XU Ning, who grew up in Beijing, is the 38th (2017) recipient of the International TAKIFUJI Art Award. Since then, she has received numerous art awards. However, XU said that she has been searching for years what she really wants to do and what is the purpose of her life. (Interviewer : NISHIKAWA Megumi, August 2021)
First time to work on a pottery board.
It was hard, but I enjoyed it.
——You stayed at the Creare Atami Yugawara Studio for three months from spring to June as an invited artist for our Traffic Culture Exhibition 2021* to be held at Ueno Station in October. You worked on your artwork during your stay and continued to work on it at home. This is your first time working with ceramic as a material. What was it?
It was my first time, so I didn’t know what to expect. I started with a feeling of “Let’s just try it”. At first, I thought of making a single large ceramic relief, but I think that was because I thought of it as a flat picture. So, according to the motif, I tried to arrange the stones in one big ceramic relief.
However, since it was my first time to use ceramic materials, there was a discrepancy between what I wanted to do and what I could do. Eventually, I made a small ceramic relief as a test and arranged pieces of stones on it, and it was very good. I began to think that it would be more interesting to make several small reliefs rather than one large relief, to have variation and change.
The first step in making a ceramic relief is to knead the clay. It was tough but fun. I made a square shape out of the clay and slammed it on the floor to release the air. I was pounding it so hard that it became too soft and would not take shape. I didn’t know that kneading too much would make it soft. I couldn’t stop laughing. After that, I was careful not to over-knead.
——How was the glaze?
The first week in the studio, I learned about glazing. Glazing a test piece and burning it in a pottery kiln but unexpected colors appear. It depends on the thickness and the surface condition of a test piece. With paint, red is red, but with glaze, it was hard to imagine beforehand and frustrating. So, I started listening to music while I was working. Eventually, I began to understand what kind of color would come out depending on the shape of the test piece. I put my heart and soul into my work, so I didn’t care if I failed in some cases. Some of the colors came out wonderfully by accident
Resonance between work and viewer
——What was the rhythm of life like in the studio?
The studio is available from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. I return to my dormitory, have dinner, and go to bed at 8:00 p.m. I would wake up at 1:00 a.m., work on clay modeling until 8:00 a.m., eat breakfast, and then leave for the studio. That was my life there. Anyway, I had a hard time working with the clay. As time went by, the clay became harder and harder. It is soft at first and does not hold its shape well. Sometimes it crumbles. However, once it hardens, it requires a lot of strength.
It took me about eight hours to make even one small one. I ordered metal tools like surgical scalpels on the Internet, and on weekends I went home to study modeling with the clay I had purchased. In this way, I gradually got the hang of it and came closer to my own expression. I believe that it is an artist’s mission and responsibility to create good things, so I think it is natural that it is difficult.
——How would you like people to view your work at the cultural exhibition?
I think that in the end, both ceramic relief and paintings are about expressing oneself. The good thing about ceramic boards is that they have a strong sense of materiality and exist as reality. You can’t touch paintings, but you can touch ceramic relief, and you can enjoy the slippery and rough textures.
When people stand in front of my work, I would be happy if I could evoke some kind of emotion, such as “this is interesting” or “I’ve never seen anything like this”. People have joys, worries, and struggles every day, and I try to capture these emotions and experiences in my works. I hope that there is resonance and empathy between the viewer and the work.
Receiving the International TAKIFUJI Art Award was the starting point for me, and since I was invited to the exhibition, I wanted to express my gratitude to the association through my work. Also, since the association’s activity is to promote public art, I would like to support the association’s activities by having many people see my art installed in the public space of Ueno Station.
Meaning of blank space
——Your award-winning work at the International TAKIFUJI Art Award had the canvas filled with various colors. After that, you changed to using blank spaces. What changes have occurred in you?
People often call it blank space, and you can think of it that way. But for me, it is not a blank space. The year after I received the award, when I was in my first year of graduate school, I went to Europe to do research. I saw the works of Flemish painters such as Jan van Eyck*¹ and Hans Memling*² in the museums of Ghent and Bruges in Belgium, and I was deeply impressed by Jan van Eyck’s “The Secret of the Lamb” and “The Ghent Altarpiece”.
I had seen Flemish paintings in Paris before, but at that time I had not studied art history yet, so I did not pay much attention to them. However, when I saw them again, I realized that they were not only technically strong and skillful, but they also had a devotional faith and painted with a belief in the sublime. And the sacred realm was prominent.
Actually, I had a painting in progress before I went to Europe. I painted only the central part and then express it in all-over*³ after I returned. But when I went back to Japan and saw the painting, I felt that I wanted people to see it as it was; it was September 2018, and the painting has changed since then. This painting is “Youth”.
*1 An early Flemish painter from the end of the 14th century to the middle of the 15th century. He is considered to be one of the most important painters in northern Europe in the 15th century.
*2 Flemish painter who was active in Brugge (now Belgium) in the late 15th century. He was a member of the generation that followed Jan van Eyck and others, and his religious themes were expressed with thorough realism down to the smallest detail.
*3 A painting term meaning “to cover the entire surface”. A term used by the American painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) to refer to the technique of dripping paint from above or drawing lines in the form of poling, in which the entire surface of the painting is treated homogeneously.
——I heard that you have been learning ink painting in China since you were a child. Although I would describe it as blank space, is this one of the reasons why you leave blank spaces in your work?
I think there is an influence. My background is in China, and I am influenced by the context of Chinese culture and art without consciously thinking about it. However, the part of my painting that is not painted, the white background, has its own meaning. In the process of living, human beings are dyed by the customs, culture, and etiquette of the society. Sometimes we are forced to bend our way of life. On the other hand, the faith that cannot be bent or the pure part that cannot be dyed is the essence of a person. I represent the blank as such. As a painter, my challenge is to make sure that the painted parts are attractive, but also that the unpainted parts are attractive. Ideally, both the painted and unpainted parts should be present in the canvas.
After searching for life’s purpose, became a painter
——When did you realize that you wanted to be a painter?
I entered the Capital Normal University in Beijing on a recommendation, but the classes were mainly about art education. I was not serious about painting, but I took my graduation project seriously, and this work was highly evaluated and exhibited next to my professor’s work. It was a surprise to me. My homeroom teacher told me, “You should continue studying painting,” but I clearly remember myself pretending not to hear his words. I was too young to accept my teacher’s advice honestly. However, I think these words left a strong impression somewhere in me.
——You didn’t start your career as a painter immediately after coming to Japan, did you?
I started living in Japan with my family in 2006. I learned Japanese at the Foreign Student’s Special Course at Kyorin University. Later, I took an open class at Tokyo University of the Arts, which led me to learn in preparatory schools and began to pursue painting in earnest.
——After entering Tama Art University, you told an interviewer*⁴ at the university that for six years, including graduate school, you took full advantage of the university. I felt that you absorbed it greedily.
That’s right. I went to the university every morning at 8:00 a.m. and stayed until the last minute to leave the campus. During my six years of undergraduate and graduate studies, I acquired many credits in addition to the required courses. The lectures, including those on art history, were interesting, and I attended classes that were not directly related to oil painting. When I listened to the lectures, ideas would come to me one after another. I often brought my suitcase from home and filled it with catalogs and art books that I borrowed from the library. I enjoyed both the lectures and the production, and my university life was fulfilling.
Contribute to the world with the paintings
——Since winning the International TAKIFUJI Art Award, you have received so many art awards , and it seems that all your efforts and accumulations have blossomed at once. I think your parents must be very happy with your achievements as a painter.
Probably more important to my parents is that I find out what I want to do, and I feel that they are watching over me. My gratitude to my parents for their support is also a big part of the background of my continuing to paint.
——What is your dream for the future ?
When I was a child, there were several songs that were big hits in China. The lyrics were “Contribute, serve”. Even though I didn’t understand the meaning of the words, I was very impressed by them. Now, little by little, I have come to understand those words. To me, life is about fulfilling one’s responsibilities and contributing to society. Therefore, my dream is to realize it through my paintings. Not only to give people spiritual energy and power through my paintings, but also to let them feel the various emotions of pain, joy, excitement, conflict, emptiness, and loneliness in life. This is because these are true human emotions. I gave the title “World” to this work. It refers to the world of coexistence and co-prosperity, not the world of any particular person, but the world of humanity as a whole. My goal is to contribute to such a world.
Born in Beijing in 1979. After graduating from the Capital Normal University in Beijing (specializing in oil painting), she moved to Japan with her family in 2006. Entered Tama Art University in 2014, won the 38th International TAKIFUJI Art Award in 2017, and completed her master’s degree in painting at Tama Art University in 2020. She was selected for the Ichiro Fukuzawa Award (2018), the Shell Art Prize 2019, the Toeko Tatsuno Award (2020), the Grand Prix at the Art Award Tokyo Marunouchi 2020, and the 24th Taro Okamoto Award for Contemporary Art (2021). She currently lives and works in Kanagawa Prefecture.