Memories Drifting Across The Room

Lu Lirong’s hometown, Video Environment projection, 2020

Memories drifting across the room

Text: Luo Fei
English Editor: WenLan

Over the past three decades, the description of Chinese contemporary art has largely consisted of a series of macro narratives about the present and the future around mainstream topics such as globalization, identity politics and consumer society. The recent COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing uncertainty of global mobility, the atomization of individuals and the fragile reality of interpersonal relationships seem to make people want to look back to the past and reflect on those experiences of growth and intimate relationships. This looking back may provide some comfort to our current state of fragility and uneasiness. In the science fiction novel “Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), humans in crisis constantly spit out the memories of a golden age, ruminating on them at leisure. In the novel, the UN Secretary General launches the Human Memorial Project which collects materials and objects that represent the memory of human civilization. These materials of civilization, these human diaries and other objects are ultimately sent off into space with unmanned spaceships and released. Whether in times of crisis or in more prosperous times, memories and memorials are essential, because people are forgetful animals.

The recovery of personal memories that have been involved in the torrent of history forms a description of the history of personal growth. It is a method that diverts from cultural integrity or social framework. This kind of work starts with a partial description of something: lingering images, a traumatic experience or unforgettable years. Sometimes, artists will start by unconsciously collecting everyday objects, and these will result in a story by themselves. This practice has already produced some excellent works in Chinese contemporary art. Song Dong’s (宋冬) early video works document him stroking his father’s body and collecting old things in cooperation with his mother. He Chengyao (何成瑶) took a nude photo with his mother suffering from mental illness. Ma Qiusha (马秋莎) talks about her experience of repressed development with a knife in her mouth, and so on. These traces with loved ones and their own past also constitute a process of self-healing, a path to growth and reconciliation. These micro-narratives based on personal development history and family relations constitute another clue to understanding Chinese contemporary art, which is rooted in Asian society in general and interpersonal relationships in China in particular. This provides us with an angle to view the next two rooms with.

Lu Lirong’s hometown, Video Environment projection, 2020
Lu Lirong’s hometown, Video Environment projection, 2020

Lu Lirong’s room

Lu Lirong (吕丽蓉)is from Yuanling County (沅陵县) in Huaihua (怀化), western Hunan Province. Her parents are both local middle school teachers. Lu Lirong and her younger brother enjoyed a comfortable and warm family life in the 1980s. In Lu Lirong’s memory, her parents often visited the small town to find skilled tailors to have fashionable clothes and skirts they saw in magazines made. New clothes were worn almost every month. This was the most exciting memory of Lu Lirong’s childhood.

Lu Lirong attaches great importance to familial affection. Subtle things and scenes will evoke her yearning for her family, which is inseparable from the harmonious and warm family environment she experienced as a child. Almost every week they would walk down the mountain road to their grandmother’s house, a smoke-blackened timber house filled with the smell of burning wood. Here, she would sit by the fire and watch the adults chat. Since childhood, she has had a particularly close relationship with her father. She can still recall the image of her father carrying her in a bamboo basket on his chest, and the smell of fried meat with chili peppers cooked by her father. However, when she was fifteen years old, her father fell ill and passed away. From then on, her mother carried the burden of managing the family on her own. At 24 years old, Lu Lirong had just started working, and then her mother died. She collected and sorted out her mother’s belongings, which mostly consisted of her clothes. These clothes, a whole pile of them, had always been with her. Even the quilt that was made by the family for her mother when she was ill in hospital is still preserved today. Lu Lirong said that she was reluctant to throw it away in order to preserve her mother’s smell. All items of her mother’s clothing are still well kept, and in Lu Lirong’s later creations they have become lingering images.

Lu Lirong not only collects the everyday belongings from her parents and grandparents. Over the past two years, since she became a mother, she has also deliberately collected biological samples. After giving birth to her second child in 2019, Lu Lirong saved the placenta, together with a glass of breast milk. These particular samples originate from the unique human tissues and liquids of a mother’s body, and they also become “items” that the artist intends to keep. They are the link between her mother’s world and the world of her child, and represent the biological cycles of gestation and nutrition. They maintain Lu Lirong’s imagination of the maternal realm and the memory of the family. In another recent exhibition, she created a womb-like environment where people can step inside and experience the baby sounds.

These clues provide us with two key words to understand Lu Lirong’s artistic creation: maternal imagination and family memory. Lu Lirong consciously collects the relics left by her family: clothes, bedding, unprocessed fabrics, and even the wooden pillars of abandoned houses in her grandmother’s village. All of this she carried to her studio in Kunming, as if she could rebuild the Yuanling home of her memories at any time. Lu Lirong’s room at Wu Art Space is therefore an autobiographical memory space, built with these columns.

In this memory space, these objects seem to have retained the smell, breath, gestures and even thoughts of the preceding owners. In Lu Lirong’s room, these objects will tell us about their past and present lives. They will tell us about the spiritual world of their owners, without having to wander in the boundless darkness of space.

Lei Yan, Sacred Objects, paper sculpture, 2020
Lei Yan, Sacred Objects, paper sculpture, 2020

Lei Yan’s room

Completely different from the upbringing environment of post-80s artist Lu Lirong, Lei Yan (雷燕) was born in a military family in the 1950s, when a career in the military was regarded as the ideal. Her parents and two sisters are all soldiers. Lei Yan joined the army at the age of 14 remained a soldier for 30 years. It is hard to imagine that this delicate woman has participated in many front-line battles. As soon as she became a recruit, she joined the Laos resistance against the US. Later, she battled in the defense against Vietnam. Lei Yan has performed exemplary service in the army. Her roles have included soldier, cook, health worker, nurse, drawing technician, technician, office employee and so on. Her artistic ability, evident since childhood, has also been recognized by the military. Her works have been exhibited in the National Army Art Exhibition. In the late 1980s, Lei Yan was admitted to the PLA Academy of Arts in Beijing, and here her horizons were broadened. In the late 1990s, she commenced contemporary art creation based on photography and installation. In 2001, she and her friend Song Ziping (宋梓萍) set up a studio in the Chuangku Art Community (创库艺术社区) in Kunming and regularly participated in international art exchange programs. Among her peers, she has a unique career span and rich life experience.

Military life shapes people, and it does so in more ways than making a person part of commandeered collective action through absolute discipline and obedience. On a personal level, she usually hid or suppressed some of her emotions. For someone was not only born into a military family but also grew up in the army, her destiny to become a disciplined, capable and strong character was sealed since before she was born. As is often the case with individuals with strong self-awareness, she consciously notes her own mental state. She privately observes innocuous or, conversely, unusual places and imagines something impractical. These underlying emotions and thoughts find a suitable place to hide, until one day their host invites them to the forefront. For example, in one of Lei Yan’s early oil paintings, a soldier is suspended in the air like a curious child, gazing into the distance with a pair of binoculars.

On display in Lei Yan’s room is a series of “Sacred Objects”. She has been creating these objects since 2016, continuing the artist’s long-time interest in handmade objects and materials. She uses transparent sulfuric acid paper to recreate military objects such as sickles, axes, grenades, mortars, kettles, bugles, candlesticks, satchels, bullet bags, communication equipment, shoes and caps. For a soldier with 30 years of military experience, these objects are the everyday objects that accompanied her military career. These objects also come from scenes that linger in her mind: the daily drills, intense military operations, everything that can happen when you hold your ground.

Sulfuric acid paper is a fragile but highly malleable material. Molded into objects by the artist they look wrinkled, following a specific rubbing process. They look like stone tablets, solemn and quiet in the dim light. They stand like monuments of the artist’s personal history of her development. The works evoke memories of her past life at any time, as if it was a lifetime ago.

Soldiers generally don’t project private attributes, but Lei Yan has transformed these collective military objects into images with private memories and poetic imagination. In this collection of works, the heavy weight of war and history is transformed by an almost frivolous sense of touch. The works can be easily crumpled, bringing a sense of disturbance. This is precisely the effect of this group of works in terms of material, form and feeling. They reflect the artist’s sensitivity to materials. These paper sculptures no longer just seem to be an artist’s imitation of an original. They appear to be a layer of skin shed by the original, left behind in Lei Yan’s memory space.

Lei Yan, Sacred Objects, paper sculpture, 2020

In the two rooms created by Lu Lirong and Lei Yan the histories of their personal development have been captured, described and commemorated in the form of objects. This has been conceived through reflection on their past lives, the preservation, shaping and narration of themselves or their family and the recovery of personal memories that have been involved in the torrent of history. These images, which were flickering in the depths of consciousness, have briefly been solidified in their respective rooms, and we are invited to enter them and meet them.

Written in a rainy night, Kunming
3 Nov, 2020


The Roving Figures: The drawings of Karin Häll

The Roving Figures
– The drawings of Karin Häll

I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor.
– Tomas Tranströmer

Swedish artist Karin Häll stuck several sketches of different sizes and shapes on the walls of her studio in Chuangku art community at Kunming: An eye, a tree, some gloomy faces, and The Life and Work, an artist’s handmade book from the coarse sandpaper. I was fascinated by the figures on these randomly arranged scrapes. They were lively yet slightly gloomy. It seemed as if they were talking to each other, yet they seem to have nothing to do with each other. These are moments from “life and work”, and figures invited by the artist to present themselves in between.

Karin was fond of drawing since she was a child. She was seriously criticized by the teacher for sketching in the textbooks, and was even asked to restore the books back to how they were look like. I can very much relate to her experience. Workbooks, textbooks, desks and walls could all be our canvas. No one can stop a person from drawing, just as you can’t stop a child from growing up.

We used to hike together on the outskirts of Kunming, enjoying the nature and overlooking the city. Drawing, she says, is much like hiking. It makes one relieved from the mental pressure. There is no pressure from “self-judgment” to do “official works”. I totally agree with that. Casual painting is very similar to hiking or walking. No specific reason or goal is needed. You’re just walking and drawing. After letting go the inner anxiety, you feel very much refreshed. They also often give people the illusion that we are busy and focused. In fact, more often than not, we are just being idle and distracted. It is said that the mind works best when distracted. Thoughts emerge naturally in inactivity, and then vanish automatically. Figures become the extension of roving thoughts, which in turn leads people to association and observing. That’s how we got the figures on the scraps of Karin’s paper. They are like the footprints of hiking in the hills, fresh, natural, firm and steady.

Karin’s drawings feature powerful lines and bold color bulks, emphasizing the contour of the figures and the stereoscopic aspect of them. This may have something to do with her sculpture practice. Her figures always start with bulky objects. In a recent exhibition, Karin used sculpture and finished products to make scattered black blocks on the wall. It seems as if they were fragments floating in the air or debris salvaged from the sea. In another work, “The Order of Things”, she put gloves, boots, books, plants, flowerpots and mud balls on a hilly setting of artificial hair. That very much reminds us the spaces in Giotto’s paintings, and the grotesque rocky mountains. The “finished” sculptures also offer us glimpses of Karin’s daily drawing practices: moving lines, wraparound bulks, and simple forms. Generally speaking, Karin would keep objects and figures apart from each other. But she could somehow make them associated with each other intrinsically. Those objects or figures are usually only half done. Or that’s how she intents people to see. This makes the figures detached from the roving thoughts, while the viewer’s attention is channeled to wander among the objects. She keeps the objects malleable, maintains the traces, and exposes the undertone. These are the labor work of her hands – covering, modifying, smearing, and emphasizing. That’s also how Karin works on her drawings. The traces of daubing and emphasizing are visible, and the paper being cut, bound, sewed and stuck. Although the drawings seem casual and were done freely, they demonstrate how she can control over the figures and strength to get particular feelings noticed. I think that’s the spirit.

As far as I can see, these figures are different moments from “life and work” that share common spiritual temperaments – fun, mysterious, and gloomy. For example, she likes to draw her left hand, figures from Nordic mythology, portraits shrouded in contemplation, and faces in the shadows. Besides, there are more bulky figures, such as houses, clouds, shoes, gloves, etc. This temperament might have come from the unique spiritual realm of northern Europe, championing simplicity and black. It reminds me of the patients in the ward of Munch’s paintings. Of course, there are some lovely and fun figures too. These figures, which are not deliberately created, have the same spiritual temperament. This is like a person who walks in a certain gait and posture that can be recognized from a distance.
An artist’s drawing is the most private stage, in which figures or texts are slowly come to present themselves. While the artist acts as the master of ceremonies, the figures come to look for their creator. It’s like how the Swedish poet Tranströmer put it that it’s not he who was looking for the lines, but the poems seek for him, begging to be presented. This is a mysterious process. Because of this, an artist or poet is not working on a mission that must be accomplished. Instead of forcing herself to create masterpieces, she just shares this process with others.

Without setting any frames and goals, she paints and smears freely. This is like natural breathing, strolling in the mountains, enjoying moments of silence, and preparing the figures to emerge. This is the pleasure and reflection brought to me by the mysterious and wonderful drawings of Karin Häll.

Luo Fei
September 30, 2019, Afternoon
Prague Cafe, Kunming
Translated by Nathan XiaoThe Roving Figures
– The drawings of Karin Häll



弗雷德里克·费慕林 Fredrik Fermelin(瑞典) 和丽斌
刘辉 杨鼎 饶建雄 李思雨 王成龙 张龙 蒋才 何汝婷 蒋启建 董春文 刀继成
刘再明 杨振琦 段宇航 邵琳鉴 王胜凯 李振宇 刘俊妤 张俊鹏 焦勇 刘梦云 梁紫瑞 黄梓恒 李红梅 魏陆婕 刘宇 李涛 陶昱希 晋锐娜 白再阳 汤邵元 和玉菊 张磊 马隽哲 徐国鑫 卞文俊 马煜程 杨琪 周子晋 张晨阳 闻宽 安炤宇 杨杰 李华 傅尔加周
现场音乐:Eilev Stoveland Dekko(挪威),Fredrik Fermelin(瑞典)


文: 罗菲







Outrageous, like a painting.

Outrageous, like a painting.
text: Luo Fei
editor in English: Sanne Raabjerg

Painting is probably one of the most intimate and vexing things in the art world today. It always provides stories about itself. These stories set a lot of road signs for later painters. Sometimes, it heralds some sort of end, and sometimes it heralds a return. More frequently, it is just an ancient game that makes people feel like they can continue on their paths. For many painters, painting is just a matter of their own interest, and the continuing growth of their vision and craftsmanship is fascinating, and nothing more.

But painting today is no longer the wild land of artists. Today’s artists are not only facing painting itself, but also the entire art world. People go from looking for breakthroughs, in the methods of painting, in the way of seeing images and in the performative part of painting, to painting the possibility of “painting a painting” and to painting the matter of “painting”. This does not only make “painting” more complicated, but it also makes “seeing paintings” more complicated, since they are no longer as intuitive. The task of painting is no longer just to represent or express something, but to provide different possibilities in “painting” and “seeing”. Correspondingly, this is the starting point of our exhibition today.

Fredrik Fermelin, an artist who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Sweden in 2015, came to TCG Nordica in September as an artist in residence. Here, he spent three full months focusing on painting. Before that, he mainly engaged in performance, installation, video and digital media, etc. Fermelin’s concept of painting is related to image generation in gif format. Two seemingly similar images are juxtaposed, and the audience themselves associate their correlation, similar to the method of making film montage. However, he just makes two paintings juxtaposed in space, not in time. Although he strongly denies that his paintings are related to the expressionist style, on the surface level they might seem to comprise expressionist tendencies, but that is not what he wants to pursue. He is more concerned with the potential constructional relationship between the pictures.

He Libin’s painting practice in recent years combines the way of performance art with blind painting. In the middle of the night, he paints his impressions and feelings on a large-scale canvas, both indoors and outdoors. In his practice of blind painting, painting, an art form with a long history, is forced into a critical state: Between visible and invisible, between known and unknown, between painting and non-painting. The only thing that can be identified and continually confirmed is the artist’s own existence and self-growth in the vast natural environment. This confirmation is accomplished through inner dialogue and contests in the long-lasting darkness. This turns the painting process into photography development: Developing it in the dark, watching it in the daylight.

He Libin’s and Fermelin’s paintings are very similar in style. They both use expressionism to paint landscapes, and they both provide an unconventional “seeing” experience. He Libin deliberately paints what he has seen when he cannot see; therefore, only time will show the final appearance of the painting. Fermelin’s juxtaposition in space of different paintings, creates uncertainty and dissimilarity in the paintings themselves and in the seeing of the paintings. They both paint in the most intuitive way, but at the same time they create paintings that can be seen on multiple levels.

For this exhibition, more than forty students from Yunnan Arts University participated in He Libin’s short-term expressive painting course. They combine their paintings with the practice methods of action painting, in order to discuss how paintings can be. Fredrik Fermelin, He Libin and the students present us with such a communicative exhibition about “Paintings Behind Paintings”. Here, I have just named it “Outrageous, like a painting”.

Curator: Luo Fei
Artists: Fredrik Fermelin, He Libin and his students from the Yunnan Arts University
Live Music on the opening: Eilev Stoveland Dekko, Fredrik Fermelin

Opening: 8pm, Dec 28th, 2018
Exhibition Time: Dec 28th 2018 to Jan 7th 2019 (Sundays Close)
TCG Nordica Culture Center, Chuangku, Xibalu 101, Kunming
Organized by TCG Nordica and Oilpainting Department of Yunnan Arts University