The following interview took place at Newcastle Contemporary Art (NCA), where Christie Chan spoke with Canada-based Chinese artist Kejie Lin and curator Yuluo Anita Wei about Lin’s latest solo exhibition, The Mind’s Garden. Presented as a collaboration between NCA and the Confucius Institute at Newcastle University, the exhibition featured a collection of Lin’s paintings. These paintings are executed in gongbi style, a traditional Chinese painting technique characterised by realism, meticulous brushwork, and the multi-layered application of ink and colour. Ruojuan Zheng, the director of the Confucius Institute, joined to share a few words as the conversation concluded.
Christie Chan [CC] I’m enjoying the rhythm of how the paintings are displayed. It’s harmonious, and I like how they are sufficiently spaced out to give viewers ‘breathing room’. Yuluo, could you tell me how you approached the curation of this exhibition?
Yuluo Anita Wei [YW] This was my first time curating an exhibition from a distance (from Canada), coordinating everything digitally. Initially, we didn’t know what the space looked like in real life. Using the floorplan and dimensions of the space we had, we played it safe with our work selection. There was a collection of paintings that we really wanted to display. We started by including some of the more recent works. The wall at the back showcases pieces that exemplify more traditional skills and Kejie’s earlier painting practice, contextualising her journey from the past to the present. And yes, we intentionally left adequate space in between the works, which vary in sizes and shapes.
[CC] I understand that the scenes portrayed in these paintings draw inspiration from Kejie’s own garden. I’m curious to know more about the visual translation process. How do you go about selecting the scenes you depict, and how do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Kejie Lin [KL] I’ve had a long career as a landscape designer. This experience has nurtured my love for a diverse array of flowers and plants, which I spend so much time observing. In the process of developing my painting style, I have taken reference from those observations and incorporated concepts from my garden designs. As a professional landscape designer, I make gardens intended for individuals to physically relax and immerse themselves in. However, using my paintbrush, my aim is to visualise the ideal garden in my mind – one capable of showing the exuberance of flora, the shifts of seasons, and the natural cycle of life, growth, and eventual renewal. Personally, I find such nature and symbolic significance of plants to be especially moving.
My visual translation process entails a great deal of subjective decision-making. Usually, I approach this in two ways: firstly, by depicting the subject in its full form at the pinnacle of its vitality; alternatively, I select close-up views of the plants for my composition. For example, while working on ‘The Light of the Setting Sun’, I was deeply moved by the imagery before my eyes – a withering palm tree, embodying the cyclic essence of life, basking in twilight’s glow. I decided to paint the tree in a golden yellow tone and in close-up. I painted it against a dark background because I wanted to emphasise the vibrancy that the tree radiated despite its impending mortality.
[CC] How do you see the representation of nature in your artwork as a reflection of your personal experiences or perspectives?
[KL] I perceive myself as somewhat of a pessimist. There are instances when life’s disappointments can weigh heavily on us. As these frustrations accrue, they can take a toll on our mental wellbeing. It becomes necessary for us to discover an outlet for these negative emotions. Somehow, I have managed to discover a form of self-healing through plants. This is why plants recur as a thematic element in my paintings.
[CC] There are two major styles of traditional Chinese painting, gongbi and xieyi1. Kejie, you specialise in the former. As opposed to the more expressive and freehanded nature of xieyi, what about gongbi appeals to you as a way of creative expression?
[KL] To me, good gongbi paintings should also exhibit attributes akin to xieyi paintings. They should convey the spirit of the subject rather than merely replicate reality. I often begin my painting process by creating drafts that reflect expressive qualities similar to xieyi. Then, I apply fine brush lines over these drafts to outline the contours and details of my botanical subjects. This is followed by adding washes of ink and colour, layer upon layer. Between adding layers of colour, it’s important to wait for each previous layer to dry. Using gongbi techniques, I strive to not only express a sense of realism, but also the intrinsic essence of my subjects. In that sense, I prefer the outcomes that I can achieve through gongbi over xieyi. Gongbi paintings are essentially non editable artworks – once your brush touches the paper, that’s the way it stays. A single mistake would necessitate starting the entire painting anew. The creative process demands careful planning and unwavering patience. It’s also never impulsive. I hold an admiration for how gongbi paintings reflect the passage of time – I dedicated an entire year to crafting the piece right behind you! These paintings stand as a testament to the extensive hours I’ve devoted to refining my craft.
[CC] We live in a time when technology often enables the rapid and industrialised production of artistic images. Do you think the slow and meticulous process inherent to gongbi can be appreciated as a countering influence?
[KL] Absolutely. I have come across many artworks that are produced under ‘fast consumer culture’, fleeting like fireworks. While I wouldn’t dismiss the necessity of this kind of culture, I don’t think it necessarily aligns with everyone’s needs. We live in a society with diverse cultural needs, and I believe there will always be those who resonate with a more measured approach to art creation. My take is that it’s important to maintain a balance between these needs.
[CC] Between abiding by traditions and innovating for contemporary relevance, do you find one aspect to be more significant than the other in your creative practice?
[KL] In this phase of my painting journey, I find myself inclined towards the preservation of gongbi traditions. While my thoughts and concepts may have a contemporary flair, I opt to convey them through the traditional techniques of gongbi. Particularly when exhibiting abroad, where the audience might be less acquainted with gongbi, I am especially eager to present works that encapsulate the traditions and historical evolution of gongbi. However, I’m reluctant to restrict myself to a specific creative path. I engage in various creative expressions simultaneously. While I focus on gongbi-style painting, I also find myself experimenting with conceptual art ideas through other mediums like ceramics, sculpture, and installation. That being said, regardless of the medium I work with, the ethos of gongbi will remain an essential bedrock of my creative practice. I try my best to innovate within these traditions, thereby sustaining the traditional craft. As a Chinese artist, I view it as my duty to pass down this historic art form.
[CC] Both of you, Kejie and Yuluo, are based in Canada. Is there anything specific that brought you here to Newcastle?
[KL] This chance came about thanks to the Confucius Institute at Newcastle University, which works to promote Chinese arts and culture. They wanted to organise a contemporary gongbi exhibition, a genre they hadn’t featured before. Prof. Ruojuan Zheng, the Director of the Confucius Institute, happened to have seen my work in a previous exhibition and liked it. She facilitated this exhibition by connecting me with the Confucius Institute at Newcastle University. They were enthusiastic about the idea of exhibiting my work, so they extended an invitation for me to showcase my art here.
[CC] How have you found working in Newcastle?
[YW] Newcastle is lovely. People here are lovely and friendly. On the install day, some of the NCA staff stayed late beyond normal work hours to help us adjust the lighting. We’d love to work with them again should there be opportunities in the future. Prof. Zheng has been a lovely host, she showed us around the markets, the shopping mall, took us to the quayside and also the BALTIC.
[CC] Speaking of the audience, were there any aspects of the audience’s response that caught you by surprise?
[KL] I met this old lady the other day who showed great appreciation for art. But what surprised me was her knowledge of gongbi as well. She noted how my style was a departure from the more conventional styles. She saw the innovation in my work, and told me that she had an interest in East Asian art. When exhibiting abroad, we don’t always get to meet viewers like her. This encounter in Newcastle made my day.
[YW] At the opening, there was also a gentleman who spoke to us, he said ‘I’m not an artist, but I’m also a human…’
[KL] Yeah, I was genuinely touched by his kind words. He told us he was no artist, but on a human level we could find connection through human emotions and a mutual love of beauty. Hearing his words, I feel like I’ve achieved one of my goals as an artist. Through my art, I’ve always wanted to show the beauty of life in a way which can hopefully be comforting to people, and inspire others to live their lives with passion. I hope my art can be therapeutic to engage with.
[CC] Based on your experience, would you say exhibition opportunities with a focus on cross-cultural exchange are easy to come by?
[YW] Oftentimes, these exchanges are confined by boundaries of nations, within a closed circle of institutions, curators, art dealers, collectors, and artists operating within the same region. For instance, breaking out of Canada’s arts scene to exhibit in the US or other countries isn’t a straightforward process for artists. Of course, there are logistical and economical challenges behind this. So, any opportunity to be able to work on art projects internationally is precious and therefore highly desirable.
[CC] How do you see this exhibition contributing to a broader dialogue within the arts, especially in terms of cross-cultural exchange?
[KL] As someone with Chinese roots, I’m eager to share my cultural heritage with people worldwide. Genuine open-mindedness comes from actively seeking understanding. In China, international art exchanges are not yet commonplace. China could benefit from being more open in this regard. I believe that the rich and extensive cultural heritage of Chinese art deserves greater public attention. I’m thankful to the Confucius Institute at Newcastle University for providing this platform to showcase my work and introduce those unfamiliar with gongbi to my art.
[CC] Prof. Zheng, would you like to join us and say a few words?
Ruojuan Zheng [RZ] Sure! For the Confucius Institute, I think the major objective is to promote Chinese language learning. We also aim to help local residents in Newcastle to understand more about Chinese culture. I think art has the ability to transcend boundaries, cultures and languages, and I would love to introduce all kinds of Chinese arts and culture to the local community.
This interview was conducted in both English and Chinese. The Chinese content in this conversation was translated into English by Christie Chan.
The Mind’s Garden was on show at Newcastle Contemporary Art from 24 August to 31 August 2023.
Christie Yung-hei Chan is a curator, writer and artist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently based in Newcastle.
 Xieyi is a traditional Chinese painting style distinguished by loose brushwork and expressiveness. It places emphasis on personality and the semblance of spiritual characteristics rather than physical likeness.