White Cube Hong Kong is pleased to present ‘Negative Reading | Reading Negatives’, a solo exhibition of new works by Chinese artist Qin Yifeng. Both artist and scholar, Qin is a collector of Ming dynasty furniture. During his decades of collecting, it is the damaged pieces of furniture that have most passionately interested him, for he sees them as a metaphor for the changes in Chinese traditional values. Using his antique wooden furniture as subject, he creates negative images using a large-format camera.
Born in 1961 and raised in Shanghai where he continues to live and work, Qin mastered calligraphy as a child, the essence of which – its spiritual dimension and formal aesthetic – has deeply influenced his entire artistic practice including the photographs in this exhibition. Equally, his early investigations as an abstract painter are evident in the inherent flatness of the negative film that he uses to make these recent images. In 1992, Qin established a painting style called ‘Xian Chang’ (field of lines), in which the cube, constructed of lines, was used as a basis to explore compositions of lines and planes, the relationship between two and three dimensions and the overlapping and ‘twisting’ of painterly space. Since abandoning the cube, he has gradually developed a style of ‘pureness’, with a more solemn and tranquil use of colour in pared down images that are concerned with formal aesthetics, spatial relationships and atmosphere.
Continuing themes addressed in his 2017 solo show at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, Qin’s new works depict three-dimensional objects using two-dimensional means to develop his own particular artistic language. Through a creative deconstruction of the photographic negative – and its black/white reversal – he attempts to achieve the effect he terms ‘bringing life out of death’. In his images, lines create space, segmenting the flat surface of the picture and the space between background and subject is compressed.
During the creative process, Qin subjectively connects with nature, working in all weather conditions and waiting for the perfect natural light to take his image. Each work is subsequently named according to the exact time it was captured and the weather conditions at that particular moment. In this way, his works are effected by the laws of nature, just as the damaged furniture they depict is imbued with the variable natural properties of its centuries-old wood. For Qin, the right moment to capture an image occurs when the object being photographed can ‘swallow its shadow’, creating an eclipse of shadow and object so that the object alone remains visible.
The design, structure and contours of Ming dynasty furniture has historically been regarded as the embodiment of its inner spirit. Qin’s images not only retain the original lines and structures of the damaged furniture, but also record the traces of damage and the wood’s particular grain the surface signs of the object’s past use or abuse and of its natural weathering. This history is acknowledged in his pictures, which are conceived as a kind of historical index, each an hommage to their subject’s unknown makers. While suggesting destruction or decay, however, they also construct a historical space which exists in marked contrast to the hard, noisy space of their wider art world context.
Although Qin uses a camera to make images, he does not make traditional ‘photographs’. His pictures eliminate perspective and depth, compressing together the near and the distant into the same grey flat surface. Using a Sinar P2 monorail studio camera and a Schneider lens as his tools, he is able to resist unnecessary photographic effects with a technology that, conversely, works against technology, allowing abstract and figurative to coalesce. Unlike a paintbrush, the monorail studio camera banishes any chance effects, offering Qin greater control over the image than his previous painting practice allowed and a continuing and profound engagement with the poetry of juxtapositions.