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Chinese Fast Food

Anja Hitzenberger

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It is said that you are what you eat, but in these food stalls at Beijing's Olympic Park while the eye feasts, one's hunger remains unappeased. 

Entering a temporary food tent Anja Hitzenberger discovered a riot of colour drowning out the blandness of the food and the boredom of the workers. Drawn as she is to the relationship between the body and architecture, Anja couldn't help but start taking photos. Lush as any painting of a garden by Monet, the resulting images are striking both visually and intellectually. The visual saturation belies a nutritional hollow; while the profusion of signage drowns out not only the product being hawked but the very identity of the workers themselves. 

Though busy preparing for an exhibition of Chinese Fast Food at Galerie Reinthaler in Vienna, Austria—Anja kindly took the time to share her thoughts about not only this series but her artistic life in general… 

Could you please explain how you first got into ­photography and art?

I was fortunate to be able to go to a very special art high school in Austria, where I'm from, and that experience influenced me a lot. During that time, I kind of secretly set up a quite simple darkroom in my parent's house and started printing.

Do you or did you have any mentors?

I don't feel that I've really had mentors so much in my artistic life, but a lot of people have influenced me greatly. Actually, one person that influenced me a lot at the beginning was Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian painter who lived in New York. When I moved to New York when I was 20, I became her assistant. Watching how she worked, traveling to shows with her and hearing about her years with the '60s Soho art crowd was very inspiring, and I feel I learned a lot.

Another big influence was my studies at ICP (International Center of Photography) in New York. I graduated from the full-time photography program there, and their way of teaching, which is quite different from in Europe, helped me develop as a photographer and artist. I'm now on the faculty there teaching Personal Vision classes.

What do you love most about what you do?

I love that I get to travel a lot to do my work, and I have the opportunity to encounter many different people and cultures all over the world. That's really exciting to me.

Who or what inspires you most in life and in your work? Whom do you admire most in the creative world?

That's probably my dear friend David Zambrano who actually is not a photographer, but a dancer, choreographer and teacher. His mission in life is to bring people from different backgrounds and different cultures together through his creative work. I've been collaborating with him from my early years as a photographer, and my work—as well as my way of approaching art and people—has been greatly influenced by him in many ways.

What made you decide to pursue your particular creative field?

I'm a very visual person and have a kind of photographic memory, which I think is why I slipped into doing photography and film. Studying at ICP (International Center of Photography) helped me understand that photography was the right path for me.

To what extent is your art incorporated into your daily routine?

I'm always on the lookout for new things, no matter where I am or what I do. But I'm not someone who walks around with a camera all the time. With some projects I actually prefer to first see, to go location scouting, and then to go out again with my camera. Other times I go to some place I don't know and start taking pictures right away.

Are there any creative principles or rules you live by? How do you re-inspire yourself, if and when you feel a lull in your creativity?

I think it's very important to be open for inspiration from many different sources. I try to feed myself not only by going to see photography exhibitions, but also by going to the movies, opera and classical concerts, book stores, and museums; right now, I'm particularly inspired by all facets of food, for example. I also enjoy looking at architecture and exploring neighborhoods I'm not familiar with. All that inspires me a lot.

You seem to have a rather multi-disciplinary approach to art, what do you enjoy most about collaborating with other artists?

I enjoy feeding off of artists from other disciplines. I often work with architects, composers and performers, because through these combined ideas we achieve results together that we would not have accomplished on our own. I get inspired by collaborating with people who might have a different way of thinking, but are able to share their working process with others. I also really like that these collaborations have resulted in not just photographs, but also installations, films, videos and multimedia performances.

Has new technology affected you as an artist in any way?

For many years, I only shot black and white film. But when I switched to digital cameras, I started seeing and shooting in color. And while I miss working alone for hours surrounded by the dim red light in the darkroom, I don't miss the chemicals that came with that process and am quite happy now in my digital darkroom.

Where were these specific photos taken and what inspired you to take this series?

In 2011 I was in Beijing for a few months through an artist residency. When I visited the Olympic Park there, which is now a tourist attraction, I discovered a large food tent that was filled with many very colorful food stands. The contrast between the saturated visual displays of the food stalls and the way the environment contrasts with the boredom of the workers was fascinating and inspiring to me.

Could you please explain your working process when taking these photos? 

I tried to make eye-contact with some of the vendors to make sure it was OK for them to be photographed. But I didn't ask any of them for permission, because none of them really spoke English. Some of the workers were napping, or they were so busy staring at their cellphones, that they didn't even notice that I photographed them. Many of them smiled at me and invited me through hand motions to buy food from them—which I occasionally did. Food in Beijing can be really amazing, but unfortunately the food in this tent wasn't so good, which was one reason I decided to call the series "Chinese Fast Food."

What projects are you currently working on?

I'm still working on food-related projects about the food we put into our body. That theme often also melts into my other ongoing project called "The Body and Space," where I study the relationship of the body to architecture and space. This current series—"Chinese Fast Food"—is a combination of both: food and people in confined spaces.

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