So Near Yet So Far, the first solo exhibition of the Chinese artist Ni Youyu in Hong Kong is presented by Perrotin. Showcasing 12 pieces, the exhibition gives a comprehensive view of the artist’s diverse creations.

Ni Youyu’s practice does not apply demarcation to antiquity and modernity, nor does it concern itself with the task of reinventing paradigms—so the artist says. This principle is grounded in Ni’s studies at the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University, where he specialized in Chinese paintings. Whilst the genre emphasizes engagement with—or even resuscitation of—antiquity, Ni’s works are pivoted on the ways we can access the space between all temporalities and material objects as a repository of universal cognizance.

Regardless of questions about the relations assumed between Ni’s Dust series and the cosmology of Five Dynasties and Northern Song Dynasty (907-1127) landscape paintings, an awareness of life is evident in his work populated with astronomical tropes. Cosmology, after all, comes down to temporality in the sense that it is at once a temporal dimension—lodged in ephemerality—and a spatial concept. Through the almost scientific technique of grid division, which might be redolent of Renaissance Scandinavian landscape paintings, Ni maps out the various intersections between Chinese and Western cosmologies. A case in point is his Waterfall & Rockfall (2016) wherein he deconstructs the paragon of Chinese landscape by superimposing paradoxes, conflicts and resonance onto one another. From repetitive, experimental gestures thus emerge a highly idiosyncratic expression: using the water-wash technique, Ni applies pressurized water to wash away layers of paint, and repeats the process until the painterly trace and texture appear as wulouhen, a type of Chinese calligraphic stroke that likens the trailing of ink to rainwater trickling through the crevices of dilapidated walls. From afar, the work contains the pattern and wrinkled texture of landscape paintings; upon closer examination, then, the work is in fact a tactile manifestation of the Expressionist discursive structure, indicating a superimposition of two different drawing methods and their visualities. Seen thus, Ni’s various experiments (largely with the golden acrylic—a plastic medium beneath its metallic reflet) are punctuated by painting’s intrinsic deceptiveness as fiction.

At the heart of Ni’s creative process is a displacement of social modalities such as identity, nationality, race, and class. The subjects in his work, be they constellations or dust, collectively embody life (and death) within the universe. Essentially, Ni is interested in tracing the fundamental cognizance that conditions and makes accessible the interplay between antiquity and modernity, between the Chinese and the West—embodied by dust. In Ni’s previous works, such cognisance takes on the form of transparent cubicles as an allusion to the modern way of looking at things, conditioned by logic and reason, whilst the bonsai contained within the tanks hints at a miniature universe in its own right. Lacing through other scenic depictions across drawers, alcoves and coins is precisely this double perspective, enriched by golden paint common in both antique and contemporary art. Following from this discursive structure, Ni’s new canvas work Relic, 2017, replaces the three-dimensional cubicles with a transparent perspective. One notices the familiar texture—eroded, water-washed. At once literal and figurative, transparency as such points towards the influence of formal analysis and iconology on our understanding of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. As such, Ni questions the kind of ‘image inertia’ and art historical self-consciousness we take for granted, and visualizes them as specimens of historical remnants. Occasionally, Ni would embellish the margins of the canvas with a hand-drawn frame, whence a metacognitive moment emerges to indicate the duality of the work as a painting-within-a-painting. Often, the notion of universality is manifest in Ni’s work as a single line or an abstract shape, such as the void shared between image and bonsai in The Endless Second series. In another instance, Freewheeling Trip combines images sourced from multiple obscure photographers on almost the same subject, resulting in a collage contra the kitsch perfection of Photoshop: the margins, indicative of manipulation, are retained as points of contact between clusters of subjects. In the installation series Pagoda, lotus seats of varying sizes are combined through an axis into a single composition. Here, lines and shapes figure as universality, or rather, a unit of measurement reflective of Ni’s aesthetics.

Such interest in geometry also extends to Ni’s frequent use of rulers à la readymade. The handmade rulers in the Inches of Time series, for instance, crudely exemplify the futility of subjective intervention more than any practical purposes. Nonetheless, they stand in as a unit of measuring time, or our experience of time in terms of introspection, emotions, and space. Exposing norms, perception and cognisance as constructed, Inches of Time questions their susceptibility to human sensibility whilst also highlighting the latter’s semantic grey areas for our attention. Thus, what is being problematized in Ni’s practice is not the order of things per se but the principles and abstract reasoning that enable such an order. After all, their universality is the place of origin whence power and violence emanate. One observes the same will to power and potency embedded in the act of ‘washing away’ – brought to the fore as the true nature of aesthetics’ seeming abstinence.

Lu Mingjun

About the exhibition

Dates: 24 May–29 June 2018

Venue: Perrotin

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin, for further information please visit

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