In the studio with Yiwei Xu, a London-based Chinese illustrator and artist whose practice seeks to explore the boundaries between reality and fantasy. We met with Yiwei to tell us more about growing up in China, what they hope to convey through their practice, and unexpected sources of inspiration.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
It’s hard to say there’s a moment making me an artist until 2019 the idea of being an artist become much determined, but I acutally thought myself an artist when I was 10 years old very naively and boldly because of the passion of making drawings and paintings 🙂
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I’m from China. Like many Chinese students, my upbringing was ordinary and busy with studies. But during this mundane experience, drawing took up almost all of my free time, especially when I was little, and my favorite thing to do was draw on the back of grandpa’s used design draft papers. My family is not engaged in the art industry, but they are very supportive of me. My father used to take me to the lake side during weekends to draw the landscapes. They also took me to visit many places and encouraged me to draw from these experiences and memories. Then I grow up, I did fashion design at Donghua University in Shanghai, considering to be a designer, but my childhood feelings and love for drawing have always remained in my heart, I need to do something that more related to drawing. I changed the major to Illustration and went to Camberwell in London. After few years working as an illustrator, I applied for the Royal Drawing School and spend a really unforgettable and impressed year (actually more than a year because of the pandemic ). I always wanted to be an artist when I was a child, even though many depressing and negative voices from the outside caused me took many detours. However, I am very glad that I eventually find the direction.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?
I’ve been living in London for many years, and sometimes still feel like a tourist. I actually really like this kind of feeling because it brings fresh thoughts. I think my artistic journey starts with making sketches of passengers in the underground. I enjoyed using observation and imagination to make connections with strangers without disturbing them. It’s interesting to see that, even people have different background, religions and cultures, we still have many things in common. It feels so far away and yet very close to. Landscapes are also part of my subject matter in my practise and recently it become my main subject to explore. And I’m still working on finding the freshness and the unknown in the ordinary. If there’s a pivotal moment in my practise, I would say the experience of making nocturnal drawings have big impact on my practise. Colours, lights, shadows weaving together and form a place, even I really familiar with, very strange and full of space that could evoke imagination, I always find new feeling from this, and would bring this elements to none nocturnal artworks too.
What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?
To convey the feeling of strangeness in common life
I would describe my aesthetic as unsettled and mysterious.
Who/what are your greatest influences?
There are many artist’s artworks I find very inspiring to look at in particular. Such as Pierre Bonnard, Edvard Munch, Zhang Daqian, Guan Zilan, David Hockeny, Tom Hammick and many more.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
Resonance with familiar but unknown feelings. I don’t have particular audience in mind.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic?
My aesthetic is constantly being changing so far, and the experience of studying at Royal Drawing School really helped me with exploring my colour palette. I treat colours as illusions and experiment them with instinct.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?
Keeping an open mind throughout the process of making work. If there’s something goes to a direction, I feel uncomfortable with, I’ll try to find a different way to look at the work, like rotating the paper, to have a fresh vision of it. So, it is important to me to keep the sense of freshness while making the work. It’s hard to say the artwork will be a “good” one personally but at least it’s the basic condition.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
“Trees are words, Light is writing distance.” By Adunis
The poem reminds me the experience of walking in a forest in a sunny day, and I was looking up to the sky, but the trees were too dense, the tree tops and leaves covered up the sky and the sunlight broke through the gaps of leaves and fall on my eyes. Shapes of the light spot changed and shifted while I was moving. I’d like to transfer this piece of ambiguous memory into artworks, and the outcome could be the experience behind the artwork, and could also have other answers depend on different feelings.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I’d like to explore more about shape, form and colour in my practise recently and in the nearly future.