On the Value Orientation of the Logical Construction of Concepts in Contemporary Art Creation with Ni Weihua’s Tracing Series:

I. A keen sense of pioneer 

Tracing Series, recently created by Ni Weihua, a “veteran emerging artist”, is quite thought-provoking.

With nearly 30-year history of art creation, he is almost a witness and participant embarrassingly existed in the chaos of contemporary art. The ups and downs are only the clearest in his heart. Today, contemporary art is almost a vassal of the market, and various art schools claim their own so-called artistic highland and occupy the whole media. Since Arthur C. Danto’s announcement of the end of art, it seems that there is no taboo in solemn discussion of art. Worse still, traditional painting seems more like a clown in the art world which in fact has long been dead in the hearts of contemporary artists.

Like most artists, Ni Weihua chose painting as the starting point of his art journey. Since the earliest New Representation, a solo painting exhibition in 1989, he turned to larger visual art categories such as installations and conceptual photography. Particularly, art creations like Continuously Diffused Situation, Keywords, Scenic Wall and many other made him ride the waves of avant-garde art. Being among the first avant-garde artists who responded to digitalization, criticized consumerism, postmodernism and popular culture through their works, and engaged social space and image politics, why does he go back to painting?

Personally, this is the result of constructing the artistic conceptual logic of cross-individualization [1], and also his re-criticism of the current chaotic contemporary art.

After nearly 40 years of development, Chinese contemporary art has achieved remarkable results. However, since we have not walked the complete path of ideas, values and art of the western modernity, the development of contemporary art is too fragmented. This makes the transformation stage of modernity appear extremely uneven and complicated.

However, the author believes that there are infinite possibilities, be it traditional shelf painting or various schools of the contemporary art. All are left with the mind space and value orientation for extension. As Beuys said, “Today is not the same as tomorrow, and we must always observe it.” [2]

A keen observation of the changes of the times is a reflection of one’s thoughts, which reveals the viewing mechanism and conceptual logic of each individual. Painting must also come out from the metapicture. “The understanding of painting is no longer limited to the medium or form or at a simple conceptual level. It should further be extended to the viewing, visual, cognitive and institutional dimensions for systematic observation,” said Lu Mingjun, “it in some sense even determines our understanding of the painting itself and the depth and height of personal practice.” [3]

II. Logical construction of concepts

Art is free, and especially the creation of art is sensible, which I am deeply aware of. However, the author believes that the stubborn virus of contemporary art lies precisely in the artists and the various subjects and objects circling around art. They are much too sensible and free-minded, to an extent at which few artists really elevate to the cognitive level for an in-depth construction of the inner nature, mind and logic. To a certain extent, it also reflects the “inferiorities” of the Chinese people being undisciplined and cunning.

The avant-garde of contemporary art includes avant-garde in politics, also in aesthetics, ideas, concepts and philosophy, and even pseudo and charlatan avant-garde in the market. But I prefer to appreciate the avant-garde arisen from an artist’s inner heart, or in other words, the construction and breakthrough of artistic logic under the self-knowledge system. It centers around human beings and pursues their essence, that is, the initial and final understanding and questioning of a person’s philosophy of mind.

An artist, in the face of a kaleidoscope-like world, is given countless subjects to learn from. Just as the “little Other” and “big Other” proposed by philosopher Jacques Lacan, there is a need to identify and choose. Such a decision, from the perspective of geography, environment, religion, morality, aesthetics, etc., refers more to the concepts in the inner heart. In other words, it is the creation and pursuit of such things above Waehrende and higher than the time in all the times. Or in the words of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “In the darkness of the moment, perceive the light trying to reach us but cannot make it.”[4]

Ni Weihua’s merits lie in his keenness which starts from real problems, rather than simply borrowing empty philosophical theories. Since the solo painting exhibition of the New Representation in 1989, he has not given up painting. I have almost finished appreciating his works in various stages in his studio. My feeling is that he has a solemn path of thinking and criticism for each stage, which is progressive, changing, transforming and elevating from the perspective of conceptual logic. As he said in the Tracing Series, “This series is a re-extension of my painting experiment dubbed ‘remaining traces’. I try to highlight the interaction between artificial and occasional traces through edge depicting, and popularize the traces of abstract expressionism. In this way, a space is created to ponder between wildness and tranquility, sensibility and rationality, nature and humanity, and instant and eternity.” [5]

In addition, he not only paints for painting’s end, but also integrates his unique thinking in avant-garde art such as installation and conceptual photography into painting, thus exploring an individualized path bursting out of the practices and experience of metapicture. This kind of cross-school perception is different from that of the professional painters in a traditional sense. As he has said, “My paintings focus on anthropology from the perspective of artistic concepts and emphasize the concept that contemporary images are historical pictures. The works use the paper as the basic material, and implant human figures, objects and activity trajectories with contemporary features onto the traces resembling cliff painting, with watercolor, acrylic, ink and other comprehensive materials, and through stacking, covering, scouring, coloring, splashing and other comprehensive techniques. The images created are as if the first that people see after blowing thousands of years of dust and dirt. Through visual archaeology, I try to explore the characteristics, activity trajectories and aesthetic and cultural information of the contemporary people from another dimension.” [6]

An artist who wants to mature in thought will inevitably encounter the dilemma where the inner structure planning, logical interpretation and visual narrative of the self-creation object contradict. It involves the self-contradictions that an artist feels in this world, including the materialized representation of the untouchable visual and cultural phenomena from the perspective of concepts, thoughts, mind and so on so forth. In order to obtain the narrative context and logic construction of self-painting, he goes back to the outdoor painting experience that is common in art history, but like performing utter ancient rituals. As he has said, “Tracing Series is not limited to the research and creation at the studio, but extends to the behavioral practice in social public space. Because, through Tracing outdoor, I hope to explore the dynamic and vivid traces unintentionally drawn by John Does. I also want to seek the interlaced and lively marks organically created by nature.” [7]

Outdoor painting is very common in the art history and there is nothing unusual. However, the author believes that his shuttling in different art categories has helped to form his unique “super-individualized” cultural consciousness. In particular, his thinking pattern of photography and images seems to make us discover another narrative way of outdoor painting. In this regard, I call it a re-individualized painting consciousness formed after emphasizing social intervention.

Take his outdoor creation in Yangpu District, Shanghai as an example. First of all, the painting touches the earth as it is separated from the frame. Secondly, a complex and uncertain relationship is created between the painting and advertising words and graffiti at the demolition site, and even daily traces of nearby residents. A newly created painting may be doodled by passers-by in the next second, and ads may even be posted on. He will then paint again for several times.

During this period, many subjects and objects are constantly altering in time and social landscape, and a series of image markers are constantly overlapping. The traces, like the light effect in photography, flash, flow and even banter as the time goes.

In the dispersion created by this uncertainty, you cannot even know, who is painting, who is watching, who is posting ads, and who is being painted in the end. Everything is difficult to identify. The painting is like a photography scene where there are interventions in all the times but will disappear in no time.

The repetition and engagement of the subjects and objects are like constructing a photography “event”. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “A photo is not just the result of a photographer encounters an event; the photographing itself is an event. In this sense, a photographer is a constantly moving being who passes through a series of different events. As the camera is a sublimation of guns, photographing someone is also a sublimated murder, a soft murder, just for a sad, frightened time. But, photographic evidence can never be, or more precisely, identify an event. The reality needs to be recognized and experience strengthened by photos. This is an aesthetic consumerism which everyone is happy about.” [8]

In summarizing the process of the logical construction of concepts by Ni Weihua, it can be clearly felt that he has extended Foucault’s knowledge archaeology theory to a larger visual and cultural category of visual archaeology through his own practice. This coincides with the research direction of his several friends in the theoretical circle. For example, Professor James Elkins, E.C. Chadbourne Chair of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA. He is a well-known scholar who studies images and visual art. His The Domain of Images and other works have revolutionized the scope and methods of image research. He extends the field of vision to non-artistic images, including science, technology, business, medicine, music, archaeology, etc., thus shifting visual research to non-art fields. Professor Shen Yubing of Fudan University’s School of Philosophy is another example in case. In his latest work Images and Meanings, he focuses on visual archaeology of Jonathan Crary. [9]. Ni Weihua is tacitly connected with them, either in theory or in art practice.

In addition, the author believes that for the path he chooses to break the limits of metapicture, he also explicitly borrows from avant-garde art such as photography. For example, this Tracing Series has formed a multi-interaction between individualized logic and conceptualized logic. It is also a problem-oriented approach that captures the pain of the time, finds social landscape and seeks self-criticism. He pays great attention to visualizing the details that are easily overlooked by ordinary people. It is a kind of fusion and extension of social imagery in creation process. Fundamentally speaking, it is an individual interpretation and social criticism of social image, and also an embodiment of cultural self-consciousness of cross-individualization from the perspective of conceptual logic.

III. Individualization of the traces of the times

The author believes that true contemporary art should be a pioneer of liberation and artistic subversion. It tests the creativity and critical power of a person more than traditional art. However, it is precisely the energy that is extremely lacking in our time. Most people only happily squander in the traditional cynicism and enjoy the existing achievements, rather than breaking the limits and criticizing. We seem to be caught in a context where no one is capable of thinking, and all the “thought planning” is a top-down policy guide. We can only work out multiple-choice and true-or-false questions, but are unable to make our own questions, not to mention pointing out whether the questions themselves are correct or not. This is also one of the resistances of contemporary art in the general environment and thinking world.

Secondly, with the backdrop of an in-depth globalization development and hyper-industrial society, contemporary art is not only a global issue, but also one that is related to individualization. Everyone faces a similar dilemma. It’s just that there has been gaps between China and the West in some aspects of exploration, but the history of art in the world is transparent. How should art develop? The key is not the culture, region and identity to which you belong, but the height, depth and subtlety individualization can reach in the face of new problems and new perplexities.

To this end, in the article Contemporary Art Research on Overseas Chinese Series: The Contemporary Inspiration of “Integrating-Transcending” Theory by the Famous Artist Chen Zhen, I proposed to boldly and decisively put one’s nature in the time of the destiny and the destiny of the time. [10] In fact, for any individual person and work, there are three coordinates of art history needing to be measured. The first is one’s own personal art history from the perspective of ontology. The second is the art history in China from the regional aspect. The last is the art history of the world from the global perspective. The latter two are on the object side compared to the first one. One always measures him/herself with these three coordinate.

This is also why in this article, the author focuses on the construction of individualized conceptual logic. It involves the reference to the first coordinate, that is, how artists summarize and improve their own individualized art history. It is far from being an emotional issue, but inevitably a rigorous, solemn and logical construction of concept. The concept, to put it bluntly, is an issue of thinking. This means that it also involves the issue of the time as to how to create art of thoughts and how to integrate and transcend the thinking itself.

Moreover, the author believes that true contemporary art should not create new idols and authorities, but instead break more authorities, so as to build individualized people, and return the integrity and self-discipline of people in society to the mass.

Some of the early explorers of Chinese contemporary art and the critics of the times have now become the pseudo authorities of the art world, and are thus farther and farther away from the public. In addition, the knowledge structure of these so-called authorities cannot keep up with the times, which is fatal to them. The works of many artists and theorists of the elder generation have become more and more rigid, which is something I have criticized as the distress in thoughts of the pioneers. A large part is due to the knowledge system being too backward to keep up with the times. The context in which young people explore art is also completely different from that of the elder generation. They use utter different concepts, logic, thinking pattern and even the conceptual systems.

The times are changing, and it is definitely fine if you maintain unchanged; however, the history only remembers those who are brave enough to change. We must learn to adapt to all changes and deconstructions, and more importantly, we need to change, reconstruct and even integrate and transcend in a creative fashion.

Ni Weihua is worthy of learning by many contemporary artists precisely at this point. He is an old urchin, but make you feel not a sense of distance though as a senior of contemporary artists. He is extremely keen to new things and concepts. He is also the earliest group of artists I have ever observed to use the app Microlive and engage well with the post-90s and 00s. This is not easy, since it reveals a person’s observation of the time. This is something that many avant-garde artists fail to achieve. Many so-called avant-garde art is just avant-gardes constrained in a small circle bragging to each other. There is a complete absence of freshness and pain in the era of change. The Tracing series once again makes us deeply understand the sadness and real dilemma of our time.

In summary, Ni Weihua is a keen observer of the times. In his 30 years of contemporary art creation, he has always maintained a sharpness of criticism, which is commendable. His logical construction path and approach of his artistic concepts also seem to provide a medium of thinking for the creation of contemporary art.

Today, the art is more and more caught in the quagmire of chaos. The cultural self-consciousness and freedom of cross-individualization are of extremely importance, since it represents a new critical force of action, not just the visualization of art. It is hopeless to sink and corrupt and walk into the endless campaign of visual bragging and flattering in the era of visualization. As Bernard Stiegler said, “Criticism is the analysis of what is resisted, whether it should be resisted, and what is internalized (if it must be accepted). We think what need to be analyzed and criticized are the various Waehrende mechanisms.” [11] To put it simply, the so-called avant-garde art is a Waehrende of the individualized traces of the times.

Pei Manyi (young scholar, artist and poet)

   Completed at the College of Fine Arts, East Normal University, Shanghai



[1] [French] Bernard Stiegler, The Art in the Era of Human, translated by Lu Xinghua. Chongqing: Chongqing University Press, first edition, November 2016, p. 60. (texts in Chinese)

[2] [German] Volker Harlan, What Is Art?: Conversations With Joseph Beuys, translated by Han Zizhong. Beijing: The Commercial Press, first edition, June 2017, p. 104. (texts in Chinese)

[3] Lu Mingjun, On the Painting of Painting: An Artistic Mechanism and Universal Cognition. Zhengzhou: Henan University Press, first edition, February 2015, p. 18. (texts in Chinese)

[4] [Italian] Giorgio Agamben, On Friends of Love: What are Contemporaries, translated by Liu Yaohui and Wei Guangji. Beijing: Peking University Press, March 2017, first edition, p. 70. (texts in Chinese)

[5], [6], [7] Ni Weihua, Ni Weihua’s Recount of His Works, yet to be published. (texts in Chinese)

[8] [US] Susan Sontag, On Photography, translated by Huang Canran. Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, first edition, October 2012, pp. 9-23. (texts in Chinese)

[9] Shen Yubing, Images and Meanings: British-American History of Modern Art. Shanghai: The Commercial Press, first edition, September 2019, p. 301. (texts in Chinese)

[10] Pei Manyi, Contemporary Art Research on Overseas Chinese Series: The Contemporary Inspiration of “Integrating-Transcending” Theory by the Famous Artist Chen Zhen, available at: (texts in Chinese)

[11] [French] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, translated by Fang Erping. Nanjing: Yilin Press, first edition, May 2012, p. 206. (texts in Chinese)