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May 2019

As part of the Central Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, May You Live in Interesting Times (11 May-24 November, 2019), a fibre-reinforced plastic cow circles the room. Running on a track, the cow is surrounded by artificial plants, foam rubber stones, outdoor lamps, Corinthian columns made of PVC, and curtains printed with an image of the sky—all part of Nabuqi’s work Do real things happen in moments of rationality? (2018). A pre-recorded soundtrack plays ambient sounds from both the city and the country, further confusing the boundaries between natural and artificial, one of the artist’s major preoccupations. Another of Nabuqi's artificial landscapes, Destination (2018), is showing in Venice’s Arsenale. The work is a six-meter-long billboard, depicting a perfect white-sand beach, that’s tipped over, its promise of relaxation physically punctured by spiky artificial plants positioned beneath it.

Nabuqi is one of the youngest and most exciting artists Venice Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, selected as part of the event’s central show. The five other Chinese artists taking part are: Liu Wei, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Yin Xiuzhen, and Yu Ji.

An object-oriented ontology has long been embedded in Nabuqi’s practice. Through her succinct geometry, her sculptures form a flexible relationship between the object, the human body and the perception of space. Based on drawings, notes, and sound samples recorded in daily life, her research into urban landscapes and man-made items yields sculptures that transcend the research behind them.

In the series ‘A View Beyond Space’ (2015), for instance, her sculptures covered in black, bright yellow, green or pink varnish appear like miniature buildings, skylines and staircases, yet they are also without referent. And in ‘The Doubtful Site’ (2018), they evoke the subtle and invisible language that runs through all kinds of architecture, including ancient Greek theatres, arenas and modern stadiums. More recently, as in Venice, Nabuqi has been experimenting with installations that integrate an assembly of ready-made objects, with light, sound and architectural elements. Familiar yet theatrical scenes create a fissure between the real and the imaginary, evoking a paradoxical sense of the uncanny.

In this discussion, Nabuqi talks about her works in Venice, changes to our built environments, and the relationship between our bodies and the objects that surround us.


Curator Ralph Rugoff says the 2019 Venice Biennale presents ‘artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today’. Could you talk about how your works respond to the concept of the biennale?

I find a subtle resonance here. The title of the biennale May You Live in Interesting Times is equivocal. Taken literally, it seems like a blessing, but it also satirises our situation today. The word ‘interesting’ is so ambiguous. It can be used for both good and terrible things. My works in Venice are also ironical, as you can tell from the title of Do real things happen in moments of rationality? which provokes a question for us all: when do you feel things are real? Perhaps even when everything is artificial and fake, they still evoke a sense of the real in us. In this case, how can you tell real from the fake?

Destination (2018) has been showcased twice, both times in seaside towns: first outside UCCA Dune in Beidaihe, which UCCA director Philip Tinari compared to America’s Jersey Shore, and now in a historic shipyard and arsenal in Venice. How do different contexts impact your work?

Destination was commissioned by UCCA Dune as a response to the Anaya Gold Coast Community where the museum is located. The billboard in the work shows a cliché and idealised image of some coastal scenery I found online, with the sea, a beach, and coconut trees. The Anaya Community is a highly decorative area where all the buildings and gardens are carefully designed and constructed. It’s a neighbourhood that seems out of place in the countryside. It seems like a landscape plan or rendering made real,  obviously manmade but designed to look natural and idyllic. In this work, the scenery in the billboard doesn’t really exist, and the plants are plastic – some leaves puncture the image and look almost real in comparison to the coconut trees in the image. But they only mimic the reality.

When staged at UCCA Dune, the work was placed facing the sea, entirely integrated with the neighbourhood. I was hoping that the light projecting on the billboard still flickered when the museum was closed, as if there was always such a broken, collapsed billboard there. The whole scene is fake. In the Arsenale, however, the artistry of the work seems more emphasized, and the intention of the work becomes more apparent.

The curator seems to make a connection between my work and the works in the exhibition hall. Beside Destination is a series of black-and-white photographs by a female artist that appear like fashion photos. You find elements like vacationers and swimming pools in her work.

Your recent work often oscillates between the imaginary and the real through an assembly of objects and ready-mades, as well as elements like light, sound, and architectural interventions. Could you talk about how you bring the different elements of your installations together? 

In 2014, I experimented with ready-made materials to make sculpture, but soon stopped  when I realized that I felt unsure about transforming the ready-made into something else. The existence of something itself should never be questioned, and it doesn’t make much sense if you intentionally change its nature. A cup doesn’t become anything else just because I endow it with another meaning. So instead I started working in two directions: I make pure sculptures that strictly follow the traditions, from making mud-draft, modeling, molding, to colouring. And I assemble ready-mades in a variety of ways, without altering their nature. If you take apart my installations, a lamp remains a lamp and a plant remains a plant. These mundane objects still function in their original contexts. The two parallel paths take different forms, and yet the thinking within my practice is always consistent. It is always about the relationship between the body and the object, or the body and the environment.

You have said that an artwork can create a ‘field’, or a ‘site’. What do you mean by ‘field’ and ‘site’ exactly, and how do artworks create them?

As an object, the sculpture exists separately from the human body. However, as the sculpture is immobile and looked at by the viewer who moves around it, I find the object-body relationship asymmetrical. In my work, I seek to create an equivalent relationship, a situation in which the sculpture surrounds the viewer simultaneously. A field or site is an environment where this relationship can be reversed, a space people can walk in. We are always surrounded by environments, and in my work, the environment becomes the work itself, a sculpture. You no longer only gaze at a work, but walk into it.

Many of your works refer to the urban landscape and public space. In the series ‘Doubtful Sites’ and ‘A View Beyond Space’, some forms seem to imply ancient Greek theatres, stadiums, chimneys, and the city skyline. In real life, a space always has a certain scope – it is named, measured and mapped, thus becoming somewhat inseparable from politics, history, the economy and culture. In your sculptures, however, these aspects are nowhere to be seen, leaving only a rhizome, a term from botany describing root vegetables and other sprawling subterranean species: in other words, a form without top or bottom, with no beginning or end, forever in the process of generation. Despite seeming so absent in the finished work, how does politics, history, the economy and culture inform your sculpture?

In fact, these social aspects are not the primary consideration for me. The relationship between people and the environment is the main focus in terms of the different spaces in my work. While the series in 2015 “A View Beyond Space” seems like a more abstract  distant view that acts like a frame, the recent sculptures have become medium shots – not close ups, right in front of your eyes, but their forms grow more figurative. My references come from different sites – areas that stand for the public square, monuments, flagpoles or statues that represent the central point of a square, and venues like stadiums where people gather together. I explore how these different spaces interact with people.


For many years, you have been living on the outskirts of Beijing, and have been a conscious observer of its urban change. How does your experience living in this city influence your practice?

Since I settled down in Beijing, I’ve always lived in the areas where urban change occurs most rapidly and radically, the so-called ‘urban villages’. The concept does not refer to any fixed territory geographically, but an area constantly changing and relocating itself as the city develops or declines. Both the definition of the phrase and the area it signifies are flexible. I lived close to the fourth ring when I first arrived in Beijing, and gradually moved to the fifth, and now outside the sixth, but I have never left the ‘urban village’ environment. Living in such neighbourhoods results in the temporality and ephemerality in my work – when the objects are assembled in the work, together they create a field that welcomes emotions and perceptions, but they can also be dismantled at any time, and the original functions of their constituent parts remain.


You often incorporate sound in your work and talk about its presence in your life. For instance, you’ve described the ‘rumble’ and ‘snore’ of Paris, where you participated in a residency program at DawanArt in 2017. You also make recordings of daily life, some of which are used in Do real things happen in moments of rationality? Why is sound important to you? How do you want it to impact the conception, execution and experience of your work?

Sound is hard to make material and substantial. While my sculptures have a strong physicality attached to them, sound is entirely contrary to the mediums I’m familiar and more skilled with. This is why I like to consider how to employ sound and materialise it in my work. In the exhibition Stay and Occupation at DawanArt as the result of my residency in Paris, I transformed the urban sounds I recorded into a motionless block of colour in a video. The work paradoxically became a corporeal object and an intangible sound environment at once. In another work, Floating Narratives (2017), I also include an electric fan, light and mirrors – wind and light are intangible too, and mirrors reflect an image that exists between the real and the simulacrum. As with sound, these elements impact the surroundings without occupying real space. So what exactly are these influences? This is what I’m interested in.

Some of your works like Tangerines (2015) and An Autumn Night (2015) – light yellow, rod-like and leaning against the wall—remind me of Eva Hesse’s Accretion (1968), which consists of 50 units of translucent, hollow fiberglass tubes. You made a work in 2018 entitled Hesse, comprised of popcorn tubes strung end to end, lit internally by LEDs, and draped over a wooden stick. Is the work of Eva Hesse an important reference point for you? For me, the fiberglass tubes in Accretion have their own stature, separate from the outside world; their autonomy lies in their materiality. Does that resonate with you?

Eva Hesse is one of my favourite artists. Hesse is a work I created when I was paying a visit to Wuhan. Unexpectedly, I was invited to make a work for an exhibition there, so I wandered in the city to find inspiration and noticed a snack stall selling popcorn tubes. I bought some that were slightly bent, placed LED lights inside the tubes, and eventually hung them over a piece of wood I found in the exhibition space. When the work was finished, I realized how much it looked like Eva Hesse’s work – not any work in particular, but the way it hangs, as well as the tubes joined end to end with such flexibility, is strongly reminiscent of her work.

Only last year did I really start to consider the craft of sculpture and the perceptional difference elicited by various mediums. In my recent sculptures, I combine and connect different materials like resin and aluminum in a single work. The parts that appear like marble are in fact resin blended with sand. By mimicking classical sculpture with modern industrial materials, I try to confuse the perception of the viewer.

Conversation with Nabuqi: Work
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