In the studio with Xixi Qian

In the studio with Xixi Qian, a visual artist whose works depict a botanical punk world, fully expressing the alternative spirit of punk culture that transcends societal norms. We met with Xixi to tell us more about growing up in Zhejiang, China, her ideal conditions for creating work, and an unexpected source of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

The moment I graduated from college, when people asked me about my career and work, I would say I was an artist. From the first day of my undergraduate studies, I created my work from the perspective of an artist. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I am from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, China. From as far back as I can remember in kindergarten, I discovered my passion for drawing. I often participated in painting activities at school, which made my parents start to support me in developing my talent in painting. From elementary school to high school, I served as the publicity committee member of the school, responsible for organizing and participating in the publication of drawings and objects. These experiences gave me a strong interest in painting and I gradually formed professional knowledge. By participating in various competitions and winning awards, I have steadily built up my self-confidence. Therefore, I decided to embark on the path of artistic creation.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

Ever since I was a child, though immersed in the academic subjects learning, my interest in art creation has never been stifled, the credit of which I suppose should be both given to my born intuition toward art creation and the faith instilled by my educational environment, which boasts the importance of personal striving, leaving little room for people to give up. This has shaped my character and made me always stick to my goals. I just answer to my inner calling and express my heart through artistic language. Gradually, my life goal has become my spiritual pillar.

During the RCA graduation exhibition, people from the Gatehouse Chambers Art Program took a liking to my work, invited me to participate in their project, and provided a sponsorship fee.  This gave me the confidence to believe that I could make a living through my art.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

My works create a botanical punk world, which is an artistic context constructed by myself. Punk culture represents a non-mainstream fringe culture that aims to transcend social norms and create a unique spiritual utopia. In my works, I use plant elements to extract mutually beneficial elements from nature to express the beautiful vision of cooperation and win-win in society. Taking my hometown Wenzhou as an example, I explored the phenomenon between economic growth and cultural constraints. My creations use plants as a medium to explore various rules and regulations in human society and reflect the complexity of tolerance and opposition. This exploration makes the plant world full of complex and simple beauty due to the diversity of human society. My practice focuses on the properties of rhizomes and fungi, explores the social dynamics of China’s second-tier cities, and interprets the relationship between socioeconomic culture and family, neighbours, and generations from a macro and micro perspective.

My purpose is to change this phenomenon. Even if it just makes people aware of this phenomenon, I will be satisfied. The motivation for creating is not only because I like to create, but also to solve the problems I face in real life, such as whether to stay in the UK or go back to China. This decision is influenced by a variety of factors including parental, familial, communal and intergenerational. So, I started from my family, analyzed my city and hometown, and tried to find an answer.

The purpose of this work is also to gain a deeper understanding of myself. Sometimes, I will read some sociological books as a way of self-psychotherapy (when talking about the content of my works, I will make reference to the books of anthropologist Mr. Xiang Biao). I think it’s treating the symptoms, not the root cause. At the same time, this work is also a criticism of my city (Wenzhou). Although I am not a politician or a government official, I try to offer solutions to this problem and hope that my artistic creation can have some impact. At the very least, I hope that those who have encountered similar problems will agree with me.

My aesthetics are heavily influenced by personal experiences. As Chinese, I like the elegant artistic conception conveyed by traditional Chinese painting. On the other hand, the capitalist society also influenced me, making me have an appreciation for Baroque and Rococo styles. My creative style incorporates these influences, resulting in a Chinoiserie style.

Who are your greatest influences? 

Mr. Xiang Biao, an anthropologist at Oxford University, had a profound influence on me. As a compatriot from Wenzhou, he can interpret this social phenomenon from an anthropological perspective., His views have greatly inspired me to think about the phenomenon behind this society.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

My work has been deeply influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus, which explores non-linear, polycentric, non-hierarchical thinking and social structures. Through this book, I have a new understanding of familiar social patterns. It explores nonlinear, decentralized, and nonhierarchical thinking and social structures, providing a theoretical framework for opposing centrism and hierarchy. In a way, I believe that’s what  my hometown needs to focus on.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? 

No matter how the audience reacts to my work, I don’t mind, I am very open to any feedback. But I hope that the audience can think, feel joy or resonate when appreciating my works. Painting has this magical ability to touch people’s emotions and minds, and I hope that the audience will be touched in my works.

Therefore, my work is both abstract and figurative. In future, I hope that more people will have access to art to allow a wider audience appreciate my works. I know that there are still many people in the world who have never been exposed to art and I hope to bring them a beautiful experience.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied Fine Art in Chelsea. The school did not have a specific discipline, so I tried almost all media to explore my artistic language. However, in the end I returned to the original art of painting on paper. This is because I found that my parents know very little about contemporary art. I hope to the person I loved can also enter the world of art, so I chose to return to the most basic medium of painting, which is most acceptable for them.

My creative content is also influenced by my living environment. Because I travel frequently between London and China, I have lived in different environments and my family moved for many times. So, when I came to London, I chose some areas with diverse and unique interpersonal relationships as my residing location, such as the border between London’s zone one and zone two and three. These places make me feel a kind of “punk” feeling, and at the same time make me long to be close to nature, so I chose to live in a house close to green space. This choice of environment has had an impact on my creations.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

 In my opinion, the ideal conditions or catalysts for creating a “good” work include my personal control and improvisation. In the creation of prints, I need a very strong spirit of control, such as the time of acid corrosion, the number of aquatint rotations, etc., all of which require precise control. However, works created according to these regulations may sometimes lack surprise or special creative randomness. Therefore, I think that creating a good work sometimes requires the ability to adapt to changes, rather than abandoning the work directly. Sometimes, this randomness leads to some serendipitous results.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

Titled “String Vibration,” the artwork alludes to the butterfly effect, where small changes can trigger long-term chain reactions. I created a plant punk world based on the symbiotic nitrogen-fixing relationship between legumes and rhizobia to convey the concept of an economically beneficial system. By incorporating plant elements, I hoped to express the idea that although my hometown Wenzhou was originally a harmonious and picturesque city, the rapid industrial development in the past two decades has led to ignorance of cultural preservation and creation. Hopefully, my work can arouse local residents’ reflection.

Normally, people can appreciate the external beauty of landscapes, while having no access to their micro images. The plants I studied show very abstract forms under the microscope. So my work might impress people with its abstract style at the very beginning, kind of illustration-like.  Nevertheless, I do enjoy this abstract way of expression, because abstract things can stimulate more imagination.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I look forward to the future when I will be able to do more in-depth research on plants and stones and create more abstract works. These works are inspired by the landscapes of my hometown. I hope to use these works to express the relationship between clan relations, economy and culture, as well as the spiritual connotation behind them.

Describe your work in three words: 

Botanical punk, Utopia, win-win cooperation

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

Usually I work in two stages: ideation and execution. During the ideation stage, I like to be quiet. In the execution stage, I like to listen to some literati talk shows or listen to audio books. This kind of listening environment helps me maintain a state of thinking and allows me to concentrate on my creation.

What is your favorite read?

I enjoy reading literary fiction and art books. Literary fiction stories fascinate me, while art books – naturally – stem from my interest in art where there is always more for me to learn.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Although not a specific suggestion, the life motto I have always believed in is “sincerity is always a nirvana, and so is painting”.

What makes you laugh?

When I create a work that surprises me, that kind of accidental masterpiece makes me happy. Since printmaking usually requires prior planning and control, I can’t help but laugh out loud when something unintended happens.

What makes you nervous?

Purposeful things usually make me nervous. However, I try to stay calm and approach everything with a sense of normalcy. I believe that the highest state of emotion is to maintain inner peace.

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

I don’t particularly want people to ask me questions frequently, I want people to appreciate my paintings. But I welcome any questions based on my work, as it would be a useful discussion of the logic behind my personal work.

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

Recently, I tried to make some 3D models to show the concept of my work, and finally created a installation. I found that I have maintained my courageous personality. Even as I get older, I still maintain my exploration of new things and my courage to try.

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

This year, I’m planning on making my own frames because frames are very important for showcasing my work. I intend to use metal (printmaking materials such as copper plate and zinc plate) and some electronic equipment to make a frame which can keep a unified style with my art work.

Do you have any superstitions?

I believe that science can explain everything, although there may be some phenomena in life that science cannot explain. I am curious about these phenomena and willing to explore them.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?

If I knew what was going to happen in the future, I would immediately call the smartest people in the world to find the best plan and make the future state of affairs the best. However, I don’t want to know in advance, because it is also very good to let nature take its course. Sometimes I don’t want to intervene in how things are going, because indeterminate intervention can have unintended negative effects.

What palace in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

I love going to botanical gardens and being close to nature for inspiration. There is a lot of pressure in this society, so I will often choose to get close to nature and calm myself down, so as to find inspiration for creation.

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?

In addition to artistic creation, I like to grow flowers and grass, or build Lego toys. I will build my botanical punk house, which is also my virtual creation corner. In the future, I hope this cabin will become a powerful installation. I firmly believe that art comes from life. When my friends come to my house, they always say that they can better understand my creation through these installation art works.

What is your relationship with social media?

Well, social media is definitely an important access for me to get information, feedback, and advices. Besides, as a new artist, I can share my art work with more audiences in the virtual platform. So I have to say I do appreciate the development and update of their functions. For me, it would be a little unnerving to lose my electronic connection to the outside world, but I wouldn’t worry if the world went back to flying pigeons or talking face-to-face, because everyone would be equally efficient.