Kunming contemporary: independent curator Luo Fei on art in south western China

Kunming contemporary: independent curator Luo Fei on art in south western China

Date: 7th August 2015

Originally from Chongqing, artist, writer and independent curator Luo Fei has been based in the south-western city of Kunming for the past fifteen years. Working with organisations like TCG Nordica and Lijiang Studio in Yunnan, Luo Fei has initiated international curatorial projects and residency programs with European organisations and artists, focusing on developing connections and collaborations with local creatives.

This month, Luo Fei is travelling to the Top End as part of Cultural Partnerships Australia and the Australian Embassy in China’s Darwin to Broome Road Trip for Chinese Curators. Before he takes off, Luo Fei speakers with CREATIVE ASIA about why Kunming is a lesser-known but important centre of contemporary art in the Asia region, and the potential for meaningful Australia/Yunnan collaborations in the future.

CA: What is the contemporary art scene like in Kunming? How do you think this compares with your home-city in Sichuan, or Beijing or Shanghai?

LF: Kunming has an important position in the history of the development of modern art in China: it was one of the birthplaces of the ‘85 Wave and some of China’s earliest contemporary artists and groups grew up here. There were also some very active and important avant-garde artists working here during 1990s like Tang Zhigang, Liu Jianhua, He Yunchang, Zeng Xiaofeng and Li Ji.
In 2001, Chuangku LOFT art community, an artist-run initiative was established, and was one of the earliest art communities in China. Since then, contemporary art has moved from the underground to the public spotlight, embraced by the urban life of the city. This motivated lots of young artists to set up their own spaces and communities. Today, a new generation of artists and curators working in a more globalized context live and work between Europe, Beijing, Shanghai and Kunming. Compared with Sichuan Province, Beijing or Shanghai, I think the Kunming art scene is more casual and dispersed. Kunming artists are very much aware of nature and inner, emotional experiences.

CA: How have you seen the scene develop over the years?

LF: After 2008, China’s contemporary art scene has become more diversified, less conspicuous grandiose narration or historic turns as before, but more micro-changes. As in other cities, artists tried to seek support from government bodies to develop. On the other hand, local businesses and emerging creative cultural industries also tried to remould art scenes, more and more people tried to link contemporary art into their businesses or events, asking artists to cooperate with society, not resist it.
Compared with an anti-painting trend in the 1990s, a lot of artists have re-embraced painting, especially landscape art. Comparing active art practices in Kunming, there is still a huge potential to develop art education, research, criticism, media and marketing. Recently, curators with crossover identities are playing an interesting and important role, they do curating, writing, creation, teaching and marketing all in one. They promote local contemporary art’s development. At the same time, international projects also provide opportunities for local people to engage with the international art world.

CA: What do you think are the most important contemporary art organisations in Kunming and China more broadly?

LF: In Kunming and Yunnan province, they are Tai Project, TCG Nordica and Lijiang Studio. And Organhaus in Chongqing, Vitamin in Guangzhou. Thousand Plateaus, A4, Blue Roof and MOCA in Chengdu. I’m sure there are many more interesting ones in Beijing and Shanghai…

CA: How did you come to be an independent curator? What’s your background?

LF: Over the past ten years I’ve worked with TCG Nordica and Lijiang Studio. At the moment, I’m working with different organisations on different projects. My background is as an artist, mostly working in performance art. I also do curating and writing.

CA: Can you introduce some of your curatorial projects? What are your curatorial focuses or interests?

LF: I initiated the Jianghu project in 2005, this was a very influential two-year art movement between cities and rural locations in China and Europe. Recently I curated Multiple Adaptations: Chinese-Netherlands Art and Poetry Exchange Project working with Dutch print-makers and Chinese artists like Chang Xiong, Chen Fanyuan, He Libin, Ning Zhi, Su Jiaxi and Su Yabi. Also,Bridges: Chinese-Swedish Exchange Project, and many other international or local artist’s solo exhibitions. I promote Chinese contemporary art through curating and writing – I pay particular attention to the spiritual connotations of works and also social practices.

CA: What are you expecting of your upcoming curators tour to Australia?

LF: I am learning to understand the culture and art of Australia, particularly Aboriginal art, I believe this tour will be enlightening – it should have a great impact.

CA: Do you think there is potential to work with Australian artists or organisations in the future? What kinds of projects would you be interested in developing?

LF: Absolutely! Actually I’ve had some opportunities to meet with Australian artists. I’m very interested in Australian contemporary art and Aboriginal art developments. In Yunnan, we also have lots of different minorities, if we would have an opportunity to meet and collaborate with Aboriginal artists, that would be exciting. I’m open to all experiences and possibilities for this Australia tour.

Luo Fei is one of four Chinese curators participating in Cultural Partnerships Australia’s Darwin to Broome Road Trip for Chinese Curators in August 2015 supported by the Australian Embassy in Beijing.
This content was produced with support from the Commonwealth Government through the Australia-China Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
See more at: http://creative-asia.net/content/kunming-contemporary-independent-curator-luo-fei-art-south-western-china


On Zhu Jiuyang’s Declaration of the Blind


On Zhu Jiuyang’s Declaration of the Blind

By Luo Fei
Date and Time: February 6, 2015, 10 p.m.
Dialog: Over QQ Voice Message

Note: “The Declaration of the Blind” – the latest conceptual art by the contemporary artist Zhu Jiuyang – was premiered at the 99 Art Gallery and the Four-Dimension Art Space in Beijing on January 18 and 19, 2015. Five blind folk storytelling artists from Northern Shaanxi reinterpreted the full text of the “World Declaration of Human Rights” (hereinafter referred to as the “Declaration”) with their dialect. I had a dialog with Zhu Jiuyang on the background and the expression of his concept for this performance.

Luo Fei: How did you get to know these five blind people from Northern Shaanxi’s Yanchuan County?

Zhu Jiuyang: Years back, I watched the “Blind Storytellers”, a documentary by a young director Bai Zhiqiang. That was about a blind storytelling team from the Qingjian County in Northern Shaanxi. I was great touched and would like to one day work with them. Initially, I was thinking of inviting that group of blind people to perform. They used to be the members of the Performing Arts Propaganda Team during Mao Zedong’s era. However, they are too old now, and it’s rather difficult for me to work with them. Later on, Mr. Bai Zhiqiang introduced me to Mr. Cao Baizhi, a famous talking and singing artist in Yan’an. He then introduced me to this blind storyteller team. They come from Yanchuan, performing with Piba, or Chinese lute, while the previous team played with three-stringed instruments. Among five of them, only one can see a little bit.

Luo Fei: What did they normally sing previously?

Zhu Jiuyang: They used to sing Northern Shaanxi’s folk tales, plus they have been a self-organized Performing Arts Propaganda Team in the county.

Luo Fei: For this project, you spent three years traveling back and forth between Beijing and Northern Shaanxi.

Zhu Jiuyang: That’s right. Back and forth for three years. I thought it was going to be very simple, kind of like as long as I give them the “Declaration”, then they would go ahead and do it. Then I realized that’s not the case at all. It turned out that the adaptation of the “Declaration” into Northern Shaanxi storytelling performance required professional skills and was time-consuming. Because Mr. Cao was busy at that time, I literally said, for a couple of times, forget about it. Being generous, Mr. Cao agreed to help me with it in the end. Besides, it’s not easy to communicate with the blind team, as the ways of both thinking and working differ greatly from person to person. And the content for them to sing was totally new. The stories they were familiar with were the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation, those were easy to remember. There were also those songs that have been composed by the government about parsing socialism. They were all easy to remember. However, this was different in that it’s foreign to them and difficult to remember as there’s no plot in the “Declaration”. Mr. Cao was the only person who can talk to them. It occurred to me later that apart from him, I could have never been able to finish this project.


Luo Fei: Could they understand your idea and cooperate actively?

Zhu Jiuyang: We practiced for a long time back to their hometown in Northern Shaanxi, but only one day at Beijing. That’s their first time to Beijing, and nobody really took them seriously back to their hometown. Mr. Cao explained the project to them and encouraged them to come over. I personally offered them financial support. Initially, only three of them wanted to come. Later on, as I said I could pay their air tickets and took them to the Tiananmen, the other two agreed to come too. It’s their first time to ride on the plane, and first time to Beijing. I also promised to take them and show them around at the Tiananmen Square. Actually they could not see anything there, so we just walked around the Square. At least they had their wish fulfilled.

Luo Fei: Did they feel something special when they sang this “Declaration”

Zhu Jiuyang: To begin with, it was a performance without plot, so it’s difficult for them to memorize. Then, some of them were worried whether they would be in trouble because of this. To which I told them that China is also a member of the United Nations, as well as a party of relevant treaties. Of course, they became understand the idea of the “Declaration” while working on the project and lamented that: “Oh, all humans are equal?!” I never specifically asked about their understanding on rights and they have never heard of the “Declaration”. Perhaps it all best summed up in one of the lines they sang: “Well, there’s never equality any time.” Perhaps they have felt something in the whole process. As one repeats one phrase again and again, it would press and influence his/her heart and mentality with something. This is the significance of the project from another perspective.

Luo Fei: Do you think they will take the “Declaration” back with them to their mountain areas in Northern Shaanxi?

Zhu Jiuyang: No one likes this at the grassroots level. They prefer those that are interesting and amusing. This is not fun.


Luo Fei: The “Declaration” is a text composed of a total of thirty provisions, while traditional Northern Shaanxi storytelling is primarily about contents that are telling stories and entertaining. Are there any challenges for the audiences?

Zhu Jiuyang: For one thing, subtitles were not offered to the audiences, so they did not really understand what was going on. And I did it on purpose. Because, to me, this was primarily a project, not a show, so work was very ironic. It was indeed difficult for the audience to sit in a factory building without heater and to finish watching it. Fortunately, it went rather well with the live performance!

Luo Fei: It is the interestingness and the seriousness of the “Declaration” that formed the sharp contrast, and that in turn rendered the irony to the “Declaration”, as the traditional “storytelling” actually talks about fictional stuff. Besides, as I was watching them performing, it seemed as if the leading Pipa performer was on a rock show.

Zhu Jiuyang: That’s right. In fact, I have always thought that the folk arts in Northwestern China have very strong characteristics of modern music, like the folk songs, storytelling in Northern Shaanxi, and even the Qinqiang (or Shaanxi opera). Their talking and singing are actually the direct expression of their heart.

Luo Fei: Compared with other works of yours, what are the major inspiration and challenges?

Zhu Jiuyang: Mainly the relationship between the stage, music and contemporary art. Both the stage and music are unfamiliar to me. I dragged the stage and music into my works, yet could not present them as a show, and it was a performance art after all. It’s rather difficult to keep the boundary, as it could easily become a show if you were not careful. Apparently it’s not bad to have made it like a show! Why can’t it be a piece of work at the same time?


Luo Fei: Looking at your personal creation course, you’ve been very good at introducing the scenarios and objects of your life experience, such as the flocks in your paintings and performances. For this time round, you introduced the blind storyteller team from Northern Shaanxi. From the perspective of Christian arts, you are expressive in your rendering of religious imageries. The paintings and on-site work – the “Lost Sheep” (2010), for example, obviously managed to introduce the Christian idea of “lost sheep” to the viewers. Likewise, the blind people have special connotation in the New Testament, suggesting the objects that are pitied and healed by Jesus. Jesus’s parable on the blind leading the blind was to teach the absurdity of the dead end of self-righteousness. The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), a famous distemper on linen canvas, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an excellent work on this theme.

Zhu Jiuyang: I think this is a special religious experience of mine that most of other artists lack. The voice of sheep in the “Lost Sheep” was a strong metaphor, pointing to a state of mankind. This time, the blind also meant to be metaphorical. According to the biblical narrative, we are all blind, thus cannot see the truth. So the metaphor of the blind is what I would like to address. This is the very thing I’ve been seeking, that is why my works do not specifically aim at any political view but humanity. It’s because in the problem of mankind, they are in nature political too. This will make the work more profound.

Luo Fei: That’s what brought the multiply levels of publicity in your works, being political or concerning public life for one thing and spiritual the other. The very act of the blind singing the Declaration on Human Rights has become an imagery of how the spiritually blind yearn for care and freedom. We know that the direct cause for people to draft the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was their reflection on the World War II. So, you made the “Declaration of the Blind” to discuss the reflection and longing for the beautiful existence of human being after men’s departure from God and escape from the Garden of Eden. Do I understand this right?

Zhu Jiuyang: In fact, the “Declaration of the Blind” was not just an expression of the reality, and I never give voice to any political situation. The truth is that I did it more from the perspective of humanity, while mirroring this problem somehow in some way. And ultimately it is an inquiry into human being itself. Aren’t we blind too? In today’s society, how far we are away from the right of true freedom. While the blind is singing to the sighted the rights and freedom of human being, isn’t it the same as enquiring our own hearts?

Luo Fei: Be it the live performance for the “Lost Sheep” or the “Declaration of the Blind”, you have introduced the most marginalized and strange objects to urban life, herds of nomadism for the former and folk storytelling from the mountainous region for the latter. It created a tremendous tension on the site, and formed a sort of confrontation. In the “Lost Sheep”, for example, the hanging sheep was unceasingly moaning and bleating, coupled with the tension between the wolf masked sheep and the rest of the flock. Those blind people performed in the “Declaration of the Blind” were a group of people from the bottom of the society with little education. With a group people joyously singing “Declaration of Human Rights”, just like the bleating sound of the hanging sheep, causing people to watch with embarrassment and anger. I think you have handled the absurdity of the rite well, and it’s like some of the scenes in your paintings. Whether it’s the bleating lamb hanged up in the air or the blind people singing the “Declaration on Human Rights”, they have been place at the center of a theater to be watched, or even be spitted on. It’s absurd and sacred at the same time, just like when Christ was crucified on the cross. It is not the strong that speaks out loud, but the weak that has been scorned at – the helpless lamb and the sightless and unprotected blind – this is what makes your works “absurd”. And its sanctity lies in their effort to give voice for others in spite of their suffering.

Zhu Jiuyang: When the artists look for resources and materials to apply in their creation, they are inseparable from his personal life experience. One winter evening many years ago, I was walking on the darkening road in the countryside. The air was mixed with the smell of soot, then I heard a still small voice: “Delicious konishii-” I saw a man, bending over, was dragging a cart while repeated breathing that one sentence. The small voice was cut to my heart. It occurred to me at the moment that the gentlest voice turned out to be most powerful one.

Luo Fei: Thank you for your sharing!

About “Declaration of the Blind”:
Artist: Zhu Jiuyang
Work: “Declaration of the Blind”
Formats: On-site Photograph, Video
Cooperating Artists: The Blind Storytelling Team from Yanchuan County, Northern Shaanxi
Performance Venues: Beijing Song Zhuang 99 Art Gallery, Original Four-Dimension Art Space
Props: Stage, white cloth, storyteller instruments
Content: “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
Adaptation: Cao Baizhi
Length: About 40 minutes

多重编译——从诗歌到诗歌 从诗歌到视觉艺术

多重编译——从诗歌到诗歌 从诗歌到视觉艺术(TCG诺地卡2015·荷兰—中国诗歌与艺术交流项目)





该项目的理念在双方的共同努力下产生,基本想法是每一个诗歌的译本与来自其他国家的艺术作品相关联。读者、观众和听众会呈现出一个多维和表演性的展览,将诗歌印刷在较大的横幅上,也是展览的一部分。在展览开幕时,艺术家、诗人们会以中文、英文或荷兰语朗诵诗歌。诗歌的讨论、编写、翻译也包含在此次展览中。荷兰AGA的艺术家听取了罗菲的建议,他们的工作主要聚焦在中国知名诗人、纪录片工作者——于坚先生的作品上。荷兰的艺术家将根据于坚的诗歌在纸上或布上创作最新的版画作品。中国昆明的艺术家则根据柯雷(M.van Crevel)翻译成中文的《荷兰现代诗选》选取了瓦萨利斯、戴尔波克、高文纳尔、凡•黑尔、瓦尔蒙特和法弗利等6位荷兰现代诗人的诗歌进行绘画创作。


此次“多重编译:从诗歌到诗歌、从诗歌到视觉艺术”项目的昆明部分将分作三场与本地观众分享,第一场是2015年4月24日晚8点的“于坚诗歌实验表演朗读现场 暨 展览开幕酒会”,第二场是4月25日晚8点的“诗•歌——从诗歌到音乐 现场音乐会”,第三场是4月26日下午2点半的“品读才女张爱玲”品汇人生读书会及相关品鉴活动。


荷兰艺术家:安琪莉可•威斯迈(Angelique van Wesemael)、克里斯蒂娜•霍尔斯道姆(Christina Hallström)、赫尔曼•德伦(Herma Deenen)、玛莎•特布库娃(Masha Trebukova)、纳安•瑞杰科斯(Naan Rijks)、厄休拉•纽鲍尔(Ursula Neubauer)




于坚诗歌实验表演朗读现场 暨 展览开幕酒会




和丽斌 + 云南艺术学院美术学院新表现工作室(赵伟家、王敏姣、王珏琳、刘晓东、李斌红、腾锐妍、黄朝玉、杨蕊菱) + 陈金诚





诗•歌——从诗歌到音乐 现场音乐会









“品读才女张爱玲” 品汇人生读书会










Multiple Adaptations: from Poem to Poem, from Poem to Visual Art

(Chinese-Netherlands Art and Poetry Exchange Project)

Project Background

The project consists of an art exhibition based on poetry and accompanied by poetry readings. The participants are six Chinese artists working with the TCG Nordica, a Kunming art center with strong ties to Scandinavia and six Amsterdam artist/printmakers from the Amsterdams Grafisch Atelier (AGA).

The initiative came from Ursula Neubauer, a longtime member of AGA, who had visited Nordica in November 2012 and met there its artistic director Luo Fei. She found the quality of the Kunming artists and the broad spectrum of activities at the art center very impressive. Nordica, located in an old factory building, radiates a strong communal spirit. It shares the riches of culture with a wide range of visitors via exhibitions, cinema, poetry readings, theater, dance, and a café. AGA is an excellent counterpart to Nordica, for it is vibrant and innovative, with two living/working spaces for artists-in-residence which attract many international artists and interns to work there.
Ursula Neubauer’s prime motivation to organize this long-term project is curiosity about a distant culture, belief in joint projects that expand one’s horizon, and challenge to work in a larger context. She shares these motivations with all the participants, especially Luo Fei, artist, curator and artistic director of Nordica.

The concept of the project was worked out in a joint effort of both sides. The basic idea is that each individual artist correlates a translated poem from the other country with his or her art work. The readers, viewers, and listeners will thus be presented with a multidimensional and performative exhibition: The poems will be printed or written on long banners, as integral part of the exhibition. At the opening of the exhibition they will be recited in Chinese, English, and possibly Dutch. Discussions on poetry and adaptations/ translations could be included in the event. The AGA artists have followed the suggestion of Luo Fei to focus their work on poems by Yu Jian, a well-recognized poet and documentary filmmaker from Kunming, whose works have been translated into many languages. The Dutch artists will present large innovative prints on paper or fabric. The Kunming artists are free in their choice of medium with the exclusion of three dimensional works. They chose their poems from the volume ‘Moderne Nederlandse Poëzie’ translated into Chinese by M.van Crevel.

The project will be presented in Amsterdam and Kunming.

Initiator: Ursula Neubauer (AGA in Amsterdam)

Organizer: Luo Fei (TCG Nordica in Kunming)

Dutch Artists: Angelique van Wesemael, Christina Hallström, Herma Deenen, Masha Trebukova, Naan Rijks, Ursula Neubauer

Chinese Artists: Chang Xiong, Chen Fanyuan, He Libin, Ning Zhi, Su Jiaxi , Su Yabi

Project Execution Team in Kunming: Adam Zhang, Cornelia Newman (SW), Liang Yidan, River He

Graphic Design: Adam Zhang

Co-organized by TCG Nordica Culture Center and Het Amsterdam Grafisch Atelier

Project Sponsor: Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Exhibition Opening Time: 12:00—20:30, Sundays Close, April 24th to May 31st 2015

Venue: TCG Nordica Culture Center, Chuangku, Xiba Lu 101 (Longle Lu 60), Kunming city

Bus: No. 4, 62, 93, 106, 120, 184乙线, Ankang Lu Bus Station, walk along on Yongle Lu for 300 meters.

Tel: 0871-64114692, 64114691

WeChat: tcgnordica

SECTION ONE: 20:00, Fri, April 24th 2015

Opening Reception and Experimental Poetry Reading Performance on Yu Jian’s Poems

Key Words: Poetry, Exhibition, Yu Jian, Performance Art, Crossover Practice

Curator: Luo Fei
Honored Guest Poet: Yu Jian
Performance Artists/The Readers:
Huang Yuejun
Yang Hui
Herma Deenen (NL)
Alibaba’s Brother and Zhang Ziyun (Wild Dog Fang Fang + Go Surfing Village head! + Zhang Ziyun)
Nine Pit Group (Jiang Minghui, Wu Ruomu, Yang Xiongsheng, Dong Xueying, Sang Tian, Ye Qilin)
He Libin + NEW EXPRESSION Studio of Yunnan Arts University (Zhao Weijia, Wang Minjiao, Wang Yulin, Liu Xiaodong, Li Binhong, Teng Ruiyan, Huang Chaoyu, Yang Ruiling) + Chen Jincheng
Language: Chinese, English, Dutch
Free Entrance

SECTION TWO: 20:00, Sat, April 25th 2015

“From Poetry to Music” Live Concert

Key Words: Poetry, Concert, Choir, Tranströmer, Shakespeare, Su Shi

Poems from Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), William Shakespeare (England), Emily Dickinson (US), Su Shi (Song Dynasty, China), Zhang Ruoxu (Tang Dynasty, China) and more…

Musicians: Cornelia Newman (Sweden), Johan Newman (Sweden), Lisa Eriksson (Sweden), Stephanie MacMullin (Sweden), Michael Peng (US), Jin Xiaoyun (China), Zhang Yu (China), Zheng Weijia (China), TCG Nordica Open Choir (China)

Ticket: 40RMB(In Advance), 50RMB(In Door)

Language: Chinese, English, Swedish, German

Ticket Booking: Sending message to TCG Nordica’s WeChat “tcgnordica” or Call: 0871-64114692, 64114691

SECTION THREE: 14:00, Sun, April 26th 2015

Theme: Reading a Talented Woman Zhang Ailing

Key Words: Zhang Ailing, Book Club, Life, Fan of the republic of China

The Guest Speaker: Song Fengying (Professor of Chinese literature of Kunming Collage)

Guzheng Player: Sophia

Related Events: Exhibition Guidance, Appreciation of Chinese Ethnic Music, Dance, Poetry Reading

Language: Chinese

Ticket: 30RMB

Require advance booking: Through TCG Nordica’s WeChat, phone call. Or sending SMS to 13008688624

Zhu Jiuyang: Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation

Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation
An interview with Zhu Jiuyang

Note: Early in the morning on June 4, 2013, I got a phone call from Zhu Jiuyang in Beijing. He introduced me to his current work-in-progress, a piece related to the Yao Jiaxin case.[1] He described how in this work, he wanted to incorporate reflections on the concept of charity, and asked whether I’d be willing to write something about this. He had plans to organize a seminar with Su Xiaohe (an independent literary critic and writer on fin economics) and include the participants’ discussion as part of the work itself. It’s an extremely timely discussion to be having in this day and age, and one of great importance. I realized that this work of Jiuyang’s was destined to be an ambitious, controversial experiment that would require me to reflect on the possibility of mixing Chinese contemporary art with current events and personal development.

At 9pm on the evening of June 5, 2013, we had the following QQ conversation.

Luo Fei: This work of yours reminds me of Wang Nanming’s book “The Rise of Critical Art: The Chinese Problem Situation and Theories of Liberal Society.” He believes that contemporary art is no longer art for art’s sake, nor is it the use of new techniques for technique’s sake. Rather, contemporary art is art that seeks to critique public opinion. This sort of art participates in the same public discourse as the media and popular events. Its core purpose is to bring about “justice” – meaning that it also seeks to advance human rights.
In the Yao Jiaxin case, the judicial aspects of justice were achieved. But on a deeper level, the case provokes a more pointed reflection on the concept of “forgiveness” – an issue that can never be resolved or indeed even influenced by the law. It seems to me that this work of yours on the one hand is a work of critical art that seeks to generate public discussion and uses public events in order to criticize the extreme hatred and pent-up anger present in Chinese society. On the other hand, you discuss public opinion on very personal and even spiritual terms, hoping to bring about the mutual forgiveness that is true basis of any “harmonious society.”[2] Without social justice, without the inner peace and a sense of being at ease with oneself and the world, there can be no true societal “harmony.” How did you first come up with the idea to use the Yao Jiaxin case?

Zhu Jiuyang: When I’m creating works, I honestly don’t think about it so much – sometimes, I just act on a feeling. An artist’s way of working is related to his or her own approach to living life. I wasn’t trying to be express certain problems in a rational or deliberate way, the way a critic would. For the past few years I’ve been painting on an easel, but I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with this and so tried to do some live performance works – ones that would allow me to intervene in society through the medium of art. At the time I was actually thinking of a different project, and the title “Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation” came immediately to mind.
I think biggest problem between people is that we hurt one another. Throughout the whole of human history, there has been violence between people of different ethnicities and of different nations – even between governments and their own people. The only way to escape this sort of pain is forgiveness and reconciliation. At first I didn’t think to bring this idea into my work and didn’t pay too much attention to the Yao Jiaxin case. But later on, I saw the two sides fighting endlessly during the lawsuit, and felt that this event was no longer just a problem that remained between these two families, but rather an indication of a deep-seated socio-cultural problem. It was in fact an event of collective violence, because the whole of society came to participate in it. Even to this day they continue to fight. Everyone uses their own moral compass and sense of what is right to judge everyone else and demonize others. I thought, the only way to leave behind the injuries one has suffered is forgiveness. But does this concept of forgiveness exist in our culture? What helps us understand the feeling of being forgiven? In the end, I decided to create this work.

LUO FEI: You first contacted parties on which side of the case?

ZHU JIUYANG: Honestly, I’m not so great at dealing with interpersonal relationships, and at first was a bit nervous. I first contacted Yao Jiaxin’s family’s lawyer over the internet. When I explained why I’d done so, he told me directly: “There’s no chance of being forgiven, no chance of reconciliation.” I thought even so that this response was also part of my work, and considered going to meet personally with Yao Jiaxin’s father. Last fall, I went to Xi’an, and it just so happened that Dr. Shi Hengtan of the Academy of Social Sciences was also there and intended on going with a friend to call on the Yao family. At the time I didn’t over-think the visit, telling myself that visitors who come with good intentions are never turned away. I even forgot to call in advance, thinking that since I didn’t have his phone number, it might be better to simply show up at his door. I had no idea that Yao Jiaxin’s father would kick us out, chasing us away in such a violent manner.

LUO FEI: I noticed that on June 14, Yao Jiaxin’s father wrote this on Weibo: “Am commemorating the second anniversary of the evacuation of the weiwen troops from my humble home! Sending my thanks to the New City Politics and Law Committee, the Changle Road Police Station, the Changle Road Street Office and other maintenance of stability personnel – for your kind “care and concern” that year, I express my sincere gratitude!” Do you think he wrote this thinly veiled sarcastic message because he didn’t want to push himself back into the heart of the storm of public opinion? Their family was also a victim of the power wielded by the media and public opinion.

ZHU JIUYANG: Perhaps. This was quite a big blow for me. I started to have doubts whether I should continue with my work. Later, I started with a different family, and through them followed a trail of inquiries that finally led me to Zhang Miao’s family. Zhang Miao’s father isn’t an educated man – he’s just an ordinary farmer – but he’s extremely friendly. We talked a lot, and he went over the ins and outs of the event. When I explained why I had come to him, he told me very firmly that he was willing to reconcile with the other family, and also to cooperate with my project. He felt that reconciling with people was always a good thing to do.

LUO FEI: He was willing to forgive the other family?

ZHU JIUYANG: He was very willing. Perhaps he didn’t completely understand what it means to merely “forgive,” but he understood the concept of full “reconciliation.” He even said, “Both children are no longer with us – there’s no need for the adults to continue bearing grudges against each other.”

LUO FEI: I know that you yourseLuo Fei are a Christian. In the Christian faith, there are clear teachings on the matter of forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness stems from the idea that though we are all sinners, we’ve already been forgiven by God, who is pure and righteous. Because of this, Jesus’s grace has entered our lives, and through him, we can forgive those who have sinned against us and even love our enemies. In the Christian faith, the foundation for reconciliation between men is the reconciliation between men and God. When you were speaking to him about pardon and forgiveness, did you speak to him about this?

ZHU JIUYANG: I didn’t say much about it. Because this was an art project, I wanted to say these sorts of things in a different way.

LUO FEI: I see that in the first portion of your work, there is a photo of you and Zhang Miao’s father. You’re dressed in a white robe, looking into the distance. Mist rises from the field, as if it were a fairyland and you were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. You use this ritual approach to highlight a different kind of spiritual freedom that can exist in a world full of hatred.

ZHU JIUYANG: Right. I deliberately chose springtime, wheat fields and a sort of ritual-like approach because I think that all that is most positive, most longed for and most full of love in the world is related to that which is holy and to that which is part of the natural world.

LUO FEI: Why did you want to wear a white robe? It’s as if you were a priest directing the gaze of believers to the world beyond. In a past interview, you said that artists should return to their old function as priests. This photograph seems to illustrate this point.

ZHU JIUYANG: Honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought. At the time I thought the white outfit and the mist were necessary for the image. They endow the image with a sort of upward-looking, yearning feeling. Waiting is a certain manifestation of love, and love is innately a very sacred thing.

LUO FEI: The second portion of your work is a live performance in which you sit together with Zhao Ming’s father waiting for Yao Jiaxin’s father to appear. Did you invite him to attend? How long did you wait?

ZHU JIUYANG: I performed this work during the seventh annual “Guyu Action (谷雨行动)” Performance Art Festival in Xi’An. The furniture came from the Zhang family’s house. I sat down with the old gentleman, and we waited. Before, I’d wanted to contact the Yao family through Weibo, but their lawyers kept scolding me. Since we were unable to get in touch with Yao Jiaxin’s father, we could only use this method to solicit his appearance.

LUO FEI: In your performance, you don’t lay out any objects related to the case itself, such as the car that caused the accidents, the fruit knife, or even any photographs of the people involved, relevant dates, license plate numbers, and so on. What I mean is, the scene appears very calm instead of dramatic.

ZHU JIUYANG: The stage was set very simply. There was a table and two chairs. I took the old man’s hand in mine, led him to his seat, and then came down. We sat until the majority of the audience had already left, and then I went back up and took his hand again to lead him back down. It ended up being a few dozens minutes of quiet waiting.

LUO FEI: How did he feel about the project?

ZHU JIUYANG: I really didn’t ask him. He’s an especially straightforward man, and didn’t express much. He was just willing – willing to reconcile, willing to be waiting there together for the other man to appear. I think this is due to his nature.

LUO FEI: This event also reminds me of Beicun’s novel “I Have a Meeting with God.” The first half of the story is about a murderer struggling with whether he should plead guilty. The second half is about the victim’s family and whether they should forgive this admittedly guilty person. The story is fascinating, and also goes into the supposed public reaction to the incident, with most people divided into two camps that fought to the bitter end over whether the good man could go to hell while the repentant villain went to heaven. Really, though, the question of whether the involved parties could possibly forgive each other is one that can only be resolved by the profound struggle within their own hearts. Third parties like the general public and the media are always immersed in mere rhetorical flourishes and moral arguments.
There is in fact an advantage to literature, which is its narrativity. It is able in a single to story to depict all sorts of inner struggle. As a contemporary artist, a visual artist, what mode can one use to fully express this kind of human complexity? To depict not just the assumption that peace will be made, but also the spiritual journey from hatred to reconciliation, from inhibition to liberation? This is a great challenge for an artist.

ZHU JIUYANG: Yes, visual language must extract the essence of a lot of different things, put them together, and use a very simple image to express the sum. Unlike literature, it has no narrative, which is very challenging for artists’ own ability to seize images.

LUO FEI: Consider, for example, a work of Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen’s called “Waiting for Everyone to Fall Asleep.” During the night, he stood outside an apartment complex and didn’t leave until all the people inside had turned out their lights and gone to bed. There’s also his piece “Waiting for a Friend,” in which he stood in the Kowloon Tong MTR Station until a person he recognized did in fact appear. These are all works associated with the concept of “waiting.” He says, “Time acquires meaning because of waiting.” I’m thinking, if you had taken your work beyond mere “waiting” and tried to attain some form of achievable “reconciliation,” it might have been even stronger. For example, if you had searched the whole country for another man named Yao Qingwei (Yao Jiaxin’s father) and befriended him. Then you would have achieved “reconciliation” within the logic of your own artistic concept.

ZHU JIUYANG: I still don’t totally understand these works. Perhaps there are many other works like them. I think your idea is a good one, but the crux of this piece remains its ability to reflect our societal problems rather than something more conceptual. I think this is a serious point to make: that we must wait until the day they finally reconcile. The focus on this social aspect makes the work purer.

LUO FEI: Now more and more television programs publicly broadcast the breakdown of marriages, of relationships between neighbors, between wives and mother-in-laws, parents and children. It’s sparked debate over whether the media is convincing people to consume the suffering of others. Crises in interpersonal relationships evolve into a form of entertainment, and those who initially intend to accept others end up instead being ridiculed. We all seem to underestimate the media’s influence on public opinion. What do you consider the artist’s role in these sorts of public spectacles to be?

ZHU JIUYANG: When I was creating this work, I also considered whether doing so would bring them further pain. I often would put myself in their shoes to think it over. As an artist, I came up with an abstract concept that generated discussion. When artists use their works as a way to participate in public discourse, our duty is to enter into these works in a responsible manner. For example, I have to consider whether creating this work is in line with the rest of my artistic vision. I’ll say it again, artists should return to their role as priests. The priest is that person who stands between man and his fellow man, and between men and god.
In this work I wanted to express the following questions. 1) In our spiritual lives, we are missing a form of love that goes beyond the carnal. If we each judge others from a position of moral superiority, by what standards do we determine our own righteousness? 2) In our culture, we typically mourn the victim and hate the murderer. We lack the ability to feel sorry for both victim and murderer at once. Yu Hong once wrote, “We lack a conviction that all life is of equal value.” 3) If it’s not possible to popularize such values, then is it even possible to have forgiveness in our lives? Why is our culture and society always trapped in a cycle of violence? We may be able to use hatred to bind the wound, but within there is still decay.
Before making this work, I watched a movie called “Life’s Collisions,” which is about the car accident of a Chinese exchange student in South Africa. The incident ends in a manner beyond any Chinese person’s expectations, with the victim’s family not only deciding not to prosecute the person responsible for the accident but even going so far as to comfort the perpetrator’s family, saying, “This was an accident; you shouldn’t be too upset.” Also there’s the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which the killer Seung-Hui Cho and his 32 victims were together all subjects of public mourning. These are all things that we have never encountered in our culture.

LUO FEI: Do you believe that reconciliation is possible between the two families?

ZHU JIUYANG: I believe that they will reconcile. This work is not yet over – it won’t be until they reconcile. I will continue to keep in touch with them. I don’t know how many years it will take. I might have to wait a lifetime until I’m able to hold hands with the elders of both families.

LUO FEI: The completion of your work depends on how determined the two families are to finally put their hearts at ease.



[1]. The Yao Jiaxin case, called “10•20” by the Xi’an police, was a homicide case involving a college student of the same name. On October 20, 2010 in the middle of the night on Xuefu Boulvard in the university district of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, Yao accidentally hit a pedestrian. When he got out of his car and found the victim Zhang Miao noting down his license plate number, he took out a knife, stabbed him eight times and drove away, leaving him for dead. While fleeing the scene, he then hit yet another pedestrian at the entrance to Guodu Nan Village, and was surrounded this time by witnesses who detained him and called the police. After the matter was reported by the media, it was a cause of great concern for the Ministry of Public Security. On January 8, 2011, Yao Jiaxin underwent a public trial for “intentional homicide” at the Xi’an Municipal People’s Procuratorate. At 8am on June 7, he was executed via lethal injection in Xi’an.
[2]. “Harmonious society,” a concept also known by its full title “Harmonious Socialist Society,” was proposed in 2004 by the Chinese Communist Party as a strategic target for China’s social development. It refers to a social state in which all sectors of society are in harmony, on good terms with each other, and working together with one mind. The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee formally proposed this concept of “Building a Harmonious Socialist Society” during its fourth plenary session on September 19, 2004. The abbreviation “harmonious society” has since come to stand for this concept in its entirety.

to start from art 400* Translated by Becky Davis 本文中文原文请点击这里

* This interview has been published in the book of <To Start From Art 从艺术出发>, written by Luo Fei

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.


The Poetic World of Everyday Life: The Memory Zone of Su Yabi


Everyday Poetic Conception: The Memory Zone of Su Yabi

Curator: Luo Fei
Artist: Su Yabi
Art Review: Liao Wen
Artistic Support: Sun Guojuan
Opening Reception: 8pm, Nov 8th 2014
Exhibition Duration: Nov 8th to Dec 3rd 2014
TCG Nordica Gallery, Chuangku, xibalu 101, Kunming
Host by TCG Nordica
Co-sponsor: Fine Art Academy of Dali Collage
Tel: 0871-64114692

The Poetic World of Everyday Life – The Memory Zone of Su Yabi

by Liao Wen

In the summer of 2002, I went to Dali to avoid summer hotness. Guojuan Sun, an artist in Kunming, advised me to visit a girl named Su Yabi , whose paintings are very special. Judging from my common sense, a place named “Xiaguan” must be a natural vital water and land communication line, however when I finally arrived at Xiaguan of Dali after spending several hours on a long-distance bus, I hardly connected the scene in front of me with my former imagination.

In my memory, Xiaguan in those years was just a small town full of a large stretch of messy simple buildings, which appeared extraordinarily higgledy-piggledy scattered in the bright and beautiful Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake.Su Yabi showed me around the small town which she lived in; I habitually mobilized all my senses to feel this new place. With my special curiosity and observation, I often can see something that is invisible to others, but the small town left me was nothing but lack of aesthetic characters. Nothing was eye-catching for me.

At that time, she was a recent college graduate, and was sharing a building of a battery plant with a few young artists to draw in. The building was almost empty with a few crooked cement pillars. The white lime walls peeled off and scattered here and there. Water even lingered in the hollow parts of the uneven cement ground. The security window welded up in scrap metal materials ruthlessly cut the blue sky and white clouds into pieces. Paintings by these young artists were placed against the wall, all in dim colors and without clear dividing lines
To my surprise, this crushed aesthetic system and embarrassing scene looks extraordinarily superb in her paintings. She touched and described the daily things like wardrobes, beds, light bulbs, locks, dresses, scarves, umbrellas, combs, brushes, slippers, brooches from a unique perspective, and also the iron railing through the security window, the pipe, the high tension line, television tower, building, automobile, faucet and other things that were visible from inside to outside, the underwear, tooth mug, thermos, clocks, chairs that could be seen from the outside. They were scattering desultorily in the picture and even the modeling, proportion, color, and position seemed less reasonable (Some were almost floating in the air), but as a whole they were completely enveloped in a fine, soft, simple atmosphere. The tone of her paintings she selected was like faded old photos. Occasionally she also abstemiously used gray monochrome color, which resembled colored old photos. Her style of painting was fuzzy, plane, and carefree, as if she casually touched the petty objects in her memory, letting her feeling flow like mist. It was in mediocre and trivial everyday that she endowed them with a poetic world. She named these works as ‘Everyday Memory’, she said: “I have been recording the moments of my life and the scenes I experienced in a visual way to restore the relaxation and simplicity of their own in limited colors to draw in the canvas”.

Afterwards, she began to weave the day-to-day objects she used to draw repeatedly for many years with a fine flexible metal wire, turning plane brushwork into three-dimensional knit. Knit is the most familiar way to women, for their daily life is closely-related with it; they weave clothes with thread, articles for daily use with bamboo, and love with emotions. Weaving for women is not only a kind of making method, but a way of life. Despite the objects she made with metal wire appeared blank and dazzling as if they were emptied out, the vaguely-outlined objects woven with shiny and burnished metal wires one by one that are tangible and visible are closely-knitted with daily life. I guess these images combining virtual and actual characters are more close to her memory, and weaving is like a spiritual practice, just as she said: “many of my memory can be retrieved”, which are closest to her state of mind.

Actually, whether painting or weaving, for Su Yabi , the relationship between mood and feeling is the same. And some of her works blending with both skills are more exquisite and rich visually and sensuously.

A wave of warmth swept through my heart whenever I enjoyed her works. In a time full of chaotic information and farraginous values, she still keeps a poetic state of mind and curiosity about the most mediocre town and the ordinary daily life. There must be a supernormal beautiful mind filled with fragrance and emotion.

In September 2014 in Songzhuang, Beijing

A Sense of Poetry Emerging in the Everyday

By Luo Fei

In the eyes of many people, art seems to be “useless,” however, as for me, the reason why I hold that art is “useful”, is that the artists open a new window for us, enabling us to see the extraordinary from the ordinary, to see the reality hided in the little trivial daily experiences which is namely the poetic reality. These artworks filled with poetic realities tend to remind people to slow down to reflect the surroundings, and then to give feedback to the heart, then the inner turbulent can be expressed through the specific form such as art.

Spiritual expression is the common concern of some local artists. Through description of the mind and inquiry, the artists transformed from craftsman to the soul watchmen. Su Yabi from Dali is such an artist. She graduated from Yunnan Arts University in 1998, majored in oil painting. Since the university times , she has been fascinated by the everyday things in the room, such as the hairbrushes used dust removals, pins, wardrobes, combs, dresses, dressers and other household items. She, in the form of painting and knitting iron wire, endowed these everyday objects with personal emotion and mind, and wove layers of poetic reality.

As far as I m concerned, the poetic feeling in her painting is a mild sense of drift. The daily things in her pictures show kind of weightless feeling. They impress people with the images slowly drifting and then rising in the air. The dresses seem to be in wonderland, the scarf flood like the tide, the sharpest head of the pins are always reluctant to hide. These items run away from the drawers and closets, which seems to get rid of the restrictions of established order and center to seek more freedom. All these are carried out in a gentle way, even in the form of memory to describe the state of their disobedience. Because in the pictures we always encounter the same items closely related to the deepest memory of the artiest. They struggle for freedom from the institutionalized space lack of imagination. This kind of “fleeing from the reality” is not only a way to show disobedience but also a kind of drifting.

That’s the reason why I said these items are in possession with mind and become the symbols of the states of being. In her art, I saw that people as a being to present the poetic feeling and resist meaningless existence, that human as a being of pursuing freedom and fighting against the fate, that man as a being that go beyond the material world and disobey alienation. At this level, the art, in a seemingly useless way, impacted us to the greatest extent, that is, it ensures man as spiritual being, and by which arouse the same sympathy and strike a responsive chord among people.

Just need to slow down, gaze for a minute, and listen to the heart with her. Then you will feel a sense of poetry emerging in the everyday.

On the night of October 16 2014

Her Poetic World and Passionate Mind: An Interview With Su Yabi

Her Poetic World and Passionate Mind: An Interview With Su Yabi

By Luo Fei, the Curator of TCG Nordica Gallery

Date: in the morning of July 5, 2014

Location: Dali Experimental Primary School

Luo: Could you please make a brief introduction about your art experience?

Su: I graduated from the Affiliated High School of Yunnan Arts University in 1994 and from the No. 2 Oil Painting Studio of the Department of Arts in Yunnan Arts University in 1998. When I was a student, I began to pay close attention to everyday objects around me in my painting and recently I stared to involve other materials in my works. Actually, these everyday objects in different stages are not the same for me in my heart.

Cabinet, Oil on canvas, 115x150cm,2012

Cabinet, Oil on canvas, 115x150cm,2012

Luo: What inspired you to draw these everyday objects?

Su: I was alone at the dormitory when I was in my university. The dormitory was particularly quiet, and many things scattered in the dormitory and windowsill. At that time, the view outside the window was not so charming, with not well-organized factory complexes and a big chimney, especially when the smog rolled up from it, a sense of melancholy devoured me, yet, it was poetic to me. I started to draw them in my sketchbook and Xuhui Mao, my teacher, caught a sight of it in his class. Then he carefully observed each page and asked some questions. He encouraged me a lot, driving me move on in the process of painting these objects.

Luo: Could you please share with me something about the brush in the picture?

Su: This long brush was used to make bed in my family when I was a child. As a scrubbing brush, it made beds smooth and tidy with just a gentle move. I thought its shape was unique and attractive, and full of magic, so I favored it at an early age.

Luo: How about the wardrobe with mirrored the scenery?

Su: While I was drawing the wardrobe, the indoor and outdoor scenes and objects were reflected in the mirror of the wardrobe, which formed a fancy vision.

Luo: Later, we see the tidal spindrift flowing out of the drawer in the wardrobe.

Su: It is just a visual change. Actually, it is a scarf, but looks like spindrift visually.

Luo: Yes, you portrayed it like tidal water pouring out, which filled with Magic Realism feeling. It recalled me the magic wardrobe in the movie “the Chronicles of Narnia” in which a world of myths exist.

Su: That is true; at that time, I was fascinated with this kind of painting. Therefore, I intended to make it look magic. I painted it in the end of 2012, which was regarded as the doomsday by a large number of people even if I did not believe it. In addition, some small earthquakes happened several times in Dali and some precaution trainings against earthquake were frequently organized at school, so some anxious mood and inclined houses were expressed in it. However, when I was portraying this scarf, I tried to avoid its real appearance as far as possible. I am glad you can sense its magical feeling.

Luo: Why the pin appears in many of your paintings?

Su: Well, it is a kind of visual needs.

Luo: These pins were open which are the only sharp-pointed ones in the pictures and can cause harm to a person if he is careless. Although the entire painting is very calm and very stable, there is always a sharp-pointed object inside. Is it a metaphor for your inner world?

Su: First, it is for the aesthetic account. If it is closed, it will not look like as beautiful as the open one. In addition, I prefer the low-key objects even if it’s sharp. It is peaceful as a whole, but also retains the unique character. Just like human being, keeping one’s personal individuality, the pointed parts, do matters.

Luo: What do you want to express through your paintings?

Su: I want to express myself by drawing, which has become a very important part of my life and has already accompanied me for many years.

Luo: Your paintings are filled with poetic feeling.

Su: That is what I focus on when selecting the items to describe.

Luo: How do you make them full of poetry?

Su: I don’t think it’s I who make them poetic, but they themselves are full of poetry. For example, the smoke rolling up from the chimney gone with the wind gently and slowly is poetic, so is the simple and delicate pin, whether it’s open or curved, it is elegant.

Luo: Some of your works are made of iron wire, when did you start this?

Su: One day in 2008, by chance, I saw some friends making jewelry with tiny and pliable metal wires at a friend’s place and I joined. It recalled me the bird-nest that my father made for me when I was a little girl. With some cotton bird eggs in, it once brought a sum of happiness for my childhood. I earnestly wish that I could make a basket in metal wire at that time but failed to make it as I wish, which frustrated me. That day in my friend’s place, I realized the key to this material. Its function is not only restricted in decoration and then I fall in love with it. There was no symbolic significance in the metal wires of my paintings. What intrigues me is the simple and flexible character of the wires. The thread is closely related with fragility, inability, fickleness in my world, but the metal wire is ductile, which can be hard or soft, straight or curved, adding the creativity of my works.

Sometimes I doubted myself for being too conservative to make a breakthrough whether in concepts or the materials. However, for me, it is too difficult to create or design something that is not related with my daily life. If I betray my heart, I will fell a sense of splitting up with the reality. In fact, even if I have been keeping painting everyday objects since 1997, I did made some adjustments and breakthrough in each stage with an overall look. Since the masters did so, I began to trust myself and be brave again.

Luo: What do you think of the detailed changes in your work over the years?

Su: I have focused on painting everyday objects or everyday scenarios starting from 1996, in canvas and paper. I tried to use conventional materials, such as charcoal, pencil, propylene in the canvas. Painting for me should be free, and what matters is all of these can be placed in the same isomorphic level. In 1999, I began to draw on paper. The relaxing and unadorned style attracted me greatly. Moreover, it is closest to my everyday life. I have been looking for the simple and ordinary “everyday feeling” no matter in the canvas or paper. In 2008, I felt like seeing an old friend at the sight of the metal wire at my friend’s place because the line for me is the simplest and most essential expression way. Whether painting with lines or weaving in metal wires, what draws in me is the contradictory feature of being simple and feasible. I joined the Needlework with Wen Liao as the curator, initiating the creation of works blending drawing, knitting and embroidery.

Bed, Oil on canvas, 110x80cm, 2014

Bed, Oil on canvas, 110x80cm, 2014

Luo: You are one of the artists who took part in Nordica International Project very early, such as “Sugar and Salt” in 2003. Looking back this project, how do you evaluate this project? What is the effect on you?

Su: The participants not only included the artists but also litterateurs, scripter. People from different fields assembled, working together, which was fresh for all of us and deeply affected us. I still remembered clearly that a Swedish artist, whose work is designing with textile, knitted a non-objective figure in woolen yarn then immersed it into the sweet water. After a while, it became erect after taking out of the water. It was so magic and funny, which triggered my curiosity about everything, especially the materials.

Luo: Except that, you also took part in another project- Bridge in 2012, with 10 years’ span. Is there any changes compared with the former one?

Su: Yes, the most obvious one is that all the artists are female in the first time while there were some male artists joined for the second time. As for the manners of working and works, one is feminine while the other is rather masculine. Of course, I like both of them. Libin and you also attended in “Bridge” project with some male Swedish artists. The common character is all the Swedish artists of both projects, both male and female, are more independent and more active. In “Sugar and Salt”, the impact and collaboration between artists were emphasized, and communications were carried out in games or in the process of creativity. While in “Bridge” project, we worked more independently to keep individuality. In addition, they also provided us opportunities to collaborate jointly. We could pay visits to their studios in Sweden, which filled with freshness and strangeness.

Luo: Do you think is it important to distinguish female artists and male artists?

Su: I don’t think so. However, I feel obviously different. In first project, we did not have any detailed plans, so we advanced the project at will. However, in “Bridge” project, each person had to finish the tasks allocated high-efficiently. The division of labor was very clear and you have no time to waste. The differences might be related to the characteristics of the projects. In “Sugar and Salt” project, we got more surprises in the process of continual experiments, for the project spanned a long time, which granted us more time to try. Moreover, the field of Nordica was large enough for us to do more experiments.

Luo: How do you think of the feminist art?

Su: I think this is a manner.

Luo: Is it a strategy?

Su: It’s not a strategy but a way to experience, to see and to express. In 2002 Guojuan Sun told me all of the activities and artists in “Long March-A Dialogue with Judy Chicago in Lugu Lake” are related with feminist art. This was my first contact of feminist art activities. However, even now, the feminist arts still fail to get her due respect and understanding, for we often heard people describe the works of some female artists “too soft” “too feminine” or any other superficial vocabularies. The female artists were just regarded them as the setoffs of the male artists, rather as an independent and integrated individual. In addition, the concept of feminist art is too conceptual and often is misinterpreted, the characters such as ‘soft’ or ‘tedious’, ‘exquisite ‘are not the elusive to female artists. Some male artists also have these features in their works.

Luo: You often went to participate in some exhibitions held in other places, what do you think of Yunnan’s artist?

Su: They pay close attention to everything closely connected with their life. They respect for themselves, and do not ingratiate themselves with anyone. I really appreciate the artists in Yunnan Province. When I attended the exhibition in Beijing, I found their works special. They were not eye-catching and conspicuous at first sight, but they were full of sincerity with immersed love for life and warmth touched by the environments.

Luo: Is art to express one’s inner world?

Su: Everyone’s need for art is not equal. For me, art is to express myself, to record life, or to explore the artistic languages in different phases. It changes with my experiences. In addition, the other important factor is what I want to express in the bottom of my heart. As for the way how you express it, it is advised to go back to the construction of artistic language. If there is no support of the artistic languages, our minds and ideas will be unknown, even misinterpreted.