After ten months and two thousand, one hundred and thirty
six work hours, artist Chen Qi (b. 1963) finally
completed his artwork, entitled 1963, on July 6,
2009. Experimentally blending digital media with the ancient
techniques of water-based printmaking, he devised a complex
and exacting printing process using ninety-six woodblocks
with nine color applications to depict, on an area measuring
7.8 meters high and 3.35 meters long, waves of water flowing
from the inner depths of his heart. 1963 is a testament
to the unprecedented ambition and conceptual creativity
of one of the only contemporary artists to continue the
technique of Chinese water-based printmaking.
Meditating on water in front of the computer screen stretched
the limits of the artist's creative perceptivity. While
in the process of producing 1963, Chen attempted
to find some ancient ink in the hopes that this old inheritance
from past dynasties would smooth out the sea of ink that
had been swallowed up by the cold, rational digital bits.
Through torturous effort, Chen Qi attained the wish he has
held since a child, realizing his lifelong pursuit of water.
1963 is a unique, singular work. It does not have
the multiple editions common to printmaking, because time
is unredeemable. Standing before this vast body of water
that is highly realistic and yet radiates the glow of abstraction,
one forgets himself and melts into the ether of impermanence.
In the artist's two decades of artistic practice revolving
mostly around water-based woodcuts, 1963 is an important
conceptual breakthrough. "When the spirit melds
with the myriad things, the mind can complete any task"
(Su Dongpo, Song Dynasty). 1963 emphasizes
the process aspect and the challenges that arise in creating
across mediums, transcending the concepts of on-canvas painting
and printmaking. From the deep sands of culture, artist
Chen Qi has picked up the broken spear of the ancients and
dauntlessly traverses the mysterious realm that lies between
history, reality, the external world and the subjective
Facing 1963 as a curator, my intentions are depictive.
My wish is to objectively document this experimental creative
process, and to find within Chinese cultural traditions
a perspective from which to view it from afar. Chen Qi's
creations face directly inwards, so a presentation of his
individual life experience will be of assistance in tracing
the roots of his conceptual ideas in his contemporary artistic
Chen Qi's Art & Chinese Heritage:
In ancient Chinese philosophy, water not only has metaphysical
significance, it is also a carrier for cultural allusions.
These meanings come together to form artist Chen Qi's subconscious
foundation as a contemporary protector of Chinese literati
I. Wisdom of the Dao
Spring & Autumn Period, Lao Tzu, Dao De Jing:
The supreme good is like water, benefiting all things without
Late Spring & Autumn Period, Confucius: The wise
take pleasure in rivers and lakes, the virtuous in mountains;
the wise are happy, the virtuous long-lived.
II. Literati Intelligence:
Warring States Period, Qu Yuan, The Fisherman in
Anthology of Chu Poetry: When the waters of the Canglang
River are clear, I can wash my tassels; when the waters
are muddy, I can at least wash my feet.
Eastern Jin Kingdom, Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Orchid
Pavilion Poems: The pavilion has clear rushing water, reflecting
the sunlight as it flows past either side, the pavilion
divides the water into flowing brooks.
III. Time and Sense of History:
Late Spring & Autumn Period, Confucius, Zi
Han in The Analects: The master, standing by
a stream, said "it passes just like this, all through
the day and night".
Southern Song Dynasty, Xin Qiji, To the Tune of
Pusaman: The verdant mountains cannot stop it, it will
still continue flowing to the east.
IV. Mysticism Related to Dragons and Fish:
Warring States, Chuang Tzu, Enjoyment in Untroubled
Ease: In the Northern Sea there is a great fish, the name
of which is Kun.
Tang Dynasty, Liu Yuxi: It matters not whether the
water is deep, but whether or not there resides the spirit
of a dragon.
Aesthetic Formulae of Water in Ancient Chinese Landscape
In traditional Chinese esthetics, water is the material
manifestation of man's spirit, an embodiment of the conceptual
pursuits of Chinese literati. In ancient painting theory,
the different qualities of water through the seasons were
developed into aesthetic expressive patterns. According
to the Qing Dynasty painter Qian Du, in his Songhu's
Treatise on Painting, "Water comes in the form
of lakes, rivers, seas, streams, creeks, waterfalls and
springs. Lakes are flat and expansive, rivers can be murky
or broad, seas are turbulent, streams are playful and curvy,
and waterfalls rush." Song Dynasty artist Li Yingqiu,
in his Formulae for Landscapes, emphasized the varying
states of weather through the seasons: "In spring,
water is green and calm, in summer it swells and floods,
in autumn it is rushing and clear, in winter, the springs
become solid and unmoving."
Masters of Carving since Ancient Times.
China is the birthplace of woodcut printing. In the
mid and late Tang Dynasty, it was used to print illustrations
for Buddhist sutras. From the reign of Ming emperor Wan
Li into the mid Qing Dynasty, printmaking techniques were
gradually perfected and the carvers of Huizhou were unparalleled
by then. At the time, metals such as copper or clay, wood
and porcelain molds are used to make movable type in the
printing of texts in printed books, while the images were
first drawn by painters, then carved into woodblocks by
carvers, ready for printing the rich illustrations.
The illustrations for such books as The Mustard Seed
Garden Manual of Painting and Western Chamber Romance
spread the literati spirit and folk culture like wildfire.
Among such books, the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual for Painting
and Calligraphy (carved during the Ming Dynasty over
an eight year period ending in 1627), displayed the blended
colors of ink wash painting, making distinguished achievements
in the formulaic language of "five shades from each
The Literati Spirit in Water Woodblock Print.
Differing from Chinese painting, which uses brush strokes
for expression, water woodblock printing uses a perfect
combination of drawing, carving and printing to convey aesthetic
uniqueness and spirit. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, painters
used ink to lay out an image which the carvers would cut
into jujube and pear wood. Venerated painters such as Tang
Yin and Qiu Ying took great joy in this new method
of self-expression, and were happy to paint images for the
carvers; the most famous such artist was Chen Laolian
Chen Laolian's style was fiercely independent and
unique. Towering above the other artists of the Ming and
Qing dynasties, he had a powerful influence over the development
of Chinese figurative painting. He stood aloof from the
world, which he looked down upon, and had a habit of drinking
away his indignation. Working together with carvers, he
created a series of drinking game cards entitled Pages
from Outlaws of the Marsh: the work depicted the heroes
of the marsh in sketched lines that brought out the cavalier
and heroic traits of the characters, strengthening the expressiveness
of lines in literati painting and bestowing them with the
painter's spiritual ideals. The participation of these elite
literati brought the publication of the classics to its
heyday, and initiated a coalescence between the high and
vulgar spirits, moving the ivory tower of the literati's
study towards street culture. Just as modern silkscreen
shaped pop art, the common culture aspects of printmaking
from the Ming and Qing dynasties, represented by such works
as Pages from Outlaws of the Marsh, enriched the
Chinese literati spirit.
Months, 2136 Work Hours,
96 Woodblocks, 9 Color Applications,
A Massive Impression Spanning 26 Square Meters,
1963 by Artist Chen Qi
- Waves of Water from the Inner Depths of Heart.
Blending New Media with Ancient Water Print,
A Meditation on History & Life Experience,
Conceptual Creativity Carrying forward the Heritage
of Chinese Water Print.
The Making of Water: An Introduction
Through digital sketching, wood carving and the nine layer
color application process
, it took two thousand one hundred
thirty six hours. The resulting image is 7.8 meters by 3.35
I. Digital Blueprint
October 2008 - January 2009, Seven Hundred Thirty Six Work
It would be very difficult to complete the wave marks for
such a large picture by hand. In October 2008, Chen Qi decided
to complete the blueprint for 1963 on a computer, relying
entirely on his own inner memories and perceptions, laying
out the undulations and movement relationships of each wave
from nothing. Chen Qi has said, "I rarely do life
study sketches. All of the scenes and scenery in my works
are woven after fermenting in my mind for a long time, but
the foundation for composition is based on my flowing consciousness
and my static emotions, a revelation of the depths of my conscious".
In the computer, the depiction of waves is a confrontation
between spiritual truth and objective truth, lending Chen
Qi an opportunity to describe the subtle undulations of his
inner world. Digital painting becomes for him a private internal
activity akin to prayer.
Unlike canvas painting, computer painting extracts the
physical properties of medium (paper, ink etc), and removes
the elements of size, dimension and the pressure of the
brush; movement has been reduced to partial moving of the
fingers and the forearm. Faced with the infinitely moveable
and expandable surface of the computer screen, Chen gradually
sank into a state of meditation and play: in the void, there
were only the untouchable, weightless curved lines and the
soft, microscopic pulsations of the spirit. As he grasped
each thin line with the cursor, Chen had to determine each
minute variation in each ripple among countless undefined
positions, a decision that would influence the dynamic rhythm
of the entire picture. The fate of each line was fragile,
and under the cursor, they became like the myriad things
in the hands of the creator, or the lotus flower under the
Buddha's thumb. All alone, the artist was given absolute
freedom. His thoughts cruised about on the sleek surface
created by tens of thousands of curves, bringing him into
a pure realm. The ripples of the water became immaterial,
like light and strange illusions on black silk. The whole
world became like the hum of a seashell.
II. Boards Carving
January-May 2009, One Thousand Forty Work Hours
The size of 1963 and the richness of ink shades
has become a challenge to the limitations of water-based
printmaking. In the Chinese classical spirit, "the
numbers of the world begin with one and end with nine",
and for this reason, Chen Qi splits the color applications
into nine stages to achieve the desired shade changes in
the waves. Each application requires one set of boards to
complete, with nine boards in total. He designed a complete
execution system: the 7.8 meter by 3.35 meter work is separated
into four sections horizontally, with each section composed
of three 2 meter by 1.2 meter boards placed together. Each
color application requires twelve boards, and with nine
color applications that requires ninety six boards (two
color applications are used for one board).
Chen Qi outputted his computer generated blueprint in separate
colors, applying the nine different color applications to
ninety six boards. Using ancient handcrafting techniques,
he began the slow carving process. As the wood was carved
away, the water lines began to emerge and flow through the
grain of the wood.
III. Nine Colors Printing
May-July 2009, Three Hundreds Sixty Work Hours
Water-based printmaking is a complex ancient technique.
Factors such as the wetness of the wood and paper and the
pressure applied can all affect the final outcome. Through
the control of wetness, Chen Qi can make the ink of the
lines expand or explode, and these complex effects depend
entirely on years of accumulated perceptivity and understanding.
Sometimes the printer must use his tongue to determine the
level of moisture on the paper. 1963 is the embodiment of
Chen's strong grasp of printmaking techniques, radiating
the rational wisdom of the mature artist. Atop the nine
applications of layers, Chen also created gradual tonal
shifts in each color layer, making for even more subtle
and delicate shades. Each color application uses interlocking
boards, making for precise alignment and effectively avoiding
any mislays or seams.
The layers of ink were pressed in a process that took three
months. The water lines move from ripples to waves, freshly
conveying lush water and bright and clear reflections. Chen
Qi's contemporary value lies in his use of water-based printmaking
to establish an independent artistic language. The printing
process dampens the limitations of the original draft and
makes use of the artist's subjective consciousness in the
process of creation. The flow of consciousness is conveyed
through the improvisational spirit and the free-moving marks.
Marching from Modernism to the Contemporary
Under the guidance of Lu Xun, modern water-based
woodcut carried on traditions while absorbing printmaking
techniques from abroad. The core concept was a pursuit of
the aesthetical ideas of 'knife flavor" (the
use of cuts to convey the subject matter), "wood
flavor" (the use of the natural texture of the
wood grain) and "water flavor" (the concentration
of water-based pigments and changes in moisture levels).
Famous print artists such as Li Hua, Huang Yongyu, Song
Yuanwen and Ying Tianqi used water-based print
creations to march towards the contented realm of modernism.
Over two decades of research and practice have made Chen
Qi a leading contemporary artist who has creatively updated
the traditional water-based printmaking techniques. Beginning
in the '85 New Wave, Chen bravely transformed and moved
beyond modernism, incorporating the lighting ideas of Western
paintings and expanding water-based printing beyond its
original limitation to Chinese ink painting and modernist
aesthetics. He explored water-based printing's contemporary
expressive abilities through independent artistic language,
and transformed the traditional simple workshop techniques
into a modern system of production management. Especially
praiseworthy is his attention to the conceptuality that
arises from the creative methodology of water-based printing
as a component of cultural heritage, entering into contemporary
experimentation that transcends aesthetics.
Contemporary Conceptual Ideas in 1963
Time and Process: Chen Qi sees the long process and
arduous tasks as a Sisyphus-like process of personal spiritual
tempering. He emphasizes the mysterious fermentation effect
of time. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "What
we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."
Through 1963, the artist dove into the abyss of time, engaging
in a perpetual effort to close in on essence and contemplate
time. The Collection of Bizarre Stories from the
Southern Dynasties spoke of a man who mistakenly wandered
deep into the mountains and saw two children playing chess,
watching them for so long that his axe handle rotted away.
For Chen Qi, the process of creating 1963 was just like
that. He experienced one of the most enchanting, yet lonely
moments in life. Facing the vast inky waves of 1963, a sense
of detachment rises up as if from another world.
Indirectness and Depersonalization:
Looking over Chen Qi's works, we can see the elite literati
traditions in their contemporary form. His works always
have a form of mysterious tranquility to them, effortlessly
summoning a broad field of resonance. The landscapes he
depicts seem to only exist in the depths of memory. His
lotuses have an absolute and solemn sense of form, blossoming
in time and space as if they would never wither.
The German sinologist Lothar Ledderose believes that
one of the ancient traditions in Chinese implement-making
for things such terracotta warriors and bronze objects,
was to work from a model but also to imbue it with aspects
of the artist's individual personality, so that objects
would be standardized but also embody personality, an irrefutable
creative principle of ancient China. Ledderose later shifted
his focus to the transformation of technology in art, or
the esthetic elements of processes in craftsmanship. Similarly,
water-based woodcut printing uses printmaking techniques,
and there is an indirectness to the artist's creation; there
is a strong sense of history to the cultural and aesthetic
forms carried by water-based printing. T.S. Eliot believed
that "the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice,
a continual extinction of personality". When Chinese
artist Xu Bing talked about his work, Book
from Heaven, he said, "I have discovered that
thing that have been emptied of personality are more able
to touch on the essence of the matter". The indirectness
of printmaking has provided artists such as Xu Bing
and Chen Qi with the possibility of linking their
creative personalities with ancient times. In the fog of
history, Chen Qi has turned the indirectness of printmaking
into a means of "depersonalization". He has transcended
the limitations of the individual. In this solemn work,
instead of the personalized brush strokes, he moves towards
the eternal power of purity.
1963 casts off the distraction of personal aesthetic
tastes. The resulting image approaches realism while sparing
no effort in pursuing abstract purity. In addition, without
any traces of temporality, 1963 remains tightly intertwined
with time. The light that radiates off the water is the
light from the creation of the world, and the light that
flows through our emotional space. The waves ripple across
from ancient times to today, boiling with all of our most
hidden perceptions of life.