A Zero Degree of Writing and Other Subversive Moments
An interview with Ni Haifeng


Marianne Brouwer


What made you come to Holland?

People always assume that I was repressed in China, but in fact I just kind of followed gravity. People are moving all the time. I think there should be a free flux of human beings on this planet.

What is the most popular, the most important, or the most frequent question put to you as a Chinese artist living in the West?

It's precisely that question: what does it mean to be a Chinese artist in the West. And more often than not it's put in a suggestive sort of way that reminds me of Samuel Huntington's book 'The Clash of Civilizations'. That book creates a kind of artificial combat structure, as though civilizations are fixed traditional givens that don't change,
and you can therefore set them against each other. To think like that is to fall into a political trap. It's something that is often applied to art, too. I like to think in different terms, not of art politics, of art as political, but in terms of broader structures of society, of culture.
The word 'Western' is also a trap, because 'The Other' always follows it like a shadow. Some people say 'difference' instead of 'clash'. But even so, no fixed difference exists between 'us' and 'them' that can never be changed, or a fixed distance from 'here' to 'there' that is unbridgeable. These differences can be translated into each other. It's not a one way street: from China to the West, or from the West to China. It works both ways, or in multiple ways.
My living here is really an endless process of translation, both in a metaphorical and literal, everyday sense. I find that translation is a good word, better than negotiation for instance, which is a business word. Translation is a peaceful word. I think that as Chinese artists we have no real issue with Western dominance, at least not in the very direct way that black artists have. We are more concerned with translation, and black artists, I think, with reconciliation and negotiation. They have a shared experience of subjugation and they translate that experience into the present. China on the other hand has preserved the integrity of its culture.

What is the difference between being a Chinese artist in China and being a Chinese artist in the West?

To Chinese artists living in China, 'Chineseness' is not a valid concept. Just as it would be ridiculous and totally unnecessary for a Dutch artist living in Holland to question 'Dutchness'. But for Chinese artists living in the West it's almost a daily question, put to them not only from the outside, but which they confront within themselves, within their own inner world. This is the only fundamental difference. All other differences are not important.

Are there other cliché questions concerning Western notions of Chinese identity or tradition?

I am always being asked how making work in the West is related to my unique (they always say 'unique') Chinese identity, as though they are desperately seeking 'Chineseness'. However, identity is constituted of many things, not just past but also present.
Is there a moment that all available proofs of identity become superfluous? I mean: if we assume that we, in fact, exist, we don't need added proof of our identity, because being itself already constitutes an identity of sorts. To me, identity - like tradition - is permanently under construction. They are both part of an ungoing process more complicated than anyone can grasp.
Today, so many people want to hold on to an identity to prove their 'being'. The notion of 'exile' functions the same way. That is a trap. It presumes a defined tradition maybe even homesickness. I'm not homesick but I always think of an 'elsewhere' an invented or an imaginary home. I regard exile as a voluntary escape from a fixed place and a process of becoming something new. Creating a zero moment in your life.

Are you often asked whether your own cultural tradition is an obstacle to artistic self expression?

This is another one of those problematic questions, because it interprets tradition as a hindrance. It implies a kind of backwardness. Those who judge traditions from elsewhere in that way, should look at their own, Western tradition, which at times can be oppressive as well. At the beginning of Modernity for instance, the existing classical
culture may have been experienced as oppressive. There is no such thing as one single tradition, there are many different ones.
All these questions are really problematic, because they are specifically addressed to 'The Other'. Sometimes it seems as though the only valid notion of 'The Other' is the negative one that is implied by 'Not Us'. That way of thinking is an implicit part of capitalism. Capitalism needs 'The Other' because it feeds on excess, or
rather on the endless production of excess. And then there's expansion which has a lot to do with 'The Other'. Capitalism continuously expands into something beyond itself and feeds on what it creates. Put simply, 'The Other' is an expression for someone you need to sell things to, or to exploit. And if we look at the
historical stages of capitalism, like national capitalism, it represses differences within the nation and creates 'The Other' nation beyond the borders of the nation.
I have been asked these questions continuously throughout the years, everywhere in the West, here, in Germany and so on. It is not to deny the differences, but difference should not be given as a construct, like an inexorable fact... Differences are being produced constantly, difference should not be a fixed definition that's already in place
beforehand. Today we use 'The Other' to describe people from elsewhere. It has become overloaded with connotations or implications like 'lesser', for example, or 'essentially different'. Etymologically speaking, 'the other' is a very normal word. I happen to like it a lot, and I use it quite often.

How is the notion of 'otherness' or 'difference' experienced from the point of view of Chinese artists within China?

I think there are many levels of perception of differences. The artists who have been participating in international shows abroad are mainly trying to overcome these. They try to find the common denominator of humanity. That is their biggest ideal. They don't want to be confined to being a Chinese artist. They want to be first of all an artist,
then an artist from China, and then, on another level, within China, within Chinese art politics, they try to preserve the difference, try to exaggerate the difference and to use the difference as a strategy by going back to the archaic traditions and doing something different.

This is where you yourself come from: the 'Generation of '85', so called because it was the first generation of artists to graduate after the Cultural Revolution, after the art schools were reopened. It was the exciting moment when contemporary art was created in China.

I studied at the Zhejiang Art Academy. At that time almost everybody studied there, almost everyone who helped to create that moment of contemporary art: Geng Gianyi, Zhang Peili, and many others. We originate from a really mixed tradition. We can't say that we have only been formed by Chinese classical tradition. A lot of things came
into it, even Mao's legacy, which is part of that tradition too. But Marxism and Western Modernism are equally part of my tradition, the tradition from which I first approached contemporary art. It's very difficult for me to distinguish what the dominant tradition is and its key role in my work. We can talk about calligraphy but we can't ignore conceptualism. Without it I wouldn't have arrived at where I am now. The point is that Western culture helped to form, that it enlightened my artistic creation.

Conceptualism, avant gardism, Dada: a revolution in art in China. But initially there were only very few, perhaps some fifty contemporary artists amongst a billion people. How much can you achieve when you are so few?
It's an interesting point, a very paradoxical one. On the one hand it seemed to us like a revolution, but very soon we arrived at thinking that this revolution was really a laboratory thing, that it had no impact on society at large at all. Being confined to those fifty or so people, we felt it was like a cultivated thing, something grown in a glass house.

But the government also stopped you from being known by closing down exhibitions, by forbidding certain forms of contemporary art. It forbade nonsense calligraphy, all kinds of developments that you could perhaps have achieved organically or gradually, anything that could be seen as a critique of Chinese contemporary norms or society.
That's why I say that we believed this art was a revolution, although it started out as something cultivated underground, like a grass roots movement. However, it didn't really develop shielded from society. This grass roots movement has been growing within society, as part of it. That is why the government wanted to stop it and why it
is forbidden. For if it really were something shielded and limited to a laboratory production it would have been tolerated. It would have been a different history. The movement also expanded very quickly. Over a period of ten years we can say that, although it started out with perhaps fifty people initially, it grew into a hundred, a thousand, even many more, until today, twenty years later, there must be some ten thousand artists making contemporary art.

Are there different social functions of art in the West when compared to elsewhere?

Art in the West, I think, has its own proper space or place, it has its institutions, its audience. Art is not very important here. It's always some sort of by product. And all these critical ways are heard only to a certain extent, as long as it is within an allowed space. Art here is very much commonplace, whereas in China it is still a rarity.
There is opportunism everywhere, censorship everywhere. Here in the West I would say censorship is more internalised, acted upon by individuals out of their own moral principles for instance. In China it is a centralised censorship. You can see it, it's visible.
I see art primarily as ideologically challenging. As an artist you continually try to challenge ideologies, or fixed beliefs. This excludes holding on to, adhering to a fixed tradition. It's almost a historical truth that traditions need to be altered, that there
comes a time when they are no longer applicable. If we really want to put a tradition to the test, we need to challenge that tradition by creating a subversive moment. With subversive art I don't mean the bland political attack, or the intention to shock, but to create a particular moment of awareness. Shock is different; it's spectacular. Subversive means that on a very profound level something needs to be modified or

How to create a subversive moment?

I'm talking about creating an empty or zero moment, an instant of no gravity, something like a core, like the axis of a wheel, an in between moment or a moment of insight. If you achieve that, something results that is really a kind of joint, a pivotal moment in time. The moment of joint is a moment of reinventing the classical. Its reinvention with the help of things that happen elsewhere, like Modernism for instance. As an artist you create these moments as a reconfiguration of the constituent parts of a tradition, like reshuffling a deck of cards. These particular moments are so completely denied or ignored by art history, because they defy the power of interpretation. Words, logic, have no real power there; the whole system of interpretation loses its power, too.

If subversiveness is so closely connected to language, can Chinese subversive methods for instance be transported into a Western context, or can they be understood in the West?

By emphasising language only, we miss out on the kind of meaning that is attached to, or carried by, forms, images and things, because they are basically part of language, although not a written or a spoken one. The methodology I applied in China can be applied in a Western context as well. You don't have to deconstruct the whole language; it's enough to keep a critical distance, by which I mean to doubt meaning carried by language. The written word as well as the phonetic sound of a word is an image too. Whether word or image, they are all part of language. This zero moment is not uniquely Chinese. In fact, the number zero is not customary in Chinese, it is not customary in the Chinese language either. Actually the number zero was an Indian or an Arabic invention. Through certain philosophical notions in Taoism or in Buddhism, we may
possibly be closer to the concept of a zero moment, but I see no problem in working with Western material or with Western sources.

How do you reach a 'zero moment' and how to describe it?

You can never actually reach that zero point because if there would be such a point, existing in a fixed place as it were, it would become meaningless too. You have to go around it, encircle it, suggest it. To put it simply: when all the elements of language stop functioning in their habitual way, or stop producing meaning, or the meaning we usually gain from them, then what you do, both as an artist who is destabilising the habitual production of meaning and as a spectator who tries to find meaning, is to find new meaning by stopping to produce the habitual meaning. I tend to refer to two types of meaning one that is habitually produced and one that is new. A new meaning is what has not been habitually referred to before.

Is this a description of a process of deconstruction, or of something far more fundamental?

In China, language never had such a great importance. It has always been something to be doubted, to be wary of. This is why we don't have meta narratives as a central point of truth, or a central point from which all other narratives can be generated. Living in between two languages, I have a very acute feeling of the possibilities and the
impossibilities of language that something said or written in English is really non-translatable into Chinese. This is why I like the word translate: it is really creating something new, it's mission impossible, it's reinventing things.
Properly speaking, Chinese language has no grammar like Western languages have. Chinese is a non linear, almost non grammatical language. It consists of independent words combined in a loose way into a kind of constellatory structure. It's a highly poetic language, rather than a reasoning language. I read Heidegger and Foucault in Chinese translation for instance they make no sense. Chinese language isn't focused on reasoning or on logical philosophy, but it is very good in a kind of poetic and moral philosophy. To understand something means that you have grasped the combination, that it has appeared before you. In Chinese language, to grasp something, to have understood something, is the result of a sudden combinatory insight, almost like an epiphany.
Western languages are linear constructs, logical sequences: first this, then that, this follows from that, this equals that. Deconstruction of a power discourse is a clear notion in Western language. That may be revolutionary, but then later what was intended to deconstruct assumes a new power again. It's a gesture that is very relative over time. In China we don't have the word deconstruction. Although it appears a lot as a translated term, it's a kind of transplanted word. It also indicates that modern Chinese has become much more grammatical, rather closer to Western languages than it used to be. The literary reforms of the early twentieth century and during Maoism contributed to that. People went to study in Europe and the U.S. and upon their return they created the Bai Hua (Plain Language) Movement, which was in favour of using vernacular Chinese for literary writing, instead of the classical style. It meant that you could retain your cultural values and your intellectual tradition and integrate the new inventions, Western scientific rationality into it. From then on Chinese became a much more rational and technological or utilitarian language.

One of the revolutionary forms of contemporary art in China was the invention of Nonsense calligraphy. It means painting characters which seem very real and which suggest meaningful language, but which in fact are meaningless. It caused a real shock when they were first exhibited. Why was doing nonsense writing so important at the beginning of contemporary art in China?

Nonsense calligraphy was so important because of the importance of calligraphy itself, both historically and within actual society. First of all calligraphy isn't just writing. It has always been an integral part of painting. Calligraphy has a very important role in classical Chinese brush painting. On the other hand calligraphy exists as painting in its own right. It is important to understand that in former times the classical Chinese arts were not just some kind of art practice. They were extremely important, integral parts of both intellectual and literary life, which could assume very radical forms. This is among the reasons why traditional calligraphy was given such a pre-eminent role in contemporary China as one of the official State arts. Nonsense calligraphy used traditional calligraphy as a target, because of its historical importance, and because it is no longer applicable today. The hidden truth is that life in China has modernised, and it can't sustain the kind of life or art of ancient society. Calligraphy as it is being taught today is fake. It is no longer part of a living tradition.

There are all sorts of rumours about who actually invented Nonsense calligraphy. Some attribute it to Xu Bing, others to Gu Wenda. I also see a similar way of working in the early stages of your own work.

It wasn't invented by any one person. It happened spontaneously across the country. We all had a strong sense of invention and claim. Nonsense calligraphy was ambivalent, subversive, but at the same time the artists were also reappropriating calligraphy itself. I don't think however that it can be called a new legacy within Chinese
contemporary art, because it didn't last that long, it didn't become a mainstream thing. What was important however, and still is, is the question of the limits of language, the interrogation of the validity of language. In my work writing is not just derived from calligraphy but it questions language itself.

One of your earliest works was to paint mathematical symbols, numbers and equations on the rocks of the island where you grew up. You literally covered the actual landscape in writing.

Painting my island was a conscious act. It was also a subversive act, in order to influence the perception of the viewer, and to undermine preconceived ideas about how to see a landscape. It was a way of destabilising landscape. Taking the 'real' landscape apart is to take apart a fictitious landscape which has been created through representation, through the classical image of brush painting, for instance, through photography, literature and so on. It has created or shaped a sense of reality, our knowledge of reality, or what we think we know as reality, or take for granted as reality. Landscape connected to words like 'elsewhere', 'longing', 'infinity'.

Is that why you used the mathematical symbol of infinity so often and why the equations don't make sense? I also read somewhere that the number five, which you used a lot, when phonetically transcribed means both 'Nothing' and 'Dirt' in Chinese.

What I wanted with the number five is to repeat it so often that it appears more like an empty sign. It is impossible to deconstruct a language completely, because words, however much deconstructed or fragmented, somehow retain a suggestion of meaning. Therefore the use of numbers was logical for me, because I looked for a really meaningless language, a zero language. I then further reduced the mathematics themselves into something even more useless, into nonsense equations and fragmented symbols. Numbers and symbols can be part of a language; they can even form a separate language, but once the boundaries of all these languages are broken, the result is a form of chaos. Meaning is no longer produced through logic or reasoning, but differently, in another dimension of meaning. The landscape is presented anew, fragmented in the writing. To the onlooker an actual reading of it becomes impossible; it becomes a 'meaningless' landscape, and that in turn creates the possibility of reading landscape as a text, as multiple texts, as multiple landscapes.

Would a work like this, which is so connected to Chinese landscape painting, also function let's say in a Western context?

It might appear differently because Western references to landscape and landscape tradition are different, but the numbers I used are Arabic, they really are universally recognisable.

Mathematics is still a meta language. How do you see this in connection to meaning?

The meta language no longer serves its own purpose because in my use of it, it too has become nonsense. In Chinese philosophy this is an old practice: to add more is to reduce. By writing a lot of things, by piling one definition on top of another, one word on top of another, at a certain point they become nothing, meaningless, reduced to zero. To write is not to occupy an empty space, but on the contrary to reduce a previously invisible grasp on things. The grasp that is being exercised by THE definition, so to speak.

Is that also true for another work of yours, Self-Portrait as a Part of the Porcelain Export History ? That work shows photographs of your body tattooed with motifs from Dutch colonial chinaware.

That work is a piece of 'body writing' based on a similar principle: by adding to the body it makes the already existing invisible inscriptions apparent. It depicts my own body covered with porcelain patterns and texts related to the history of porcelain. It portrays myself as part of the production of that specific history. The texts and the patterns on
my body have all been taken from a reference book on porcelain collections. There are two sources to the patterns: on the one hand the indigenous traditional Chinese porcelain design, and on the other the porcelain patterns of the Chine de Commande designed in the West during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but manufactured in China. So you have a history that comprises two texts, a history of both the politics and the economics of export and import which reappears on the body of a contemporary individual. As though we still live in the present moment of a past, and the past always comes to haunt the present. The concept of that work is very much related to Foucault's idea of 'the docile body', the body as something that can be subjugated, used, transformed, improved. 'The docile body' is rephrased in a special context in this work. The body with specific historical writings, the transformed body, the obscured and improved body as a visible thing or sign. I also wanted the title to refer to current notions of globalisation. Everyone is always talking about this as if it's the ultimate emancipation. But in fact it just perpetuates the old structures. The same is true for today's global cultural space: just like in the old days today's Chinese artists are producing their works as raw material for export to the West, to be received and judged by the dominant anthropological and art historical gaze.

When I first saw that work, I somehow assumed that those tattoos were real, because I saw them as related to the pain of colonisation. I associated them with a novel by Kafka, in which thousands of needles inscribe an invisible but detailed text into the subjected body.

The inscriptions I used are not actual tattoos, but paint that can be washed off and put on again and again. They show the body as a palimpsest. They're not there to expose the pain caused by colonisation, but to reclaim the lost body in order to name it again, in order to redefine who you are. I always think of history as a kind of writing. It is constantly being erased and rewritten. In this piece I rewrote history through my own body. It echoes the stereotypical images of 'The Chinese'. It is a kind of parody, a self mockery.

At a certain point you stopped writing over actual buildings or landscapes. You started making works which seem to be much more object oriented. Was that a consequence of your coming to the West?

I presume that any new environment will change your work. It's a new perspective on your creation after all. That is very natural, and one can't stay fixed on carrying on a tradition. However, that change in my work already took place well before I came to the West. I wanted to stop what I was doing, because I was afraid that otherwise my writing would become something like a style, something rhetorical, which would just grow bigger all the time without basically changing. I decided to work in a limited space and to find out whether I really needed a physically unbounded space to make my work seem limitless or unlimited. I also had a strong sense or internal urge for change, of evolving forward. I think I had accomplished the things I wanted to in my work, and I didn't want it to become stylised, because if I would have continued it would have become a formal ritual. A commodity.

Around the same time, I believe that's around 1992, you started making installations in which you use ropes and knots a lot, tying or binding things, like stones for instance.

The tying is also a form of writing. What I reduced the writing to is physical labour, which is very much like tying knots. What I wanted to propose is that when we lose language, or shatter language or no longer have a language, we should be able to confront things without an a priori meaning, or a meaning other than produced by a structural language. This was already essential in my work way before I came to the West it has nothing to do with being far away from home, or not speaking my native language. This explains why in my work From Human to Humbug, where I burned the word HUMANITY, I wanted to reflect on 'human', or 'humanity', or related issues as other than already defined, and to question the meaning of humanity that language gives us. The use of a boat in that work symbolises transportation and cargo with which I can express a metaphor like 'overloading'. I like the boat, because the overloading of boats is more dangerous than anything else cars, trains and it implies the sinking of all it carries, going under, vanishing, being swallowed up.

The appearance of boats, earth, geographical maps, ropes and knots in so many of your works seems to me to imply just as many intimate references to growing up on an island.

I think they are there unconsciously, and they may be based on the memories I have. Living on an island, boats and ships are an essential and important part of your everyday world. A knot is a metaphor. It can be an end or a beginning. I like to use ropes and knots a lot. They appear in many pieces still today, like in the piece Hanging Garden, where a pallet loaded with plants and soil is hanging above a dining table stacked with wine glasses. The pallet is held only by a rope and its weight is balanced by a set of old suitcases. The feeling of danger in many of my works is intentional. I always like to play on the unstable, the unpredictable, to create a sense of precariousness.

What does the work you made around 1995, a kind of destroyed table and chairs covered with rice, refer to? Is it somehow connected to what you mentioned earlier, the notion of an invented home or an imaginary one, or of exile as a voluntary escape from a fixed place and of becoming something new?

I'm always obsessed with coating and covering things with something else. In this case it's rice. I didn't particularly have a notion of home in mind with this work. It's really about construction and deconstruction, about the displacement of things, or the merging of things, more precisely of those things that are seen as existential, like rice, like food. Rice, which has such a profound importance in China, almost greater than life itself, now appears as nothing more than something scattered and displaced on the surface of something else, which is also scattered in its turn. It's a vanishing piece: in Western terms you might call it a vanitas or Still Life more associated with the ritual of eating. The Buddhist notion of all material things as transient in this case seems to me to be
astonishingly close to Western philosophy.
It's a piece I find difficult to interpret as yet, perhaps because things in their own right defy interpretation. I meant it as a scattering piece, but it could well be that at the vanishing point of the scattering something (re)appears in a Heideggerian sense. Some kind of fusion, perhaps. Incidentally that is very Chinese: something ceases, and then reappears in a new form.

One of your recent works to do with landscape is a series of photographs called No Man's-Land. They are photos of ocean liners, trains, airplanes, airports and so on. They are photographed against a modern cityscape which could be anywhere, Asia or South America. On the surface they look just like most photos of cityscapes that you see today in art. Only when you look closer, you see that something is out of joint, that the perspective is wrong, that it's a sort of playful trick.

The context of those photographs is the modern Utopia and its image of power and technology as reflected in modernist international architecture and urbanism. I took them in Madurodam, which is a famous miniature replica of the quintessential traditional Dutch town. I didn't photograph the old houses there, I didn't want anything in my photos to be recognisable as Dutch or even historical. I took pictures of all the modern anonymous places: harbours, airports, some of them against the background of a rather grand but anonymous modern apartment building nearby. There are no inscriptions or overlays in that work because the inscriptions are already a given, but they are contradictory, and put together they make no sense. The distinction between sense and nonsense here is so close, so indiscernible.
Also the town of Madurodam is a miniature copy of reality. Copies - the desire to build a truthful copy of something is like the perfection of the real thing. It probably reflects a desire for consummation. This copy is supposed to be safe and harmless because of its scale, and because it's distinct from the real one, but when it appears in the photographs it gets dangerously close to the real thing. The idea of harmless, or small or safe or innocent or cute, is like a self definition of a culture against the outside, like the image a culture has of itself, or like a culture presents of itself towards an enemy.

I have a feeling that this work is intimately connected to Self-Portrait as a Part of the Porcelain Export History. In the case of the Madurodam photographs you're referring to the neat, clean image modern or Western society presents of itself. In other words, the lies society uses to dissimulate, to mask perhaps even from itself, or especially from itself, what it takes to maintain its might. Let's call it a decontextualised happiness, or even idealism. The body work on the other hand shows what the real cost of that power is: the subjugation of other cultures, other peoples, the exploitation of natural resources,
including human energy down to the very body.

You have just made a very interesting link between both pieces, and you are right. I especially like the words 'lie' and 'dissimulation', which remind me of how false the truth can be, or how difficult it is to distinguish one from the other. The meticulously constructed lie of Madurodam is almost a truth. Perhaps the same could be said about the construction of notions like 'Humanity'.
Your remark also makes me think of how power dissimulates itself, how invisible but omnipresent it is, and why camouflage is a vital instrument of power. And lastly, in the context of the body, how the inscriptions of subjugation are dissimulated so as to become invisible.

This reminds me of Kafka's novel again: the man who knows that he will be killed by the needle machine is also really in love with it. He is waiting with an almost exalted joy for it to reveal the final secret or the final meaning of his life to him as it performs its lethal writing. I guess that from reading Bataille I realised that this sado masochistic delight in deadly submission is really what colonial power, what capitalist power produces.

From that perspective there will always be an association between the peripheral body, the colonial body and the female body.

This is why I think that subversion is the most difficult, the most intimate, and sometimes perhaps even the most tedious of dealings. In the context of your artistic practice, what do you think of subversion? Why is it so important to destabilise meaning?

Because your secure feeling of meaning is lost, and you have to deal with a very different question: what is that which I see? It makes you question whether you should believe everything that you are being told, or whether you even can believe your own habits of thinking. It alleviates a burden. Maybe it's like a traumatic cure.

Do you mean there's a kind of feeling of exhilaration or of freedom as a result? And that to achieve this is considered to be the ultimate goal of art? On the other hand that would imply that the individual artist is being burdened with the impossible responsibility of making his life and his art the embodiment of 'freedom'.

Once you assume that role, you are deprived of freedom in a much truer and deeper sense. In the same way I don't want to force people to feel excited or exhilarated. I think it is a personal feeling or necessity, really like an everyday exercise for me, to reduce meaning in my production of art works, or to try to find meaning in a different way. What I want to do is to forever destabilise without creating a stable state of meaning in my work or even in life.