Nowadays, everyone has been a stalker in social media. Stalking your crush – and his or her ex –, your teacher or your neighbour is as easy as pie. This relation of being seen and observing others has lead Li Qing to Rare Windows, his new exhibition, which is on view until the 19th of January at the historical residence Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai. Inspired by the iconic 1954 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock of the same title, through recreating windows in his work, Qing wants to examine the contradictions and the duality of our present lives.
In your work, you combine the oil painting technique with old wooden frames in order to create a window. How did this fusion occur?
I try to deal with the relationship between images and paintings in my work. In the process of creating Rear Windows, I painted images of sceneries on the back of windowpanes. In the history of painting, it had long served the purpose of decorating buildings. Paintings were windows opened for the viewers inside buildings. Later, painting gradually gained independence. 
What does a window symbolize to you?
Using a window as a frame actually adds architecture to the painting because the window is a basic building component and also the building component closest to painting, and it relates to a certain place and time as all buildings do. The geographic and historical information carried by windows and the information carried by the images painted on windowpanes form an intertextuality, sometimes a conflict.
Most of the windows I choose are from buildings demolished in the process of urban renewal. Those buildings were usually residences of ordinary people, but the buildings depicted ‘outside' the windows are usually high-profile and glamorous. This shows the different fates of different spaces: some are demolished and abandoned, some are preserved and rebuilt. Viewing, which takes place between the two, is separated, both spatially and temporally. The window is also the boundary of the internal space and the external space. It reminds us of our limitations and our desires all the time.
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How did your passion for art start? Did you feel the urge to create since you were young?
I’m the son of two teachers who love literature and art. In the early 1980s, the time when China just began to open to the outside world, some educated people quickly absorbed new things in art, literature and music. There was a reproduction of Rubens’ Christ and John the Baptist as Children and Two Angels at my bedside since I can remember.
At first, my interest in art was guided by my parents. Later, I wanted to be a real artist and studied at an academy of fine arts. I of course started to create things when I was a student. These creations originated from my observation of things around me or from some reading experience. They were an exercise for me, though very naive as I look at them now.
You were born in Huzhou (China), but you currently live and work between Hangzhou and Shanghai. How does Chinese culture inform your work?
The area where I was born and live is called Jiangnan (literally, ‘South of the Yangtze River’). It is a very important geographical concept in Chinese culture. Since the Tang and Song dynasties, it has been China’s most economically and culturally prosperous area. As a Chinese artist, I’m of course influenced by the creations of traditional Chinese literati, but I’m more concerned about the evolution of various concepts, discourses and forms in the process of China’s modernization. These evolutions infiltrate into the micro-level of everyday life, which in itself is also a process of influencing constantly by the West.
Talking about Shanghai, one of the most populated cities in the world, it hides monuments of the past between its skyscrapers. You suggest references to this city full of contrasts. How do you represent this duality? Has it been a constant motivation for you?
Shanghai is an extremely rich city. It is a microcosm of China’s century-old modernization, with many layers and textures. If you want to see the impact of power, money and foreign cultures on Chinese cities, going to Shanghai is your best choice. Some of its districts also have characteristics of Hong Kong, Beijing, Shenzhen, Suzhou and Hangzhou. Its hinterland is Jiangnan, an affluent place and an area of cultural prosperity since ancient times. It has a colonial history too. With France, Britain, and Japan established concessions here, it was the most westernized and fashionable place in the East at that time.
“What I give to the viewer is never a simple picture but a path that leads to what is behind the image.”
What about now?
The construction and development in recent decades have made it a crazy super city. The craziness is reflected in the large number of landmark buildings, the ever-expanding city size, the huge number of exhibitions and performances (they’re endless) and the soaring living costs. The people here are hijacked by money and power. They have created the city but are devoured by it, living in wide-spreading anxiety.
As an artist, I think the scene is exciting. You can observe the state of people in an economic relationship, as well as the changes in the lifestyle. This is a city that is always pursuing internationalization and a sense of future and is constantly renewed. People of different ages and classes try to get involved in the city in their own way. In Shanghai, a large number of old buildings have been demolished, but a small part of them remain, which form a spatial level. Spaces formed by old and new buildings from different time periods interlace and layer. Sometimes, these spaces belong to different groups of people: foreigners vs locals, common people vs intellectuals, the rich vs the poor, businessmen vs migrant workers, the elderly vs young people.
There is a sense of distance culturally and psychologically between the different groups. A city is a stack of different spaces. In my work, I also transform things of different times and cultural identities into layers of matter and images and stack them up. The layering in painting is not only about painting, but also connected to social spaces.
You graduated from the oil painting department at the China Academy of Art in 2007. What did this mean for your career? What do you think about academic formation? Do you think it’s possible to be an artist without an academic background?
My college, China Academy of Art, is the best art academy in China. Many artists with wide influence graduated from that college. It is very inclusive and open. Its biggest advantage is that any topic can be discussed publicly or privately here, which, of course, is something shared by all real universities. So I think you don’t have to study at a fine arts college to become an artist, but to study at a good university is still necessary. This is determined by the way knowledge and ideas are diffused and inherited, and also because you need to be in a certain conceptual community to create art.
The exhibition you’re opening at Prada Rong Zhai explores the act of seeing and being seen or observed. I think that we as humans like to watch others, but we tend to feel uncomfortable when we are being observed. Does your work examine this duality?
We like to be observers but we don’t like to be observed in secret without knowing it. Nowadays, the problem is that we always take the initiative to be observed even we know we are observed. We often act in our lives. We discipline ourselves to be viewed by others. This is what we do in the self-media. Some of my works address these issues.
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How do you think people feel when admiring your paintings?
I think it could be different from their previous experience of viewing paintings. They need to mobilize more attention, movement and experience to understand these paintings. There may be more circuitous perception than simple appreciation. I think this is the dignity that paintings deserve. They should not just provide pleasure.
You got inspired by Rear Window, the 1954 film by Alfred Hitchcock. The film revolves around voyeurism. Could you explain more about how does this film relate to your exhibition and how it informed your work?
I previously did a solo exhibition called Blow-Up. The title is borrowed from Antonioni's namesake film. The title of my current project, Rear Windows, is from Hitchcock's namesake film too. And I think the two films have many things in common. Both of them have elements of suspense and are about murders. Both protagonists are people using cameras (a fashion photographer and a photojournalist), and the latter solves a murder case by observing the windows across his apartment and analyzing them, while the former is lost in the blowing-up details of reality.
Both films can be said to be about observation and perception, about obscuration and revealing, about the relationship between people and the real world in the contemporary space and time circumstances and the new technological and media environment, and also about the isolation and desolation of men in noisy urban life. In addition, both films avoid the omniscient perspective and interfere in the observing behaviour from a preset perspective as for narrative means, and this is a perspective of observation closer to the perspective of contemporary men, that is, a perspective in which most of the observing behaviours are being interfered. The concern for these issues is also reflected in my work.
That is very well-thought.
I personally have a suggestion for the plot of Rear Window: if the murder case constructed by the protagonist through observation and speculation is disproved rather than confirmed in the end, and the imaginings building up suspense come to nothing, the film could be more thought-provoking.
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Also, this phenomenon of seeing and being seen is a big preoccupation in today’s society; the right to intimacy and security, which goes from social media to surveillance by governments and companies. How does your work relate to these themes? Are windows also a commentary to internet culture and digital society?
Yes. Screens are today’s windows. Previously, there were TV screens, and now a bigger part of them are screens of mobile phones and personal computers. As a person living in a big city in China, I’m surrounded by screens and connected to the world through them. My perception of external information mainly comes from the media environment. The problem is, do we need more attention or more solitude, a more convenient life or more privacy, more consensus or more individual opinions? Because of the ubiquity of the mobile Internet, we face this anxiety of choice more often than ever before.
In my work, the landscape usually comes from the perspective of the mass in social media or advertising, and the characters come from performances in front of lenses and stories in the media. When the perspective of the mass encounters the direct gaze of the individual, the clichéd performances and stories are re-appreciated by everyone, each will make their own comments.
A film inspired your work, so we can assume you get inspired by many fields. What are your principal sources of inspiration?
I think the principal source is the urban and media environments in which I live and how they interact with various cultural productions such as film, literature, architecture, advertising, publishing, and how they affect our perception and emotions. The micro-politics in everyday space and images, the political identity in formal aesthetics, and the identity of local cultural production in the context of globalization are also sources of my work.
Rear Windows is also an exploration of the history and spaces of Prada Rong Zhai. How do you create a connection between the past and the current urban context of the mansion?
The history of Prada Rong Zhai can be said to be a microcosm of Shanghai’s century-old history. To this day, people’s activities in this building are still a part of this microcosm. The building has been transformed from the private house of a national capitalist to the public property after nationalization reformation, then to a place to display art now after being refurbished. We can see the state of a building under different social conditions, and the building is also related to different people and things.
Most of the works of the Tetris Window series in this exhibition are related to the history and background of these renowned buildings, in which new cultural capital has involved today. A part of these works is about the survival and desires of urbanites, discovering the relationship between characters and identity, wealth and residence in various gossip-like stories. Another part of the works imagines Prada Rong Zhai as a space used by the occupants. Bedrooms, bathrooms, entertainment rooms, study rooms and their furnishings and decorations seem to have revived the lives of and relationships between the masters, servants and guests. Different characters seem to have come to and left the building, allowing the viewers to imagine stories of the building.
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You say that you are interested in exploring the viewer’s perception of art and breaking down the conventional interaction of the audience with the works of art. How did this fascination start? What references do you have?
Yes, interaction is indeed a key element in my works. This interaction is mainly about guidance on and interference in the viewer’s viewing behaviour, so that the works not only convey their images but also construct the path of viewing the images. This is a bit like the distancing effect in Brecht’s plays. When the viewer looks at the scenery outside the window, his/her gaze doesn’t penetrate the glass and often returns to the window itself. The relationship between inside and outside, reality and fiction requires to be constructed by the viewer’s thinking.
Also, for Finding Differences, the viewer’s eyes are forced to wander between the pictures and the viewer needs to interpret the differences s/he has found based on his/her experience. What I give to the viewer is never a simple picture but a path that leads to what is behind the image. The process of arrival depends on the viewer’s experience and imagination. Different experiences and imagination will also lead the viewer to different places. And, as a painter, I think a good artist in any age pays much attention to how to interfere with the gaze of the viewer. This is a fundamental problem. It’s just like what Velazquez in the classical era, Manet before the Impressionism, and the surrealist Magritte have done. They all actually try to interfere with the gaze of the viewer and the way the viewer perceives through the painting itself.
Do you have any future projects in mind or in the works? Will you keep exploring the aesthetic and symbolism of windows?
Yes, I will continue with what’s at hand. Once you have gained a working interface, your work will continue. It’s just like you have owned a laboratory, which to some extent determines where you go. So the design and equipment of the laboratory are crucial.
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