Interview |Qin Yifeng: Negatives, Contradictions, and Deceptiveness

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Interlocutors: Qin Yifeng, Wang Xingwei, Xiao Kaiyu, Zhang Li
Editor: Magician Space Research Department

Xiao: These negative works of Qin Yifeng are related to his early abstract paintings, which are all about compressing three-dimensional relationships into two-dimensional ones. So before talking about negatives, let me talk about some context: in the generation of Qin’s teacher (Yu Youhan), there were already many abstract artists. I think their works all have a threadlike relationship, or rather like textiles, the relationship of how cloth creates patterns. My instinct is that this has something to do with the textile factories in Shanghai. Some artists even regard the workshops of the textile factories as their studios. I’m not saying that the work at textile factories directly influenced the mode of thinking of artists, but rather than being able to pick their interests from Western art museum, using the horizontal realization process of the loom is more natural as a background with a sense of sociality. There was an abstract period in Europe and an abstract period in the United States. Their tasks have been completed today. If Chinese artists wish to sell their lives here, it is unreasonable not to have other ambitions and new resources. To achieve this, a critic like Clement Greenberg is needed. This person would make critical arguments, either a general one or the more difficult separate ones. Thus, how artists make their own work into a system is the most important thing.


Returning to Qin Yifeng’s current work, he doesn’t aim to present living phenomena, but wants to shoot dead and broken furniture fragments. He wants to achieve the goal he set: to eliminate the space and object depth formed by photographic techniques. This is the concept that could automatically generate and extend the procedure: to abolish any possible result of technical means. Once this concept is formed, it will gradually eradicate all the corresponding technical and object traces along the starting point, which will determine the work at each step. This includes eliminating three-dimensional, perspective relationships and materiality, approaching the end step by step.


Thus, his work is a kind of conceptual perfection, what he obtains is an image that almost entirely eliminates the object with only a little hint. The image would frame a remnant of Ming-style furniture to its greatest extent. We can’t just ask to see the realization of the ultimate goal, but this less-than-perfect work itself is the meaning itself. This unachievable goal may conceal some other meanings that are more in harmony with Qin’s initial thoughts.


Speaking of the sublimation meaning of these negative works, we can’t skip the specific targets for each stage of Qin’s work. To put it bluntly, it is not an empty philosophical concept but the techniques to achieve a reverse point to the negative in photography. Only work itself is practical and concrete, no stage is more important (than others), just like every step in life is equally important till we die. Seeing the step-by-step shooting process in the exhibition space can move people.


Wang: From concept setting to elimination, there will be an infinite elimination in the end. However, the goal set by Qin Yifeng is actually impossible to achieve. Because he chose wood, not a piece of white paper, which can evenly disappear in the background; this is a typical idea of conceptual art.


Qin Yifeng’s choice of wood is actually to make the work difficult, and he will never reach the conceptual end, or rather, he avoids realizing it from the beginning. Moreover, the objects he chooses are not universal, and contemporary art generally chooses more generic things such as a normal cup, white paper, and cement. Qin Yifeng chose Ming-style minimalist furniture parts, which is a very professional field. It is not the most suitable object for conceptualisation. I think it distinguishes a lot of things.


In some of his exhibitions, we can’t tell his real intention from the photos. (This is) because the commonly recognised photos are the reverse of his. His photos are actually negatives. Only by comparing the film and the photos on the spot can we know what the original fact is. The original fact is that his photos were direct outputs without conversion.


Zhang: (For) this batch of negatives, (you) can feel the result orientation produced by a setting, and the whole process shows the pursuit of results. We can’t simply enter from the perspective of photography since it has a strong conceptual setting. But I thought again, Mr. Qin may be creating an illusion. As an artist, he still has freedom under this setting. Just now Xingwei said that (he) chose a goal that cannot be achieved, which shows that he is not trying to achieve the goal desperately, but that this itself is deceptive. Many things are only in the process, but not in the result.


Another point is that the importance of the negative is not only to provide images, but also to serve as a real object. The negative film has a direct physical and temporal relationship with the object it shoots.


Wang: That is to say, negatives are unique, and photography is not unique. This strictly corresponds to the evidence of time and space. The negative is the only thing that occurs at the same time. Although it is visually indistinguishable, it will not be the same in one more second.


Qin: Yes, it will be gone in one second. In fact, this is a difficult part of my work: yesterday’s experience can only be used as a reference, and tomorrow is a completely new situation. It is difficult for me to achieve the same effect. There is a strong uncertainty in shooting, but I can’t rely on luck for work, so I take a lot of shooting notes. I look like a scientist, but (this practice) is not scientific. What I can do is to get as close to the goal as possible, so I keep recording things when I am working: observing the weather, measuring light, calculating time, and having to consider previous experience, the whole process is very hectic.


When it comes to my work, since I’m not doing photography, I don’t need to practice with a 135 camera. I went straight into working with large format cameras. What I wanted was the density and information that a large format camera could retain after everything was eliminated; I also experimented with all types of films in the process, and the Delta 100 I am using now can guarantee the best information and the finest grain. I use the best camera and film for capturing information and make objects disappear. This is the premise of my work. I do not wish to resonate with the audience immediately since I am not talking about an everyday experience. Mr. Yu (Yu Youhan) saw my abstract paintings before, and his first reaction was that it was the unity of opposites, and I thought there was something wrong with it.


Wang: If you use a low resolution camera, the opposites will unite, right? The information inside quickly became indistinguishable.


Qin: Yes, so I am constantly strengthening the contradictory relationship. The contradictions in it are gradually layered. The dark space in this exhibition gave me another inspiration: the audience sees my work as dark, and the space is also dark, but my work is actually a strong exposure, the light I see, the darkness of this light creates an upside-down reading with the darkness of the space, which is deceptive. Some people think that my works are (about) Zen and silence, but this palette is not the concept of emotional appeal to me. I don’t want to express the achievements of thought in history, I want to express my thoughts with my own life.


I think my work is like a rope, in a seemingly immobile, static state. But in fact, the two ends are pulling violently. I don’t particularly care about the grayscale in the works, I care more about it being something that doesn’t exist. How can the camera capture something that doesn’t exist? Contradictions are what I care about. Sometimes art can’t be done in the right way. My job is to deceive, but not to be superficially fake.


Xiao: A friend of mine who writes novels studies physics. He saw your exhibition and said that the real method is quantum mechanics, but he also said that all science is actually deceptive. The only thing is that it uses formulae to convince people. Your ideal level is actually caused by density, which requires a technical parameter ratio plus luck, or seeing luck as a parameter. Thus, the final goal is actually caused by a kind of stability, and each stage has the best effect. This effect is the result of setting, but it is interesting to achieve unexpected effects in the process of moving towards the goal. The goal is not an accident or a realm.


Wang: Sometimes the path of art becomes more and more subtle, and the driving force does not come entirely from theoretical goals. Whether the theoretical goal may be an active assumption, or whether the specific difficulty of each stage has created new interests, the process of overcoming difficulties may go beyond this logic. At the same time, you must also be able to test the interim results, or re-test the previous results.


Qin: Yes, there must be a possibility in the process, otherwise it will not work. I look forward to the unknown results brought about by technology. This is different from painting. I think that painting is basically under control. Although there are accidents, there will not be too many deviations. The shooting situation is that after I press the shutter, I can only know its condition after it is developed; I once tried all the lenses in a camera shop, and this alone took a long time. I showed the photos I took to the shop owner and asked him to change the lens for me. The boss said that if you continue to shoot like this, it will not be good, because the photos have no contrast between light and dark. In order to help me, he even let me try various lenses for free, and gave me sketches to explain the principles of optics. Many years later, he gave me a lens that was returned to him by someone else. I went back and tried it, and found that this lens is what I want. I don’t know what will happen in this process. Only I am sensitive to this difference and difficulty, and the audience must slowly adapt (to it). I have a photography teacher who taught me the standards of photography at the beginning. In 2021, he came to see my works in the stage of eliminating materiality and said that this time it was a challenge for the retina. That’s when I knew he understood my criteria.


Xiao: So, the fact that the black and white of the negative film is reversed is itself meaningful. People have visual habits. Even if you clearly explain that this is a negative film, you still feel that white is white and black is black. It reminds us that this inertia is so powerful. Even though we have already said that it is a negative, our first instinct is to understand it with inertia.


Zhang: The deceptiveness of the work sometimes also lies in the fact that the things that are photographed are not familiar objects in daily life. If it is a portrait, we can recognise it immediately when it becomes a negative, but if you choose a table board, even if we recognize that it is the grain of wood, because it is the opposite, it will produce a sense of uncertainty and weirdness. On the contrary, the audience will judge that the details of the texture are the strokes of the painting, like an abstract painting.


There have been discussions about painting, and it was believed that the essence of painting is two-dimensional, and three-dimensional is a type of deception. In fact, our life experience is established in the process of recognizing reality, and babies do not have this visual system. So, it is indeed a great ambition, or a very successful invention, to introduce three-dimensionality into the plane in painting. If reconsidered today, we find that it fundamentally changed painting, but it may also be a deception away from something more essential or original.


Wang: Now when we look at a work, we often need to identify the motivation for creation. For example, Robert Rauschenberg’s whiteness is different from the minimalist whiteness in terms of motives. This requires us to identify it from the artist’s confession. Qin Yifeng actually provided some descriptions, but although his work has a theoretical goal, the purpose of the process may not remain the same. Setting goals may be for the immediate step, not really for the end. Each stage is to mobilise the resources that can be mobilised at the moment, and there are different possibilities in it.


Zhang: I have visited Mr. Qin’s studio. In fact, according to his equipment, darkroom and operating procedures, he is a fundamentalist in terms of photography. He uses the most standard exposure and development conditions, which means that he does not want to breakthrough in these places. In fact, there are many possibilities in each stage of photography, but Qin’s approach is the opposite. He wants to use standard photography procedures to achieve impossible tasks. Of course, the process still pursues certain details and accuracy, which can also reflect the characteristics of the photography medium, but as a result, his works are not the type that is exciting or extremely eye-catching. His uniqueness may lie in his pursuit of forgotten or repressed perceptions at the bottom of the brain, which is a kind of awakening or discovery.


Qin: When I see plain furniture, it is very touching to see that unknown craftsmen hundreds of years ago can achieve this level of exquisiteness. Their basic attitude in doing things is very moving. The lines of these furniture have a change of 1 milliliter or 2 milliliters, or from one end of a table to the other, the edge line looks like freestyle swimming, which is called “straight”. This is different from the industrial straight line.


Thus, when I was working on the book Ming-style Plain Craftsmanship’s Circle and Square Systems, I thought it was not good to use mechanical drawing and sketching to make pictures. Later, I used carpenter’s elastic thread because it has a kind of ambiguity. The size of the four legs of the furniture is also vague, and there will be some slight errors in the production, and it has changed over the centuries. When repairing furniture, carpenters have to make marks, and they will use jade to make a few traces. I also photographed these white lines, which are black on the film.


Wang: Moreover, there are mortise and tenon joints in these furniture, and people usually don’t pay attention to those hidden parts. How the two legs are connected, and how the mortise and tenon joints are made. Qin Yifeng also took some special mortise and tenon joints earlier on (in his career). The combination of furniture is simple, but its tenon and tenon structure is very complicated. I also like furniture, but I am not interested in design. The lines of design and this Ming style interest are two different things.


Qin: Speaking of my experience with these furniture, it is a life: it was originally a tree, the life of the tree must end first, and then various human crafts are carried out. When I choose a subject to shoot, what I pay attention to is its decay process after death.


Wang: You cannot say that plywood is alive or dead. It is the product of a synthetic process.


Qin: Yes, there are worms in some of my furniture. The worms think it is still a tree. They don’t know that this furniture has entered the auction house. The insects are still in their natural purpose. This is the must-have content of the objects I choose. There are different contradictions in the content contained in it. In the end, what I am actually talking about is a problem after the life deceases.


All the things I photograph are in contact with people, whether it is wood or roses. Their existence solves our life problems: trees are made into furniture, roses are plucked and given to lovers. Our viewing of these things is inertial, viewing based on the premise of use. When their functions are completed, what is their relationship with us? Someone looked at my rose and said it looked like a Taihu stone, because he couldn’t see that it was a rose, and he couldn’t find the corresponding concept in his mind.


Zhang: In fact, after the rose petals are rotten or compressed, it is difficult for the naked eye to identify which one is right. When the eyes see the real thing, they no longer have a concept.


Xiao: So, the goal that Qin Yifeng has been pursuing all along, is in the end pointing to a specious state using negatives. This initial, contradictory setting has led to all subsequent successes being ambiguous.


Qin: In the beginning, I wanted to use the camera to flatten objects, which was a bit of a continuation of abstract painting, but it is not a strong concept at that time. I gradually discovered during the process that I had to intensify the conflict and find my own language to talk about things that neither of us had experienced. These languages can only be discovered in the process of studying different technologies at different stages; they cannot be conceived from the beginning. It is like going further and further away on a trip and not going home at the end.


Xiao: But no matter how your technique changes in the end, the traces of depth on the negative will remain at a suggestive level. Perhaps there is only a little bit of light left in the final work, but this light will hint at your complete labor, and this hint is more powerful than the original thing.