Absurdist Photography at Its Finest in These Unpredictable Still Lifes

Photographer Zhongjia Sun and 'Toilet Paper' share their work in our annual photo issue.

For our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked them which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between young artists and those more established in their careers. This post features an interview with Zhongjia Sun and her chosen idols, Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari of Toilet Paper, and an explanation of each of their bodies of work.

Zhongjia Sun is a visual artist who recently graduated from Parsons School of Design with an MFA in photography. Sun self-publishes a disruptive, colorful magazine called Common Common. Her work has been featured in ORDINARY Magazine, Aint-Bad Magazine, and iGNANT, and she has had exhibitions both in New York City and Philadelphia, and internationally, including most recently at the 2017 Chiangmai Photo Biennial in Thailand.

Photo by Zhongjia Sun
Photo by Toilet Paper

Italian pranksters Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari have been working together since 2009. In 2010, they founded Toilet Paper, a magazine born out of their shared passion for making gleefully weird imagery. They've also made quite a variety of amazing covers for VICE over the years. They're known for creating photos that fuse the vernacular of commercial photography with surrealism.

Photo by Toilet Paper
Photo by Toilet Paper

Zhongjia Sun: What does "still life" mean to you?
Toilet Paper: It's an oxymoron, like "living dead" or "true lies." I love the fact that in just two words you can perceive how our human language and nature are ambiguous and double faced. It's much more linked to reality than you might think.

How do you develop a shoot? What's the percentage of planning and improvisation in your working process?
A Toilet Paper set is like an orgy: It's hard to tell who is doing what to who. Every shoot is the result of a long chain of events, and it's as unpredictable as a Chinese whisper. That is probably the hardest side of working with us, because you'll never know what to expect until you're in the shooting phase, which is the moment when great ideas spring like frogs in a pond—unpredictable, countless, and not always beautiful. Unless you kiss them.

I've noticed that there is one issue [of Toilet Paper ] with all vertical images. Others were all horizontal images. What made you start publishing images in vertically?
Very often the right answer is also the simplest one: We collaborated with Zeit magazine for one year, publishing a Toilet Paper image in its pages once a week… and guess what? They're vertical!

What do you think of current trends in photography?
I believe it takes more and more courage to be original today; the "new" often arrives only by mischance. The most interesting works I have seen are those where you see an unfinished struggle, where you can glimpse a deep mystery, a secret. In a world overcrowded with images that are quick and easy to consume, it's hard to tell what is good art from and what is not. Everyone is trying to produce something that lasts more than two seconds in others' minds. We all wish to be eternal, after all.

Photo by Zhongjia Sun
Photo by Toilet Paper
Photo by Zhongjia Sun
Photo by Toilet Paper
Photo by Toilet Paper
Photo by Toilet Paper
Photo by Toilet Paper
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