Little Wood Sticks Featuring Light and Shade

- A dialogue between Li Zhenhua & Bi Rongrong


Time: September 2, 2013

Text by: Bi Rongrong



Zhenhua: You studied both in China and abroad. Would you briefly tell us its influence on your artistic practice?


Rongrong: I gained a BFA in Chinese Painting and a MFA in Chinese Landscape Painting in China. Back then our lecturer was very strict with us. I spent most of my time copying classic Chinese paintings and painting from nature and rarely participated in any exhibition except the graduation show. We all thought there was a long way for us to go in terms of laying a solid foundation for Chinese painting. During that period, I needed to learn a lot of rules and didn’t pay much attention to self-expression.

Probably that was exactly the reason why I looked forward to studying in a different environment. I put that in my application letter. Luckily for me, I got the offer from the Painting Department of Frank Mohr Institute in the Netherlands very smoothly. So I started my second MFA course.

One day before the term began, each student was asked to organize an exhibition in his/her studio. I put some of my sketches I had at hand on the wall. I wrote in my personal statement that these sketches were drafts and I wanted to think about how to make them into final products. But my lecturers thought the sketches were already very beautiful and complete. They saw me as a student with good skills - too good actually. They wanted me to forget about my skills. Then they asked me what my interest was, why I wanted to express in this way and what the other possibilities were. I felt that since day one I started to see my previous works, or say drafts, in a different way. In the meantime, the questions they put forward pushed me to make a new exploration. I think that was a new beginning. But instead of pushing me to change my approach, it helped me to think differently.


ZH: I think such a process is quite interesting. Your lecturers abroad thought your drafts were good art. That’s interesting, and quite different from the general understanding of art here. For instance, when facing with a small draft, we would wonder if it is a complete work and could be exhibited.

In your opinion, does it have anything to do with the cultural tendency of Europe and US during the past few years? Are they inclined to present an archive? Is it a new change to them? In today’s context, any manuscript or tiny item, even if they are not complete artwork in the traditional sense, can be presented as a (final) artwork.


RR: Maybe I can put it in this way. I feel that education abroad attaches more importance to the personal side. Personal traces are magnified and valued. When studying in China, I felt that we placed an emphasis on spirit, a grand and collective spirit, but the personal sprit was neglected and depressed. When studying abroad, people always asked what your interest was and why that was. It seems everything started with “I”. I’m not sure if I answered your question.


ZH: Good answer. I’m also thinking about how to judge if a work is complete or not. In China we talk a lot about spirit and tend to extend it through images or objects. In foreign countries, it seems besides personal expression they also pay much attention to object. Chinese don’t attach much importance to the process: the thinking process, drafts and trivial details. They focus more on the completeness of a work and what it fulfills. Which cultural context you think is more materialized?


RR: It depends. May I answer it from the perspective of spirit? During my study I felt ancient Chinese attached much importance to process. Let’s take Chinese calligraphy for instance. It takes understanding and perception. On the surface, it features lines and composition. But they are in nature a language with spirit, and it places high requirements on viewers if you want to learn to appreciate them.

My Chinese painting teacher often said that during different stages of one’s life, one’s understanding of those lines would be different. One of my senior schoolmate’s also said that without insightful perception of calligraphy, one would never be able to truly appreciate the subtle beauty and elegance of the lines under Huang Gongwang’s brush.

I agree that when dealing with Chinese traditional art, spirit plays an important role and is embodied in the form of a kind of shared aesthetics. Individual’s spirit and experience are melted during the process and eventually conveyed in a succinct language. Such a transformation process can hardly be presented in a narrative way.

When studying in the West, I skipped the learning of Western traditional painting, and dived directly into the study of expressions (pattern and methodology) of painting in a contemporary context. In a sense, my perception is somewhat confined to the context of Western contemporary culture. But I still want to talk about the issue from the perspective of spirit. I said before that I found people in the West put an emphasis on “I”. For instance, they often start with “I am interested in…” or “I want to express in what way”. Such could be seen as a sign of acknowledgement of the spirit of selfness. It seems they don’t attach much importance to generality (grand or collective resonance). If others want to experience the “I” of mine, they need to do some reading, of my drafts, my writings and the process of my creation. In this way, narration naturally takes shape, and gives out a stronger sense of materiality.

As an artist, I feel that under the current context of China, to produce a work seems to be a grave task. But probably in the Western context, it will become something pleasant and enjoyable. What’s your take on that, Zhenhua?


ZH: Materiality can be treated as something objective. In other words, spirit can be traced through materiality. Chinese painting education is different from the West. But in nature they both want to touch upon the inner world. It’s just that Chinese tend not to explain how to reach such a purpose through narration.


ZH: In my view, similarity on the surface increases. For instance, when facing a video or installation, it may be hard for us to tell if it is made by a Chinese artist or a Western artist. However, there’s distinct difference in the explanation texts. Chinese artists tend to talk about something very grand. Words such as “era” and “-ism” are often spotted. But a Western artist may say something like “I think this has something to do with my grandma (something or someone intimate to him/her)” or “My puppy would see my work that way.” It’s quite interesting. Similarity on the appearance leads to two very different ways of storytelling. Just now I asked a question about materiality, but the answer you gave involved a lot about spirit. I think that’s interesting. As an artist, which one do you prefer to deal with? Grand topics or smaller ones? Where are your small stories? Your lecturers saw your drafts as Art. How do you see your own small stories?


RR: There are many small stories. For instance, when I first started my study in the Netherlands, I was very interested in my classmates’ studios. I often went to their studios and made some drawings of the scene. To me, it was an opportunity to experience a different working environment and to learn more about their work. Afterwards, when I saw those drawings again, they would remind me of that artist, quite vividly. The sunshine, taste of the air and the works s/he was working on would all reappear in my mind. Last year (2012) I did a residency in France. I also went to other artists’ studios to do some drawings. Sometimes I would be intrigued by the little objects in their studios. For instance, on the cover of an artist’s small sketchbook, there were all kinds of labels cut from different packages. He carried it with him all the time, so it felt like the pad was full of the smell of everyday life. I borrowed the sketchbook from him and made a drawing of it. Sometimes those artists would take some marijuana. I thought the shape of dried marijuana was quite beautiful and would make a drawing of that. In an exhibition held at the Vanguard Gallery in Shanghai last year, I tried to integrate those small-scaled drawings and little objects that those artists gave me with the on-site mural I was working on. I wanted viewers to see that behind a large and complete mural work there were also many small stories. That’s a key element of my creative process. Many things are connected with the final work I present.


ZH: During the project for the Bund 18 Temporary Art Space, we talked extensively. For example, we talked about when a light spot penetrated the window, how would you represent it in your painting. We also talked about how you saw drawing as a daily activity. When your work was completed and hung on the wall, in a sense, your daily activity was also projected on the wall. Do you think it’s necessary to tell viewers your daily activity?


RR: I think it’s quite important. When I finish painting, I don’t pay much attention to the final result. To me, the process is particularly important. It’s a part of my daily life. During the creative process, every day I would think about how the final work would eventually look like and every day I had new decisions to make. Probably viewers would be more interested in the final work, but I feel it would be interesting to show them the entire process.


ZH: Previously you also presented many small works and works that were closely related to the concept of space. I like the wood sticks in green and white.


RR: That was an extension of my painting. I tried to further explore space with a different material. Sometimes I would intentionally push myself to deal with space from different angles. When studying Chinese painting, my understanding of space was quite fixed. But I was curious about the actual sense of volume of space. So I tried to use other materials to explore that “sense of volume”.


ZH: I like that work very much. There’s something special about it. It seems it contains the relationship between light and shade that is often characteristic of painting.


RR: The contrast between green and white would give you that impression. When I was making the work, I wanted to make those lines ‘float’. That was why I painted some parts green.


ZH: The graduation project you presented in 2010 involved paper cutting, which was different from the little wood sticks or the piece featuring a transparent wall. Your graduation project seemed more two-dimensional. Why was that? Did you try to find a kind of balance between your graduation project and what you had learned before you went abroad?


RR: I didn’t intentionally want to find any balance. I produced two pieces for my graduation project. One was a combination of the mural in my studio and sculptures. The other was the one you just mentioned, an installation involving paper cutting. When I went to study in the US as an exchange student during my course at the Frank Mohr, I got to know some friends from the architecture school. When visiting their studios, I was particularly interested in FabLab. The subtlety of laser cutting made me see that it could be well integrated with my painting. Later when I went back to the Netherlands, I started to try to extend the lines in my painting further into the space through that technique. That work was my first attempt. If you only saw it in a picture, it might be a bit misleading. Paper is a subtle material. I placed them into front lines and back lines. But in the picture such an arrangement might not seem so obvious. What I wanted to experiment through that work was to let viewers walk into the inside of a work and experience the sense of space of a painting from a new perspective.


About recent work


ZH: Do you present this kind of work in this exhibition?


RR: Yes. But they don’t appear in the form of installation. It is a two-dimensional work cut by machines and highlighting some of the subtle traces of my handwork. For this exhibition, I want viewers to see some very personal traces of mine from different angles.


ZH: In your view, in terms of media, is there any difference between painting on canvas and mural?


RR: I don’t think there’s a big difference. Both are based on my sketches and my observation and understanding of things. Canvas, walls, floors or volume of space, to me, are just different channels to convey my observation and understanding. But of course, different media would raise different requirements in terms of production and thinking. What will be finally put on display will be visually different. Depending on different situations, I will choose different media to communicate with space.


ZH: You mentioned the word “volume” several times. How would you define it?


RR: It is something three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional. Visual illusions caused by painting are two-dimensional. But in actual space, it has both surface and volume. The concept of “gradation” is different in a two-dimensional context and a three-dimensional context. How to make use of volume to communicate with space is a challenge to me. Let’s go back to your previous question. Under such circumstance, the biggest difference between painting on canvas and mural lies in bodily experience.


ZH: Interesting. Anyway, volume is a special quantity value.


RR: What you think is the difference between painting on an easel and a mural?


ZH: I tend to skip this question. It’s not a simple question and relates to many other factors. For instance, their economic production modes and the relationship they produce with viewers. Painting is still a highly canonized art form and we tend to place it on a higher position. Murals deal directly with space and would bring people into a certain ‘scene’. It’s very different.

I was surprised when you said you didn’t think they were much different. But that’s probably because we take different positions. You are the participant and I am the observer. For instance, there are artists dealing with painting on canvas and on paper. But they tend to fill the whole space with those paintings without leaving any room. If that’s the case, we may ask why not directly draw on the wall rather than on canvas. It relates to the property of media. Different media have different ways to play with context and perception, and will give out different feelings to viewers.


RR: What I meant is I see them as two equal forms of media. But certainly painting on easel and mural are two different concepts. For instance, a mural contains a sense of temporality. It makes me feel like a mural is no longer something personal and no one can truly “own” it. In this regard, when combining them together, I feel like something very private meets with something very public.


ZH: But I think it’s hard to tell which one is public and which is private. For instance, which one do you think is more public: a painting in a public place or in an art museum? The two venues are quite different. We would take some actions to highlight or erase its publicity. For instance, when dealing with the same work, we could intentionally wipe off its aura so that it would become something unrecognizable to the public. Or we could place it in a highly canonized place so that people would feel they are almost compelled to worship it and its aura is magnified in this way. Sometimes we even resort to security tape. Due to the different actions we take, the identity of the same object would change.

Let’s talk more about your recent work. It seems they could be divided into two types: one puts an emphasis on handwork and feels very light and elegant. The other features a sense of space and color blocks. When displaying the two types in one space, do you want to emphasize on the sense of conflict?


RR: No, I don’t want to highlight such conflict. I want viewers to see the process of my creation step by step. Usually I started from sketches, which you called as light and elegant. Many objects and details could be incorporated during this stage. Then I might pick up some particular details and focus on how to turn them into paintings, color blocks or lines. At this stage, I would think mainly about the details of those color blocks and lines. The initial objects no longer mattered.

When producing a painting in a space, I needed to keep a distance from the image in order to figure out the relationship between space and color blocks. In this regard, it’s a presentation of my thinking process and of how to represent the same object through different perspectives.


ZH: Do you think viewers would follow your thinking process? We present two highly different types of works in one limited space. There seems to be some connection, but the visual contrast is huge. How will you deal with it? You cannot control how viewers would see the work. You cannot ask them to see for a while and then think, do some reading and think again. How will you solve the problem by visual approaches?


RR: Different viewers will interpret the work in different ways. Viewers from different countries and of different ages will give me highly different feedback. As long as it is a sincere presentation of the process of my creation and thinking, I don’t think the conflict will be a big problem. No matter how viewers interpret my work and whatever question they may propose, I think that would be very interesting.


ZH: Let’s go back to those little wood sticks. You’ve dealt with the object twice. Will you try again later? By resorting to some trivial lines and building a connection with the lines in your painting, you manage to represent a kind of light–and-shade relationship within a three-dimensional context. I find that quite interesting. Do you think you will try again? Why?


RR: I will keep trying. At different stages, I will try something that I’ve tried before. But I will wait for the right timing. When I feel I can do it better or differently, then I will try again.

Take the painting I’m working on for instance. It originates from the first color painting I created when studying in the Netherlands. Before that I was mainly engaged in black and white ink painting. But when I finished my first color painting, I didn’t keep exploring. Persisting with the same thing during the same stage is not my cup of tea. Four years later, now I feel that I’m ready to resume my exploration.

I cannot say for sure when I would once again experiment with those little wood sticks.


ZH: After you came back, you also did some teaching. It is common in Europe for an artist to do some teaching while still keeping pace with his/her artistic practice. But in China all kinds of administrative meetings will take people a lot of time and energy. How will this affect your practice?


RR: I’m just a part-time teacher and don’t need to go to school when there’s no class. So that’s not a problem to me. I have a lot of leisure time.


ZH: Do you want to go back to the state when you were learning Chinese painting? Or say, does the state back then have influence on your current practice?


RR: I think it all happens naturally. New environment and new things constantly push me to ask myself many new questions. As there are a lot of new things that I want to try, I would put what I have mastered aside for a while.

But what I’ve learnt always has influenced my practice. Its influence can be found in my ways of observation, perception of space and understanding of changes/energy/lines. I’ll also keep trying something new. For instance, I apply for residency programs. It will bring me new influences.

I believe everything I’ve learnt would have influenced my future exploration.


ZH: I feel that you put much emphasis on volume and energy. Does this have anything to do with your body or gender?


RR: I don’t think it has anything to do with gender. The body, probably. I’m a person of small volume and small energy. I guess that’s why I look forward to expressing something beyond my possession.


ZH: I think you’re full of energy and it all comes from the inner force lying within you.

Translator: Wu Chenyun

Proof-reading: Thomas C. Chung