We are the architects of our own psychological spaces. We design the spaces subconsciously, and we are also the residents in our spaces as well as in reality. Sometimes, we are lost, or get trapped in our own mental spaces; we look for the exit sign to lead the way out to a haven, a way to find inner peace. […] In my work, I invite the viewer to experience and feel the fragility and vulnerability from my own anxiety and inner fear, as well as to reflect upon their own inner struggles. At the same time, I see my work as self-reflection, and self-realization as well as a means for healing. (Xi Nan)
Xi Nan (b. 1987) mainly uses porcelain and other mixed media to create architectural sculptures. Even though they are small-sized, very delicate and fragile, her works usually carry a heavy load of symbolism relating to universal human emotions and mind-states. Attempting to explore the psychological space, she relies on clay and porcelain to materialize the depths of human feelings and internal states. The fragility of the porcelain is an ideal vehicle to translate the idea of vulnerability of the human mind, of anxiety and stress. Xi Nan’s works are an introspective journey into her own self.
She also combines elements she picks from the nature with the human ones (e.g. hair), ascribing metaphorical semantics to everyday objects she incorporates in her pieces. At times, different objects come to represent the idea of rebirth, or decay, death and hopelessness. Light bulbs, especially – with their inner structure, filaments, form -, fascinate her. She also makes hundreds small individual, various elements that she keeps in storage for the right time. Once in a while, she lays them on the table – like a puzzle piece – and picks them intuitively. She chooses how to present them at that particular moment of her mind or at that period of time.
I wait and see how they – i.e. the building elements – develop; it’s like a fermentation process. I do not plan a structure, I let them play by themselves – different elements finding their partners; the moment you know they “click”. It is always interesting to see the shape of the new form, of the new presentation.
This piece is made up of the elements that are more structured and more solid. Its execution required a lot of finesse since the artist intended it to be more robust without looking bulky, because it is very fragile. She also wanted to make it stronger and to show the transformations it underwent during the making process – the stages of its creation. The hair – the artist’s own fallen hair – was not in the initial plan. Inside the construction made of porcelain pieces put together to form almost a machinery-like type of structure, she placed the filaments of a burned bulb. The apparent frailty of the filaments may be misleading. Fragile shapes can hide strength and power. The hairs are pulled though a ring attached to the filament and wrap two sides of the piece casually enough not to acquire the function of bonding the elements, yet not eliminating the possibility entirely.
Xi Nan had nurtured the idea to insert human hair into a piece for a long time but she felt like no other work had asked for it. Then just at the very last minute, she just knew that this piece needed it. This is how she works. She asks her pieces what they need rather than force something on them. There are so many other options, so she simply waits for the moment her piece tells her what to do next.
After I made this, there is still a lot of room where I can develop. This is why I call this SLIP. I liked what I did. The action, but also the moment what brought me to that stage my mind told me to do so. That is something I learned from the piece.
Traditionally, ceramists use a technique called scoring and slipping which requires the elements forming a piece to be joined together before firing. Her technique is the reverse of that: she makes individual ones and afterwards picks them intuitively and assembles the piece.
This extraordinary piece is incredibly dynamic. The sensation of movement and velocity, even, is conveyed by the thread-like elements swirling, turning and wriggling in a dramatic manner. Made with a hand-extruder, they require so much dexterity and tenacity of the execution – rapid coiling and shaping as the clay dries fast. It is also very fragile. There were also many accidents and failures, especially during their transportation, which makes the ones that ended up forming the piece even more special. Together they are like a group of survivors, as the artist says.
The symbolism of this piece is “vain hope” – and, sometimes, hope grows from hopelessness. Again this goes back to the artist’s personal life experience.
Sometimes we still have hope and put efforts into something even though we are aware that it’s impossible and hopeless; it is like waiting for the dead seeds to sprout and bloom. But you never know, one morning you might see it’s blooming …
The small object inside it was picked by the artist on the street on her way to the studio. She does not know what it is exactly. It is very soft. The artist has a collection of such mixed objects – found or created – that she keeps in a box. From time to time, she takes them out and lays them on a surface and sees what goes together. They are asked to collaborate. She kept it for a year before its time came to be incorporated in a piece.
Visually, it gives some sort of equilibrium to the work. Or maybe it acts as a gravitational aid keeping it from floating up and away – keeping hope in place.
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Xi Nan was born and raised in Jilin, China. She was selected nationally from China Disabled Person Federation to study abroad at Red Cross Nordic United World College in Norway and earned her International Baccalaureate degree in 2007. In 2011, she received her BA in studio art at Luther College, Decorah, IA. Xi Nan won the national second award of juried exhibition of emerging artists with disabilities in 2011. She completed her MFA in ceramics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2015. Xi’s work has exhibited nationally including juried shows in Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio, Washington, DC and Long Island City, NY. Her most recent invited exhibition is at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) in Pittsburgh, PA 2018. Xi Nan lives in Queens, NY and works in Long Island City, NY.
Text ✒ ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photos © XI NAN