Yang Hongwei pushes the boundaries of the movable type reflecting our times and our society.
Beijing’s Hui Art Space holds a solo exhibition of Yang Hong Wei’s ‘pixel’ works, the result of the artist’s three-year research and experimentation in the art of printmaking.
When almost three years ago Art Radar spoke to the senior printmaker and wood carving artist Yang Hongwei (b. 1968) in his Beijing studio, he was embarking on a new project that was at that time purely in the conceptual stage of thought. Two years ago he showed two works from his first foray into this new project at “Unspoken Understanding: Xu Bing’s Postgraduate Students Exhibition” (09-19 November 2013) at Beijing’s 798 Enjoy Art Museum.
An associate professor in the Department of Printmaking at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Yang recently returned to Beijing after a year in the United States as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. At his solo show entitled “Pixel Analysis”, which recently opened at Hui Art Space in Beijing (7 November 2015 – 1 January 2016), he showcases his latest work where the audience can witness the outcome of three years of research and experimentation in the art of printmaking.
In the essay “An Introduction of the Pixel Analysis Project” written for this exhibition, the artist explains that the backbone of the pixel analysis series is firmly based on the traditional Chinese movable type. Yet it also draws upon Western wood engraving techniques and embodies today’s computerised dot matrix display technology.
The artist further elaborates:
[T]he Pixel Analysis Project aims to establish a voluminous pixel database that is similar to the background [display] of computers. The design is to hand carve over a hundred thousand pixels, which the artist calls ‘pixel modules’, each consisting of pear wood blocks of different sizes; then each pixel module is carved from gray scale 99 to 1 with wood engraving knives; thereafter, the pixel modules can be assembled for image printing, and there can be a kaleidoscope of images with random combinations.
The show’s academic supervisor, world-renowned artist Xu Bing (b. 1955) and former vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, has been mentoring Yang Hong Wei over the years and was his PhD supervisor. Regarding Yang’s “Pixel Analysis”, Prof. Xu Bing states:
No one has ever before touched the core of this concept, advancing the possibilities of the art of printmaking and extending its vocabulary.
The well-respected Chinese curator of this exhibition, Shu Ke Wen, made two observations about these works during the opening. She stated:
First, Yang Hong Wei as a master wood carver, shows the power of hard work and skill in the act of wood carving, a very mature and old art form. Secondly, “Pixel Analysis” is based on both traditional and contemporary elements and is a perfect expression of their blending together.
The artist has stated that he wants to make the images ”somewhat unrecognisable but not completely unrecognisable”. If the image is recognised immediately, the viewer would lose interest quickly and if it is too difficult to recognise, this would turn off the audience as well. One way to ensure that both these criteria are met in parallel is to use well-known images from both Western and Chinese art history.
For example, Yang used famous Qing Dynasty landscape paintings by Gong Xian and works by Leonardo Da Vinci. His Pixel Analysis No. 5 consists of 13 individual images – 11 of which are on display in the show – that are based on Da Vinci’s famous portrait of Mona Lisa. Using various woodblock ‘pixel modules’ Yang has built up these images. The first image has the greatest number of pixels or colours. Each subsequent work has less and less colours. This means, as we move left to right, through the process of subtraction, that each image becomes more and more abstracted. The series starts with a closer likeness to the portrait of the sitter until in the final image there are only two large fields left, reducing the image to its two most basic colours.
In an interview Yang Hong Wei explained:
It is possible that in our memories in relation to the Mona Lisa are stored some details, some colour blocks. Not many specific details survive in our memory. Once we see these colour blocks, it evokes our memory; memories of that particular image. This is the process. […] I want people to appreciate why there is sometimes a void. This is the essence of Chinese philosophy I think.
In Archaeology of a Character, Yang applied his pixel methodology to a word or Chinese character, rather than an image. In this work, the artist employed the medium of a traditional Chinese album called 册页 (ceye), usually reserved for paintings and calligraphy, where the pages are folded accordion-style. The artist explained to Art Radar that in this work he transformed one Chinese character into pixels. The pixels become continually larger as the pages progress so that finally only a single pixel is left.
The artist extended the concept of the woodblock pixels and applied it to two new materials, namely resin and metal. In the case of resin, he used small pieces of acrylic resin to build up the surface vertically. The portraits are based on two well-known paintings by Da Vinci. In the first portrait the viewer can recognise Lady with an Ermine and in the second we see the likeness of Mary from the painting Virgin of the Rocks.
Creating the right gradation of light and dark needed hours and hours of experimentation. For example, the artist concluded that in order to achieve the colour white he needed to place 40 pieces of resin on top of each other; whereas placing no resin piece at all results in pure black.
In two works, both titled Indeterminate Pixel, Yang used small square metal pieces to create one image of Buddha and one traditional Chinese landscape view. These metal squares were moved until the artist achieved the desired result; however, the pieces still remain movable. The artist explained to Art Radar that the principal idea behind these metal works is that they are designed in such a way that the works are allowed a relationship with the surrounding environment. The audience is encouraged to adjust their position until they discern a clear image.
In “A Dialogue Between Two Wood Engravers”, Prof. Xu Bing responds to Yang Hongwei:
It seems you have created a new grammar on the basis of an old language. You have put forward the regenerating and reproducing quality of printing, which is actually the core of printing […]. You focused on the element of dot and maximized it, separating it from others for your free use in the future. That’s why I said you’ve discovered the ‘source language’ and ‘gene’ of printing.
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