Interview by Sherry Wu
Published on September 08, 2021
Pop(Corn) is a section that looks at who’s emerging, or poppin’, in a city, what their perception of local art and pop culture is, and what is currently popping up in their head. Pop(Corn) Trivia ends the interview.
Nimyu is a Tokyo-based Chinese contemporary artist who works across a variety of media, including painting, video, and animation. She received her BFA in Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, and an MFA in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, New York. Her work reflects on our information-driven society and questions the credibility of the information and power structures that surround us, encouraging self-liberation in a saturated digital landscape.
From the moment we met, I felt I have known Nimyu for a very long time, even though we have never seen each other in real life. When Sophie introduced us, she mentioned that we are both from Beijing. I think that’s why we immediately vibed. This interview is more or less a result of our Wechat calls about galleries in 798, digital art, and life in Tokyo. We talked about the galleries that Nimyu liked in Beijing, such as CLC Gallery Venture, SPURS Gallery, Beijing Commune and Galerie Urs Meile etc. We soon discovered that we both enjoy more independent galleries with experimental tendencies. Our common interest in art made this interview a fun experience.
“If one doesn’t force oneself to close one’s eyes, one will eventually see things undeserving of being seen.”
Sherry Wu: Let’s start with your work. You delve into themes of urbanism, gender issues, as well as radioactivity in Japan. How did you get into these issues?
Nimyu: I’ve done a series of artworks to reflect on today’s information-driven society. Maybe it’s because I've experienced migration in different living environments, I’m particularly sensitive to information censorship. The same information can be presented in totally different ways because of the media discrepancy in different places. My goal was to make people rethink about the credibility of the information distributed around us. At the same time, I hope my work increases people’s awareness of systemic power structures, and for people to reflect on what it means to “release oneself in a saturated digital environment.” All the themes I’m interested in are taken from the absurdity of contemporary life, and that’s what I wish to convey in my work. Still, I’m more interested in the cause rather than the development of an event. In other words, I want to investigate the essence of a phenomenon more than the phenomenon itself. In Unclear Wave, nobody knows the absolute truth. Regardless, I wish to get closer to that truth…
S.W.: In your artist statement, you mention the concept of digital saturation. How do you personally deal with information overload?
N.: This is a tricky question. As Rene Char said, “if one doesn’t force oneself to close one’s eyes, one will eventually see things undeserving of being seen.” It’s difficult for people to contain themselves with so much information explosion and overload. For me, other than keeping the habit of checking daily news, it’s crucial to also keep the habit of reading physical books. I’ve been trying to reject viewing fragmented and meaningless information. I found ways to filter unnecessary information: for instance, setting your phone as black and white mode and setting a time limit on your phone applications.
“Images are always novel because they have history.”
S.W.: How would you describe the act of creating in the digital age?
N.: I recently finished Vie et mort de l'image: Une histoire du regard en Occident by French author and philosopher Régis Debray, and there is a passage I found interesting. It roughly translates to:
“Images are always novel because they have history. Although the so-called ‘new’ mechanical images are only new because they are oblivious of the body and fear, it’s difficult for them to pass on, to have any physical content, and to live on despite the influence of technological update. Because mechanical images lack emotional values, they’ll soon retire to a piece of document, capable of only telling their own generation yet not able to reflect any other, and disappear in the ocean of visual and auditory advances. In other words, mechanical images cannot exist beyond their generation; But those what we call them images of art, they’ve achieved that level of excellence because they have awakened in us the vibrations of history (or the estranged feelings of reptiles that are remnants of our ancestors in our brains).”
I do not agree with the complete negation of new images, but these words made me reflect on the qualities of an image: what kind of image can “awaken in us the vibrations of history (or the estranged feelings of reptiles that are remnants of our ancestors in our brains)?” Can my art surpass my own generation and work regardless of by then outdated technology?
“Also it's good that with the blockchain technology, artists don't have to worry about the authenticity and uniqueness of their work to be replaced.”
S.W.: What do you think of the recent surge towards digital art, powered by blockchain? Would you consider doing NFTs? Do you think Japan is becoming a hub for NFTs?
N.: Yes I’m considering doing NFTs, partly because there were partners from China and America who contacted me for exhibiting and trading NFTs. At the beginning I became interested in NFT because of Club House and Wechat (the Chinese social media) — there have always been conflicts between the copyright and the spreading of New Media art, so I have been keen on the technology of encrypting copyright. Recently I received an invitation from the Tokyo-based company Starbahn, to use their “Cert.” digital certificate for free. I think it would be great to have transparency in the buying and selling of artworks and to be able to enforce rules and regulations. Also it's good that with the blockchain technology, artists don't have to worry about the authenticity and uniqueness of their work to be replaced. I hope that Startbahn will soon get involved in the NFT market so that fine art can have their own blockchain platform for trading. After the hype fades, more and more artists and art institutions join this revolution — this will be a great push for collecting digital art.
“If an artist wants to be based in Tokyo, I think it’s a good idea to come and study Art and Japanese first. It will help you fit in better.”
S.W.: Technology goes hand-in-hand with travel. You have a very international background. You are active in the Tokyo art scene now, but before that, you were based in Beijing and New York too. What do you think about Tokyo's art scene? What's missing? What's exciting about it? How does it compare to New York and Beijing?
N.: Tokyo is a very international and fast-paced city. Take the art scene as an example: there are many well-rounded exhibitions, both big and small scales. In China, the US, or Europe, exhibitions hosted by galleries usually last up to one month. But in Japan, they only last up to about two weeks, which is half of the duration. This is not easy on galleries and artists – it means less time for recommending to potential buyers, less time for media coverage, and less time for public viewing. Everything is compressed. Meanwhile, there is more pressure on us - people who work in the art world - when the workload is twice the size.
Besides, the pop culture and subculture in Japan is very mature, which can be a very heavy burden on the art world. Such circumstances influence the public’s need and taste for art. Artists create in direct response to commercial tendencies, under the influence of highly developed pop culture. For instance, artists might have a more steady income when collaborating with fashion brands, but this is demanding and takes up creative energy. Reversely, creating Fine Art devoid of commercial intentions is more difficult because of the waning of its own market.
S.W.: As a Chinese artist based in Tokyo, how long did it take you to find your place in the art scene and what advice do you have for young artists who want to follow in your footsteps?
N.: When I first came to Japan, I spent all my time learning the language and fitting in. At the time I didn’t have any art connections in Tokyo and my contract was with a gallery in Beijing. My focus was still in China during the first three years. Other than a few solo exhibitions, the group exhibitions were organized by Chinese galleries and institutions. Last year I couldn’t travel back to China because of Covid, so I cancelled a solo exhibition at a Beijing gallery and started doing shows in Tokyo. If an artist wants to be based in Tokyo, I think it’s a good idea to come and study Art and Japanese first. It will help you fit in better.
S.W.: You recently participated in a group exhibition entitled East-East Vol.4: The Curio Shop, bridging artists from the Arabian Gulf and East Asia. Could you explain the works you exhibited there?
N.: I have two works exhibited at East-East. The first one is called N-Ja. A few years ago, my relatives and friends in China started to ask me about nuclear radiation pollution in Japan. They advised me to stay away from the Kanto area or to not eat the seafood from the region. Curious as to why they would tell me this, I found out that the Chinese media reported the worsening state of nuclear contamination in Japan that resulted from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Those reports included unsupported claims presented along with photos of mutant animals and plants that were suggested to have been affected by nuclear radiation in Fukushima. However, this misinformation was not able to manipulate public opinion for long as it had been proven the photos of the deformed animals to have been fake. As having been personally affected by the repercussions of this misinformations proliferation, I became interested in nuclear pollution, and produced a game about nuclear radioactivity in Tokyo.
The game I adapted, “Fruit Ninja”, has been very popular outside of Japan. For me, this popularity coincided with the stereotypes of Japan for foreign tourists. People are passionate about travelling to Tokyo, and this enthusiasm is like the challenges in the game I designed: how many of them actually cared about the ecosystem of Japan due to nuclear radioactivity, other than in the news?
The second work is called The Stylistic Contact Point in Consciousness. I was inspired by the definition of "East" discussed in the exhibition. For ancient China, Central Asia was known as the Western Region. The Silk Road during the Han Dynasty connected East Asia to Central Asia, West Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean, and also had a great impact on the convergence of cultures and information. The prototype of my painting comes from the shape of a traditional wine jug in ancient China. I have superimposed and transformed its original shape. I chose this as a starting point for two reasons: first, because it finds its cultural and esthetic roots in both the Middle East and East Asia. And second, because from an art historical perspective, the unique shape characteristic of Eastern art is the curved line (as seen in traditional paintings and in religious sculptures), which is perfectly represented in this wine vessel. I superimposed the bottle symmetrically to further emphasize the merging of cultures and arts within the East. Finally, I restricted the function of a jug by modifying its shape - there is no opening for pouring in one and no handling in another. So as to think about the input and output of information in the contemporary world.
“There’s a saying in Chinese: “Reading thousands of books is not equal to traveling thousands of miles.” It’s a metaphor for knowledge and experience, to show the dialectical relationship between study and practice.”
S.W.: What do you think of traveling and migration? Does traveling make an artist better-rounded?
N.: There’s a saying in Chinese: “Reading thousands of books is not equal to traveling thousands of miles.” It’s a metaphor for knowledge and experience, to show the dialectical relationship between study and practice. If one cannot see the authentic work of art, it’s difficult to get the essence of it. For visual artists, seeing and observing are absolutely crucial. “Art comes from life” – different cultures, different aesthetics, even different city landscapes are naturally reflected in the artist’s work. Travelling or migration can change one’s way of seeing things. For example, you acquire a more objective view of a city or country when you get to know it from both inside and outside perspectives. This is particularly important for understanding places where there is a lot of information censorship and control.
“In Knowledge Fruit and Palm Leaves, we created works by reconsidering the meaning of identity through the society, history, customs, stories, and groups surrounding us.”
S.W.: Important point. Finally, I heard about your most recent show opening in Tokyo’s Clear Gallery. Could you give us more information about it?
N.: My new show, Knowledge Fruit and Palm Leaves, is in collaboration with one of my favorite artists, Tat Ito. It opened on August 27th at Clear Gallery Tokyo and will be on view until September 25th. In this exhibition, I exhibit a series of associative works that use sexual motifs to suggest information that is intentionally hidden and not openly discussed or shared with others, which vaguely reminds the audience of the book Decameron. (Sometimes nicknamed “the Human Comedy”, Decameron is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The book tells 100 tales told by a group of young women and young men: they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.) The topics addressed in my painting series include privilege, feminism, gender, identity and consumerism. The mocking and carnivalesque comedic features of my art are reminiscent of the contemporary Decameron, which exhibit a strong humanist undertone.
Coming from Japan and China respectively, Ito and I have been exposed to art in cultures different from our own. In Knowledge Fruit and Palm Leaves, we created works by reconsidering the meaning of identity through the society, history, customs, stories, and groups surrounding us. In this exhibition, the works exhibited draw our affinity with modern media, culture, and information as well as with the allegorical nature of mythological and historical books, developed in our own unique interpretations.
“Travelling or migration can change one’s way of seeing things.”
Favorite airport:Haneda Airport
Biggest role model:Édouard Manet
A song trapped in your head:Obaa Sima by Ata Kak
Favorite Sneaker:Adidas FYW S-97
An artist in your mind right now:Sarah Sze
Your favorite word in Japanese:ジワジワ
And in English?Art
Your favorite app:微信读书
Favorite magazine:Sometimes Times, sometimes Vice
What is your favorite outfit?T-shirt + Suit Jacket + Sneakers
Who would you want to grab popcorn with?Man Ray
Sherry Wu @sherryyy.w