Seeing a world in a wild flower, a Buddha in a leaf: Xiaoyi Chen on the sublime and philosophy – interview

Chinese artist Xiaoyi Chen’s body of work merges western with oriental schools of thought, proposing an abstract, non-material aesthetic approach to universe.

A modern Immanuel Kant, artist Xiaoyi Chen explores the feeling of the beautiful and the sublime in her photographic series and books on show at Rome-based Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'An Infinitesimal Wink', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘An Infinitesimal Wink’ (detail), 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Estrangement gives rise to amazement. Overwhelmed by the complexity of society’s modern way of living, Chengdu artist Xiaoyi Chen (b. 1992) reduces her world to infinitesimal elements she catches in overlooked moments of her daily life. Her solo show “The Inadequacy of Language”, running until 7 June 2016 at the Roman commercial space Matèria Gallery, showcases a selection of photographs and printed works that approach the limitlessness of the universe bi-dimensionally.

Art Radar talks to the artist about her cross-cultural research, philosophy and the creative process behind photography and printmaking.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'An Infinitesimal Wink', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘An Infinitesimal Wink’, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Can you talk about your ongoing work An Infinitesimal Wink, on view at Matèria Gallery?

For me, “An Infinitesimal Wink” means to observe the world from another dimension, like a sutra in Buddhism – “To see a world in a wild flower, and a Buddha in a leaf.” This approach describes the infinity of this world and, related to this, there’s an infinite world hidden in “an infinitesimal wink”. You know, a lot of subtle or unintentional moments are frequently ignored in our daily life, so we have to face a situation where we were trained to observe things only through a very limited point of view. While the subject in those simple images looks similar to the universe, there are some unexpected objects and traces of it in everyday life. So, there is no way to measure the disparity between macro and micro, a forlorn dust can also accommodate a limitless universe. This work proposes to re-learn to observe in a wider, comprehensive manner.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'Koan', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘Koan’, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

I am curious about your reflection on the inadequacy of language in your project Koan. Can you tell us more about this vision?

Vision as a product of the non-material is closer to a concept of purity. The inspiration for this project comes from ancient wisdom. I try to explore it during the process, and choose an abstract aesthetic to express my photography. At the beginning of this project I went to Iceland, here I found the constant erosion of nature in the face of humankind. Its bizarre landscape shares almost no relation with our civilisation. When I was hiking on icebergs and viewing the ice lakes, this sparked an unprecedented spiritual and visual emotion in me. Huge blocks of ice floated atop the blue sea like pyramids, and as I took this in, ripples from a mysterious force pulsed through my heart. This power triggered my inspiration and the choice to focus on abstraction, to look at nature and purify, simplify the surface of things. This indescribable feeling, like Kant’s theory of the Sublime, is for me very close to Zen philosophy.   

Xiaoyi Chen, 'Koan', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘Koan’, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Zen and Taoist philosophies emphasise the effectiveness of intuition over words that you refer to in Koan. What sort of language do you believe is more adequate to communicate?

Zen culture utilises the nonverbal, non-rational powers of the mind to produce in the perceiver a complete sense of identification with the object. In my project, the pictures that were the result of this experience are obvious abstractions, which showcase narrow extracts in time and space.

In order for a photograph to touch him, Roland Barthes’ method was “to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” So, the essential subject of Zen philosophy is not translatable into words. The truth is the photograph itself, being is in its own terms, a language of vision. Taking and viewing photographs are spiritual, intellectual acts. A photograph is capable of expressing the intangible as it represents what the artist has in mind. Therefore I think that sometimes there is no need to speak in order to adequately communicate; artworks or images will help us to do so.

Some of my prints are mysterious but generally present a single emotional space; those mountains and rivers are quiet and calm, silently meandering, flowing, unable to speak like a secret in a human heart. The quiet and elegant, very naïve touch to the heart is amazing to experience, it is just as if it was conversing with you about the very nature of the collision between the mind and the soul. It may be a testament to the truth to see that the appeal of Zen, due to its extensive artlessness and purity, will always strike a chord in the spirit of man, affirming our insignificance in the world through a consistent flux. I try to be completely guided by my inner self to represent a deep resonance between nature and life in my photography.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'An Infinitesimal Wink', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘An Infinitesimal Wink’, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'An Infinitesimal Wink', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘An Infinitesimal Wink’ (detail), 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

According to the press release, your “work focuses on the combination of photography and printmaking, a combination of techniques used to explore beneath the surface of things by simplifying and abstracting; an approach aimed at reviving spiritual awareness and intuition before entering the symbolic nature of what we view.” Can you expand on your research mixing photography and printmaking?

Photo-etching is a printmaking craft. The biggest difference between printmaking and the darkroom is the place you work in: a printmaking studio is totally bright, whereas, the darkroom is pitch black. I was captivated by the atmosphere whilst I learned this craft for the first time. In this project, I selected numerous abstract landscape photographs to start a photo-etching process, the result of which is poetic and full of imagination. It was nothing like directly printing photographs as I sometimes feel they are just too ‘real’.

Each of my prints is unique, it has its own performance, and bears textures that can only be made by hand. I only used black ink and white silk paper: black and white derive from the atmosphere of desolation, melancholy and the expression of minimalism in ancient Chinese poetry and monochromatic ink painting. Black and white essentially are an abstract way to interpret and transform the truth from a personal understanding. During the printing process, sometimes I wipe the plate as I perceive the images to be too ‘real’, animating the flow and details therein. This is the moment I enjoy the process, even though I need to adjust the same things every day. I never get tired of it, I always feel calm and enter into a meditative state during this process.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'Koan', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, ‘Koan’, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Your work develops into both photography and books, how do you decide which project becomes a photographic series and which one a book?

For me, the order is to make a photographic series first and then think about whether to make it into a book. The photobook is a key approach to serial works; the space in the book, each page, its measures, are all concrete elements in which to fit in another dimension. Designing the layout of a book is also like planning an exhibition in a gallery, so for me the form of a photobook is just another way to make an exhibition, yet a more intimate one. Also, I usually accompany the exhibition with a book of prints; it’s also something that visitors can easily take home and look at for a long time. Making a photobook is for me an opportunity to rework my thought process.

Your work combines oriental philosophy and western abstract art. Can you tell us which abstract artists mainly contribute to the formation of your aesthetic?

I was influenced by many abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and others from the context of Surrealism. Regarding photography, my work draws upon Minor White, Alfred Stieglitz, Harry Callahan, and one my favourite Japanese photographers, Yamamoto Masao.

Xiaoyi Chen, 'Koan', 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

Xiaoyi Chen, “An Infinitesimal Wink”, exhibition view at Matèria Gallery, Rome, 2016. Photo: Roberto Apa. Image courtesy Matèria Gallery.

About your work Clouds Dictionary, your website writes that you “collected many pictures of the accidental major nature disaster/ phenomenon around the world (not related with human‘s will ), and avoid the disaster itself, entered into the world outside of disaster”. From this description, the project looks like an act of resistance of yours. Can you tell us more about this work, its origins and the creative process behind it?

The “Clouds Dictionary” project was created for an experimental exhibition in China, somewhat like a commissioned piece. We only got one month to work on it and I opted for a photobook. At that time, I was reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I got inspired by a scene from this book describing a bloody battle that took place in a vibrant and beautiful morning with rolling clouds and smoke that, mixed together, made for a beautiful sight. Such a strong contrast captivated me, sometimes the contradiction between tragedy and beauty doesn’t exist, so how should we intend the truth of the incident? Or, in a world so diversified, is there a single recognisable element of what can be called Truth?

Hence, I selected many accidental news pictures of both natural disasters and nature phenomena from the Internet, finding the view of clouds in each image. In this book, whilst idly flicking through it, all you can see is a collection of clouds. Every page is like an envelope, therefore allowing the viewer to take out the card in which the original image of the natural disaster / phenomenon originates from. I try to facilitate this strong contrast, and keep the book open for the viewer.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Chinese artists, abstract artnature, photography, printmakinginterview, gallery shows, events in Rome

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