Wandering Towards Sixty Years of Age, Feeling Free and Broadminded—Regarding Chen Qi's Artistic Pursuit

TEXT:Text by Zhu Li and trans. by Emily    DATE: 2023.1.27

1.jpegIn the spring of 2010, when I was an intern at CAFA ART INFO, I usually wrote articles at the big conference table in the department. I would always see Mr. Chen Qi rushing in and out of the office when I looked up. At that time, our department was named “Educational Technology Center”, which was responsible for network technical support in CAFA, and also contributing to the construction of the official website of the Academy and CAFA ART INFO. The image of being serious and orderly of Mr. Chen Qi, our previous leader, was deeply rooted in my mind. At the time, he was already a well-known artist in the printmaking industry. Whereas, every time at the department meetings, Mr. Chen Qi would discuss various network technology issues with a group of technical teachers. I felt bewildered that Mr. Chen had knowledge in this area. In my opinion, among the work of the “Educational Technology Center”, the part related to the “network” was very complicated, hard to understand, and had nothing to do with art. However, after working together for a long time, I found that Mr. Chen never showed any embarrassment in this boring work—I even saw him talking and laughing with “two generals of Heng and Ha” in the department. [1] Mr. Chen Qi seems to be born with an ability to balance and adjust to uncertain things. This is what I was puzzled and admired when I was ignorant.

Later, I was fortunate to be admitted as a public-funded graduate student to study in the Printmaking Department at CAFA. From then on, I had the opportunity to discuss professional issues with Mr. Chen, who is a professor of the Printmaking Department, and gradually stepped towards his art world. In 2010, he was in the heyday of creating his “Notations of Time” series. To this day, I still clearly remember that on an afternoon in autumn, the warm sunshine streamed in from the window on my left, I opened the file on the computer and saw the “Notations of Time” for the first time with a deep impact in my mind—how beautiful it is! It bears a profound and mysterious vitality originating from the energy of life, which makes people can't help but zoom in and stare at the details for a long time.

1 《时间简谱 No.5》水印木刻 46cm 2009年.png

“Notations of Time No.5”, waterprint woodcut, 46cm, 2009

2 《时间简谱 No.17》水印木刻 16.5cm 2009年.png

  “Notations of Time No.17”, waterprint woodcut, 16.5cm, 2009

From “Notations of Time” in the late autumn of 2010 to “A Place without Whence or Whither” in the late autumn of 2022, twelve years have passed. I have been fortunate to witness every change in his artistic process of thinking and creation as I could observe closely his continuous exhibitions at home and abroad.

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“A Place without Whence or Whither”, digital installation, dimension variable, 2019

4 《无去来处》数字沉浸式影像装置 3x8mx4m(h) 2022年.png

“A Place without Whence or Whither", immersive video installation, 3×8×4m(h), 2022

Regarding the characteristics of Chen Qi’s artistic career, besides always maintaining a high degree of sensitivity to new methods of artistic language, he also emphasizes combining personal artistic concepts and the study of printmaking art theory. He not only focuses on the essence in terms of creative methods and ways of thinking but also reflects deeply on the root issues such as the attributes of printmaking, the ontological language of printmaking, the contemporary transformation, and the current significance of printmaking. The concepts he proposed, such as “imprints are the rooted feature and the most essential language characteristic of printmaking”, “the printmaking in the future would be a media art”, “the technology is a concept”, “plural art in the age of digital era”, “purposeful imprints and non-mechanical plural”, among other opinions and reflections, are worth being valued academically.

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“Buddha Glory”, waterprint woodcut, 36cm×45cm, 1987

6 《我眼中的我自己》布面油画 1984年 .png

“Myself in My Eyes”, oil on canvas, 1984

Chen Qi was born with an artistic consciousness, which can be briefly observed in the diaries from his young age. His art style matured in his early period around the 1980s and 1990s, which allowed him to be valued as an emerging artist with great potential in the printmaking industry at that time based on his unique language of waterprint woodcuts. Through reviewing Chen Qi’s artistic career, I think it can be divided into three stages. The style and theme of each stage are relatively independent, though they do not stand separate from each other. The three stages are in a state of linear development and superimposed existence.

The first stage was from the 1980s to the beginning of 2000. The “Ming-style Series” in 1987 and the “Ancient Qin Series” in 1990 expressed the pursuit of the spirit of traditional Chinese art through the beauty of implements. The following “Lotus Series” in 1995, the “Interpretation Series” and “Dreaming Butterfly Series” in 1999, and the “Buddha Imprints Series”, etc, introduced modern life and concepts to examine the thinking of traditional Chinese philosophy and the literati spirit. This stage mainly concerns the pursuit of tradition and observation of the unique expression methods of eastern artists, which is a kind of “retrospection” and identity confirmation after the influx of western culture.

7 《古琴》 水印版画 41cm×96cm 1990年.jpeg

“Ancient Qin”, waterprint woodcut, 41cm×96cm, 1990

8《荷之连作十六》 100cm×64cm 水印木刻 1996年.jpeg

“A Series of Lotus No.16”, waterprint woodcut, 100cm×64cm, 1996

9 《彼岸之二》水印木刻 180cm×180cm 2002年 .png

“The Other Shore No.2”, 2002. waterprint woodcut, 180×180cm, 2002

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“The Other Shore No.4”, 2002. waterprint woodcut, 180×180cm, 2002

The second stage features the “Water Series” and “Notations of Time Series” since 2003, in which the artist turns his focus on creation to a more grand thinking about the value of life. He introduced a more eternal topic that transcends regions, nations, and times to his art. Chen Qi started to create “Notations of Time Series” in 2009, “presenting abstract time and life forms in a clear and touchable method”. This series of works have embodied a significant turning point in Chen Qi’s artistic career in both image language and media forms. Specifically, in terms of image language, the artist gradually developed the realistic and figurative style in the past to abstract language; in terms of the media, the diversified trans-media attempts allowed the artist to extract abstract images and apply them broadly, laying the foundation for his digital-based artistic experiments in the future. In this stage, Chen Qi mainly explored “the existence and its significance”, leaning towards a personal spiritual expression that runs through the artist’s subsequent creations.

11 《1963》 水印版画 335×780cm 2009年.png

“1963”, waterprint woodcut, 335×780cm, 2009

12 《编年史 No.1》 水印版画 240m×120m 2011年.png

“Chronicles No.1”, waterprint woodcut, 240m×120m, 2011

13 《本质的起源》200x600cm 水印木刻(独版)2019年.png

“Origin of Essence”, waterprint woodcut (monoprint), 185x560cm, 2019

The third stage features Chen Qi’s batch of experimental and multi-media works since 2018. In recent five years, the artist has completely expanded the boundary of media. Rather than being restricted to the printmaking realm, he began to freely involve digital art, video technology, interactive installation and ink art into his art creation. Regarding his creative concepts and methods, the artist has shifted his previous pursuit of rigorous technical-based creation to “freehand writing”, “occasional” and “uncertainty”. In 2018, Chen Qi’s largest solo exhibition ever was held in Deji Art Museum, Nanjing. The exhibition featured more than 200 prints and installation works created by him in the thirty-five years from 1983 to 2018 in the exhibition space of more than 2,000 square meters, which completes Chen Qi's farewell ceremony of the past. Chen Qi once wrote in his diary that he always felt that his works were short on passion, perhaps due to more rational and speculative elements in his nature. After 2018, I observed that Chen Qi would consciously break the “stereotype” in his creations to seek a sort of “disorder” and release. Therefore, we can see an expression of “misprint” in his work “Mental Imagery No.2”, a sense of freehand writing and unbridled movement in “Untitled No.32”, and a new sense of the unknown brought by the technique of “reduction woodblock print”(CN.减版) in his “Puncture the Ice Lack”. 

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“Mental Imagery No.2”, 90x120cm, 2015

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“Untitled No.32”, 120x240cm, 2017

16 《刺破冰面的湖》120x180cm  水印版画 2018年.png

“Puncture the Ice Lack”, 120x180cm, waterprint woodcut, 2018

It is worth mentioning Chen Qi’s recent practice of ink art because it illuminates a path towards a state of free and broadminded aspect of the artist. In 2019, during a move of studio space, a roll of unused paper covered for ten years expanded Chen Qi’s artistic practice of the different language. Over the past three years, he has created several large-scale ink paintings, most of which have grand themes. From Chen Qi’s viewpoint, ink art is an abstraction that is separated from the general painting appearance, showing the spirit behind the vision.

The randomness of the free painting is dramatically different from the highly rigorous printmaking in the past; however, Chen Qi creates ink art by following a similar process of registering the plate and overprinting in printmaking creation—the ink in his painting is dyed layer upon layer from light to dark, resulting in the effect of superimposition. By doing so, his free ink art is still inevitably under a form of “control”. From the perspective of visual representation, Chen Qi’s ink art and waterprint woodcuts are organized in the same system. He presents a variety of mental images through the shading and subtleties of black and white ink, and his fascination and familiarity with the changing posture of “water” also seems to be a continuation of the creation of waterprint woodcuts. Nevertheless, the flow and diffusion of water and ink, and the diversity of ink color under the cooperation of the surrounding air, humidity, and light, can lead to freer and more occasional effects and bear a greater tolerance, which is dramatically valued by Chen Qi himself.

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“Banquet”, ink on paper, 329x151cm x4, 2019

18 陈琦《天上人间Paradise》纸本水墨 228x1064cm(56x19,76x3)2020年.png

“Paradise”, ink on paper, 228x1064cm (56x19, 76x3), 2020

From October to December 2022, Chen Qi’s latest exhibition “A Place without Whence or Whither” was held at the Hubei Museum of Art. The exhibition systematically displayed and researched Chen Qi’s art from the three clues of waterprint woodcuts, ink art, and digital art, featuring a large-scale solo exhibition that brings together the classical and new works of Chen Qi. The earliest prototype of “A Place without Whence or Whither” was a special video installation entitled “Notations of Time-Cloud Cube” in 2011, which has since been developed into different visions and was introduced to the China Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. One of Chen Qi’s representative works “A Place without Whence or Whither” was created to organically fuse the two critical dimensions of time and space as emphasized in the artistic concepts of Chen Qi.

19 《云立方》建筑作品 680×800×350cm 2011年.jpeg

“Notations of Time-Cloud Cube”, special video installation, 680×800×350cm, 2011

20 陈琦《无去来处》建筑作品 威尼斯双年展中国馆 2019年.jpeg21 陈琦《无去来处》建筑作品 威尼斯双年展中国馆 2019年.jpeg

“A Place without Whence or Whither”, the China Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019

Time and space are the most fundamental forms of life existence in the universe. When the audience walks into the space of this work, they experience the changing flow of time. The skylight forms unpredictable light and shadows through the carved hollow wormhole, offering people multiple impressions and a metaphysical experience of illusion and reality, tangible and intangible, instant and eternity. The title of “A Place without Whence or Whither” originates from the Buddhist classic Treatise on Awakening Mahāyāna Faith, which is also interpreted by Diamond Sutra that “it does not matter to come; it does not matter to go. This is the spirit of Buddha.” This is the “introspection” and “self-examination” of Eastern philosophy. What is inside time is nothing about whence and whither, no birth and death, but only “dasein”, writing the poem of time and light and shadow in the illusory space.

“A Place without Whence or Whither", immersive video installation, 3×8×4m(h), 2022

William Shakespeare once said, “Life... is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”[2] As a penetrating artist, Chen Qi maintains the diligence of his youth and always questions the essence of art and the reason to make art although he is wandering towards sixty years of age. He has been questioning and seeking the self, the ultimate value of life and existence. During this journey, art has turned into his salvation, a solution to the loneliness of life and a consolation to the meaninglessness of life in the fading aura. Prior to this solo exhibition at the Hubei Museum of Art, we conducted another long interview, which is the fifth long conversation we two had.

Exhibition View of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi” 

I. Looking Backwards: Choice, Roots, and Waterprint Woodcuts

“I have painted very little in recent years. I have no idea what to paint and how to paint…we are rootless trees since we don't have our unique thoughts, aesthetics, and will. Thus, we always have a sense of nothingness and feel that we are always painting similar pictures that others have painted. Therefore, we are always lagging, and difficult to step forward. Only by grasping our roots can we change it and continue to be provided with fresh blood…”

—Cited from Chen Qi’s diaries, 1985

Zhu Li: In the 1980s, the culture and arts field was filled with an atmosphere of freedom and openness. You also painted oil paintings at that time, and the style of your works was also influenced by modernism to some extent, but why did you soon choose to return to the traditional waterprint woodcut creation? 

Chen Qi: I could not find the appropriate state when I draw oil paintings to a certain stage, whereas I could still explore more though printmaking. After engaging in the creation of printmaking, I was very involved, and since then, I basically seldom painted oil paintings. It has been 40 years since I started creating waterprint woodcuts in the late 1980s. I once said that I am one of the few people who look backward (to the tradition) in China among the many torrents of learning from the West. I think this has something to do with the awareness and awakening of culture.

Inevitably, we will deal with the relationship between traditional culture and our creation. Besides, we should also face the relationship between China and the world, which involves the issue of cultural identity. As far as printmaking is concerned, I reckon waterprint woodcuts are the cultural matrix. Our mother tone is declining because our education has not yet made us aware of the importance of the mother tongue. In other words, nowadays, our printmaking educators only regard waterprint woodcut as a language instead of understanding it as a cultural living being which is far more than a category of printmaking. Undeniably, a certain language, a certain medium, and a certain way of expression must bear its cultural imprint, which shows a critical significance for today.

36 “@武汉2022·无去来处:陈琦” 展览现场.jpeg

37 “@武汉2022·无去来处:陈琦” 展览现场.jpeg

Exhibition View of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi” 

Zhu Li: In the creation of “Notations of Time” series, you have obviously presented a strong cultural imprint and spiritual map. Please share the origin and development of this series of work with us.

Chen Qi: In 2006, I saw Landscapes of Taiping Prefecture at the home of Christer von der Burg, who serves as the Chairman of The Muban Educational Trust. The original version was badly damaged by worms. After being repaired, a layer of rice paper was mounted behind the picture, so the broken pictures due to the destruction by worms became blank, which deeply impressed me at the time. The worm-eaten trace remained in my heart like a seed, until one day I suddenly realized it was a mark of life. The traces by worms constitute a kind of negative space, reflecting the existence of life and showcasing a process of time. From larva to imago to death, it spends its whole life in the book, and the life that once existed becomes a kind of reincarnation. Inspired by this, I started the printmaking creation of the “Notations of Time” series. The original group of works was called “Wormholes”, which is also a concept of traveling from one time and space to another in astronomy. I borrowed the notion of space travel to express the space between the pages in the book. Departing from this, I started to expand two-dimensional creation to three-dimensional spacial work, such as artworks of wood carving and paper carving.

In 2011, the organizer of the Shenzhen Biennale required the participating artists to extend the concepts of printmaking to develop art creations. Inspired by this requirement, I accomplished the scheme of “Notations of Time—A Place without Whence or Whither”. By using the hollowed-out ceiling as the printing plate and sunlight as the pigments, I strengthened the relationship between light and shadow through the passage of time and the ubiquitous self-existence, which was the prototype of the works in the China Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. Then, I began to think about how this outdoor light and shadow installation scheme can break through the indoor boundaries to be exhibited in the museum space. With such questioning, I initiated to introduce digital media and even digital twin technologies into the work plan, and thus realized the iteration of this work again and again.

Exhibition View of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi” 

Zhu Li: You are considered a representative of the technical school in the Chinese printmaking realm. In my opinion, after your solo exhibition at Deji Art Museum in Nanjing, you have entered a creative state of free will with broadminded aspects, which we have discussed before. In the current stage, has your persistence and understanding of techniques changed? 

Chen Qi: I still insist that techniques are vital because techniques are fundamental to expressions and ensure the accuracy of expressions. Nothing would be possible without techniques. Outstanding techniques accomplish perfect art, which represents a dialectical relationship. In addition, I believe that techniques must be integrated with concepts. If techniques do not serve the expression of concepts, or the two show a divergence, concepts may be bound by techniques. However, in this regard, I think the fundamental reason is that the two are not compatible organically. I have been emphasizing that techniques are the embodiment of concepts, and concepts can only be expressed effectively with the guarantee of techniques. The two are integrated and inseparable.

To this day, I don’t have any technical barriers in printmaking. At this stage, well-technical printmaking is not necessarily good, but mistakes may lead to better results. It is the state of “open and broadmindedness” I said before, namely, a state of free expression. Recently, I always think about having a conversation with myself in the past, discussing why I have to be so precise in the printmaking creation. Whereas I was thinking that if I never experienced the extremely harsh technical stage before and directly entered the state of free expression from the very beginning, would others recognize me? Probably not. Others would deny my ability from the beginning. Many people have asked me why I seek “large-scale” in printmaking. Is it because the larger the scale of the work is, then it is considered better quality? From my perspective, we should discuss “high quality” based on being as “large scale” as possible. If you don't even have the ability to create large scale works, it is not worth to mention whether the work is high quality or not. In fact, I have been pursuing an “extreme" expression in the creation of waterprint woodcuts. This extreme is embodied in how subtle I can depict the work, and how grand I can complete in terms of its scale, and thus the imagery expression can reach the state of dramatical expression in waterprint woodcuts. What I want to offer is a benchmark sample.

Exhibition View of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi” 

II. Ink Art: Restrictions and Freedom

“The principle of no principle is precisely the principle itself, and the use of useless means use of great value. I should get rid of all prejudices and rules, moving forward bravely according to the thoughts in my heart. Only by putting my ink painting in the historical framework regarding the development of Chinese ink painting can I make a comparison, highlighting its unique features with positive value.”

—Cited from Chen Qi’s diaries, date unknown

Zhu Li: You have initiated creations of ink paintings in recent years. You mentioned that the reason was accidental, which is because you found a roll of unused paper that you had kept for ten years during your studio move. Please talk about your ink creation.

Chen Qi: Ink art is an inevitable issue for Chinese visual artists. We frequently discuss the definitions and forms of ink painting and traditional Chinese painting. I remember Mr. Liu Libin once curated an exhibition entitled “The Taste of Ink”, discussing the point that ink art is never merely painting on rice paper or creating paintings with Chinese ink color, ink brush, and other tools and materials. Instead, it should have an expandable dimension. I found it interesting that he invited artists who create art in different media to participate in the exhibition.

I gradually thought about the definition of ink painting. In 2020, when I gave a speech at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, I mentioned that ink art is an abstraction separated from the general painting appearance, which is the spirit behind the vision. It is not the representation of various techniques we see, but an internalized spirit. Ink art is a method and perspective used to express the world in Chinese painting.

44 《何园》 56cmx4x76cmx4(224x304cm) 纸本水墨 2020年.png

“He Garden”, 56cmx4x76cmx4 (224x304cm), ink on paper, 2020

45 《片石山房》304x1120cm(76x56cmx80)纸本水墨 2020年.png

“Pian Shi Shan Fang”, 304x1120cm (76x56cmx80), ink on paper, 2020

In fact, some skills that I sealed were unfolded together with the roll of paper I found during my studio move—I also drew Chinese paintings before. After more than 30 years of intensive rigorous waterprint woodcut creations, I suddenly grabbed the feeling of freehand painting. I am aware that a randomness of free painting, which is rarely perceived in printmaking, is rooted in the creation of ink art, resulting in my unstoppable creation of ink art. However, it does not mean that random things are better than creations based on rigorous and logical thinking in printmaking. On the contrary, the two are complementary.

Zhu Li: It seems that the way you draw ink paintings continues your printmaking thinking.

Chen Qi: Indeed. I follow the process of making prints—layer by layer, from light to dark when I draw ink paintings. But I deliberately keep its uncontrolled and occasional effects in the superposition process. I also emphasize more tolerance, which is embodied in the acceptance of both success and failure in the painting process. Every stroke is a natural existence regardless of success and failure. I think the process is more important than the result.

It takes me a very long time to complete an ink painting. It will never finish overnight but requires the accumulation of colors and water staining on the picture layer by layer, thus forming a thickness of time. For example, Midsummer is an ink painting depicting the Forbidden City, which took me nearly a year from drafting to the completion. In the process of drawing layer by layer, there are new drawing methods every day, and the differences in the pictures gradually emerged. I was imagining its final result every day, making choices and facing tolerance every day. This kind of difference contained in the picture is also a manifestation of diversity. When viewing such a large-scale painting, the audience often cannot see everything at a glance. I expect that when the audience grasps the picture as a whole, they can also explore different details in the painting to form a rich imagination.

46 《盛夏》56x23x76cmx4(1288x304cm)纸本水墨 2022年.png

“Midsummer” , 56x23x76cmx4(1288x304cm), ink on paper, 2022

Exhibition View of Midsummer

III. Cross Boundaries and Contemporary: Anxious or Self-awareness?

“I am suffering from a tough period recently, with no ambition and no anticipation of the future. I have no idea how long this situation is going to last. I hope it can end soon. I want to change my current self, get out of isolation, update my life and artistic concepts, and move towards a more positive life. I need to be serious about everything and pay attention to the execution. Doing things well is most significant.”

—Cited from Chen Qi’s diaries, date unknown

Zhu Li: “Cross-media” is one of the keywords involved in our interview this time. In the exhibition at the Hubei Museum of Art, we see the multiple perspectives of your artistic languages. In the following conversation, I would like to discuss that, in your opinion, a cross-media attempt by an artist at a certain stage is due to anxiety or self-awareness?

Chen Qi: In my case, it is curiosity that stimulates me to experiment with various media. Curiosity is the purest. It originates from an interest in the unknown behind things rather than for the sake of utilitarianism. Taking the development of the “Notations of Time” series as an example, I never tried spacial work before, so I was curious that what if I transformed printmaking into a 3D space. When I was carving wood sculptures, I suddenly found that spatial dialogue was realized through the transformation of media. This dimension provides various angles for viewing things, which allows the previous zooming in or out ways of seeing and enables rotating viewing from different perspectives. For creators, such a brand-new experience of spatial dialogue requires an omni-bearing consideration compared to two-dimensional creation.

From two-dimensional paintings to space installations, complete digital virtualization, and interactive presentation, the essence of the work should be the expression of the artist’s concept and the bearing of visual symbols. It should never be dispelled or changed by the iteration of language and situation.  Whether the artistic image constructed through visual symbols has the vitality to be reproduced in different media. Whether it is scalability across any media, this curiosity is the reason that prompts me to try more media creations. My curiosity promotes me to experiment with diverse media, and the infinite possibility excites me.

Zhu Li: You just mentioned the images constructed by artists. To follow this discussion, what kind of images should artists produce to respond to the current society and life from your perspective?

Chen Qi: This is a huge question. First of all, why do artists create works? I think some create art based on their instinct, while others make art for the sake of special intentions and different functions. When it comes to instinct creation, I would say all of our languages, expressions, and body language, among other behaviors, are the delivery of messages. Art creation is basically an expression, and artworks are complex of messages. Expressing thoughts and concepts should be most significant for an artist. In my view, artists who want to make a contribution to the current society or a certain traditional field should provide fresh, healthy art that can promote its development.

Zhu Li: How do you understand tradition and contemporary? What kind of problems should artists today cope with?

Chen Qi: When discussing how to define tradition or contemporary, we often have a general concept that tradition is the past, and our present will become history or tradition tomorrow. I have always emphasized that tradition is a living body rather than being rigid and fixed. Tradition is a continuation accumulated from generation to generation. Therefore, I don’t think there is a clear boundary between where we are now and tradition. In this case, we can reversely define what is a contemporary thing. In my opinion, the contemporary thing should be something beyond the experience of tradition, which not only involves tradition but also features the most cutting-edge stuff that is deficient in tradition. This constitutes the entire structure of the contemporary. The ideological dilemmas of contemporary people or the emergence of concepts have the characteristics of the present. Therefore, artists should consider these situations and devote themselves to solving these problems in their creations and thinking. We never deny tradition, and the traditional and contemporary are never in opposition but in unity. Everything we do today is part of what we call “tradition”.

IV. Being as An Educator: The Teaching and Promotion of Waterprint Woodcuts

“The current education in art schools is unsuccessful. Taught by such an unsuccessful education, artists need to think and study independently, making innovative creations. I never believe that mediocrity can teach great talent. The most important thing is not what to teach; instead, the heart should feel nature. I am more aware than ever of myself, and I feel that I have profound abilities and the sensitive heart of the artist. The key lies in me.”

—Cited from Chen Qi’s diaries, 1984

Zhu Li: Please talk about the teaching of waterprint woodcut and the “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program.”

Chen Qi: I have already shared lots of opinions regarding waterprint woodcut, which also can be found in my diaries from my early years. I have realized the importance of waterprint woodcut due to my personal awareness. I think everyone should have such an awareness, and it needs to be spread.

Teaching is the best way of spreading, thus, I value the teaching of waterprint woodcut to a great extent. At present, the teaching status of waterprint woodcut in China is not satisfactory.

Through my efforts, I expect to promote the development of waterprint woodcut in the Chinese printmaking education field, and contribute to the growth of young artists. Youth is the future. If young artists and young teachers cannot realize the importance of waterprint woodcut and no one practices it, its development will stagnate—but I do not think it will die out. In one of my articles, I mentioned that if nobody values waterprint woodcut in our era, it is the sorrow of our era. It is history that has eliminated our generation, rather than us that has eliminated this art. We should bear such an awareness.

Exhibition View of “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program—2022 Annual Exhibition”

Therefore, I came up with the idea of initiating the “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program.” Through organizing public welfare projects every year, the funds raised from the pre-sale of work are used for exhibition, publication, and promotion, which brings brilliant social response currently. From the first edition to the second edition, we have not only been greatly supported by Asia Art Center but also have attracted extensive attention from the industry through the pre-sale artworks. Besides, we invite different curators to plan the exhibition every year, discussing waterprint woodcut from different perspectives. I have always felt that waterprint woodcut is not a rigid and fixed concept, but an open space.

Zhu Li: I am especially curious about the effect of this program now.

Chen Qi: It is obvious to see the effect achieved in waterprint woodcut education and personnel training. On the one hand, an increasing number of waterprint woodcut artworks can be observed in the National Fine Arts Exhibition every year. On the other hand, the number of waterprint woodcut courses offered by colleges and universities is on the up, and the effects are also very prominent. I established a platform regarding waterprint woodcuts, which attracts like-minded people to gather here, where they can exchange and share information, thus spontaneously forming a strong academic identity and information-sharing mechanism.

Last year, my speech at the opening ceremony of the first edition of the “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program” was very short. But I delivered my thought precisely—a career cannot be achieved by one person alone. Only by inviting more and more people, especially young talents, to participate in this career can we eventually realize and strengthen it. This is the most fundamental reason why I have been paying attention to and supporting young people. The boost today may influence the future dramatically.

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Exhibition View of “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program—2021 Annual Exhibition”

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Group Photo of “China Waterprint Woodcut Youth Program—2021 Annual Exhibition” at the Opening Ceremony

V. Alter Ego: Chen Qi and “Chen Qi”

“Determination is my own law, which cannot be violated. This perseverance is the driving force.”

—Cited from Chen Qi’s diaries, 1979

Zhu Li: Besides the diversity of your art creation, we also notice your multiple identities as an artist, educator, writer and theorist of printmaking, etc.. What do you think of the significance of these multi-dimensional identities to “Chen Qi”? How do you balance, transform, and integrate these identities in your daily work and life?

Chen Qi: I would say I am a teacher firstly before my retirement. The identity of a teacher requires me to devote my most critical time and energy to teaching. I am very clear that I am not an independent artist at this stage, I must be responsible for my students. Besides, I also undertake some administrative work in the Academy, which I am responsible for. While in my spare time, I would make full use of the limited time to make more creations. After clarifying the relationship between the two identities, I could cope with specific events and practices in life. Conflicts exist sometimes; however, my life is simple and boring. The Academy, home, and the studio are the three primary venues in my daily life. 

Zhu Li: You are such a self-disciplined person.

Chen Qi: It is not necessarily to say self-disciplined. The great happiness of solitude in the studio may hardly be understood by others.

Zhu Li: You shared a batch of diaries you have been writing since your teenage years with us. We can clearly realize the existence of the alter ego of “Chen Qi” in the diaries. You always seem to be talking to an imaginary self, and have a particularly strong sense of defeating the other Chen Qi. Why do you have such awareness?

Chen Qi: Speculation includes the meaning of “thinking” and “debate”. One person can think, but debate requires two. An object of debate is necessary in the process of speculation, which appears in my notes, diaries and writings. The object is like my alter ego that will always stand on the opposite side of me and challenge me. I enjoy this because it reminds me all the time. I understand that I am not lazy but very diligent instead. However, at the same time, there is always an alter ego reminding me that I am still quite lazy. It also motivates me to keep writing diaries and notes. Without these records, I feel that my life is empty and untraceable. My daily behavior and thinking will form a correspondence with my diaries and notes.

Exhibition View of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi”

Zhu Li: A sense of urgency is always reflected in your diaries from your early years to your thirties. Judging from some of the work you are conducting now, such as sorting out previous diaries and preparing to write “24 Stations”, what is your mentality from the past few decades to the present?

Chen Qi: Why do I always remind myself? I suppose it is because of the impermanence of life that we should live every day, every moment, and every moment well, so that even if life stops abruptly, no regrets will remain. Besides, I intentionally and consciously plan to draw a full stop in my sixty years of age— this full stop means a new life for me. After sixty years of age, I would not say it is the second half of life, but the beginning of another life, which belongs entirely to my pure self. A freer and more broadminded journey will come on stage. 

Exhibition View and Views of Opening Ceremony of “@WUHAN 2022 | A Place without Whence or Whither: Chen Qi” 

Text and Interviewed by Zhu Li

Interview sorting and translated by Emily Weimeng Zhou, edited by Sue.

Image Courtesy of the Artist and the Organizer. 


[1] Teacher Liang Shuang and teacher Liu Pei in the “Educational Technology Center” are both Beijingers. Due to their stalwart figures and sense of humour, Professor Chen Qi nicknamed them “two generals of Heng and Ha”.

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth. Act 5, scene 5.

Translator’s note:

[1] In this article, the notion waterprint woodcut, normally known as woodblock printing (CN. 水印木刻) in an international context, refers to the translation proposed by Professor Chen Qi from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in his book “The Conception and Techniques of Chinese Waterprint Woodcut” published in 2019, and Chinese Waterprint Woodcut Archives (https://i.cafa.edu.cn/waterprint/).