The Artling interviews Chinese artist Nan Qi ahead of his solo exhibition 'The Art of Nan Qi Exhibition' at The Luxe Art Museum, opening 6th January 2017!
You were born in Yongkang City in the Zhejiang Province of China during the time when the People’s Liberation Army rose to power. As such, your artistic training came from the People’s Liberation Army Fine Arts Academy in Beijing. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to study Chinese painting?
I was born to a peasant family in Yongkang, which is in the centre of Zhejiang Province, in 1960. My mother was educated and able to paint. My father was able to recite some Chinese literary classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin by heart, and even knew all the names of the characters in the novels. Though my family was very poor at that time, I was content listening to my father telling stories and watching my mother paint. The Yong Kang County has 1,700 years of history, with a strong traditional culture.
In 1978, I served in the Chinese People's Liberation Army. I started as a technical apprentice carpenter in the army. I often learnt to draw under the lights of the street lamps. Fortunately, my painting Cold Meal《饭又凉了》was selected as one of the best in our division’s art contest, and enabled me to be elected as the projectionist of the division headquarters (film projector and painting propagandist). From then on I had a lot of time to study painting while I worked. In 1985, I was admitted to a professional Chinese painting class in the Fine Arts Department of Beijing PLA Academy of Arts. I had two years of professional college education in Chinese painting, where most professors and lecturers were from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. The initial graduation work, Mount Wutai《五台山》, was awarded the National Excellence Exhibition Prize. "To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Army” Fine Arts Exhibition was a large-scale exhibition at the China Art Museum in 1987. It was said that there were more than 3,000 entries, out of which 500 pieces of works were selected to be displayed, and only 20 pieces were selected to win. The competition was very fierce, but I was extremely lucky that my work Wutai Mountain was the only award-winning landscape painting. Due to this, the army headquarters applied for the Beijing “Hukou” for me. It was very difficult to get a Beijing Hukou job in China at that time, but it led me to start working in the capital city of China in December 1988.
The People's Liberation Army Academy of Arts had many excellent talents, such as Mr. Mo Yan who studied in the Literature Department and was the Nobel prize winner in 2012, and Ms. Peng Liyuan, the Dean of the PLA academy of Arts today and National Chairman Xi Jinping's wife. Furthermore, my teacher at that time was Professor Liu Dawei (president of Chinese Artists Association now).
One of your iconic techniques is the ‘Halo Dot’ that uses traditional xuan rice paper and Chinese ink to give your works a three dimensionality and earn you the title of “master of the ink dot”. How did you come to develop this technique? What was your process?
Nan Qi’s dot was an exploration over 20 years during my study of creative ink painting. It is created on fresh Xuan paper and it is a mixture of using ink painting, ink stains, ink washing and ink colorimetric techniques. Nan Qi's dot is a symbol of my artistic language. I also combine it with brushwork – the superimposition of parts created by overlaying a piece of ink painting with another piece – which creates a very interesting and beautiful line. I often use this ink brushwork line to model the human form, a mountainous form and so on. With regards to Nan Qi’s dot and brushwork, three-dimensional stereoscopic art language comes into being, which so far can only be achieved by me. Today I am promoting a unique way to create artworks, in which I drew 20 complex ink self-portraits, which turns the works into 25 three-dimensional forms if you look at it for some time. This work has been displayed at the “Metaphysical: Contemporary Ink Exhibition” organised by the famous critic Mr. Pi Daojian at 798 Yue Art Museum in October 2016. The opening was attended by about 60 art critics from China, one of which was a very famous contemporary art critic. When he heard that the 20 ink portraits can become 25 portraits, he was very surprised and almost thought that I was lying. However, his young assistant could see the three-dimensional forms and told him it was true. Then he told me that the works of Nan Qi are the vanguard of contemporary art, which was very kind and encouraging.
In the 1990s you travelled to England and France to study European art. How did this influence your artistic style? You worked for a while in oil and acrylic, but later decided to focus on ink as your main technique – do you think you have incorporated some Western techniques along with your Eastern medium?
In 1989, was lucky to have married an English expert on culture and education from the British Council, in Beijing. She took me to England, France and other places many times. She had a lot of knowledge about art, which helped me a lot. She took me to the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, Louvre Museum and the Pompidou many times and really opened my eyes. In 1995, she went to Hong Kong to work for the government, so I ended up living in Hong Kong for many years, during which I also visited Singapore multiple times. My experience of Europe taught me that "art is greater than the thought" and “the personal artistic language is very important to establish”.
Art belongs to the world, and the premise of art’s globalization is the coexistence of nation and region. I am familiar with ink and in order to exploit the advantages of its characteristics to the full, I try to research and explore something different with the properties of ink art. Absorbing artistic inspiration is organic, and I allow for it to come naturally; I do not deliberately absorb European or African art.
Your work has been described as ‘Post-Pop Art’ and has drawn parallels with Western artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who also worked using a dot technique. Do you feel that your artistic practice does have some similarities, or are these merely comparisons in form?
I appreciate Andy Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s excellent two-dimensional screen-print pop works from the 1960s to 1980s. My works have a similarity with theirs that arises only from the visual perspective and the image composition. However, my works are created by hand, with brush on fresh Xuan paper, that expresses the strong spirit of my works and differentiates it from industrial mechanical products of Warhol and Lichtenstein’s works. The printed works are identical, but hand-painted works are irreplaceable. Furthermore, my works combine current digital three-dimensional information technology with two-dimensional easel arts to developed it into three-dimensional works (without the device, but with the similar effect; theorist Mr. Liu Xiaochun has said my three-dimensional ink works as a "virtual device"). Warhol and Lichtenstein’s works address the past, but my works are of the present. In addition, the fundamental difference between us is that they have very different critical views of art. As for the people who call my works post-pop, I think it is curatorial, critical and theoretical terminology. I simply call my works "Nan Qi’s ink painting style".
Interestingly, you have had your dots printed on wine bottles and superimposed on a Porsche for your collaboration with Green Art Asia for the Art + Automobile exhibition. How do you feel about the mix with art and commerce, especially when it comes to utilitarian products? Do you have a company that you would love to do a collaboration with?
It is very interesting to me that the galleries promote Porsche, wine labels and other utilitarian products. However, I tend to focus on the research and continuous exploration of the artistic aspect of the works. In October this year, there was a "Post-Art: Contemporary Ink Art Exhibition" in Beijing's Gui Dot art space. I showcased a combination of sculpture and ink paintings. I created a work that attempts to hybridize a Nan Qi Dot work entitled Carry A Gun, with sculptures of male soldiers carrying gun, such that both can be viewed in the same time and space. I hope I can collaborate with the companies which are interested in my works and my future ideas.
In the last few decades, Chinese art has rapidly grown with many collectors – both Eastern and Western – driving demand for works from the region. As Chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Asian Artists and a member of the China Artists Association, what are your observations regarding the rise of Chinese art in the global art market? What further changes do you anticipate in the next five years or so?
To clarify, I only really served as chairman of the Asian Artists Association of Hong Kong from 1995 to 2004, during which I developed many meaningful art activities. Since then, a new chairman has not been elected by the association. When I moved back to Beijing, I planned a "2004 New freehand ink painting exhibition" in the Chinese Museum. I focused on the exchanging ideas with first-class art critics in China and exhibition of works, such as the cooperation with the famous art theorist and Professor Mr.Liu Xiaochun, Mr. Jia Fangzhou and others. In 2005, I planned the "Nature of contemporary ink - ink invitation exhibition".
Today's globalized art market seems to congregate in Asia and Hong Kong. However, the brilliance of contemporary ink art has not really been showcased. But I firmly believe that the real Chinese contemporary ink art must be very active and artistic prospects will be very major in the next five to ten years. What will be Chinese national contemporary art's calling card? Is it digital art, screen printing art or sculpture art? In my opinion, it should be the excellence of Chinese contemporary ink.
The Artling recently headed to Shanghai for their contemporary art week, and the art scene there seems so cosmopolitan and full of energy! For people visiting China for the first time and looking to check out the vibrant art scene there, what are the places you would recommend visiting?
I don't understand enough about contemporary art in Shanghai, but if you come to Beijing, you should go to Beijing 798 to get a sense of Chinese contemporary art there. I would also recommend you go to Art District-- Beijing Songzhuang artist village to visit the life and work of artists.
The contemporary art industry is constantly growing, especially in Asia, which is fantastic. However, being an artist in such competitive climates can be challenging. What advice do you have for aspiring artists who want to be successful in the art world?
First, artists should not create art as a job. Second, artistic creation is not a competition. Real artistic creation happens when the artist follows his or her own heart and personal feelings. However, to live in this world, artists need to eat, live and tend to other necessities of life. Therefore, the artist is not a monk, but he or she needs to have a heart as pure as a monk’s, as well as persistence and love, to pursue one’s own life and to struggle for artistic ideals. Struggle for your own artistic vision until the oil lamp burns out.
To see more of Nan Qi's works, click here,
Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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