Internationally renowned Philadelphia-based photographer Colette Fu wasn’t looking to break any Guinness World Records when Philadelphia Photo Arts Center offered the artist a space in which to construct her photo book “Tao Hua Yuan Ji.”
But at approximately 21 feet wide by about 14 feet, and some 5 feet tall, with interactive pull-tabs, larger-than-life peach blossom flowers and a walk-in cave with a 4-foot tall entrance, the book will indeed smash all records when it opens to the public at 6 p.m. on Oct. 12 on North American Street in Kensington.
The title, “Tao Hua Yuan Ji,” loosely translates as "Utopia: Source of the Peach Blossoms" and refers to a work by Chinese Jin Dynasty poet Tao Yuanming and the elegant mythology of a cave in China where Fu snapped photos in 2008.
Unlike traditional pop-up books of our youth, Fu’s constructed “Tao Hua Yuan Ji” is not child’s play. Yet there is certainly the whimsy and wonder that one equates with childhood delights, a spooky immensity which haunts and honors ancient caves and the lives within them.
Living in Philadelphia since 2004, Fu has been creating pop-up books since leaving grad school a year earlier at Rochester Institute of Technology. “I nearly studied art therapy at Drexel, when I started doing artist residencies where I learned how to make pop-up books by deconstructing them,” said Fu of her welcome to Philly and the interactive children’s book form. “Now, I’ve done over 20 of these books.”
What’s so enthralling about the pop-up genre to Fu – enough so that it inspired her to meld that craft with her work as a fine-arts photographer – comes down to the digital collaging of Photoshop that she learned in college with the hands-on nature of her own youth.
“I loved making things with my hands as a kid,” she said. “As I was doing all these residencies and with their support, I went forward with that pop-up idea.”
In the meantime, Fu went to China where she learned that her mother was part of the Yi minority group. After spending time in China for several years (“the one province where almost half of China’s minorities reside”), Fu became one with the language, started taking photos and got a 2008 Fulbright Scholarship to make work about the 25 ethnic minorities of the Yunnan province where her mother hails.
“While photographing the Zhuang people, they claimed that theirs was a Utopian village,” Fu said, of the tale tied to the poet Tao Yuanming. “That seemed ripe for a pop-up, complete with people in the background. And even though we say that it is a mythological cave that I’m portraying, the cave is based on photographs I shot there.”
After making a 2-foot version of “Tao Hua Yuan Ji” and writing another proposal to create an interactive pop-up one could walk through, Fu heard from the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC), which had just the right amount of size and space in which to fashion the world’s largest pop-up book, complete with workable cardboard elements and durable gator board and Masonite.
Working in the PPAC’s gallery since Labor Day, Fu finished the work, with minor patching being done at present.
“It’s over 200 pounds and huge, so we’re not sure what we’ll do with this after Nov. 25,” Fu said with a laugh. What she did want this pop-up to say – beyond the record books – is that a book of stories of Chinese minorities is now part of the dialogue.
“This is not just a village utopia with peach blossoms. These people were under political unrest at one time and established this village for peace,” she said of people who wanted to live away from any religious or political interference.
“A utopia can’t exist without a dystopia,” said Fu. And sometimes a pop-up book isn’t just for kids.
Catch Fu's pop-up book will be unveiled at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, at the Crane Arts Building, 1400 North American Street, on Thursday, Oct. 12 at 6 pm, and will be on view every Saturday through Nov. 25, with a ceremonial opening at 10:30 a.m. each week. Visit philaphotoarts.org for more info.