A Dome and Notches on a Scale

The multi-level space at He Art Museum has made Ni Youyu's long-standing wish come true—for what he calls a "one-man group exhibition." I surmise that this type of exhibition center or museum existed years ago in his personal plans, just as it has existed in the fat notebook he always carries with him (each year he fills a volume with jottings and stores it away). He seems to have a clearly mapped-out scenario for every hall, room, even corridors and corners at the Museum. Artworks from some of his main series have already been mounted in the large exhibition rooms; of course, the museum in his mind is still ceaselessly adding new spaces, radiating out like the criss-cross strings of a net.

Around late 2007 or early 2008, Ni Youyu decided to engage in contemporary art creation. Prior to that, while at university, he had connected with the art field by writing critiques and curating shows. Aside from that, two aspects of his background need to be filled in, both touching on traits of his identity: firstly, his father is a professor of architecture and mechanical drawing; secondly, he is a graduate who studied traditional Chinese painting. When these two aspects of his background followed him into the contemporary domain, they did not weaken or put a burden on his advance; instead, they got to extend themselves fully. The former enhanced his "mindfulness of the hand," which is a fascination with manual technique and strict devotion to precise fabrication.[1] The latter delivered the heritage of Song-Yuan painting, right before his eyes, ready for him to comprehend and gradually inherit it. From this he brought to light the "cold woods" that is his original domicile.

In works from the brushes of ancient masters like Li Cheng and Guo Xi, we have encountered renderings of those cold woods—often pictured in fall or winter after a snowfall. These scenes convey a desolate, somber tone of thought; whether or not there is an actual human figure in the scene, the landscape is usually emblematic of someone with independent character—Ni Youyu likes to use the phrase "cold and free-floating," to reimagine the idea of "cold woods" as a precious-metal-like quality in human character or artworks. For him, "coldness" means maintaining distance from the reality of a particular place and time. With the help of this distance, one can observe and explore more independently. Even during the period when he needed art as a means to release his hormonal urges, he held fast to that apparently rational aloofness. Even before the coming of China's financial crisis, he was quite skeptical towards the carnivalesque feel of the contemporary art setting.

For us the idea of an "exhibition" is something plain and simple: it does not mean a wild party; it is not a site for tourism or entertainment; still less does it represent a commercial venue for collectors. If we extend "exhibition" to the state of art today, I believe that the latter has developed to a phase of massiveness and hollowness. More and more people are fabricating large numbers of pieces that are huge but pointless, and what is more they have a terrible effect on the environment. Quite a few biennial exhibitions, after being taken down, have left behind truckloads of wasted construction materials, and before opening day exhibition halls reek with the acrid odor of formaldehyde. Before the art even manages to convey any insight to people, it has used up a considerable amount of resources. This inevitably makes me ask myself: What does it mean that art has gotten to this point?[2]

As if to make a deliberate response to this, when he began work on his earliest series titled "Galaxy", he used it to reflect on the dependence of art on resources. First he used a hammer to pound coins he had collected from various countries, until the designs and numerical amounts were flattened into a nearly blank metallic canvas. Then he applied drawings and motifs with an inkbrush. His mode of working resembled the craft of bas relief in folk art. Later, when he had accumulated several hundred of these refashioned coins, he incorporated them into an assemblage made on site, in a form that imitated the look of ancient astronomical charts.

One point worth noting is that a certain component of violence went into the making of this piece, but once completed the piece had a tranquil, elegant appearance; the aspect of conceptual performance was gone. In the series he developed later, this process came into play more than once. He always works on a basis of found objects, which he first damages and then uses to build something out of them. After the coins are destroyed, the dignity of their existence is paradoxically elevated to a height of star-like impossibility. This incorporates insights that he gleaned from Duchamp. As for naming his pieces, he does it with a touch of Magritte-like absurdity. These two artists influenced Ni Youyu right from the beginning; however, in those early years his thinking about them was not all that deep. His treatments first of all were directed against the grain of the art environment. And when he used the title "Galaxy" to give the coins a resting place, perhaps he was thinking more along the lines of a "cold woods" or a "cold and free-floating" mood.

Even though nighttime treatments of the "cold woods" theme are rare in traditional Chinese painting, we can imagine halting our steps in a cold woods at night and, upon looking up, our eyes being rewarded with a sky full of stars. This is one way to envision and evoke a "cold and free-floating" ambience. As our line of sight ascends, the little metal circles seem to break away from the gravity of reality and show the artistic glow of self-sufficiency and self-realization.

Several years later he completed a piece using magnetic material on a sheet metal, to make a reworked version of a NASA astronomical photograph ("Hidden Force", 2015). This seemingly somber piece gives off an invisible magnetic force which attracts iron particles from the surrounding air over time. There is also a group of pieces which use chalk dust on a blackboard as materials to replicate a star chart ("Dust" series, 2010-2018). As for how each series paved the way for the next, we can look at two quotes on "lightness" from a book by Italo Calvino. If the making of the "Galaxy" project" responded to the heaviness of existence by seeking lightness,"[3] then the "Hidden Force" and "Dust" series correspond to the following passage:

It is not a dense and obscure sadness; rather, it is a piece of gauze woven from various particles of humor and sensibility, a film of dust formed from such atoms, just as a multiplicity of other objects are constituted by an ultimate material substance.[4]



Galaxy, Ni Youyu, Mixed media, 200x200 cm, 2008-2022


The coins used in "Galaxy" came from Ni Youyu's everyday collecting hobby. In fact, he enthusiastically amasses various oddments and old-fashioned items through every sort of avenue: old relics, photos by anonymous photographers, old picture frames, old-time pinball machine, lotus-shaped pedestals, measuring sticks…One habitual activity during trips to Europe is to comb through flea markets on Sundays. That is probably the leisure activity delights most in, as if he were walking among the lines of Lautréamont's famous poems.[5] Again and again he enjoys surreal encounters with unexpected objects… Of course, this kind of perambulation is not content with sensationalism and fetishism. For instance, when he sifted through thousands of old photographs, he was actually looking for materials for his "Freewheeling Trip" series.…Later, he mentioned this in an interview:

Once somebody asked me an intriguing question: If I could travel back in time, whom would I like to work with most? Without hesitation I said Joseph Cornell. He was surprised. He thought my answer would be one of those great masters whose name everyone knows. I said I really wished I could work with Cornell, maybe become his assistant; I would go with him on weekends to the West 25th Flea Market in New York; we would sift through things that are ignored by other people. I would definitely have a good time.[6]

Those boxes by Joseph Cornell deserve to be called miniature museums; each infused with reveries about the past. As Robert Hughes said, they are "theaters of memory," and they "have a strict sense of form, rigorous and austere, like fine cabinetry from New England."[7] For Ni, learning about that great assemblage artist meant that had found an exemplar, but at the same time his discovery came as a blow to his self-assurance. Here is one thought that ran through his head: "When I stood under the Sistine Chapel vault, or when I stood in front of Fan Kuan's 'Traveling through Streams and Mountains,' a notion would pop into my head: 'I don't want to paint anymore.'"[8] Because he felt the anxiety of influence, he made Goethe's saying his credo: "Limits are the springboard of genius." While his overall artistic practice embodies his personal originality, that anxiety also caused his works to take on features of "post-production." One could even say that "post-production" is his way of conveying originality. As Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined that term, remarked:

The artistic question is no longer: "what can we make that is new?" but "how can we make do with what we have?"... The processes in question here do not consist of lamenting the fact that everything has "already been done," but of inventing protocols of use for all existing modes of representation and all formal structures. It is a matter of seizing all the codes of the culture, all the forms of everyday life, the works of the global patrimony, and making them function. To learn how to use forms, as the artists in question invite us to do, is above all to know how to make them one's own, to inhabit them."[9]

In fact, this means taking what was formerly considered a museum without walls and being ready, at any time, to reassemble or re-narrate it. Ni Youyu's strong interest in the humanities and museology not only comes across in his fetishism and devotion to collecting, it also comes across in his overall creative tendency, which tries to utilize fragments of walls, tiles and bricks that are strewn across wild landscapes. From them he rebuilds a museum that resembles a seven storey tower. He took pains to paint a large piece titled "Last Sunset in the Museum" (2019), which he based on archival pictures of Europe's first, prototypic museum, the "Cabinet of Curiosities," which was founded by Ferrante Imperato. Although the accumulation of relics and traces over time is so vast, and art history has left us such a variety of expressive patterns that one person cannot possess such a quantity, at least he can possess a portion that falls within his sphere of interest.

The artistic paradigms that he gladly identifies with are usually those that "start with sensibility and end in rationality." Although surrealism enriches his search for "hidden logical connections" with pleasures and key insights, he is always wary of vague and self-indulgent associations. In every series he tries to find something similar to Cornell's "strict sense of form." Precisely by training his thinking in this vein and putting it into operation, his pieces sometimes remind viewers of detective novels: rigorous, orderly and thought-provoking.

After specifying a hypothetical horizon, scenery in countless old photos can be strung together to look like an erstwhile "freewheeling trip."[10] The same creative logic runs through "Stupa," "The Endless Second" and other series, in which actual objects or found pictures are cut and pasted onto the same plane or space. These series give viewers a clear-edged, stable and somewhat traditional sense of form, but they conceal a cunning smile. This smile expresses an intent to fabricate visual deceptions: He "invents a body of rules," or one could say he formulates a new order among things, and at the same time he reveals the deceptiveness of the pictures themselves.

"From the time pictures began to exist, there has been deception." "Ever since there has been rhetoric, there has been trickery." During one stage of life he was an enthusiastic reader of Zen anecdotes. He arrived at an opinion, which he stated directly: "I don't believe an artist is a creator of something new. Most of all, he is a pathmaker for cognition and observation. All sorts of material things are going through interactive cycles to begin with; what I do is to string their pre-existing genes together, to clear up the chaos of a certain segment."[11] While recalling his creation of those series, you can practically hear the humming of his methodological machine in operation.

"Rinse painting" is a skill that he mastered after repeated experiments—"By feeling my way along I was able to master an entire skillset, taking advantage of variable pressures, volumes and angles of water flow to rinse away or define edges on a patch of pigment."[12] This technique is merged with his painterly brushstrokes. At first, he used it to emulate the small works of Magritte, Van Gogh, de Chirico, Munch; later it was used for a broader range of subjects, at larger scales. Among them the "Gold" series uses painstaking applications of color to evoke "a somewhat deceptive sense of radiance." With its ironic tone, it reminds viewers that the gold color which connotes sacredness or elegance in ancient sacred images, or on containers, can now be used unrestrainedly to the point of kitschiness.

His first utilization of the "rinse painting" technique was perhaps due to an implicit consideration: due to lack of confidence in his painting ability, he wanted to supplement it with a conceptual means. However, when he created "Fictive Classic" and the ensuing series "Fictive Art Center," the dexterity he had gained from meticulous ink painting was apparently sufficient for converting to an oil-based medium and for images in diverse styles from art history.

In a sense, "Fictive Classics" was his most imaginative appropriation of old objects. This time he appropriated various old painting frames from which the embedded pictures had almost faded away, leaving only the frames, like balustrades which ancient literati used to lean on while gazing into the distance, or like a fitting that once up a backdrop in a theater. When Ni Youyu tried to deal with the challenge of their blankness, he played the role of someone who writes detective novels: "I had to consider details like the period of fabrication, the crafts that were practiced at such-and-such a location, the decorative motifs and the proportions; from those I deduced or imagined what kind of paintings were mounted inside them."[13]

These paintings brought resurrection for the old frames, letting them become an inseparable part of a new artwork—in fact, the more they seem unified with Ni's artwork, the more deceptive they are, as if that was their reason for existence. Yet within this deceptiveness, there is an ethical component that is especially moving: once during a conversation with Ni, he used a desk as a metaphor. The fate of an object can never be reversed: desk→broken-down desk→trash. What Ni wants to do is to hold that process back, to rescue the desk from that fate.


The Last Sunset in the Museum, Ni Youyu, Acrylic on canvas, 260x340 cm, 2018-2019



At the age of 32, Ni Youyu got his first tattoo: "∞". This symbol, coined by the 17th century British mathematician John Wallis, stands for infinity; later it appeared as the exhibition logo for Ni Youyu's 2019 solo show in Shanghai. At that time Ni provided his personal interpretation:

Not only is it a self-entwined snake swallowing its own tail, it is a kind of graph in algebra and geometry called a twisted-pair curve. Precisely speaking, this symbol refers to a quantity that endlessly expands toward infinity. Although it is infinite, it falls within the scope of an infinitely repeating cycle, so actually it is a finite state. It is not like an open line that extends infinitely in both directions. One can see that finite and infinite are relative and coexistent.[14]

This passage contains a visual allegory and holds a hidden implication of Oriental thinking on reincarnation. In pondering the relation between finite and infinite, Ni undoubtedly emphasizes the relative, coexistent aspect. When he tries to touch the theme of infinity in an abstract sense, he chooses a representational pedestal, upon which he often stands on tiptoe.

Whether in his past series or in his more recent subject matter like "Fictive Museum" and "Bedroom," most of his pieces present a scene of blankness where human figures are absent or have been extracted. As for his two large-scale painted works, human figures have all been effaced from the original photograph on which "Last Sunset in the Museum" was based, and a deserted, snowy forest is directly presented in "Relics" (2018). As he once explained:

"As for the themes of my paintings, my interest is first of all in landscapes, especially deserted landscapes. I worked on them for many years before I realized that human figures are not present in my pieces. At first I may have done that unconsciously, but later I wondered why there were no people. Perhaps it was because I hoped the pieces could convey a more abstract feeling or ambience. If I began putting human figures in, that would inject a narrative or a sense of plot. If it is good art, it will be sufficiently all-embracing, and the creator's feelings will be present, hidden behind what you see. So even if I paint a landscape representationally, what I'm really expressing is a more abstract spirit. Rather than painting the resignation and pathos of a human figure in the cold woods, it would be better to put all that into a direct depiction of the cold woods." [15]

After the narrative or sense of plot is weakened, the scene will tend to have a reminiscent tone or a sense of stark emptiness, both of which point to time—the former points to the past that will never return, and the latter conjures up a fantasy of changelessness, almost an eternity. As for time, as he himself remarked, "'Time' is the axis running through many of my pieces. You could call it a thread that connects all of my serial works."[16]

In the "Arch" series which was shown at the "∞" Exhibition, human traces and ruins, nature's vastness and the starry skies above—all are integrated into a dome-shaped installation adapted from an old pinball machine. This is actually a juxtaposition and contrast of those two types of time—the past and infinite time to come—and the dome provides a consolidated frame of viewing and involvement that leads the gaze continually inward, making people think of a votive niche or a metaphysical atmosphere.

Maybe it comes from our inborn reverence for the cosmos and the good earth (what the ancients called the round heaven and the rectilinear earth), or maybe it is based on the architectural stability of the dome. Maybe the ultimate origin is our own bodies—when you draw lines connecting the crown of the head, shoulders, hands and feet, the arch is the geometrical form you get. People invested immeasurable time, making adjustments according to experience, until they gradually defined this classic geometrical form. Who knows what it took? Anyway, it gives us a strong ritualistic sense; it lures us to conduct some kind of activity in that space.[17]

Fittingly for a dome shape, numerous small spheres appear to float in the interior of these installations. Sometimes they function directly as stars, and sometimes they exist as a part of the basic language or structure. "I am fascinated by spheres in general. That is the most beautiful geometrical form, and its beauty comes from the fact that a perfect sphere does not exist in the world."[18] This statement by Ni Youyu can be extended to mean that perfect art does not exist in the world, just as eternal objects and absolutely truthful representation does not exist. Yet his "Arch" series attempts to induce us, by means of a Magritte-like hole in a door,[19] and through the fraughtness of those limited scenes in his Cornell-like boxes, to associate our viewing with taking a peek into the infinite. Up to today, among all of Ni Youyu's series, I tend to think that the "Inches of Time" series most resembles his own self-portrait. Taking the format of a measuring stick made from old material, he paints the regularly spaced notches on a ruler by subjective determinations. In this process, he tries his best to emulate an objective standard, but obviously deviations from accuracy are hard to avoid.

The process of executing this piece seems to have been dull and flavorless, like something that a person with nothing to do would resort to, but it may have stirred Ni Youyu's recollections of craftsmen doing their daily work through the ages. The affinity he established with them came through his father and was creatively extended by his hands. What is more, he has always taken tireless delight in this. In subjective terms, he runs his own hand over a standard ruler. While "stroking" the standard in this way, his thoughts follow along with it, but they also question it. In fact, even though his creative process intends to dispense with ideology and doesn't concern itself with real-world effectiveness, his fudging and guesswork about the notches paradoxically remanifests the history behind a measuring stick. In an earlier review, I wrote this assessment:

The earliest form of measuring stick had its origins in the body. The Chinese character 尺was originally a pictograph. In Etymology of Commonly Used Characters, Bai Chuanjing gives this explanation: "It shows the thumb and middle finger of a hand, facing downward and spread out to the fullest extent." In ancient tribal communities, this was used as a measurement: "The extended finger makes a cun (inch); the spread-out palm makes a chi (foot); the unbent arm makes a zhang (yard)," which wryly acknowledges the existence of deviations. The Qin dynasty's subsequent unification of weights and measures did not mean that measuring sticks would thenceforth be a fixed, static standard. In subsequent periods, notches on rulers were always subject to variations, and these were tied to a host of background political and economic factors.[20]

Among all the modalities of his creative work, "Inches of Time" comes closest to the features of minimalism. His skepticism about images is reduced to the logical extreme of Pythagoras' dictums "all things are numbers"; "a plain surface pared down to geometric forms"; "appearing in the guise of formulae." For this artist who is nostalgic yet skeptical towards the history of images, his creative process on this series perhaps comes close to what he wishes to say: A painting can be reduced to pigment, canvas and particles of form. Matter can be reduced to motes, molecules and atoms. Finite lives can become a measuring stick, or perhaps an upwardly spiraling staircase that goes above all existing arches, probing and measuring that vault which betokens infinite time and space.


Installation View


October, 2022






[1] In a later interview, Ni Youyu quoted the French historian Henri Focillon's essay in  praise of hands: "Is it not admirable to find living among us in the machine age this determined survivor of the ‘hand age'?... In the artist's studio are to be found the hand's trials, experiments and divinations, the age-old memories of the human race which has not forgotten the privilege of working with its hands." (Quoted from Chinese text "Ni Youyu: Mindfulness of the Hand," Art World, Aug.29, 2019 )

[2] Quoted from Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millenium; Chinese version, Huang Canran, tr.; Yilin Press, 2009; p.28.

[3] Ibid, p.21. [4] Ibid., p.21.

[5] This refers to Lautreaument's often quoted line of poetry: "A sewing machine and an umbrella meet upon a dissecting table."

[6] Quoted from "Ni Youyu: A Chat with Tian Jian While Walking in the Woods," Artworld Net, June 26, 2018.

[7] Quoted from Ouyang Yu, tr: The Shock of the New, China Fine Arts Institute Press, Jan. 2019; p.325 (Chinese edition).

[8] Quoted from Ni Youyu's talks on his creative work: "Keywords that Are Not Really the Key," 2022.

[9] Quoted from "Preface," Postproduction; Jincheng Press, 2014; Chinese version translated by Xiong Wenxi.

[10] Here "erstwhile" is used to translate "ça-a-été" (having been there), a key concept used in discourse on photography by Roland Barthes, see Camera Lucida, Xu Qiling tr.; Taiwan Sheying Gongzuoshi, 1997; Chinese version p.94. (Jeanine Herman, Eng. tr.; "The Use of Objects," Camera Lucida; Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

[11] Quoted from "Ni Youyu: Freedom is Founded upon Limits," Shishang Bazha Net, Aug.28, 2019.

[12] Quoted from "Ni Youyu: Art Is an Everlasting Instant," Shishang Bazha Art Net, Sept.12, 2017.

[13] Quoted from "Keywords that Are Not Really the Key," 2022.

[14] Quoted from Ni Youyu: "∞," Limitlessness Originating from Limits, (Artshard Net), August 2018.

[15] Quoted from "Ni Youyu's Extraction and Abstraction: An Artist Has Never Been a Creator," Artnet News Net, September 12, 2019.

[16] Quoted from "Ni Youyu: Art Is an Everlasting Instant," Shishang Basha Art Net,   Sept.12, 2019.

[17] Quoted from "Ni Youyu: Everything Begins from the Arch," XnOffice Net, October 31, 2018.

[18] Ibid.

[19] At his solo exhibition site in the He Art Museum, Ni Youyu devoted one room to pay  his respects to Magritte. He erected an installation there, modeled after the hole in the door in Magritte's painting "Unexpected Answer."

[20] Quoted from my article "Ruler as Ruler," which I wrote about the piece "Inches of Time," included in the painting album Inches of Time, Ni Youyu Studio, 2015.