Multiple Lies
The Disengaged World of Ni Haifeng


Roel Arkesteijn

At first glance the photographs look like random tourist snapshots. The subject
matter is Dutch, but they are so unexceptional that they could have been taken anywhere.
Some show views of runways and landing strips at a Schiphol airport at twilight,
where the aircraft throw long shadows onto the ground due to the low-lying
sun. Other photographs show the huge tower block of the Nationale Nederlanden
insurance company in Rotterdam, its plate glass façade standing out against a bright
blue sky. Container ships have been caught on film, likewise a canal with a tree, the
train station at Eindhoven, a football stadium and a nondescript looking industrial
terrain with lorries and parked cars. Not spectacular subject matter by any means,
more everyday subjects captured on camera - bleak, matter-of-fact, industrialised
landscapes that do not conform in any way to the romantic expectations you cherish
from tourist snapshots. Nevertheless, the crystal-clear, large-scale colour and blackand-
white photographs are intriguing because of the sense of alienation they convey
- it is like looking at the everyday environment with new eyes. The subject matter
makes a rough, washed-out impression and suffers from a kind of strange weightlessness.
The bird's-eye view perspective from which they have been mainly taken
evokes questions about the almost impossible camera angles; people and horizons
are usually missing, while the proportions of the visible buildings and vegetation
are oddly distorted in relation to each other. Closer inspection of the photographs
reveals they are not real Dutch landscapes, but a Netherlands constructed in miniature
form at the Madurodam theme park, a tourist attraction in The Hague. The
images are made by Ni Haifeng (1964), the Chinese-born artist who has lived and
worked in the Netherlands since 1994. No matter how unemphatic the subject matter
is, the photographs create unease because they reveal just how terrifyingly close
Madurodam's artificial world and our everyday reality are to each other. They reflect
the sense of alienation from our surroundings and reveal how much the artificial is
contained in, and has taken possession of, our everyday reality. The contamination
of our gaze, the loss of perspective and the distortion of what is close by and far
away, of what is real and unreal, are inevitable consequences of this, Ni appears
to be saying. In his No-Man's-Land - as this 1999-2001 photo series is called - of
plywood, plastic and bonsai trees there is even no longer space for real people.
The only people that can be found in the photographs are of plastic or look like lost

Alienation, disengagement, reality and artificiality - these are key words in the
work Ni Haifeng has been making since graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of
Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou, in 1986. He continually
challenges the way we think we know the world. In his work he questions and
destabilises the way in which our gaze is involuntarily controlled and subverted
by the overwhelming amount of images, impressions, experiences, definitions and
designs we are served up by the media and science, among others. In his vision, the
reality of present-day visual and scientific culture is identified, named, categorised
and defined so much that these artificial constructs increasingly take away our view
on the real world. In this process language plays a crucial role. As Ludwig Wittgenstein
stated, the limits of the language mean the limits of the world. The world is
the area that we know because we have already charted it via language; behind this
a gaping void of unnamable things stretches out. Moreover, contrary to what we
usually want to believe, words and ideas are only partly linked to the things they are
supposed to represent. Often language conceals just as much as it clarifies. Ni is
continually aware of this manipulative structure of language. 'My works are struggling
against the power of definition, nomenclature and interpretation', he himself
once concluded.1 During his training he effortlessly combined his preference for
the writings of Wittgenstein and Roland Barthes with studying classical Chinese
literature and philosophy. After graduating he continued to work on the interface
between Western linguistic philosophy and Chinese Taoism.

At first Ni made work in which he wanted to destabilise existing physical situations
and structures and attempted to break through set patterns of looking. Out of
his involvement with the meaning of language, Ni, after graduating, joined Red 70%,
Black 25%, White 5%, a group of seven Chinese artists making conceptual art,
ideograms and so-called Nonsense Calligraphy. At first glance such calligraphy
appears real, but it later turns out to be meaningless. He quickly introduced Arabic
numbers and mock mathematical equations to his oil paintings on canvas or paper.
Dissatisfied with the fact that the works were relatively 'innocent' because they
remained within the safe confines of a picture frame, in the late Eighties Ni began
incorporating the paintings into space-filling installations at everyday locations in
Zhoushan, where he was then living. For instance, using red and black paint he painted
remnants of material and jute sacks which he draped on the floor; completely
covered the interiors and exteriors of buildings with mathematical puzzles and even
took part of the rocky coastline of the island on which he was living in hand. The
mysterious, poetical installations which he made for many years were known under
the collective title Warehouse. Contrary to what you would expect from such a title,
there were hardly any objects to be found in Ni's 'warehouses'. The alienation of
the seemingly empty spaces was reinforced by the horror vacuï of the paintings
decorating them. While at first glance the paintings suggest mathematical formula,
ultimately there is no internal logic whatsoever, let alone any form of meaning, to
discover in the symbols, numbers and calculations. The handwriting and the act of
writing itself appear to have been transformed in the paintings into an objective in
itself. Freely quoting Barthes, Ni coined this autonomous, meaningless writing and
the emancipation of the writing the 'zero degree of writing'. As such he took this
zero degree of writing as his strategy in order to destabilise what he sees as an overdefined
world. With the ironic performative act of painting copious numbers, he
illustrated all the futility of human attempts to count the incalculable or to gain a
grip on the complexity of the world. At the same time, through the meaningless
writing he moulded the experiencing of spaces and objects to his own will: with the
paintings he created distance between the viewer and the objects. Because the
objects, like the numbers, had lost their function, Ni made it possible in a moment
of disorientation and detachment to look at reality with fresh eyes - a rudimentary
reality of 'fragmentalised language, signs and floating signifiers which stopped signifying
anything'.2 In an ideological sense the destabilising act of the zero moment of
writing recalled Wittgenstein as much as Taoism. For when the limits of language
mean the limits of our world, as Wittgenstein claimed, then the breaking down of
those language limits implies the removable of the distinction between the known
and the unknown. In Ni Haifeng's way of thinking, such a thought is not far removed
from the insights of Taoist philosophy. By letting go of familiar frameworks, you
come closer to reality and by losing yourself you come closer to yourself.

A similar critical stance towards the influential role played by language as well
as image, media and science in our conceptualising of reality also distinguishes Ni's
later work. For instance, in the first half of the Nineties he made works in which he
was preoccupied with geographical maps and the concept of territory. Ni's involvement
with maps came about after he had read a story by Jorge Luis Borges about the
map of an empire. The map turned out to be not an accurate depiction of the actual
empire's territory. Amazingly enough, over time the empire shrunk until it coincided
exactly with the size of the map itself. Ni interpreted this story as a future vision on
the way representation increasingly takes the place of real things. The power of a
simple aid like a geographical map should not be overestimated. While they show an
extreme, almost ludicrously simplified vision of reality, maps play a deciding role in
political and ideological structures and the way in which we see the world. Important
ideological concepts like 'father- or motherland', 'holy' or 'promised land', 'independence',
'unity', 'freedom', 'occupation', 'folk', 'power', 'enemy' or 'compatriot' are
inextricably linked to the simple, neatly arranged world that maps suggest. In this
way, these simple pieces of printed paper dominate the earth in one sense. In the
installation Territory (1993), with which he was represented in the high-profile travelling
exhibition China Avantgarde, Ni confronted the artificial, symbolical world of
maps with actual earth. On the floor he presented a dais with a detailed collage
made from useless misprints of regional maps of Germany down the centuries.
These were painted with numbers and made-up mathematical equations and then
scattered with rice and soil. On the dais and hanging from the ceiling were transparent
plastic bags filled with rotting, fermenting leaves and again painted with numbers
and calculations. These hanging plastic bags comprised a new element in his
work. Hanging and painstakingly balanced objects were to become frequently recurring
motifs in his installations - their tenuous balance had just as much destabilising
potential as the early nonsense writing. It seemed with the installation - first exhibited
in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall - that Ni Haifeng wanted to show that
the ostensible steadfast and reliable reality of a geographical map is just as changeable
and capricious as nature and earth itself. One object entitled Made in China is
a related subject. The work comprises pieces of burned Chinese maps and a wooden
chest with two kilos of Chinese soil to which a tube containing the ash of the burnt
maps is attached. Ni made this in 1995, a year after he settled permanently in
Amsterdam with his Dutch wife. It can be seen as a kind of luggage - a souvenir to
perpetuate the memory of the mother country: a memory however that is extremely
fragile and selective. Nothing more remains of the homeland than a few geographical
indications, a pile of earth and some ash.

From 1992, along with his spatial installations and objects, Ni also became
involved with photography. It was in keeping with his choice of subject of representation
and (national) cultural identity in a post-colonial perspective that he began to
make use of the medium. Thus his Made in China - the ironic title is taken from the
labels of cheap Chinese exports for Western consumption - had a thematic sequel in
the delightful photo series Self-Portrait as a Part of the Porcelain Export History
(1999-2001). The seven coloured pictures show parts of Ni's body painted with blue
decorative patterns similar to those found on porcelain, as well as quotes taken from
Western standard works on Chinese porcelain. The patterns are partly derived from
traditional indigenous Chinese porcelain but are also taken from seventeenth and
eighteenth century porcelain designed in the West and manufactured in China. In the
series Ni depicts himself as part of this history of export and import - as a juncture
where Western and non-Western perspectives; past and present; emigration and
immigration; as well as political, social and economic aspects of export and import
come together.

The fragmented and painted body - the body as a projection screen for stereotypical
or biased concepts - is a recurring theme in Ni Haifeng's work. In 1996 he
made a photo series entitled Asian Yellow in which he photographed bluebottles that
landed on his skin. The fact that the prints were completely covered or branded with
patterns using the number five adds to the photos' sense of unease. In an ironic way,
Asian Yellow toys with the manner in which skin colour is assigned a leading role in
racial discourse. Paradoxically, the photographs are printed in black and white so
that any link between the prejudiced, needlessly simplistic term 'yellow Asian' and
the actual visible skin colour is 'derailed'. The fact that categorisation, definitions
and nomenclature take away all insight into real individual people was more radically
visualised two years later in Ni's installation The Constituents. Slides showing
pages from encyclopaedias from the Fifties were projected onto five photographs
of masked faces. In retrospect the entries on people and races, written from a religious,
cultural, political, medical and archaeological viewpoint, in no way provide
the objective facts they profess to. From a contemporary viewpoint they show an
all too exaggerated, politically incorrect racial preoccupation. In The Constituents
the individuals are literally hidden behind a projected and generalised type of image.
The theme of the subjugated body that is 'culturally dirty' recently recurred in Ni's
video installation Washing Hands (2003). Monitors show two pairs of hands being
thoroughly - indeed, almost desperately - scoured: one pair with soap, the other only
with water. The video images are played back to front so that, as time goes on, inscribed
historical texts gradually emerge on one of the pairs of hands. The artist's
message is apparently that the harder people try to forget the colonial past, the more
they are forced to face up to it.

The thematic consistency of Ni's visually varied work was clearly demonstrated
by his first solo museum exhibition in the Netherlands, held in the GEM in The
Hague. Two of his installations there linked the theme of dysfunctional communication
with his earlier nonsense writing. Unfinished Self-Portrait (2003), for example,
featured mysterious computer codes painted on glass. The codes were just a fraction
of those needed to create a simple digital portrait photo of the artist. This simple
intervention reveals that an apparently faithful representation in fact possesses
a completely different structure and is nothing like the artist at all. Similarly, Xeno-
Writings (2003) shows the inability of man truly to understand the world. A video of
a hand writing fake mathematical formulae and then erasing them again is projected
onto a wall of books. In accordance with Ni's philosophy, the books constitute a
bastion of knowledge impeding rather than facilitating communication with the
world - a bastion called into question by the xeno-writings. In addition, Ni included
in the exhibition an auditory equivalent of his 'writings of zero degree', in the form
of his mini-installation Hundreds of Songs (2003). This is composed of a touching
photograph of a child wearing a cow's-head mask and clamping its hands over its
ears, together with a soundtrack containing an indefinable jumble of inextricable
sounds. To produce this deafening cacophony, Ni mixed countless children's songs
together. All the individuality of the child is being lost here, as a result of the deluge
of well-intentioned but commonplace songs to which it is subjected by the adult

As a critical and engaged conceptual artist who does not neglect the visual
appearance of his work, Ni Haifeng has a prominent place within contemporary art.
In his poetic, multifaceted work he is able to couple a radical conceptualism to a
certain Baroqueness and drama in the visual language. Any lurking treat of ponderousness
in his emotionally charged choice of subject matter is knocked on the
head by a light Dadaist irony that is never too far way from his work.
By simple interventions in fixed patterns of looking and expectations, he continually
enables the viewer to see the world with fresh and amazed eyes. The creation of
such confusion and subversion is possibly his most important artistic premise. By
making the ambiguity of things manifest, he demonstrates that reality always lends
itself to more than one interpretation. 'My work is all about transformation, about
liberating things', Ni Haifeng concludes.3 His work can be interpreted as a critical
appeal not to be content with the Multiple Lies with which we are surrounded daily -
to use the title of his first video installation (2002). In this, two video projections
and two stacked monitors simultaneously show images of the threatened traditional
Dutchness of Madurodam's artificial world. One of the projectors shows a foreign
family's reflection in the water as they cross an artificial dyke in the theme park.
Canned sounds can be heard of the Dutch national anthem that blares from a miniature
PSV stadium when visitors insert a coin into the mechanism to activate it. While
there was a large measure of oppression, alienation and irony present in No-Man's-
Land, in the video installation Multiple Lies the idea that there is any such thing as
national identity is rendered almost absurd. Your view of the Netherlands will never
be the same once you have seen the country through the eyes of Ni Haifeng.



Unpublished notes by Ni Haifeng for a lecture at Utrecht
Polytechnic for the Arts, Utrecht, 2002.
Ni Haifeng in an interview with the writer, January 2003.


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