Ni Youyu working in his studio in Shanghai, 2013     Photo: Shasha Liu

Ni Youyu: An Introduction

Ni Youyu is not just an artist; he is an observer, a researcher and a collector. In his spacious, industrial Shanghai studio, one encounters antique shards of ceramics, curious objects found in flea markets, stacks of notebooks and works in progress. Commonly overlooked found objects, many of which the artist discovered while traveling, are scattered around the room.

Ni often draws from this array to create his installations, as he builds connections among previously unrelated pieces. Sometimes he keeps the objects in their initial, frequently broken state; other times he repairs or alters them. He often makes work through a process of deduction, creating new things by destroying others. These two conceptual threads – juxtaposition and generation by removal – run through his diverse practice and form its unique methodology.

Ni strives to create a space where ideas historical and contemporary can intersect. Educated in traditional Chinese ink-wash painting (a style involving ink applied to rice paper or silk, often in scroll form), he draws from the rich and deep traditions of Song (960-1279AD) and Yuan (1271-1368AD) Dynasty ink paintings, when the ancient artists pursued the unity between man and nature within the limited space of paintings. The Song and Yuan pieces emphasized the sense of historical grandeur and rationality, making a strong impression aesthetically with their precise of brush strokes. Following Chinese tradition, Ni studies and emulates the work of old Chinese masters as a daily ritual. However, he does not simply mimic these ancient artworks in his own work. Rather, he immerses himself in them to extract their essence and purposely does not include ink paintings on paper in his own work. Ni’s practice is equally informed by post-1960s conceptual art, such as the Italian modern art movement Arte Povera (1967-1972), where a group of artists attempted to break down the barrier between art and life mainly through the creation of artworks made from everyday materials.

Zilch (2013), made from found objects, involves 100 small pieces of damaged and eroded relics of Chinese figurative sculptures of people, Buddha and animals, dating from the North Song (960-1127AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912AD) that Ni collected on research trips over several years. After making molds from these ancient pieces, the artist cast soap sculptures from them. Exhibited as though they are artifacts, the sculptures juxtapose the temporality of soap with the lifespan of hard stone antiquities. In doing so, they raise questions about change and permanency, exposing both materials’ essential fragility.  

Ni Youyu, Zilch, 2013, 100 soap sculptures    copyright: Ni Youyu  courtesy: Ni Youyu

As part of the work, viewers are invited to become participants and “adopt” one piece of the soap, which they are free to use however they like. In exchange, they are asked to submit a photo of the object in their home. Their treatment of the soap becomes a reflection of their understanding of the sculpture’s function and its status as both a utilitarian and an aesthetic object.

Despite his lack of formal training in Western oil painting, Ni considers the medium an important element of his artistic practice. Working outside of academic restrictions or formal limitations, he has developed his own, unique method. Ni’s initial motivation for painting grew out of not having enough resources early in his career to realize his ideas for installations; he would meticulously draw these ideas on paper and later began experimenting with painting them. Though he approached his first painting as a preparatory sketch, he felt such an overwhelming sense of satisfaction upon completing it that he decided painting should become an essential part of his practice.

Since 2011, Ni has been working on a series of paintings that exclusively use black matte and gold paint. Inspired by paintings from the Song dynasty and historical Japanese screen paintings’ sense of history, their color combinations and the precision of the brush strokes, Ni chose these colors in order to create a concrete yet illusionary visual effect. The contract of the gold semi-gloss against the black matte yields a contradictory quality, lending each scene a realistic yet dream-like aura.

Hoping to avoid solid lines, Ni developed a special method that uses pressurized water to wash away layers of paint. For each painting, he repeats this process several times; the result is a surface that appears worn, as though eroded by time. This effect is a similar to the visual device used in Song and Yuan Dynasty ink paintings. Ni creates scenes of waterfalls, landslides and flood-damaged landscapes by applying water to the painting’s surface. This interaction – between water both represented and actual – imbues the work with a sense of ingenuity and contradiction.

Song Dynasty inkwash painting in detail

Song Dynasty inkwash painting in detail

Ni Youyu, Big Waterfall II (detail)

Ni Youyu, Big Waterfall II (detail)

Ni’s work Galaxy (2008- ) re-examines and critiques the trend of costly large-scale art productions that may be impressive but possess little meaning or content. In Chinese, the phrase “to pound the money” refers to spending a large amount of money without giving it much thought. Ni physically enacts this saying, repeatedly hammering coins he has collected from around the world until their surfaces are flat enough to paint on.

Building upon his preexisting interest in miniature painting, Ni trained himself to draw ink paintings on the coins, which he flattens to approximately one inch in diameter. As though representing “a galaxy of human knowledge,” these paintings depict a range of subjects, from landscapes to anatomy. This project furthers Ni’s exploration of the relationship between deduction and addition. In destroying the coins’ surfaces, he removes their monetary value. However, this process of destruction is also generative: it transforms the coins into art objects, endowing them with a new value within the art market.

Ni Youyu, Galaxy, 2008 - 2012, Installation view   copyright: Ni Youyu  courtesy: Ni Youyu

Ni Youyu, Galaxy, 2008 - 2012, Installation view  copyright: Ni Youyu  courtesy: Ni Youyu

Ni Youyu, Galaxy (detail)    copyright: Ni Youyu  courtesy: Ni Youyu

Ni Youyu, Galaxy (detail)   copyright: Ni Youyu  courtesy: Ni Youyu

Ni subscribes to the Chinese idiom that “constant dripping wears away a stone,” and this sentiment can be applied to the development of his practice. With each work, he continues to slowly build his conceptual system, wary of rushing its progress. His stacks of notebooks contain many more ideas and drafts for installations than he is capable of producing. He can realize only a few carefully chosen ideas each year; some may have been conceived years earlier. This lag gives the artist time and allows him to reflect. This consciously chosen working method lets Ni produce slowly, as he refuses to be seduced by his own ideas or to produce to meet the demands of a hot art market. The inherent labor-intensive quality of his artworks requires the artist’s full attention and repetitive action. Ni often gets into a deep meditative state while in the process of creation, lending these works a sense of ease and grace, making his artistic practice an effortless endeavor. 


Shasha Liu  刘莎莎

12/2013 Beijing


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