Chinese woodcut artist Yang Hongwei on meditation, materialism and loneliness – interview

Chinese artist Yang Hongwei talks to Art Radar about the inspiration and artistic process behind his work and how his state of mind influences his art.

Yang Hongwei (b. 1968) is known for repeatedly pushing the boundaries and tackling new challenges in his chosen medium of woodcut and wood engraving. Art Radar caught up with the artist in his Beijing studio for an insight into his life and work. 

Installation view, "Ebb", by Yang Hongwei, 17 November to 15 December 2012, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, “Ebb”, installation view, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

Noted Chinese author and critic Li Tuo wrote, in an article titled “New Technique and New Concept – Yang Hongwei’s Wood Engraving”, “I believe that the wood engraving of Yang Hongwei is worth our careful consideration.” What compelled him to make this statement?

Early examples of Yang’s innovation can be seen in the masterful execution of colour wood engraving in the works created for his master’s degree, such as Solar Eclipse (2007 to 2008). In 2009, with large scale works such as Tian Yi Sheng Shui (Heaven Giving Birth to Water), Yang played with the general perception that printed paper is the final product of a woodcut, offering instead the actual cut wood block as a finished piece. In 2012, he explored sculpture in his “Shang” series, where he carved on traditionally styled Chinese chairs. In his latest solo exhibitions (three held in three different Chinese cities in 2012), he ventures into installation work.

Installation view, "Ebb", by Yang Hongwei, 17 November to 15 December 2012, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, “Ebb”, installation view, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

Yang sat down with Art Radar in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing to talk about growing up in Tianjin, his artistic practice and his latest solo exhibition, “Ebb”, which was held at White Space Gallery in Beijing from 17 November to 15 December 2012.

Yang Hongwei on… early influences

Can you tell us what it was like growing up in a large port city such as Tianjin, China in the 1970s and 1980s?

I was born in Tianjin in 1968, so after the Cultural Revolution. I attended primary school and middle school in Tianjin. The conditions in my life were not very good, but there was an inborn interest in painting.

How was your childhood?

My childhood was hard, very hard. When I was a young child of around eight years old my mother passed away. From then on, I did not have a stable home environment. A mother is most important in the life of a child, so her passing had a great impact on my inner life, but it did not crush me, it did not affect my character in a negative way. I felt like a wanderer, but stayed optimistic.

On the other hand, if my mother had not passed away I would not have chosen to study art. When I was young, I was a good student because my mother was very strict with school work. After her passing there was no one to push me on or help me with my school work. If my grades had been better I might have chosen another profession, such as literature, science or engineering. So because I was not doing well academically, my interest turned toward painting instead.

We lived in difficult economic conditions and there was no one to give us toys, therefore I would make my own toys and so became sensitive to [making things with my hands]. The most dramatic change after the passing of my mother was that I had to help around the house, including looking after my younger brother. I was too young to earn money, but I had to do my share in the running of the household. This was very important because it slowly taught me the ability to think independently. As there was no one at home to help me, I was forced from a young age to think for myself and come up with solutions for different problems.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your life?

The most important person would be my mother.

The second person would be a classmate of my father, who was a middle school teacher. He did not influence me directly, but it was through him that I got to know someone else with whom I started painting. [This person] is still a good friend and still lives in Tianjin. He was my first sketching partner.

Another person who greatly influenced me was an elderly man who has since passed away. He was around seventy years old and the first person to teach me traditional Chinese painting. When I was around nine or ten years old he started teaching me. For seven years I did traditional Chinese painting.

Yang Hongwei, 'Shang No. 2', 2012, wood, 220 x 150 x 213 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘Shang No. 2’, 2012, wood, 220 x 150 x 213 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Over the years there have been many people who have had an impact on my life. At university [Tianjin Academy of Fine Art], the chair of the department, Chen Jiuru (陈九如), influenced me greatly, not just because he taught me how to paint, but he was also like a father to me. He is now Dean at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts.

Of course, there are many more people that influenced me, but these are the earliest ones.

Later, there were people like Su Xinping (苏新平), who is a professor at The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). At the moment, of course, the person who has had the greatest impact in my life is Professor Xu Bing (徐冰), who is my PhD supervisor. Through him my thinking has been greatly influenced.

When did you first realise that you wanted to be an artist?

It was in 1996, when I had graduated from art school. I had studied painting/drawing (绘画) at the Tianjin Academy of Art. At that time, I had a job and I had to earn a living. I just could not suddenly become an artist. One cannot just decide to be an artist. After some time, my work and creative thought reached a certain stage where I could consider this question. The desire to be an artist was like a seed or a bud that slowly grew over time.

So at first you were working and did some art on the side?

Yes, I was teaching art at the university. I never thought about the question, am I or am I not an artist? I just did art in my spare time because I was interested in doing it.

So from that time you wanted to be an artist?

The word ‘artist’ here is very important. It does not mean that just by saying you want to be an artist that you automatically become an artist. Or because someone calls you an artist that you are an artist. You cannot call yourself an artist just because you are doing art. When you reach a stage when you use an artistic way of thinking then I guess you can call yourself an artist. So you can say that first you are attracted to art and then, over time, you mature into an artist.

When did you decide to specialise in wood carving?

When I attended university, I studied painting, but I also did a lot of printmaking, such as lithography, etching and woodcut. I was best at etching. After graduating, I taught art at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. At that time the school was missing a woodcut teacher and they asked me to teach that course. As a result, I started studying and researching woodcut. Initially, I was lead to woodcut, not because I was interested in it, but because there was a need for me to study and teach it. You could say it was fate.

So by doing more wood carving you became more interested in it?

In 1994, I started doing wood engraving and I became very interested in that. Its expression is very unique. The language of wood carving and the tools that are used are very different from other kinds of printmaking techniques. I always thought I can do a lot with wood engraving, that I can improve upon it more and more and give viewers a new visual experience. Something was pulling me to move forward in this medium. It was not just that I was interested in it, but it was like a mission for me; I wanted to discover something new. The possibilities seemed endless. When I consulted with Professor Xu Bing about it, he agreed with me that there is much that can still be explored in the medium of wood engraving.

At university I studied drawing, oil painting and sculpture. Why did I choose wood engraving? Because I feel it is of greater value. I could have chosen to do oil painting, but I think that woodcut offers greater possibilities for experimentation.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

This issue is quite complex.

Do you get inspired by books, movies, other people, other artists or the events in the world, or your own inner state, your heart or head?

One important source of inspiration is life itself. Still, another important source of inspiration is my work. By creating a piece, I find inspiration for yet another one. Early Chinese art works drew their inspiration from life, but I also like literature, fiction and poetry. At the moment a lot of my inspiration comes as a result of meditation. I engage in this [art] work 24 hours a day and work with like-minded colleagues, which provides a lot of stimulation and thus inspiration. So now, the source behind the works are these things, these issues, and they make you think and thus you feel inspired.

What kind of issues are you talking about? Can you give me an example?

For example, our [Chinese] culture and Western culture are different. At university, I studied Western painting; before university I had studied Chinese painting. I consider the relationship between these two, how to use modern means of creation to reflect Asian characteristics or character.

A particularly big problem is how to understand our traditional culture. The techniques and materials that I am using come from the West, including the mode of thinking. Have we or have we not lost something in the process? Or should some of our works be rendered in a way that carries some of our own identity, our cultural characteristics.

You mentioned that you meditate. Tell me, is there influence from Buddhism in your work?

I never considered or thought about Buddhism in my work, but Buddhist thought has helped to solve some confusion in my head. I did not intentionally use religion, but I found that it can help you resist outside interferences and temptations. While I am creating art, I am really engaged in my work and I can block out everything else. One of the issues facing us today is that we are now materially rich, but how do we come back and find inspiration. This is a bit like a Buddhist meditative practice. It helps us to forget about our material wants and needs that are made so attractive in our society today. I use this meditation as a protective wall from unwanted outside influences.

Yang Hongwei, '岛之二 (Island No.2)', 2012, 宣紙上版画 (woodcut on rice paper), 80 cm x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘岛之二 (Island No.2)’, 2012, woodcut on rice paper, 80 cm x 80 cm. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

Yang Hongwei on… the meaning of “ebb”

Now, let us talk about one of your most recent solo exhibitions, entitled “Ebb”, which was held at White Space Gallery in Beijing, China. Why did the theme of water become so prevalent in these works?

Many reporters have asked me this question, why did I use water? The original intention, as the title of the exhibition suggests, is to deal with the topic of ebb or low tide. The tide always brings you things, the high tide brings gains. So why did I choose the low tide or ebb? I wanted to explore whether [or not], when the water recedes, it is still possible to have a sense of safety or security. This loss or the passing of the world in front of us helps us to reflect on ourselves.

It is to make the audience remember the time when they did not have many material means. How did we live without all these material possessions? Are we ever able to go back to that simple life we had? You will see that in fact, the more important thing is our spiritual life.

Was there something in particular that inspired these works that deal with water?


In fact, many Chinese paintings deal with the subject of water. For example, Ma Yuan‘s Water Map. [He] was an artist in the Song Dynasty. A theme that runs through Chinese art is shan shui. The relationship between water and mountains is at the very core of Chinese painting. It is the symbol of something natural. The meaning of water is very important.

Of course, water can be expressed in many ways. For example, by the mere depiction of a boat you infer water. Water has many expressions and features. There are many reasons why I chose the theme of water. Water is part of the theme of creation. Also, there is a well known traditional story by the name of Da Yu Zhi Shui (Da Yu Controls the Waters). Water and Chinese people have a very close relationship.

What is the symbolism of water in the works in “Ebb”? Is it a metaphor for something else?

Water has many meanings. I do not want to give it a specific meaning. I want to give the viewer space to think. I did not make a specific reference. It is not a specific symbol. Water can be in liquid form, gaseous form or solid form. I did not specify what water stands for.

Yang Hongwei, 'Solar Eclipse No.7', 2008, wood engraving, 50 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘Solar Eclipse No.7’, 2008, wood engraving, 50 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The works in “Ebb” look and feel very different from your previous works. In works that you executed in 2007 and 2008, such as in the “Solar Eclipse”, “Killer’s Game” or “Family of China” series, we see many or single grotesque figures who are in a state of suffering and anguish. Underlining these emotions is the use of red hues. The works in “Ebb”, on the other hand, are serene and calm. We only find singular figures and you only used black ink. What brought about this visual transformation?

From 2004, I had an illness, not a very serious condition, but just very annoying, and this caused a state of fear. You can see in those works extreme pain and fear, in fact it is about what I was going through at that time.

So what state of mind were you in when you created the works in the “Ebb” exhibition?

Between those earlier works and the works in “Ebb” there was a very important piece of work called Tian Yi Sheng Shui. It is the precursor to or the reason why the works in “Ebb” came about. That work is very calm, very quiet. The state of the water is calm, the water flows slowly. So if your inner condition is calm, then you do not have many desires, you do not get easily distracted. Life and the creation [of art] have a very common state: it is natural. It does not express anything and nor does it have to. This creation is no longer a volcanic eruption, but like flowing water created out of natural calm. It is like this phase of my life which is very calm and peaceful. The creation of these works comes very naturally. You do not have to work hard to get there.

Yang Hongwei, '天一生水', 2009, 木板 (plank), 976 cm x 388 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘天一生水’, 2009, oil paint and wood plank, 976 cm x 388 cm. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

At first glance, the works in the “Ebb” exhibition felt very peaceful, but later one also senses isolation and loneliness. In one work there is a lone figure seated on a boat surrounded by water. It is entitled Shi Chao, which literally means ‘death ebb’. Has this lone figure passed away on a long boat? What is the significance of the boat? Is the boat a place of safety or is it isolating the figure?

[The figure] is not dead. It refers to the low tide. Shi chao is just a different term to describe the same thing as tui chao. Ebb and low tide mean the same thing. Ebb is a natural condition, whereas the term ‘death ebb’ i.e. ‘low tide’ refers to the ebb in your heart. Something from your inside disappears.

Ebb alludes to a condition in Chinese contemporary art after 2008. The pace of Chinese contemporary art slowed down. It was no longer as hot as it was in the past. So many people were following the hype. Once the noise from the hustle and bustle in the art world has quieted down, we should think about what other questions need to be considered in life.

Yang Hongwei, '逝潮 (Falling Tide)', 2012, 宣紙上版画 (woodcut on rice paper), 82 cm x 120 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘逝潮 (Falling Tide)’, 2012, woodcut on rice paper, 82 cm x 120 cm. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

So are you saying that financially you were doing better before 2008?

For me, personally speaking, it has never been very good. If you are doing oil painting, no matter what the subject, you can always sell at a good price. When you insist on doing something [different] then you will likely be left out in the cold. This is because you do not cater to anyone’s approval or interest.

Going back to our original question, are the figures in the works in “Ebb” expressing loneliness or peacefulness?

It is a kind of loneliness.

Are you expressing your personal emotions or a universal one?

It is not purely personal. A lot of my friends who see these works can relate to the loneliness. It seems to be a very common feeling. This loneliness comes from life. In recent years our material life has been getting better and better. Our pursuit to better our material condition is not as strong as before. There is no end to the pursuit of material things. People think we are used to this material life now. People feel lonely and this loneliness comes from inside. It comes from the change that our materialistic life has brought about within our relationships with other people.

Our material needs have been met, but spiritually our needs have not been met, and we have, in fact, lost a lot. We cannot find culture; we have no direction. Many ruptures within Chinese culture have been caused by loneliness. The works convey the loneliness and the temperament of people from the East.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about how to depict a Chinese person, how to think as a Chinese person. How do you connect Chinese and Western culture? I am looking for a way to create new works.

Yang Hongwei on… wood engraving versus woodcut

Writer’s Note: It should be noted here that in woodcut, the side of a tree is used and the block is cut along the grain. In wood engraving, the much harder top of a tree trunk is used and the block is cut in the end grain.

How do you decide whether to do a woodcut or a wood engraving? Does the subject matter dictate which technique to use or does the technique dictate the subject matter?

First I consider the question or issue at hand, then I have an idea how to solve it and lastly, I choose the technique. The form, medium and idea have to have a suitable and matching expression. The issues I face while creating work can become the subject of my creation.

What are the effects that are unique to each technique?

Wood engraving is more delicate, richer and more profound. Due to its technical characteristics it is more delicate and rich…. Woodcut is more rugged, more powerful, better able to express an intense emotion. For example, woodcut is like boxing, whereas wood engraving is like tai chi. I understand their particular traits and characteristics and then I choose the subject of the work. I look at the particular issues that each technique faces, and then I can just consider how to convey that spirit in the work.

Which do you prefer: woodcut or wood engraving?

They are both great. The problem is how to use a more appropriate, a more suitable and a more accurate method.

Which one is more challenging?

They are both the same. Both are difficult and physically demanding. I am like a carpenter.

Yang Hongwei on… artistic practice

How many hours do you usually work per day?

At the moment I am taking a break, but usually I work on average between six and eight hours a day. When it is busy, it can be up to twelve hours.

Do you have assistants that help you?

I have assistants that help me do some supplementary work, such as treating the wood. Sometimes I have three or four assistants and sometimes none.

Yang Hongwei, 'Shi Zhi Lian' (partial view), 2011, wood plank and oil paint, 700 x 700 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, ‘Shi Zhi Lian’ (partial view), 2011, wood plank and oil paint, 700 x 700 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

A large work such as Tian Yi Sheng Shui, how long did it take you to complete it?

It took around a year and a half. I worked on it every day for six hours. I worked on it alone. It is not the kind of work that anyone can assist you with. The process of making the work is very important and so cannot be given to anyone else.

For a work like Tian Yi Sheng Shui, do you first start with a complete idea of how a work should look like once completed, or do you begin your work and see where it takes you?

When I start working I already have an idea of where I want to go, but during the working process I adjust the work and my ideas. The water in front of you does not change, but your mood is what changes. How do you change your state of mind so that it truly looks like water in a condition that does not change? I went to Lake Tai and stayed there for one week to observe and experience the state of water and to feel a connection with it. The whole process helps to adjust oneself, allow one’s state of mind to go deeper. It can give you a lot of creative ideas.

What do you think is the role of artists today?

Today’s artists, through the creation of their art, tell people how to face problems, how to think about issues. I think if you create a new visual experience and psychological feelings, you allow them to come up with new possibilities. At the first level, even if someone does not have much training, they can still have an experience at the visual level. There is another small group of people who through this work can consider some issues. In fact, the meaning is that everyone can take something away from it. My ultimate goal is to open up more and more possibilities in this field. I am not going to create works based on what other people think. I do not really care. I have to respect myself. If you look at it from another perspective, my work has to be able to solve my own problems. I do not know how the works will make viewers think or feel. I do not have a way to solve everyone’s problems.

Yang Hongwei on… teaching art

You are associate professor at CAFA where you teach art to young students. What exactly do you teach?

I teach them how to create art. I do not teach them printing or printmaking. Using woodcut and wood engraving as their medium, they create their own works.

Do you teach them the theory or the practical aspects as well?

We have both. I teach them so that through the creation of their art they find their own voice, their own way. I help them to grow.

Are there many artists that take up woodcut or wood engraving?

Sometimes there are very few. Their numbers are far fewer than students who study oil painting. But every year at graduation time, the works from the students from our department are always the best.

How are they the best?

Writer’s Note: Yang Hongwei was showing examples from his students’ graduation work when answering this question.

This is my students’ work. In our school, [the] printmaking [department] is considered the best.

Yang Hongwei on… the Chinese art market

In the 2012/2013 winter, you had three shows running concurrently in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. How do you juggle three exhibitions at the same time? Is it stressful, or are the galleries able to provide enough support?

White Space Gallery has given me a lot of support and help. I still feel that Beijing’s White Space Gallery and the relationship I have with it is the most comfortable. White Space gave me a lot of freedom [for the “Ebb” exhibition], in how to use their space, and that was a great experience. In the Guangzhou exhibition, I covered the floors with a lot of stones. I wanted to have a unified theme running through all three exhibitions. Alongside the exhibition in Chengdu there was a poetry reading, and in Beijing we raised the gallery floor and added water [and black ink]. Therefore, the basic elements that appear in the prints, meaning water and stone, also appeared in the gallery space. The exhibition does not solely consist of pictures on the walls, but makes use of the entire space and explores the relationship between the works and the subject of water. It is not a simple exhibition of pictures.

Installation view, "Ebb", by Yang Hongwei, 17 November to 15 December 2012, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy the artist.

Yang Hongwei, “Ebb”, installation view, White Space Beijing. Image courtesy White Space Gallery.

How do you find dealing with galleries? Has it changed much during your career? Do you feel that the gallery scene in China is more mature and therefore can offer more support to artists?

As your art develops and matures, cooperating with galleries also becomes easier. It becomes a more straightforward relationship. Overall, the gallery scene has been moving in the right direction.

Yang Hongwei on… future plans

You are currently enrolled in a PhD program with Professor Xu Bing as your supervisor. What is your PhD focussing on?

I am enrolled in the Printmaking Department, but printmaking is only one form. I am thinking of using the many forms of printmaking to present a piece of work, rather than simply making only prints. It will not be just a simple work on a piece of paper. Doing my PhD under Professor Xu Bing is not the same as when you have your own requirements. Your work cannot just stay in the form of prints on paper. For example, you would consider the relationship between printing and engraving/printmaking; the relationship between editions and printed works; the relationship between editions and versions. … Traditional prints can only be used about a dozen times and then they have to be put aside. I want to break with this tradition by cutting the wood block into several pieces, make different combinations with them and then reuse them. These are the topics under discussion and research with my PhD supervisor Professor Xu Bing. This is the direction my research is taking. This is just a small part of it. Once I enter the printing phase, I have many more ideas I want to explore.

Why did you choose Professor Xu Bing as your PhD supervisor?

He is a world renowned artist. This is a very important reason. He gives me a lot to think about, such as the internal logic of art, a mode of thinking. In fact, I care more about the discussions and exchanges that we have with each other … than anything else. This is something no other supervisor could offer me. When I am with him, he does not tell me how to create my art, but has discussions with me, and it is during those discussions that I come up with a lot of ideas.

Yang Hongwei’s responses were translated from Chinese into English by Qi Mei Ling and Nooshfar Afnan.

NA/KN/HH

Related Topics: Chinese artists, woodcuts, art medium – woodinterviews

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