becomes a routine… Even though I was travelling to places that many people go to, I was interested in this idea of seeing something for the first time through a lens. I guess it was my way of exploring.”

When Ladytron hit pause, Reuben worked as a producer and songwriter, writing songs for big names like Christina Aguilera, all the while his passion for photography grew. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to do it,” he says. “Eventually, through friends that I’ve met over the course of the band, there were occasional opportunities to do video or photographic-based projects for quite big clients as well. At that point, I also started to take a proper look at my archive of photography over the years, not just from a hobby- ist point of view, but through the lens of an artist in-training.”

Today, Reuben’s artist statement on his website points out that both photography and music can “create an echo of a time and a place.” That both can act as fragments of memory and imagination. “I’ve always been interested in creating something that shouldn’t exist in time,” he says of the common thread linking the two artistic mediums. “When I first started, I was shooting a lot on film. And using film in some of these places felt out of place, and sometimes, it made no sense. For me, that’s really interesting.” This pursuit of contrast between time and technology can be found at the centre of both Reuben’s music and his photography. “With the music, we were always using very old technology, very old analogue equipment combined with state-of-the-art digital software. It was always hybrid.” Reuben says that it’s these creative hybrids where he sees potential for innovation. “I’m very much not a purist. I like to juxtapose one thing with another where it doesn’t make sense because it’s playful and it f*cks with the meaning of things,” he says. “We would take a synthesiser and put it through a distortion pedal so that it would stop sounding like a synthesiser and instead like a guitar, so there’s a confusion there, and it alters the sound’s image.” This practice is also true of his photography. “I’m able to create something, and there’s ambiguity, an uncertainty about what this thing is, because of the technology that I’ve chosen to create with it.” 

The series you see here, ‘Lux Noctis’ and ‘Field of Infinity’, are inspired by time, space, planetary explo- ration, science fiction and romanticism; and draw upon influences that include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, David Lynch and the work of Gregory Crewdson. In these works, Reuben has used drone technology to carve out light patterns above earthly landscapes. Much of Reuben’s work is inspired by the Land Art movement of the ’60s, but unlike that practice, which would often alter or damage the landscape, his lines of light leave no trace. “I don’t want the idea to be about the technol- ogy,” he says. “That’s not what I want to do; I’m trying to use technology to elevate an idea or to make an idea possible.” The challenge, he points out, is to bring Land Art into the future, but in a way that the technology stays invisible. “Instead of using the drone to take pictures, I’m using the drone as a light source itself, which I can control remotely. For me, that’s almost like a latter-day Land Art movement because now I’m able to create these visible forms around the landscape without touching it, which is great in really fragile places. That is so valuable to me.” As pop culture increasingly fetishises space, alien worlds, and our place among them, Reuben’s photo- graphs are a reminder of the ethereal corners found right here on earth. “I’m always looking at ways to make people look harder and ask, ‘What is this place? Is it real? Is it fake? Is it a rendering? Or is it a photo? I really enjoy blur- ring the meaning and creating an ambiguity of an image.” Many of these landscapes are familiar tourist spots, and yet Reuben shifts their existence into the speculative. “Maybe this is a place which has been seen millions of times, but what I’m trying to do is reveal something new for eyes that are maybe tired of seeing so much.”


evo Magazine Australia,  May 2021 (PDF)

A project documenting the BMW car culture among the Indian community of London’s Southall is paving the way towards more visibility and compassion in automotive media.

Zimmers of Southall is a short documentary film and ongoing photo series by British-Punjabi documentary photographer, Hark1Karan (Hark). The project is a celebration of the Indian car community that thrives throughout the West London borough of Southall and their love of classic BMWs. This ongoing photography project and its short film (found on YouTube) has resonated with South Asian car lovers around the world, drawing many parallels with communities from here to Asia to the Middle East. Here, we talk to Hark, who is currently looking to turn the vignettes into a feature-length documentary, about the importance of community, visibility and that sticky glue that binds enthusiasts together.

How did Zimmers of Southall start?
A lot of my photography focuses on documenting Punjabis and Sikhs within the UK and I released a book two years ago, documenting life in Punjab, as the start point for the culture. As I’ve been telling diff erent stories, I noticed that in West London, where there is a big community of Punjabis, there was this massive car scene and everyone had a classic car – especially BMWs. It was huge – spanned up to maybe three generations. I thought this would be quite a cool story to tell as a story of modern Britain, young people, something that’s happening now that also has a link to the past. It’s also quite a cool way to humanise people as well. What did you discover about Indian car culture during the project? So a lot of people came to the UK via Africa, say from India to Kenya or Uganda, and a few other countries and so they were quite well-off . When they came here, they aspired to have a Mercedes- Benz or a BMW as a sign of status. But alongside that, there was a rich history of rally driving in Africa, so there were also a lot of mechanics who came here. So there are elements of three different things about the history of rally driving in Africa, having mechanics within the family and status – those are the key points that drove this culture to start with, and so now it spans generations.

In Australia, we also have many young South Asian car communities, which your project resonated with. As a Punjabi man, how do you see the importance of telling community stories like Zimmers?
One of the reasons that I documented this is it just shows people from diff erent cultures that, yes, their culture may be diff erent from yours, but they are still doing something that you’re doing. So another person from another culture can relate to this. I had this feedback from people all over the world, so it’s proof that people are fascinated. The thing people contact with is that they are seeing people from other cultures and they share knowledge, appreciation and they become friends. So it’s a great way to just show that there are so many similarities, but the differences are okay as well.

Whether it’s a 318i or an M3, the car is the icebreaker.
Yeah. Some of these guys don’t tend to talk that much. So their car is a way for them to connect, talk and the car is a safe space, especially if you live in a home with three generations of people. It is your space to talk, play tunes or just go for a cruise. There is a lovely overarching sense of pride that comes with classic cars, is this what you intended to draw out? Everyone likes to have a sense of belonging. So I think when you start to take interest in a specialist thing, you get to meet people that are like you – just people into cars. I think it’s important that it did not say, this is who I am or this is what we do. This is more about a way of life. And I think that’s kind of the best way. The main point was that these guys are into cars, it’s their passion.


Type7 Vol.3, 2021 (PDF)

During the global pauses, many of us relied on our eyes to travel for us. Through video calls with friends across seas, social media posts from far away lands and magazine imagery of places we’d rather be. And then there are the artists who brought the outside world into our homes. Nao Tatsumi is one such artist, with a slight difference: her global streetscapes and familiar scenes from around the world are transmitted to her as well. A practice that, these days, perhaps many of us can relate to in our wanderlust and remembrance of before-times.

Though many of the scenes you see here appear like postcards and snapshots of memory, like the jungles painted by Henri Rousseau, Nao has never been to these places. Instead, they are virtual locations, drop pins she has made from scouring Google Street View. Since she started this body of work in 2017, Nao has been using Street View to seek inspiration and feed her curiosity about the world. Based in Yokohama City, Japan, the artist says that often, it would start from simply looking at destinations she had to travel to or whenever she would meet someone from near or far, fascinated about where they might come from. “I am curious about what it would look like to see the scenery overseas. I noticed that it would be quite a modern technique for me to be able to create a work based on a landscape as information collected by a machine, in this case, the Google vehicle, instead of drawing a picture based on a photograph.” Many of these places might be unremarkable, but that is also where much of the beauty in her work lies.

It should come as no surprise that Nao has a skilled architectural background, having studied at the Architecture Design of Art at the University of Tsukuba before moving on to illustration at Aoyama-juku. Of the switch, she says she would rather paint the beauty she saw in the world over being the one tasked with shaping a world someone else wanted. “ I travel virtually to places I have never been to and paint what I think is interesting. This is because, in the present age when various things are computerised and lose their depth, I like to remind myself of the warmth by cutting out information and returning its weight as a place within a painting,” she says of her practice. “First, I think about the atmosphere I want to paint at that time and select the area that suits it. Once the area is decided, all I have to do is search for the location on the map. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes it fits right where I dropped the pin.”

Nao is drawn to dilapidated buildings, street signs and memories of the past most of all. “I don’t put people in the landscape, but I want to draw the signs of people,” she says. “I want the painting to embrace the beauty of existence itself. Shadows are also important as an element that expresses existence, and I also draw the distortions found in Street View to keep in mind that it was originally just digital information.”

This artist’s work is a reminder of the information we consume in our virtual travels and how we attach a weight to what is really just ones and zeros, often overlooking what we can physically hold. “I create my work based on so-called “information” that has no mass itself, but I always want to feel a warm touch and story in the finished work. It is wonderful that various things are computerised to make the world more convenient, but I hope that the art will not be the former impression.” But if there is a single thing her practice has taught her, it’s that even though the window is digital, that doesn’t make it any less important and that it’s a reminder that we don’t have to travel far to be moved. “Beauty exists in a landscape that you casually pass by in your daily life. But it is also ephemeral and will disappear someday.”

Thrill equity, sanctuary and the female urge to just fucking drive

evo Australia, December 2021 (PDF)

The female driving experience has long been equated with running errands, but it means so much more than that.

“Driving while female” was the charge handed to Manal al-Sharif, the woman who spearheaded the campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, which was realised in 2018. After uploading a video of her driving to YouTube, al-Sharif was arrested and imprisoned. Her book Daring to Drive, retells the movement in poetic detail within the context of being a woman in one of the most oppressive countries in the world. It is a moving example of the female driving experience and even for those of use who have had the privilege of independence not afforded to the women of Saudi Arabia, every single woman with a driver’s licence can relate to the autonomy driving allows us.

I recently started looking deeper for published examples of this experience and there are few. Joan Didion, Corvette Stingray owner and the poet laureate of the female car enthusiast equates driving on the freeway to secular worship and transcendence: “Actual participation requires total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.” Still, these writings are half a century old, from a time where the thrill of driving was a form of subversion for women. Back then, driving just meant you could do more chores. Pick up the groceries, ferry the children, run more errands. Yet even today, despite our 85% influence in the buying process, the marketing has barely changed: “Pack more into your day!” “Do more with a bigger car!” Kill me. To men, a car liberated them from the shackles of home life. It promised them sex, youth and status. To women, cars enforced our passive place in society. Where women weren’t using the car to perform domestic duties, we were passengers, vulnerable to whoever was in control of the wheel.

The thrill of driving is something that surpasses age, gender and culture; even as a spectator, that action unlocks something primal in all of us. However, I must admit, I find it hard to relate to the experience cars offer men. And I have probably read more of this subject than anything else! Our industry is built on it, my career exists because of it, evo wouldn’t be here without it. But I do not see myself in that story.
Driving is a secular experience, but what the car also offers women, is sanctuary. It’s a place where our bodies are free of judgement, where we can exist and not have to worry about our personal safety, and environment we control. In my car, I can play the new Adele album 20 times over and sing and cry and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. The thrill of driving, reader, is not just about going fast around the twisties. Sometimes it’s about driving to a carpark with a nice view, just to sit in my car and disassociate for 20 minutes.

The real female driving experience is rarely told in automotive, or even women’s media for that matter. There are many reasons for this, but in society’s eyes we still don’t have thrill equity. I find it comical when I’m told that women don’t know anything about a car’s performance, feel or detail, because we notice everything because its the one place we can be fully engaged. We’re just not as well-versed in articulating it.
I asked some friends what driving meant to them and a common thread emerged around their desire to breakout from the pressures of being a woman. “Driving is the only time I feel I have total calm and total control,” said one. “All of the stereotypes associated to women vs men made it my personal mission to be a good driver and my freedom would be associated to this sense of ‘control’ over the patriarchy,” said another. More responses: “As a young woman, driving gave me a sense of independence and accomplishment that few other things did.” “On track, there’s a sense of euphoria I get from being in control of something beyond myself. Whether it’s a reflection of my own mortality, desires or ambition…it can be chaotic, yet peaceful.” “When I’m solely focused on shifting gears and nothing else. It’s a rare time where the single job at hand takes over and nothing else registers,” mused another. Out of a sample of nine women, almost every one mentioned freedom, independence, accomplishment and privacy. Not a single one mentioned they liked how their car meant they could run more errands.

I often think about how Al-Sharif equates her car key to her car as a key to change, a key to destiny. In one of the videos that got her arrested she is behind the wheel and her friend asks why she is smiling. Her reply, “Because I am driving.”

10 Magazine, March 2021 (PDF)

“Tomorrow the birds will sing. Love David.” Thumbed onto an iPhone by David Hockney in 2009, printed onto a magnet, sold near the exit of an art gallery, purchased and then placed by me at eye level on my refrigerator at home, next to a postcard of The Dream by Henri Rousseau. I read these words every day.

The magnetised avowal is a reproduction of hundreds of little iPhone drawings that Hockney draws in his Brushes app, which he then texts to his friends every morning. His favourite thing to send is flowers, so that his loved ones get a bunch of fresh blooms every day. Imagine waking up to a Hockney original via text each morning. “Good morning! Love life, David.”

The words written on my Hockney magnet were also spoken (well, mouthed) by Char- lie Chaplin in the 1931 film City Lights. In the scene, a tramp (Chaplin) stumbles upon an intoxicated man trying to commit suicide by a canal and steps in to prevent the act. Chaplin’s words “Tomorrow the birds will sing” flash on a slide. “Be brave! Face life!” It’s not known if Hockney was directly referencing Chaplin via his hand-drawn MMS and, until I discovered this, it had never occurred to me that Chaplin and Hockney might have been born into similar orbits. However, their art is parallel in that it has brought joy while standing for all that is good. With a dose of impeccable timing, too, it would seem.

I did not lay eyes on my little purple affirmation for almost a year. The pandemic forced me to (accidentally) spend most of 2020 in the UK’s rural north. During the bleak end of winter, I lived in isolation with my English boyfriend and his family in a small village of stone houses, vast fields and a medieval church. I would walk the bare, brown fields so much, I gave them names. My favourite, exactly 2,461 steps away, was “Rothko field”, named as such for its rich gradient of umber. As doom took hold of the world, the weather behind my eyes changed. I became stormy, uneasy. My screen time surged as I spent hours scrolling for peace, using the only tool for connection I knew: my iPhone. Instead of the digital flowers and positive affirmations I so needed, social media shoved broken stems, rotten foliage and dead air down my throat. Soon, I forgot about the daily schedule of the winged chorale outside, despite a world on pause leaving them louder than ever.

Until, one day, it happened. “A message from David Hockney” flashed on my screen. I tapped a link, and an iPad sketch of daffodils in a field glowed back at me. Nature’s golden trumpets had a proclamation: “Do remember they can’t cancel the spring. Love David.” It wasn’t a personal message, of course. The British artist had sent it to the entire world, a fresh bunch of blooms immortal, from his Normandy home. Love life. Tomorrow the birds will sing. Be brave, face life. I clung to daffodils like I was a duty-free koala, and began looking for them on my walks. Daffodils, then tulips, cherry trees and then peonies gave me a sense of resolve.

My boyfriend had casually pointed out that we weren’t far from East Yorkshire, where Hockney painted his many landscape scenes, including the famous se- ries, The Arrival of Spring (2011). The death of his gallerist friend Jonathan Silver in 1997 first inspired Hockney’s big skies and vivid landscapes of Yorkshire – they are a witness statement of time and mortality. When Silver was in his final stages of cancer, Hockney would drive almost 200km across the Wolds to see him, watching the land shift as the planet moved around the sun. “I started noticing the countryside and how it changed,” he said. “Because it’s agricultural land around here, the surface of the earth itself is con- stantly being altered. The wheat grows, then it’s harvested, then you see it ploughed.”
“During times of crisis, we naturally seek out the familiar,” experts on the radio would offer. I missed my dog. My bed. I missed the smell of Australian natives. Little was familiar to me here. I was like one of those inflatable men you see at used-car yards, flapping about in a windy purgatory, with nothing to hold on to. Art, it turned out, would become my grounding wire, nature, the electricity.

“The world is very, very beautiful if you look at it,” Hockney said in an interview last year. “But most people don’t look very much, do they? They scan the ground in front of them so they can walk, but they don’t really look at things with intensity.” Hockney goes on to tell an anecdote about a philosopher on television who is asked how he can be optimistic when the news is so bad. “He said, ‘That’s television – bad news sells.’ And this [interviewer] said, ‘Well, what’s the good news, then?’ And he said, ‘Well, the arrival of spring,’” Hockney said with a smile. “Yes, it is good news, but nobody notices it. A few people – but at one time everybody will notice it.” After poring
over a decade’s worth of Yorkshire landscapes, it was Hockney’s iPad drawings that captured me – they were painted from a perspective that showed everything at once, like a window. They had movement, energy and depth. I saw Hockney’s sense of adventure in the hedgerows and bridleways; I found his romantic tenderness in the hawthorns and in the “tunnels” of horse chestnut trees that lined the B-roads. I, too, witnessed the landscape change from brown, to green. And I was surprised to find psychedelic seas of colour, fields of purple echium flowers, neon rows of rapeseed or masses of white poppies and the vibrant sunflower fields that were the finale in the summer. I would wander into the darkness at night, tracing the moon as it moved across the sky, lighting up the rows of crops. In an unintentional mirroring act, I even sent photos of flowers and fields back home for friends to wake up to.

Hockney painted on his iPad throughout 2020. His lockdown works (including the daffodils) will be shown this year at the Royal Academy in Lon- don. With the help of hindsight, I wonder how these works will spark new perspectives in others – what did Hockney see differently this time? “Many tell me these drawings offer respite at this testing time,” Hockney wrote in a letter read out on a French radio station last spring. “They are testament to the cycle of life, which begins here with the birth of spring... Idiots that we are, we have lost our link with nature even though we are part of it complete- ly. All of this will end one day. What lessons will we learn? I’m 83, I’m going to die. We die because we are born.”

I used to wonder why the “Tomorrow, the birds... ” work was made into a gift-shop magnet – it is not a famous work by any means. It’s funny how this mass-made souvenir, the size of an old iPhone screen, has shifted closer to its original intention than it would have done had it been hung in a gallery. Its intimacy and sentiment transcended the medium, just like a text message can. Like millions of others, my household experienced death during those months, but the ephemeralness of nature gave us verve. And it was in the surprising influence of Mr Whizz, as the British artist is known, where I found solace and perspective. Besides, what is art if it does not inspire a new way of seeing? “The only things that matter in life are food and love, in that order, and also our little dog Ruby,” Hockney signs off in that pub- lic letter. “I truly believe this, and for me, the basis of art is love. I love life.”

David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020, March 27-August 22; Royal Academy, London W1 (