What is… Chinese paper-cut art? Art Radar explains

How much do you know about the ancient Chinese tradition of paper-cut art and how it has evolved throughout the years?

As part of our “What is…” series, Art Radar defines both the ancient and contemporary art of paper-cutting and spotlights 7 contemporary artists who are pushing the medium to new heights.

Bovey Lee, 'Ribbon Dancer' (detail). Image courtesy the artist.

Bovey Lee, ‘Ribbon Dancer’ (detail). Image courtesy the artist.

What is paper-cut art?

Chinese paper-cut art: A history

Chinese paper-cutting, or jianzhi (剪紙), is a folk art that originated in China around the sixth century AD. The art form is most strongly associated with China because paper was invented in the country – by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty. The oldest surviving paper cut-out is a symmetrical circle from the sixth century AD Six Dynasties period, and the craft flourished in popularity during the Ming and Qing dynasties (c. 1368-1912).

Traditional Chinese jianzhi is characterised by intricate designs and creative use of negative space. Mostly for decorative purposes, cut-outs are used to adorn walls, columns, mirrors, lamps, lanterns, windows and doors; for this reason they are also known as chuanghua (窗花), which means ‘window flower’. Red is the most commonly used colour, which represents good luck and prosperity, and cut-out patterns are often formed by Chinese characters representing Chinese zodiac animals.

The spread of paper-cut art

Paper-cutting appeared in West Asia in the eigth-ninth centuries, and in Turkey in the sixteenth century. A century later, paper-cut art was being done in most of middle Europe. Scherenschnitte (German for ‘scissor cuts’), for example, was born in Switzerland and Germany in the sixteenth century. The art was then brought to Colonial America by immigrants in the eigtheenth century.

There are two methods to the art form: one using scissors, the other knives. In both, several layers of paper are cut together to achieve intricate patterns. For the knife method, paper is placed on a soft, swampy foundation of tallow and ashes, while the crafter cuts into the paper with a vertically-held knife.

Contemporary variations 

While jianzhi remains popular in China today, especially during special events like weddings and Chinese New Year, paper-cut art has developed into an entirely new art form independent of its jianzhi roots. The attractiveness of paper-cut art lies in the humble medium of paper, which is transformed into intricate, exotic and even three-dimensional designs due solely to the artist’s skill and imagination.

In contemporary paper-cut art, artists sometimes combine paper-cutting with other media and materials such as paint, installation and light boxes to create additional effects. But what remains at the core of the medium is the fashioning of elaborate patterns by the artist’s bare hands, and the creative use of positive and negative space.

In the following section Art Radar spotlights the work of seven contemporary artists from China, Japan and Hong Kong working with paper-cutting.

Installation view of Qiao Xiaoguang's 'City Windows' (2015). Image from jaunted.com.

Installation view of Qiao Xiaoguang’s ‘City Windows’ (2015). Image from jaunted.com.

Contemporary Asian paper-cut artists

1. Qiao Xiaoguang 

Chinese paper-cut artist Qiao Xiaoguang (b. 1957, Hebei) recently collaborated with the city of Chicago, creating a permanent, panoramic paper-cut installation entitled City Windows at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The fifteen-panel piece features iconic images from Chicago and Beijing to symbolise “the deep friendship and cultural and business connections between Chicago and China”. The work can be viewed from both inside and outside the airport.

Qiao learned his craft in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, where the ancient art of paper-cutting is still practiced and taught. Also a researcher on Chinese folk art, Qiao is a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and Head of the Cultural Heritage Research Center. His art engages with history as well as the contemporary world: in recent years he has used paper-cut art to “cooperat[e] with several European countries in cultural heritage related projects”.

Xin Song, 'On Paper/Grand Central at 100' (installation view), 2013, paper-cut between lightboxes, 4 panels, 42 x 51 inches each. Site-specific public arts installation for the Grand Central Terminal to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Image courtesy the artist.

Xin Song, ‘On Paper/Grand Central at 100’ (installation view), 2013, paper-cut between light boxes, 4 panels, 42 x 51 in each. Site-specific public arts installation for the Grand Central Terminal to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Image courtesy the artist.

2. Xin Song 

Xin Song (b. 1970, Beijing) is another Chinese artist who created paper-cut installations for US public transport stations. The artist’s exquisite works have been installed at the New York Grand Central Terminal and the Bay Parkway Landmark Station of the Brooklyn D line. The Grand Central Terminal piece, which used light boxes to highlight Xin Song’s designs, was installed to celebrate the iconic station’s 100th anniversary.

Xin Song studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Her recent works involve her cutting patterns from magazine pages. By fragmenting images and texts, Xin Song splices up the images of hyper-consumerism and voyeurism like slivers in a kaleidoscope. Her biography on Red Zone reads:

Her decoupage is a reflection on the creation, the perception and the appropriation of the image in our societies in which communication is more and more visual.

Nahoko Kojima with her installation 'Byaku' (2013) at Jerwood Space, London. Image from designboom.com.

Nahoko Kojima with her installation ‘Byaku’ (2013) at Jerwood Space, London. Image from designboom.com.

3. Nahoko Kojima

Hailing from Japan, Nahoko Kojima (b. 1981, Hyogo) is a professional contemporary paper-cut artist whose works have been commissioned by the likes of Bulgari. She rose to fame as the pioneer of paper-cut art as sculpture, fashioning mesmerising, large-scale three-dimensional forms that exude elegance and mystique, and tradition and contemporaneity at the same time.

In the installation Byaku (2013) at the Jerwood Space in London, Kojima created a life-size swimming polar bear suspended from the ceiling. The bear was cut from a single sheet of three-by-three metres washi paper that the artist crumpled beforehand to achieve an uneven, faceted texture. The artist told Designboom:

[I] chose this particular washi because it has less then 100% kouzo content and this means that it subtly turns warmer in colour over time – this mimics the fur of the polar bear which based on my research goes through a similar change over the span of its life.

Click here to watch a Youtube video about Nahoko Kojima’s Byaku

Kojima started studying kirie (Japanese paper-cutting) at the age of five, under private tutelage. After earning a degree in Design from the Kuwasawa Institute, Kojima quickly became a leading figure in the field of contemporary paper-cut art, spearheading the genre in Japan, London and the rest of the world. Karen Wright wrote in The Independent in 2013:

Kojima’s [work] wants to make paper-cutting a legitimate art form. “The curiosity of paper-cut art is to express all dimensions of the world by using one piece of paper.” She is creating sculpture, not craft, and she is clear in her desire to push the medium as far as she and her deft hands can propel her.

Kako Ueda, 'Reciprocal Pain', 2009-14, layers of hand-cut paper with acrylic and water colour, 92 X 55 inches. Image from the artist's website.

Kako Ueda, ‘Reciprocal Pain’, 2009-14, layers of hand-cut paper with acrylic and watercolour, 92 x 55 in. Image from the artist’s website.

4. Kako Ueda

Also from Japan, Kako Ueda (b. 1966, Tokyo) creates work that is just as painstakingly intricate but with a drastically different aesthetic. Her delicate patterns barely hide the dark, at times explosive motifs emerging from within – even when the imagery is subtle, a sense of strong menace pervades. Insects, animals and human bodies are often used as themes; according to her website biography, Ueda is interested in how such beings “are born out of nature but constantly being influenced and modified by culture”.

Ueda studied in the United States, earning her BFA from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and her MFA from the Pratt Institute. The artist practices painting in addition to paper-cut. She said in an interview with The Huffington Post:

Creating an image by cutting out (eliminating some parts of the chosen material) paper is not unlike making a sculpture such as carving wood or chiseling away marble. I always draw first on a piece of paper before cutting so my process involves drawing first then sculpting/cutting. By painting cut paper piece[s] or adding painted images with the cutting paper, I also satisfy my urge to paint. In the end, I often end up incorporating three processes in one piece […] “Reciprocal Pain,” is a good example of having these three components within one work.

Bovey Lee, 'Ribbon Dancer'. Image courtesy the artist.

Bovey Lee, ‘Ribbon Dancer’. Image courtesy the artist.

5. Bovey Lee

Bovey Lee is a Hong Kong-born paper-cut artist based in Los Angeles. While her incredibly intricate, lace-like works often deal with contemporary topics, her style and aesthetic is rooted in her training in traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. Lee hand-cuts each work on a single sheet of Chinese xuan (rice) paper, without the help of any rulers or stencils. Her artist statement reads:

My work is like drawing with a knife and is rooted in my study of Chinese calligraphy and pencil drawing. Cutting paper is a visceral reaction and natural response to my affection for immediacy, detail, and subtlety. The physical and mental demand from cutting is extreme and thrilling, slows me down and allows me to think clearly and decisively.

Lee studied Chinese calligraphy and painting in her formative years and completed a BA in Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She gained her first MFA from the University of California, Berkeley and her second from the Pratt Institute. Apart from numerous commissions and editorials, Lee’s works have been exhibited widely around the world, and over a dozen books have featured her paper-cut art.

Leah Wong, 'Textured Edge', 2014, ink, acrylic, hand-cut paper, 36 x 22 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Sherrie Gallerie.

Leah Wong, ‘Textured Edge’, 2014, ink, acrylic, hand-cut paper, 36 x 22 in. Image courtesy the artist and Sherrie Gallerie.

6. Leah Wong

Leah Wong grew up in Qingdao, China and currently lives and works in Ohio. An avid painter as well as a paper-cut installation artist, Wong combines painting and paper-cutting to achieve an avant-garde aesthetic. According to an exhibition entry logged at the Asia Art Archive,

[Wong] hand-colours and hand-cuts her imagined creatures and then embeds them using paint, texture, abstract forms, and gestural lines. Through her paintings, she intends to hybridise culture, conceptual space and materials, and hopes to connect viewers’ minds and imaginations.

Wong earned her BFA in Painting from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China and her MFA in Painting from Ohio University. She has exhibited nationally and internationally.

Yuken Teruya, "LVMH – Pucci", 2005, paper, glue. Installed at Saatchi Gallery in 2013. Image by Art Radar.

Yuken Teruya, “LVMH – Pucci”, 2005, paper, glue. Installed at Saatchi Gallery in 2013. Image by Michele Chan.

7. Yuken Teruya 

Japanese artist Yuken Teruya (b. 1973, Okinawa) has taken the ancient art of paper-cutting and given it perhaps the most contemporary twist of all. Using discarded paper shopping bags from high end shopping stores to McDonalds, Teruya cuts out painstakingly intricate trees, with each branch and leaf discernible despite their tiny sizes. The paper bags lie on their sides, and viewers peer in through the opening to see these miniature, ethereal creations standing upright inside the paper bag.

Teruya received his BFA from Tama Art University, Tokyo and his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York. His paper bag series is a poignant reminder of the strain consumerist activities are placing on the environment. Teruya’s biography on Saatchi Gallery’s website reads:

Reversing the flow of industry from tree to paper, Teruya’s work has an environmental sensitivity that’s hard to miss. It’s also a poignant assertion of the role of the creative artist: as someone who finds meaning amid the morass of stuff we leave behind.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, Japanese artists, Hong Kong artists, paper art, mixed media, found objects, art and the environment, definitions

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