Stepping into the White Cube in Central means stepping into a world built by Qin Yifeng.
His works seem to possess a certain magic that makes people stop and stare.
The 58-year-old associate professor at Shanghai University is a collector of Ming dynasty furniture and, most importantly, an artist. He is holding his exhibition, Negative Reading | Reading Negative, until November 16.
The walls in the White Cube have been painted on a gray scale of 18, the average brightness of nature, while the works hung on display are in shades of 75 to 85, creating a sharp contrast that draws the eyes of audience toward Qin’s pieces.
While the initial meaning of Qin’s work might not be obvious on first approach, on closer inspection you will discover that his works are negative films depicting parts of Ming dynasty furniture.
In Qin’s works, the Ming furniture shows only the front, side and top surface, and sections of damage. With the disappearance of light and shadow, the traces of decay on the furniture become emphasized as crooked lines or random spots.
The exhibition shows 17 output works from negative films, as well as some films from Qin’s creative process.
Using photography as a medium for creating art for less than 10 years, one interesting part is that while photography textbooks teach you to use equipment and materials for creating a stereo effect, contrast and space, Qin did the opposite.
“Without front or back, light or shade, without even projection, once everything is compressed, negative films become a new form in my imagination,” said Qin.
He gave his answer at a discussion on the relationship between solid and flat in his works.
Qin had been discussing this question for years since he began creating abstract art in 1983. In his work 42 cubes, created in 1993, the artist painted 42 cubes onto a canvas, making it difficult to tell whether they are solid or flat.
From 2006 to 2009, after collecting Ming furniture for more than 10 years, he wrote a book about the impact of structure and craftsmanship on shape and aesthetics, in which he took all the furniture photos himself.
During the process, he found that the square table was similar to a cube, which inspired him to continue the idea of three-dimensional appearance in another way – photography.
However, he has never considered himself to be a photographer. “Strictly speaking, what I do is not standard photography, and I don’t want to be a photographer,” Qin said. “I just took advantage of the objectivity of photography.”
Thinking that engineers and scientists have optimized digital cameras so that they cannot achieve pure objectivity and naturalness, he decided to use a large-format film camera.
When taking the pictures, he waited for natural light to strike the furniture evenly enough, to lose the contrast of light and shade and achieve a “flat” image.
The whole process was time-consuming. He once spent three years trying to shoot the same corner of a table, carefully studying natural light changes, film exposure times and darkroom techniques.
Qin described Ming dynasty furniture as inclusive, sedate, elegant and simple, and concise in design, but it has a lot of detail.
Simply speaking, it is similar to practical design ideologies from the west. Even so, Qin felt that Ming dynasty furniture could not be used to represent minimalism.
“Minimalism is a result of industrial civilization, while Ming dynasty furniture presents a natural feeling in both material and design, which was an important part of the Ming dynasty’s psychology,” Qin said.
In this series of works, he also follows nature, which is reflected in presenting the traces left by time on the furniture or the shooting with natural light.
Qin said some space was left empty for damaged or missing parts of the furniture.
While using his furniture collection at home, Qin often thinks about what is the end of natural life.
“For trees, they died at the moment they were cut down, but as furniture, their life has lasted for hundreds of years and will continue to extend, as if into a new growth process,” Qin said.
Since negative films reverse black and white, the darkest part in Qin’s works are actually the brightest in reality. Qin believes negative films bring a symbolic meaning of “reviving the dead.”
He hopes the audience can calm down, feel and think about the natural and peaceful world he created.
“I wanted to use the objectivity of photography to do the opposite, to present different perspectives of thoughts,” he said.
(This article was published at The Standard on November 1 2019: Weekend Glitz: Picture the magic of Ming furniture )