Jiefei Zhan is a visual communicator based in London & Shanghai. In 2019 summer, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Animation from Tsinghua University before working as a graphic designer in Shanghai. In 2021 she embarked on her 2 year MA degree at the Royal College of Art. She keeps a watchful eye on surrounding scenery, collecting fragments from taken-for-granted experience and diving below and through the surface of things using an interdisciplinary media approach from illustration to publication, sound, moving image, and installation.
At the beginning of site-based research, it is usually the everyday trivial sensory experiences that intrigue me. They occur day after day and are thus easy to get used to. However, recording and observing these taken-for-granted experiences renews my sensitivity to them, some of which were repeated, overlapped and magnified until they are impossible to ignore. Therefore, they open the door to further exploration.
The different forms of sensory experience are the thread ends of a vast but invisible network that connect the site and the habitant. I grasp these perceptible ends, digging into the hidden interactions between them by building visual and sound archives, then reconstructing the narrative through a variety of experiments. I seek to resonate with the commonality of sensory experience while communicating with the audience and, at the same time, portray the unique identity of the site.
My current practice is based in a tower block built in the 1960s as council housing where I have lived for 2 years. From it was built in the ‘60’s, presently the building has been undergoing continued regeneration with frequent delay. Construction noise has been a loyal companion with residents here who usually have no idea of the works’ timeline. Furthermore, the delay made the noises seem to never end.
Construction noise was woven into the collective memory and identity of place, distorting the daily scene of the present, yet carrying a positive expectation of the future of those who are rooted in it. I explored the intertwining of endurance and dependence in the interaction between the building and its inhabitants by linking the iconic sounds with the seam of the surfaces, searching for the sensory embodiment in the public and interior spaces.
Capturing the subtle balance between endurance, belongingness and vulnerability, this film illustrates the entanglement between residents and their buildings, questions the existing issues during the regeneration.
Wondering about the source of the neverending noise, I stepped into the rarely used stairwell. Unlike the well-decorated corridor that people pass by every day, only part of the stairwell has been roughly painted—a space of collaged surfaces from different eras. The seams between old and new surfaces can be found everywhere in the space, which is exactly the embodiment of regeneration when construction noises intensively happened.
Based on the metaphorical connections, I built the sensorial link between noises and seams by animating a series of seam images to a sound wave-like movement, then matched them with recordings of daily construction noises. To unveil the seemingly unrelated past from the seemingly immaculate present, I projected the coarsely moving seams from the roughly painted stairwell back into the perfectly painted corners in the corridor. The chord got enriched when recorded noises resonated with sounds of family whispering, key rings knocking, road surrounding, birds singing. They are where belongingness situates, endurance roots, and vulnerability exists.
Conversations started here. The lights breathed accordingly, while the sounds encountered in these corners. Suddenly, one after another, corners were shrouded in the phantom of construction noise. I extended it to an irritating length, then paused it when the audience almost got used to them. The road’s sound creeps in, then the birds sing. They might be shielded temporarily, but will never disappear.
Although most of the construction happened in public areas, vigorous noises can break through the wall into domestic space. Waking up by the construction noises? Normal. The bed should have been the softest nest, but suddenly comes the noises, and the whole space becomes a washing machine. Like an invasion with nowhere to hide. Happened whenever, wherever and whatever. Twisting the feeling, disrupting the communications and entangling with memory.
Exploring a sensorial way to illustrate domestic life under construction, I made daily objects using alternative materials. Debris net, which is visually related to refresh and repair but tactilely uncomfortable, collides with the collaged domestic fabrics various in periods, thickness, and texture. Expanding foam, due to its expandable feature and unstable shape, can portray bodily and mental chaos under the noises.
The binding methods of these materials are divided into permanent and temporary, in order to reflect the superimposed state of aged and unfinished. I used traditional knitting wool in a clumsy way as the visualisation of noises, then repeated the sewing process to imitate the accumulation of the materials due to the multiple repairs. Needle brought the thread stitching in and out, painfully but tightly twisting the materials, recreating the highly-sensory feeling under noises. At the same time, temporary materials such as safety pins and sewing pins were preserved.
In the final stage, the object’s ultimate form was decided considering the scene it would situate in to complete the narrative. Under the severe noises, family members can’t hear each other when having conversations. The noises became a disruption when they built connections with each other, who had no choice but to bear it, carrying accumulated connections from the past and wishing for longer and stronger connections for the future.
The disruption was built into the memory, with all the precious moments that happened here in this space, with these people and surrounded by these objects. The sofa with several jumbled cushions, as a representative scene where people seat together and talk, became the carrier of such entanglement.
Background only becomes background when we don’t focus on it.
BACKGROUND is a collection based on visual quadrats collected from the hidden space of the tower block.
BACKGROUND Collection: Surface Catalogue
(Book, 164p, 2022)
Samples collected from surfaces in the ignored corners are displayed like a catalogue ordered from light to dark. I refocus on items from the ‘background’ letting them emerge and take the leading role, recreating the process of focusing on the unexpected richness of detail beneath the new surfaces.
BACKGROUND Collection: Sample Searing
(7 Clay Stamps, 2022)
'Sample Searing' is a set of clay stamps. The texture reproduce partly painted surfaces in the building.In the exhibition, audience are invited to touch and participate in the printing process.