The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty

The Dimensions of the Contemporary Artist’s Duty — on Lei Yan’s Art

Written by Luo Fei, this essay has been published in the book of To Start From Art

Lei Yan was born in 1957 to a military family, and herself served in the military for thirty years (1970-2001). After being discharged in 2001, she became a contemporary artist, creating works in the forms of installation art, photography and soft sculpture. She held her first solo exhibition at TCG Nordica in 2007. At that time, I noted her deftness at transforming rich personal memories into public memories, and at transforming such objects of the past as camouflage cloth, old photographs and badges into moving artistic forms.

Lei Yan began shifting away from military subject matter in 1997 in a clear shift to the expression of individual emotions and identity through contemporary art. Her art that followed can be categorized into four different aspects, these aspects being the four key words in Lei Yan’s works: form, heart, culture and public events.

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998

Lei Yan, The Traffic Rule1, Printmaking, 1998


French art historian Henri Focillon held the view that “Perhaps, in our secret selves, we are all artists who have neither a sense of form nor hands. The characteristic of the true artist, however, is that he does have hands.”[1] Thus, the difference between the artist and the average person or even the intellectual is that the artist uses his or her hands to create forms. The forms created by the artist realize his spiritual perceptions in time and space.

In Lei Yan’s works, form encapsulates two levels. The first refers to handcrafted working methods, such as collage, sewing, cutting, knitting and modelling. The second refers to the individual experiments she engages in terms of artwork material, medium and structure rooted in the surface appearance of the artwork and its relation to space. From Lei Yan’s early paper prints The Conversation, Traffic Rules and Environmental Color (1997-1998), her mixed media prints Scenery, Still Life and Wall (2004), and her single print seriesWilderness (2007), we can see her great interest in form, material and crafting methods during her flat painting phase. By 2002, when she began formal experimentation with such diverse mediums and materials as digital photography, cloth sculpture, paper sculpture and blocks of ice, she appeared quite at home.

In art, correct form and materials can realize the emotions and visual forms the artist wishes to express. For instance, in the paper sculpture installation How Can I Protect You, Lei Yan used fragile, translucent parchment to recreate a scene of rubble from a collapsed school in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake[2], along with students’ book bags, shoes and flowers. The artist used this method to memorialize the young lives lost in this earthquake while also voicing suspicions about shoddy construction. Sometimes form and material themselves can bestow meaning onto an artwork. Those spiritual perceptions and memories that have been already expressed artistically can take on a feeling of freshness through an artist’s formal re-expression, giving people a new understanding of their spirits and their memories. For instance, in the Frozen series (2007), Lei Yan froze various mementoes from her soldier days, such as medals, badges portraying political leaders, a book of Mao quotes, uniforms and photographs with her comrades into blocks of ice, bestowing these all-too-familiar images with a new spirit marked by sentimentality, desolation and emptiness.

Her experiments in formal material and her infusion of emotions allow Lei Yan to consistently present a cohesive and incisive voice in the right formal materials.

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011

Lei Yan, A Summer from Age 15, Paper Sculpture, 2011


An important trait of the heart is that it constantly describes itself. The heart is a pattern in a state of constant flow, a state of constant weaving and unraveling. In this sense, the activities of the heart are artistic activities. The heart wishes to turn the external conditions of a person into its own things, bestowing them with intelligent forms. The heart believes it can bring people youthful forms of life that overturn old models. This is the heart’s instinct.

On this level, I see that in Lei Yan’s early mixed media prints, she used materials such as paperboard, hair and cloth to create pictures full of motion, tension and texture: that is a vivid pattern of the heart, an ultrasound image of the artist’s heart.

In another series of melancholy oil paintings entitled Song of Four Seasons (2001-2002), Lei Yan depicted a girl with no clear facial features or traits running around in a closed space. In the Woman Soldier’s Dream oil painting series, she employed a style reminiscent of children’s drawing books to narrate a surrealistic journey of a woman soldier. In the photography series A Bullet through the Young Heart, she took soldiers, those followers of orders and protectors of the nation, and restored them as a series of young hearts, expressing her deep longing for the fragile hearts of her comrades lost in battle.

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Lei Yan, The Frozen Youth N0 26, Photo, 2007

Another form of the heart’s expression is memory, because memory is a richly stocked warehouse that is accessible to each of us at any time. Memory training is a kind of spiritual form that some artists cultivate in their minds. In the artist’s hands, those memories bestowed with form have a special nature. Lei Yan’s memories of her military career and the Mao era have provided her with a rich treasure trove for her art. TheFrozen Red and Frozen Youth series are testament to that fact. In another soft sculpture series, 15 Years Old in Summer, Lei Yan turned a pair of army shoes into butterflies taking flight.

Lei Yan sometimes says that she got involved in contemporary art too late. Truly, taking up art after retirement at almost fifty is something that many young artists can’t imagine, but in her works, we can see that her heart has never rested from her army days, and the life in her heart (perceptions and reflections) has made preparations for her heart in space (art).

Lei Yan’s artworks are constantly describing the heart’s perceptions. This is a powerful voice in her work. If it weren’t for the saturation of her works with soulful emotion, we would not be able to sense the existence of a person from within her artworks, and those artworks would not be able to produce emotional resonance with the audience. Because of the self-awareness, memories, sentiments and consolation expressed in artworks, the artist has become the guardian of the human heart.


Culture refers to the models of thinking, values views, modes of behavior and ways of life that people form over long periods of time. When living in a group, people will inevitably come to face a certain culture and become a part of it, and thus culture is regional. Culture also possesses fluidity and openness; it is not an unchanging specimen. Through the expression of, and intervention in, the values, modes of behavior and other aspects of people and society, the artist takes part in culture and reshapes it, bringing it new vitality while inspiring independent thinking, imagination and joy among others.

In the relatively early installation work Screen (2005), the artist expresses a sense of anxiety regarding the complex and subtle relationships between people. The artist also engages in the alteration of everyday objects to push people to look at the things around them in a new light. In the Camouflage Cloth-Making (2007) and I Love Kitchen (2009) series, she used camouflage cloth of different colors and patterns to remake cooking utensils, appliances and other everyday objects. The camouflage cloth lends these everyday objects militaristic traits, placing them in a state of tension between order and poetry, farce and sincerity. Lei Yan says it is just like women.

In another series, a set of photographs asking “what if,” (2006), Lei Yan probes the memories of a city. She asks, What if I Can Still Go Through My Memory Here, What if I Can Return to Grandma’s Home, and What if Our Factory Were Still Here. In What if You Were an HIV Patient, she uses a dark, empty room with a window to convey the pitiable straits of HIV patients.

In the series that followed, Be Fond of the Problem of Colorful Bird (2009), Lei Yan appears as a bird made out of camouflage cloth around the ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang, as well as the surrounding mountains, constantly asking questions: can man truly conquer nature? Is documentation more important than exhibition? Where are you, my partner? Will I be able to return to such a beautiful scene in future years? Can the tourist industry spur domestic demand? Why are words and deeds always so different? Is this really how cultural heritage is passed down?

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Lei Yan, If They Are Women, Photo, 2002

Against the cultural backdrop of patriarchal society, Lei Yan created two images marked by strong feminine awareness in a dialogue with prominent Western feminist artist Judy Chicago in 2002, titled If They Were Women and If the Long March was a Women’s Rights Movement. In the first image, she used computer editing to add 1930’s-style women’s hairstyles to the male leaders of the Long March to humorous effect while also raising questions about the allocation of power. The second image is a group photo of the female revolutionaries in the Long March. In both pictures, the artist stands at the bottom right corner in camouflage, looking off into the distance with binoculars to try and find a local movement regarding women’s identity. In If Women were Written (2006), Lei Yan once again addresses women’s issues. For this artwork, the artist photographed the covers of the various women’s magazines for sale at the Xinhua Bookstore and combined them into a massive image, with the giant word “WOMAN” alluding to women’s historically passive role.

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, The Confusion from Choices, Soft Sculpture, 2010

At its root, culture is religious. The exclusive worship of certain values by an individual or a state is their religious logic. The Confusion from Choices (2010) is a group of five different fist-sized pink cloth sculptures of the Communist Party flag, the American Statue of Liberty, a Guanyin statue, a church and an ordinary cheesecake. These symbols of political faith, religious faith and consumer ideas have been turned into the form of cheesecakes. Lei Yan has seen the predicament of faith that all individuals and nations face within this culture of consumerism, pragmatism and entertainment.

In these culture-themed artworks, I see Lei Yan taking on the role of constant skeptic, of cultural observer.

Public Events

Public events are those events that have a broad impact on public opinion, those events that touch on the interests or even lives of every citizen in a nation, that affect the public order. They can be natural disasters, accidents, social group events, political movements, wars or the extreme moral behavior of individuals.

Lei Yan grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and afterwards took part in quite a few battles in the military. This experience has given her a strong participatory mentality towards public events. The never-ending parade of public events has led her to profound thinking on the future of humanity and humankind while shaking her spiritual world. As a result, her works often nimbly shift between individual emotion and public events.

A Bullet Through the Young Heart (2002) is a triptych on the Sino-Vietnam War. The picture comprises countless martyr tombstones arranged together in a dense wall. The left image is red, the central image black and white, while the right image is green. A caption on the left introduces the 1979 war between China and Vietnam. A caption on the right recounts the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations, from the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1950 to the war and on to reestablishment of relations. For Lei Yan, who took part in this war, this special experience has opened up a contradictory world where collective honor and individual life have been buried. Critic Wang Nanming uses this artwork as an example of trans-feminist art. He believes that women can also be political forces in the public sphere. They can discuss anything that is discussed in civil society and thus criticize the feminist theories that recognize only needlework as a trait of Chinese women’s art.

This is an era of internet-enabled, self-driven media, and this has led to a profound shift in the role of the artist. The artist has gone from using painting or photography to convey a subject in studio or natural light, and shifted towards making reactions to social phenomena found in the media, using the materials of public events to express their desires as citizens.

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

Lei Yan, How Can I Protect You?, Paper Sculpture, 2010

In Ten Years the Death (2012), Lei Yan used parchment to create three tombstones that record the death tolls of various natural disasters that took place around the world from 2001 to 2011. Like How Can I Protect You (2010), with its depiction of an earthquake aftermath, this artwork also reveals the fragile, fleeting nature of life. In Disappearing Image, the artist printed out eight copies of a missing child poster she downloaded from the internet, and using computer software, digitally blurred each copy successively until the final image is completely blurred. The young girl in the photograph is just one of millions of missing children in China. Her hopeful gaze speaks of her longing to return home. The face on that missing child poster will slowly disappear with time, but the pain will always linger over the hearts of her loved ones.

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

Lei Yan, Little Souls, Photography , 2013

On January 4 2013, a fire broke out in a residence in Chengguan Township, Lankao County, Henan Province. A foster mother in the building, Yuan Lihai, lost seven foster children in the fire. It was determined that the children started the fire when playing with fire. This incident elicited broad discussion on private adoption and the public welfare system. This gave Lei Yan inspiration, and in an artwork titled Little Souls (2013), she collected various articles of children’s clothing, burned them to varying degrees, and photographed them in the air. It is as if those little souls who lost their lives in the fire were telling us of their hardships from heaven.

Another time, on a visit to a friend, Lei Yan witnessed some small birds crashing to their deaths because they had mistaken a window for the sky. She conveyed this scenario in the artwork Lost Birds (2012), using foil to represent glass-lined skyscrapers and cloth paper to create small birds laying quietly crumpled on the ground. There are also a few birds in the air, flying for the towers. In this artwork, Lei Yan expresses her anxiety over environmental issues and blind urban expansion.

In these artworks, we can see that the artist uses her public identity to reflect on certain public events that have taken place around us, leading people to focus on and discuss them.


Form, heart, culture and public events are key words that repeatedly arise in many of Lei Yan’s artworks, and thus her artworks are marked by multiple meanings. I could easily switch the works described above from one key word category to another to come up with a new interpretation. This is the allure of Lei Yan’s artworks. She has established an internal connection and unity between formal experimentation, the guarding of the heart, concern for culture and the voice of the people.

I believe that these four key words can open up four dimensions of the contemporary artist’s duty: the artist as formal experimenter, the artist as guardian of the heart, the artist as one who cares about culture, the artist who gives voice to the people. These four dimensions form the core of contemporary art, with formal experimentation as the core within the core, in that it sets the artworks of one artist apart from those of other artists and other times, and bestows the other three dimensions with lasting vitality in time and space.

August 9 2013
Translated by Jeff Crosby

[1]  Henri Focillon, Life Forms in Art, 1934; Chinese translation by Chen Ping, Peking University Press, 2011, p. 111.
[2] The 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the Wenchuan Earthquake was a deadly earthquake that measured at 8.0 Ms and 7.9 Mw, and occurred at 02:28:01 PM China Standard Time at epicenter on Monday, May 12, 2008 in Sichuan province, killing 69,195 people, with 18,392 missing.


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