Ziqi Xu: Petal

FEATURE

On Siss / Phuss: Ziqi Xu in conversation with Livia Wang

“It’s all because I want to see myself, I want to see those unnoticed moments, how they pass by, what is really happening. So that makes the work very personal.”


Artist:Ziqi Xu


Livia Wang: I’m Livia, and I work really close by to HAUSPRINT at Van Gogh House. I have an architecture background and also teach architecture. Both Ziqi and I have this architecture background, but also live between two cultures, being Chinese and English, or growing up in China, but ending up in the UK.

We thought we’d start the conversation by talking about personal things and life stories – I think a kind of personal experience is evident and embodied in your exhibition Siss / Phuss. It’s something that I really see when I look at the pieces on the walls – there seems to be lots of secrets in it or some really, really personal marks in the drawings and etchings. Could you introduce yourself and tell us what led to the work you’ve been making?

Ziqi Xu: I was born in China and I studied architecture before I came here to study illustration five years ago. Two years ago, I graduated and I have been working as an editioning printmaker since then.

I studied architecture first, but my study wasn’t very successful, because architecture for me just feels too big and it lasts too long. I’ve been drawing like most of us since being a kid, but later I gave it up to chase an academic path in high school. Then I followed my big brother into architecture, because he told me ‘Oh, if you do architecture design you can draw all day’. He made a good point, but it feels very different because being an architect means you have to be ready to present your idea all the time.

You’re always trying to persuade someone else to trust in your design, even though that design is just floating in the air. It takes a very big effort to make it fall down to the ground. And before that point, I don’t even believe in if it’s going to happen, or what kind of space is going to be created, so I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore. 

Drawing just feels very different, because drawing happens on a small piece of paper, you can just throw it away. It’s so temporal. I never like my drawings in frames because I feel that moment of drawing will be dead – I like it to be flowing like the wind. I like that temporality and fragility. 

That’s why I studied illustration, because illustration means to be illuminated. I want to know more about the world around me, so that’s why I came here to study illustration. And also, I had to go to another country because I wanted to move to a different place that I’m not familiar with, so that I could figure out what kind of person I am, what is really important in life or what can be abandoned.

LW: I wonder if lots of people can kind of relate to that feeling as well, especially I don’t know what age you came to the UK, but that that kind of formative period where you’re leaving home, and you’re trying to figure out yourself as a person on your own, and especially in new country, without your family there, the people who define you or the people that reflect back to you sort of disappear and you actually have to sort of work out who you are without that reflection without people telling you who you are, yourself. There was something you were saying earlier about your work about your work being away to kind of find yourself and I was wondering whether you could talk a bit about that. 

Ziqi: I’d like to talk about about main inspiration for me to do this exhibition. It’s because I want to see myself. It starts from when I was studying illustration at Camberwell College of Art. When I first went to the printmaking room, I fell in love with it, the linseed oil smell, and heavy machinery, and the long time processes you do to create your work, I felt that I just wanted to stay in this room forever.

After graduation, I became a printmaker and then I found, wait, this is different than what I thought. I got a little bit too over excited about working during the first year, because my work has a long commute.

Generally my day starts at 7.30am and ends at 7pm. That’s when I wake up and go back home. At first I did a lot of overtime because I thought work is a big part of my life. I’m here because I’m working as a printmaker. And so, after a period of time, I think after half a year, I was just shattered. And then I started thinking about what I’m doing here. As an editioning printmaker I do screen printing, and every day I have to repeat the same motions: move the prints, put them down, print them, move them to the racks, for 300 times, every day, 300 times.

I think actually all the jobs are the same – they have the nature of repetition because the nature of printmaking is to reproduce the same image – so this repetition got more enhanced and I really struggled with it. In the evening when I was thinking about what happened during the daytime, I just couldn’t think of anything.

So the time just passed unnoticed and last winter when I was sitting in my desk after work and thinking about what happened that day, I feel that things are really haunting me and I have a strong need that I need to draw something on the paper to drag it out. From then I started to draw things that happened during the daytime, so I draw myself from my memory, I draw from photos I took at work and also I make small models of myself and look at them and draw them. It’s all because I want to see myself, I want to see those unnoticed moments, how they pass by, what is really happening. So that makes the work very personal. 

LW: I think in some ways, the way you speak about yourself and the way you speak about how you ended up making these drawings and making these prints, even though it’s so personal to you, we can all relate. We all live inside our heads and are always talking to ourselves, we talk more to ourselves than we talk to anyone else.

I think that’s what I found so moving actually about seeing these works, they felt quite like little secret drawings of you, obviously not likenesses of you, but little expressions, little bursts of energy, of moments of you on those pieces of paper. And something that really stuck with me was a conversation we had about hair and big hair. It’d be interesting to see how other people respond and think about the works, but there are these little sort of bodies with huge hair upstairs, which are drawings of you in some way with huge hair, and I find them actually really sad. The hair kind of overcomes the body, the hair is bigger than the body itself.

Human hair is sort of quite an odd thing. It’s got the kind of bit of life in it. And if you find a ball of hair on the floor, it’s a bit unsettling so when we spoke about it we ended up down this hair wormhole, but maybe you’d like to share this kind of weird hair thinking with everyone else. It’s not really research, it’s more this kind of expression of you.

Ziqi: So about this hair thing… Like I said, I want to see myself, so I made models, and I made them with white wool and wires, so they are very hairy. When I draw them, they become hairy, and I kind of like it, because they make it less like a human but a lot more like an animal or an object. And that anxious and unsettling feeling is my life status right now. I think it’s because sometimes when I look at them, I can only see the big hair, the other parts just got abandoned.

Sometimes during daily life, when I focus too much on my daily job, other parts of me got abandoned. And that hair is the thing that makes me become an animal. And actually, when I think about my working time, I always feel I’m a dog. Because the gesture of moving prints is like this (holds both arms out straight in front). And then I have to lay under the press bed to stretch the springs (mimes lying on back with arms curled up). And it doesn’t look right.

There were two dogs in my working place but during the day they can’t be taken outside because their owner needs to work inside the studio. So the dogs are there in the corner sleeping or crying, waiting for the day to be over. Like they’re always waiting for something to happen. I’d just joined the studio and the most common thing my boss asked me was ‘Ziqi, could you make a box for me, please darling’. And every day I was making boxes instead of making prints. I felt I was definitely like the dog, waiting for something to happen.

LW: Obviously these are really personal things, but actually you talk about it with such humour and also the material of it, suddenly, you know, we can all see it in the works. Even if it’s not drawings of hair, you’re markmaking as well, these really hairy little lines that feel quite ephemeral. You’re not quite sure what’s solid, what’s intentional and what’s something that’s just a pencil or something brushing over that surface and in a way sometimes it feels like the images are your perception of the world or some kind of filter through which we’re looking lots of other things happening. 

Ziqi: Like seeing something through a screen.

LW: Just the way you look at things is so interesting. And that’s why everyone’s here to listen to you speak, because your perception and ways to look at things or the way you find a story is really fascinating. I can imagine you writing short stories or a novel or something. I feel like there are little stories in these images as well.

Earlier, when we were getting ready, you were talking about your inspirations and you were talking about dust and light catching in front of a Morandi painting. 

Ziqi: I got really inspired by Giorgio Morandi and we were talking about why my figures, my dolls, always look so unfinished, like they are blending into the background. I make dolls, but I don’t draw them straight away. I make them with white wool and then I put them on the white desk with a white wall for the background, and then leave them there for days to think about them. And then when the right time comes, I will draw them.

I think that’s the thing that my architectural education brought to me, that now I won’t see things as actual things, I will see them more like a phenomenon, like a surface. Before I touch them, nothing exists. Although I made the dolls so I know very clearly which body part is joined, which body part exists, which not, but still, I only see them through my eyes. To capture the magic moment.

LW: What does Siss / Phuss mean?

Ziqi: Sisyphus was from a Greek myth, he was a guy being punished, because he played the Gods and then the Gods punished him to push a stone every day to the top of the hill but at the end of the day it falls back down. So he does it again in an endless repetition. The title of this exhibition Siss / Phuss is slightly different from the name of that guy. And it’s one originality of the name of Sisyphus – a sound of exhalation and inhalation.

I think that it’s quite like life, for our life is made of endless reputation. I was reading an Albert Camus book called The Myth of Sisyphus. He mentioned that at the end of the book that one must believe Sisyphus is happy. I wondered why he thinks this, when he was a guy being punished and has do heavy labour every day. Camus said that Sisyphus knows his fate is to repeat, but when Sisyphus walks downhill to fetch the stone again, when he sees the stone become bigger and bigger, he looks straight into his fate. And that time belongs to him so he has a silent joy. I want that silent joy as well. That’s why I’m looking at myself. I want to see myself, to see my fate, to see where this endless reputation is going to bring me to.

LW: There’s a difference between the drawings and the prints, some of the prints have colour and blocks of space added into them. Why have you moved on to the printmaking side of things, why have you done the drawings and then decided to make them into prints and what’s different in that to you? 

Ziqi: I think that’s a good question, because I have been thinking about that a lot. I’m thinking why I got obsessed with doing printmaking, especially etching, so much. When I’m drawing, it’s like a process of investing, investigating. So drawing is more like casting my shadow towards an object. I look at an object and then I cast my own memory and experience towards it. The drawing becomes a residue of my journey of looking at that thing and reflecting. 

Printmaking is different because the process takes longer, and takes more labour to make it, although it all starts from the same point. It’s all about relocating and reflecting one moment that happened in my life. But when you finish your print, after you pull it from your plate, you look at the paper, and you find it is so different from your starting point. Because you can’t control etching, the acid will decide where your image is going to.It’s more like a ritual to exercise. Like somethings, some moments, they become very different in the end.

LW: Is there anything about being here as well, using the studios? 

Ziqi: I think the studio is a very magical place, a lot of things can only happen in the studio. It is a place that you can trust to let all of yourself to come out, so I really enjoy doing prints here. I joined here right after my graduation, and I met Michelle and SooMin and Rob. They were all very generous people and I trust everything, everyone here. I just like to spend time here. 

LW: It is so different from just going home after work with your repetitive days – doing these little drawings. Being in the space feels like there’s a bit more of a community.

And because of being half Chinese and half English, I’m always talking with people about those two cultures and how you’re different. When I’m in China my language is much simpler, I make big statements about things. I’m Western, everyone thinks that I’m very confident, whereas in the UK I can be quite shy. We ended up having this whole conversation about different selves, and how everyone contains all these multiple selves.

Then during COVID, we were all in our own houses, we weren’t being reflected by other people, and all your other multiple selves get put in the cupboard, a little bit. And there’s something good in that it is quite fixed. But then you also forget that you’re able to do loads of different things depending on who you’re with or where you are. And I was wondering, would you be able to make this work if you were at home with your family, where they are, do you think?

Ziqi: No, definitely not. I agree with you about different identities. I think my two identities have different personalities. So when I talk in Chinese, I feel like a more tender and humble person. But when I talk in English, I feel like I’m an art student, always ready to give a presentation. And sometimes I sound like a cocky little shit. I don’t mean to but it happens.

Also I get more nervous when I speak in English, maybe because I got two different languages so I feel that one of me is always questioning the second me. In the last year, Chinese me has been questioning and judging the English me a lot, asking myself ‘What are you doing here? Is that all you want to do here, to make prints for other people?’ Actually, I can also visualise another me in my head, I can visualise things through my Chinese Ziqi eyes, I can see the English Ziqi, way back, standing in front of the big printing machine and moving the print like a zombie. And judging this. That conversation happens a lot when I am alone and it was the main thing that was happening in my mind when I was doing my drawings.

Group discussion

Michelle: Do you think it’s easier to have another identity that you can look at yourself from? You talked about it as if you can be detached from the other identity. Maybe it’s quite useful. 

Ziqi: It is, because me and Boris we were just talking this morning about how to build good habits and Boris said, you have to drag yourself out and think of yourself like a project – every decision you make is like a wand to your project to make it happen. 

I was thinking the same thing about seeing myself, because we all got eyes, but our eyes are only used to see other people and see how we look in other people’s eyes. I think it’s very important to drag ourselves out and look at ourselves as a human being.

Alex: I think when you’re in another country, you do look at yourself objectively, because you’re using a different language that you’re not familiar with, and you’re out of the environment you grew up in, or the culture you grew up with.

Ziqi: I got more comfortable and confident about where I am and who I am but here I’m always nervous, I think.

Lucy: I think the opposite of what Alex says is true as well, which is that thing that when you’re living in another country, which is not part of your culture, actually, what’s nice is that nobody knows who you are, or where you’re from, and they don’t pre-judge things about you. And that’s what’s really nice about it. So that’s a very nice way of finding out about what you want to do. 

Ziqi: I agree – I found the one thing I really like about being in UK is that the normality here is that people don’t really care about other people. But that is in a very good way. I do enjoy that so that everyone can enjoy being themselves without being judged.

SooMin: I just want to say about the working in the print studio to start with, because my first job was in a big print studio in Singapore. And that was my first job in life. So I had the same sort of feeling experience like you like, ‘Oh, this is really robotic’. Although my job there wasn’t as robotic as what you’re doing. But after a while, you know what’s going to happen. I don’t get to make the decision. I just follow orders. It’s very boring after a while – even though I know the place makes really, really good work.

That’s when I started to think about doing my MA, sooner than I planned, because there was something in printmaking that I still enjoyed. I wanted to do other courses, maybe not printmaking, but I remember my tutors in Singapore saying ‘Sometimes it’s more challenging to continue to do what you’re doing and question yourself,’ so I decided to stick to printmaking and see what I actually still enjoy about it. So tune into yourself and what you like or don’t like and then you can just cut your personal feelings away when you’re doing other people’s prints so you can say is this is just what needs to be done,  whether you like the work or not doesn’t matter.

Michelle: I suppose one of the things you’re doing in your own work as well – I don’t know the work that you’re working on commercially – but my feeling is this more gentle quieter work is possibly a reaction to the commercial work that you are busy with in your day to day. The quiet work is in contrast to the more bombastic work I suppose that you might be working on.

Ziqi: Yes, it’s very opposite. You mentioned about quiet but actually everything was very loud in my working environment, and it stinks, the smell is so bad. My job is very reproductive, and everything’s very repetitive. 

I never like doing editions of my etching. I only make one image and I print it and then that’s all. It’s not like aiming for an outcome that you already planned for, it’s more like learning to accept the unexpected moment. 

Tim: I was interested that you’re talking about the difference between drawing and etching for you. To me, they feel very close. But it’s time and a kind of rhythm that doesn’t exist in the drawing, necessarily, although it may go away and come back a week later and do more to the drawing. But it’s that sense of the intermediary, or the kind of the necessary ritual you have to go through, is like a filter for the drawing or a kind of instrument for the drawing somehow, rather than being different. It doesn’t feel that different. I don’t know, you seem to imply for you it was it was more different.

Ziqi: Maybe there’s not that big a difference, because when I do drawing, I also don’t control it. I just let it happen, and in printing, that’s the same. It’s only that it’s less direct, so it takes more effort.

Tim: It’s a translation of something. 

Ziqi: Yes, it’s a translation. So a lot of things going to be changed and to be lost during the process. But something new is going to happen. So it’s more magic.

Sarah: May I ask you about your titles, and the relationship between the imagery and the titles?

Ziqi: Someone said, ‘While you are still breathing, you are a slave of the time. And you will gain freedom when you freeze that moment’. So the images are about the relooking and repeating inherent in the printmaking process. So I made one or two models, and then I keep drawing them on different plates with different techniques. And then I etch them together, and somehow they look different, and present different moments of my life. 

So it is only one thing I am been looking at, but because every time when I look at it, I am thinking about a different thing, I put a different memory to it. So that there is a difference between each repetition. And I am fascinated by that slightly subtle difference. 

I also read a novel written by Franz Kafka. So Camus was a big fan of Kafka and he analysed a story from Kafka called The Trial. It’s about a man who is sentenced for an uncertain reason. He doesn’t know what the sentence is for or when the sentence going to be conducted. He tries really hard to try and figure it out but he gets no answer. All he can do is to keep living his daily life, to repeat that daily life, to not forget about love and passion, until one day he is taken out by two gentleman to the countryside and strangled to death. And his last words are ‘Just like a dog’.

I know, it’s quite depressing but  sometimes when I am thinking about my daily repetitive job, I find that instead of Sisyphus I actually resonate more with that man who got strangled, because I don’t know what is waiting for me at the end of this repetition. Sisyphus knows his fate is to push the stone uphill again and again, but that man, although he tries really hard to maintain a normal life, still has a very horrible unexpected ending waiting for him. I named my exhibition Sisyphus because I want to have that silent joy that Camus mentioned. 

Lucy: I’m interested in what you said about only doing one print, and not being interested in editioning, which I totally understand. What I’m interested in is why, because because the nice thing about a plate is that it offers so many different ways of printing it, but you don’t find yourself going down a route where you’re doing different things with a plate? Finding different ways of printing it, because I think that’s what’s nice about etching is different ways you can print the plate. So I was interested, you only did one, and that was the one. 

Ziqi: Sorry, I didn’t give a correct explanation – I will proof it until I get one I really like.

LW: How did you choose the works that you wanted to show in the exhibition?

Ziqi: I actually didn’t have a plan, I just kepr making things. I actually only got in the flow of making last month, so I made five etchings in one month, I think it’s same for everyone, when doing design or creating, you got a very chaotic period, trying to figure out what you want to do. And then when you get into the making flow, you just keep making and making and making.

Michelle: I was having a conversation with somebody who’s on the Etching Year here this morning, and we were having exactly that same conversation. You’ve almost got to get to the point where you’re anxious and you work through your thoughts, and then you’re in a new flow that’s really good, coming up to an exhibition.

Ziqi: It’s a good place to reflect and see who I really am.

Michelle: I was really interested as well, in what we’ve said, around the idea of making the different prints until you make a decision. I mean, for me some of the things you’ve described are really reflected in the prints – that sort of working through these veils or working through these sorts of processes, of looking at yourself, maybe looking again, and looking again.

I think you can feel that intensity of looking and that the peeling back almost or the covering over that you described.I think the prints for me really describe those unconscious thoughts that you’re having.

Even the way in which you’ve made them, the marks and the wiping away and the scraping and the reintroducing the tone is very reflective of the way you describe your looking. 

LW: There’s such variety in them in a way that’s maybe slightly different from the drawings. You see that almost experimenting on the plate I suppose, that trying out.

Michelle: The plate gives you something more to battle against as well compared to paper. One of the drawings upstairs, I really liked, where you started to break the paper, you know, that sort of intensity of trying to make the mark look the way that you want in the end. The plate has this sort of resistance, through which you can try and get there, so the resistance helps, doesn’t it? It’s more robust in a way for you to try and get to the feeling and the mark that you want. I think that’s one of the really exciting things about etching, you have to really sort of get it. It’s a sort of physical drawing.

Ziqi: Yes, very physical. When you hold a piece of paper, and when you hold a metal plate it feels very different. For me, the etching plate feels more like a piece of solid time – it is a solid moment. So I really want to dig into it to bring out the depths of it.

LW: And this is probably a really obvious thing to say as a non printmaker, but it creates a really defined space as well so figures are floating in a space, whereas the ones upstairs on the sheets of paper, you have that with the edge of the paper, but here you have a predetermined space that you’re choosing to place your fingers within so there is more of a sense of composition. To me, anyway.

Tim: Do you have any conscious influences – you’ve mentioned Morandi already? 

Ziqi: I also like Cy Twombly, and Tehching Hsieh, he is a performance artist. He does year-long performances. Once he decided to put a clock in his studio and every hour, you click the clock and take a photo. And he did that for one year. And never missed an hour. He said, Life is like that. It’s like the clock ticking. And then he did a performance is about not leaving one room for one year. And another is about not going into any building for one year. So he was just living on the street through a very harsh winter. And then he tied himself to another woman (artist Linda Montano) with a thread for one year. And his last project is to not do art for one year. 

The one thing that really touches me is that he’s really thinking about life through making art, it doesn’t really matter what the form of art is, what media you’re using, what you want to present to other people, it’s more like, knowing yourself, to experience, to exaggerate one experience to the extreme, and to live through it. It’s about doing time, about living through the time. I think that’s what I want to do with my work, is to live through those moments.

Tim: It’s interesting that you use the term ‘doing time’ which means going to prison. It’s interesting, because the Sisyphian loop is a kind of prison, a sealed circuit. 

Ziqi: But you have to believe Sisyphus is happy!

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Siss / Phuss

An exhibition of etchings and drawings by Ziqi Xu explores the fundamental question “Who am I?”

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