Xue Ruozhe & Li Jia
3 June, 2023
Li Jia: Let’s start with the title of the exhibition. YYYY-MM-DD is the title of the series of works you are exhibiting this time; can you tell us why you used this odd string of characters as the title of the exhibition?
Xue Ruozhe: YYYY-MM-DD is an example of the date format we use when filling out travel documents. The positions of the year, month, and day vary from country to country – European countries use an order opposite to China. The relationship between tourism and the tourism industry is suggested through the title YYYY-MM-DD. This group of work is also finished during a period when I constantly moved from city to city.
Li Jia: This is the first time that this series has been exhibited until now, can you tell us a little bit about its origin? And what is the concept behind these paintings?
Xue Ruozhe: The impetus for this series was the change in my perception of time since the birth of my eldest daughter, and the desire to anchor the flow of time through a specific action. The 30 paintings presented here are not a completed series, but the first paintings in a series that is constantly evolving. This group of paintings begins with the one in the top left corner, where I painted the first flower at the birth of my youngest daughter in late January 2022. The whole project began with her birth: I decided to paint one flower every day until the end of my life, and I mark down the date once I finish a flower. For example, 20220120 is a date in the format of the title YYYY-MM-DD.
Install view of YYYY-MM-DD at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space
Li Jia: In fact, my feelings are to a large extent similar to what you said about the cycle of life and the traces of time. So when I first thought of the concept of the exhibition, I also thought that we could represent the passage, movement, and reincarnation of time within the space. In the end, we arranged these 30 paintings in three rows on the wall, which is also a bit like a calendar, with the dates neatly arranged; each painting is a unit of time, and this wall becomes a plane that compresses time.
With this in mind, we will take one painting off the wall and place it on an easel in the center of the gallery each day after the opening of the exhibition. On the one hand, this allows the viewer to see a painting more closely and naturally and at an ordinary distance; and on the other hand, it restores Ruozhe’s working state, including distance, light, and feeling; and more importantly, it leaves a gap on the wall after the painting is removed, marking time more visibly. If one were to look at the wall each day, one would see this gap moving daily in sequence, like the trajectory of a beam of sunlight that moves on the wall with each hour. In this way, it is possible to show the passage of time.
Finally, on the other side of the gallery, you demonstrate the relationship between image, object, and time once again using video. With a live camera, the image of a bottle of flowers on the table is reflected on the screen of a monitor, where you outline the flower with a marker. Over time, the viewer will see how the withered vase of flowers, through a so-called “ghost image” on the monitor, gradually reveals the gap between it and the outline, the slice of time that has been drawn and fixed. So it is not just the paintings that are included in the exhibition, but the subtle, rich, and multi-layered reflections on time and the attempts to portray it in this project. As a painter, you have chosen the canvas as the plane on which this capturing of time finally takes shape.
Let’s talk about these paintings on the wall. The 30 pieces are hung in chronological order, which one did you start with?
Xue Ruozhe: They start from the upper left corner and are arranged in chronological order from left to right with three rows, 30 paintings in total.
Still Life, installation, 2023
Li Jia: In the year and a half during which you completed these works, did each date leave a record on these paintings? When was the first date?
Xue Ruozhe: Every day is marked on them. The first flower I painted was on the day my little girl was born – 20th January last year. The one in the lower left corner is the last one before my exhibition. There is another one in progress right now but I am writing the date in the hotel and therefore can’t put it in the show.
Li Jia: What a coincidence that a year and a half ended up as 30 paintings on the wall, which is exactly one month on the calendar. So, according to your rhythm of painting one flower a day, how many days does it take to complete a painting? Can one assume that this cycle of painting is akin to the blossoming cycle of the flowers?
Xue Ruozhe: The bouquets are painted with as few as five or six flowers and as many as twenty, which corresponds to the painting time between a few days and twenty days, and it normally encompasses the complete life-cycle of a bouquet from bud state to bloom to wilting.
Li Jia: Can you tell us more about your painting process? For example, when did you start preparing the flowers, and why did you choose this bouquet? When and how did you paint it each day? At which point did you feel you could finish it and so on?
Xue Ruozhe: When I start to paint a bunch of flowers, I mark the approximate position and colour of the flowers on the canvas. After these initial steps, I choose one flower to paint in detail on the first day, then on the second day, I paint another. So if there are 10 flowers in the bunch, the whole bunch has withered by the time the last one is painted. The last flower in the bunch to be painted is already very droopy and I paint it in that state. Underneath the wilted flower, the first layer of the painting preserves the initial, vivacious state of the flowers. It is a juxtaposition of two times, so the painting is not just a depiction of a particular time, it is a collection of ten days of fluid time.
There are many options for flowers. Some of them are bought at local flower markets. One of my principles in choosing flowers is that I don’t choose exotic flowers; instead, I will choose flowers that will be available locally, preferably in season and usually sold in bunches as a unit. So YYYY-MM-DD is also a project related to region and season; there are also some flowers, such as the second one in the top left corner, which I cut out from a tree in Wangjing when I was on my way back home. A few days after I had started painting, I found that they did not bloom and had remained in a bud state – wilting while in the bud. I painted it as it was.
Li Jia: Looking at these paintings, I can also feel the differences between them and your previous works. For example, you mark the date next to the finished flower. This feeling of recording and clocking in also reminds me of Xie Deqing’s performance, or the date paintings of On Kawara.
Xue Ruozhe: Painting from life has its peculiarities – it requires a fixed light and perspective, and of course an object. We have to confine our physical bodies to the easel.
I would travel during the painting process and I wasn’t able to paint in front of the flowers, but I still needed to mark my time on the canvas each day, so I would pack the painting inside my suitcase.
While I travel, I note down the date I did not paint the flower or the time I threw away the bouquet. I write the date in the bottom left corner of the picture, one by one from the bottom to the top. I set these paintings at a uniform size of 50 x 40cm, as this is just the right size to fit comfortably in a suitcase so that I can maintain a relationship with the painting while I constantly move around.
20230425-20230513(Detail), 2023. Acrylic on linen, 50×40cm
Li Jia: So this series is also a bit like a personal diary: you can carry it around with you, marking and documenting it every day. The content of the diary may be different, long or short, but the time has passed: whether it is recorded or blank, it has left a trace of that day in some way. If we were to compare this series to your diary, wouldn’t all the dates marked on the canvas add up to cover every day of your year and a half?
Xue Ruozhe: I didn’t leave any day behind. When I have a free day, I will spend about an hour or two hours painting a specific flower; but if I only have 10 minutes, I will paint in a more simple and schematic way, capturing the shape of the flower in a few strokes. This creates a temporal relationship with me. I don’t actively try to cover up the uncertainty in my life to paint the flowers well, but the only certainty is that I will at some point leave the imprint of time on my painting – a trace that is pinned down at a specific moment in my life every day, an anchoring point in the river of time.
Li Jia: Exactly. It also makes me think that the so-called act of clocking in is related to the whole modern time system. If we go back to the era before the invention of clocks, people were not used to read time directly from a uniform, mechanical scale system. The structure of time was therefore more akin to a chaotic, shifting rhythm of light and shadow, rather than to a rational, rigid, steadfast numerical measure. So clocks and watches have changed the concept of time for the modern man/woman. What is particularly amusing about this project is that the digital format of the numbers shows how people who are immersed in various digital interfaces visualize time: YYYY-MM-DD, whether you are writing an email or typing a word document, will automatically pop up at the end of the text. This format is one of the most dominant modes of perceiving and measuring time today.
So when you apply today’s digital time format to such an old medium or topic as flower painting, I feel the whole picture has changed from a pure visual plane to a digital interface, or rather how a threshold has been created between them. In such an interface there are also different time modes, and different time threads merging: one is our modern understanding of time – visible, divisible, measurable, and homogeneous -, the other is the way we perceived and accepted the passage of time physically through painting, rhetoric or other imaginative means before we became slaves to mechanical time. This system of time, which has become the alternative today, seems to have been summoned back to life by this body of work.
Xue Ruozhe: After the birth of my eldest daughter, my sense of the flow of time suddenly changed. Before she was born, I felt like it was just lapsing day by day and it didn’t feel particularly fast. When I witness a child suddenly grow big, the time I perceive is no longer the same as before. Amid the epidemic, our perception of time is also switching between fast and slow when we are sometimes locked down at home and sometimes free to move. So I tried to establish some kind of system to institutionalize this fluid sense of time.
Li Jia: Yes. you have already discussed time in your previous paintings, but perhaps not so explicitly. This time, because 30 works are juxtaposed at the same time, the viewer can see very clearly how time is tightly compressed together. In your previous works, we might feel the flowing of time from very subtle details, such as how the postures and positions of the same person change subtly in repetition…
Xue Ruozhe: Absolutely, the sense of time is an important element in my paintings. In my work there is often a juxtaposition of two people or a relationship between two or three people. For me they are not a mirrored image or a twin relationship – although of course, this interpretation is possible – I prefer to think of them as the same person, she/he appears in two different times, I place them in the same space. In a somewhat similar way to two adjacent frames of a film strip, they are alike and not the same at different times, but we see these two frames in one go.
Gymnastics体操, 2017, Oil on linen, 200x180cm
Li Jia: Yes, it’s particularly interesting that you mentioned the juxtaposition of two film frames, which reminds me that in our daily lives, for example when we play computer games or work with pictures, we superimpose different layers on top of each other. In your early series related to the SIMS, you also deliberately made the “natural” painting look edited, with various relationships between layers, using an old medium like painting to simulate and suggest the contemporary spectacle of a computer program.
In your works, the way you express yourself has changed, it has become less direct, but the subtle changes in the way a figure is repeated, mirrored, or folded are also reminiscent of the manipulation and superimposition of layers, but not as explicitly as in this body of work.
So, in your work, there is still a deliberate infiltration of a sensibility to contemporary media, of the experience of media that we have become accustomed to, though the starting point from which we observe things is no longer transparent, but serves in fact to reflect ourselves. Then in such a classical pictorial space and time, in an image shaped by a neo-classical feeling and atmosphere, these perfect and almost unbroken images suggest, through repetition, contrast, and subtle variations, possible cracks and breaks in this world of illusion, but it is up to the viewer to discover this and ask questions.
Friendship is Growing友谊在增长（局部） 48×38 in. oil on canvas, 2014
Xue Ruozhe: Yes, it requires the viewer to spend more time looking at the painting and thinking about it. It also requires the viewer to have some knowledge of painting, including an understanding of the materiality of the painting medium, as well as of the history of painting as an image. Wang Yudong said earlier that my paintings have a lot of pictorial intelligence, which requires wisdom and the participation of the audience to be fully completed.
The superimposition of layers is an element that is inherently carried in the medium: we always need to go through it again and again during the production process.
The group of paintings is not only a superimposition of painting layers, but also a compilation of different time levels: each painting has a dozen or more time layers pressed together to form a synchronic plane – the viewer can see through the whole picture at a glance unlike when watching a film, a linear medium, where the projected image is wrapped around us in a constant forward spiral where the viewer is always looking forward to the next image. I want to link the linear time to the synchronic painting surface, pressing time layers into the painting plane: the linear act of painting ends when the picture is finished, and the act of viewing the painting unfolds when the eye touches the picture. This requires the superimposition of different colour layers, revealing the underlying layers while retaining the richness of the overlay. Not only is there a pictorial richness, but also a richness in time.
20220328-20220407(detail), 2022. Acrylic on linen, 50×40cm.
Li Jia: When we look at a painting we always feel that it is a static, pre-existing presence; because of the boundaries set by the frame, it feels like the image plane is a slice taken directly from the world. But the interesting thing is that each painting is probably the product of a long process of time. But when it is finally presented to the viewer, the traces of the labour of the long process have almost all been removed and covered up, and the result is this image plane in front of you – a slice of time. In your picture, through purposeful retention, overlay without covering, and artificial markings, the viewer is made aware of how time has accumulated on the canvas. There are very visual ways of doing this here, such as visualizing time through the dates written, which is the typical way we go about measuring and perceiving time today. There are also less intuitive, but more ancient ways, which can help to grasp time sensually, irrespective of the rational perspective of today’s measurement. The use of a flower to represent and perceive time has been a tradition in many cultures, but the rhythm of a flower’s bloom or fall, the life cycle of the plant, has little to do with human time; the measurement of time is a human invention or a human perspective on the world. When the rhythm of nature and human perception are put together to show their overlap and divergence, we will find that there are many things hidden in such a synchronous painting that would otherwise be invisible.
Xue Ruozhe: The connection between flowers and time has been there from ancient times to the present; for example we often use the cliché “A fleeting blossom”, which refers to flowers and time. We also say: “One flower, one world. one leaf, one Bodhi.” Starting with the cycle of a bouquet, it is as if we could see the process of a person’s life from birth to death or even the rise and fall of a dynasty, and each painting of YYYY-MM-DD has a process that lasts from birth to death. It also incarnates a larger cycle lasting from the birth of my youngest daughter to the demise of my own physical body. In this project, it was again necessary to ensure that the dates on each painting were linked because of the continuity of time.
When dealing with the painted layers, I don’t particularly go for flatness covering off the layers underneath. Usually, we feel that the brushstrokes are too obvious when painting the first layer. But in YYYY-MM-DD, I deliberately kept some underlayers, juxtaposing them with the translucent layers above, which also creates a sense of time.
When I say a sense of time in painting, I mean that each stroke on the picture that we see was done at a different time, yet we see them all at the same time.
20220902-20221007（局部），2022. Acrylic on linen, 40x50cm.
Li Jia: Yes, again this seems to be related to the ontological dimension of painting. Generally speaking, when an artist paints, he seems to be using the arrangement of brush strokes to achieve an effect; when this is completed, its meaning becomes apparent. But all the previous efforts disappear from the final result. But if we follow your argument, the layers of time that are superimposed every day become an end in itself rather than a means to an effect, and these passing hours themselves become the painting’s raison d’être. If we had eyes that surpassed human limitations, eyes that are not bound by the rules of space and time, with a transcendent and omniscient perspective, perhaps we would see every image as a layering of time, similar to your floral sketches — time layers that flow but do not disappear. Furthermore, we can extend this perspective, this non-human perspective, to wonder if it will become one of our experiences in the future.
If, there are new ways and mediums for presenting time with the renewal of technology,, just as we have become accustomed to the frame-by-frame deconstruction of motion in films and to the temporal rhythm and narrative that cinema represents since its invention, then it is likely that painting in the future will also take on a new understanding and appearance with the change in medium and experiences.
But in terms of the painting itself, it can be understood as a process that transcends the final state, and the elements, the movements, and the brushstrokes within it are both a direction and an independent value within this image plane, this painting machine.
Xue Ruozhe: That’s right. Here the brushstroke is not meant to serve some final effect, it is itself involved in constructing the meaning of the painting.
薛若哲: 花是一种非常好的将时间流逝外化的媒介，花与死亡的联系在早已在古典静物中有体现，英文中关于静物的特定用法——Still Life，就在说生与死之间的状态。我也希望通过YYYY-MM-DD将这个悠久的静物画传统重新与当下、与我个人发生连接。
Li Jia: It seems that painting has always presented itself as a final or finished state, with the human eye as the standard. But if we try not to take our physical eyes as the only criterion for judging everything today, perhaps painting presents memories of a whole world. If we see the world we inhabit as a vast, boundless repository of memories existing simultaneously at this moment, then painting may also have the potential to present every prism of the memory crystal and every layer of time. Just as mentioned earlier, the invention of cinema was also a means of technology that gave mankind a new experience and the possibility to define the passage of time, the relationship between self, memory, and time, so is it possible to use an “ancient” medium like painting to present a current experience of time? For example, we have become accustomed to manipulating images and editing layers on computer interfaces, rewinding time through editing software, etc. These new experiences and technologies can also have an impact on a traditional medium such as painting.
You mentioned that this series of works was also an experiment for you, so why did you finally choose flowers to carry it? And why did you choose such a bunch of flowers? Was there anything personal or accidental about it, other than your conceptual setting and thinking?
Xue Ruozhe: Flowers are a good medium for externalizing the passage of time. The connection between flowers and death has long been reflected in classical still life paintings, with the term Still Life in English suggesting a state between life and death. Through YYYY-MM-DD I also hope to reconnect this long tradition of still-life painting with the present and with me.
There is also something more personal about the choice of flowers. My wife loves flowers, but she is frugal and doesn’t buy them for herself. I hope that through something like the ritual of having flowers on our table every day she will be pleased, and it is a testimony of our relationship.
Jan van Kessel the Elder
Vanitas Still Life, c. 1665/1670，
oil on copper，20.3 x 15.2 cm (8 x 6 in.)
Gift of Maida and George Abrams,
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Li Jia: This story also deeply touched me. Many people use flowers to express their emotions, and after the flowers have withered, it seems that a period has passed, but the intensity of the emotion contained in this period seems to become more meaningful and romantic if it can be sustained somehow. Yet this romance is not merely a sentiment, but rather a reflection of how we, as human beings, can turn memories into something visible, shareable and transferable.
You also mentioned that this painting contains a process of repetition: a bouquet is placed there, it slowly withers and disappears, then the life cycle of the flower is finished. But on the other hand, the cycle of painting begins; meanwhile, the life of a human being also runs in such a silent cycle, an endless kind of cycle.
Xue Ruozhe: Since my daughter was born, I feel a sense of the cycle of life, because the eldest daughter looks like me and it is as if I was reliving my own life again. It’s a constant cycle of the fading away of the old and the growth of the new. The little cycle of each painting also maps the whole process of life.
I always feel that YYYY-MM-DD does not have that kind of progressive view of historicism. It’s always in a state of internal circulation. Its view of time is not linear.
Li Jia: I remember you mentioned before that you wanted to use painting to solve the problem of painting itself, rather than leaving it to concepts. It is obvious to me in this group of works that they, although there are conceptual elements in them reminiscent of practices like Xie Deqing and On Kawara, are more focused on the mystery of painting itself. In fact, G.E. Lessing has long talked about time and space in art, the division between poetry and painting and so on, but using painting as a spatial form to address the representation of time comes back to the essence of the medium. So I would like to hear more about how you think about this issue and what is your major concern in painting.
Xue Ruozhe: There are several issues that I am concerned with, including painting and space, painting and time, and of course, the question of authenticity in painting. You mentioned the relationship between my paintings and concepts. I have been very careful in my dealing with this relationship, because I think painting is not an ideal medium for carrying ideas. To make conceptual works, it is very important to choose the right medium, but painting cannot be very accurate because it is always an emotional medium. Even if it can be almost objective like in photorealism, there is always a corporeal presence. It cannot be completely detached and objective.
However, YYYY-MM-DD falls right on the threshold between painting and conception, and its concept involves the ontological dimension of painting. Here it is not necessary to abandon the qualities of the corporeal nature of painting, but to also provide the interface of time as an intrusion into the world of concepts, revealing the elements that emerge during the painting process as elements that form concepts. For example, the accumulation of painted layers can be aligned with the layering of time in painting, and in this sense they are isomorphic.
Li Jia: Going back to the paintings, the backgrounds and tones vary from painting to painting, what was the reason for this? Or is the mood at the time of painting random like the weather?
Xue Ruozhe: The background for the vases is monotonous, the most importantrequirement being that they be placed in an environment where they can be reached – for example, in front of a wall at home. If I choose to work in the studio one day, I can’t paint if I’m not there. The choice of the background depends on how I am feeling that day, or what the colour scheme is. When I’m feeling quiet, the brushwork is relatively calm; sometimes I paint much more nervously.
The interesting thing about this project is that on the one hand, it is very restrictive in that there is a rule: the vase is in the middle, the horizon is at the same height and each flower is dated next to it, but on the other hand it is very personal and changes from time to time. It is tied to my personal life, to the state of certain moments of my life. These two rather opposite elements, occur simultaneously in one painting.
Li Jia: If we look at one of these paintings now and at the dates on it, can you still recall the feeling of that day? Do you see this body of work as a memory index or a diary?
Xue Ruozhe: I don’t necessarily remember anything specific, but in each painting, l can
remember what my feeling was while I painted. A few of them were painted when I was locked down at school during the epidemic. My mind was at a standstill. When I saw the paintings, I could recall how I felt at that time. There is a personal history in these works, as well as a relationship between personal time and public time.
李佳：还有一点我觉得也特别有意思，之前你简单提过一次，就是关于这批作品的画法。这些花都是用丙烯画的，但你大多数作品都是用油画颜料；另外，你曾经介绍过，当颜色调好了之后，其实可以在画布上一次画很多不同的东西，但是像这个花，因为每天重新回来写生，它总会有一些变化，所以每次都要重新调色。在我看来，这个重新调色也特别像重新回到绘画的开始，这是一个属于绘画的周而复始和重新出发。 虽然最后这些天的时间叠加进一张画，但是每天你都要回到那个起点，重新去问自己什么是绘画，重新去从原点来出发 。
Li Jia: Another point that I find interesting, which you briefly mentioned once before, is about the painting method of this body of work. These flowers are all painted in acrylic, but most of your works are oil paintings; in addition, you said previously that once the colours are mixed, you can paint many different things on the canvas, but because you come back to paint every day when painting YYYY-MM-DD, there are always some changes, so you have to mix the colours again every time. To me, re-colouring is in a way the essence of painting and reenacting it each time is a cycle and an iteration that belongs solely to the painting medium. Although the days are compressed into one painting, you have to go back to that starting point every day, ask yourself what painting is and start again from the beginning.
Xue Ruozhe: As a painter, it is not a particularly pleasant experience to have to mix the colours again every day. Under normal circumstances, I would paint the flowers in similar lighting situations with roughly the same colours, paint it all over again, and then fine-tune it; some are a bit cooler, some are a bit warmer. But when painting this group of paintings, it was as if every day’s effort had to be zeroed in on again by having to re-mix similar colours each time.
As for acrylic, it is because acrylic is a material that settles very quickly: unlike oil painting that is slow to adhere, it dries almost immediately, meaning that each day the flower is in a different colour layer. Whereas oil paintings often take up to a week or even half a month to dry in winter, there is no way to put different flowers in different layers, which would interfere with the concept of this series.
Li Jia: Do you need to set a precise time everyday to paint?
Xue Ruozhe: It’s not particularly precise, but it’s roughly the same period.
I tend to paint in the morning now because it is more specific and I can arrange a rough time frame to paint. Of course, it also depends on my circumstances: now I am alone in Guangzhou, it is easy to organize my time in the morning. When I return to Beijing and have children at home, I have to find a relatively free period to paint.
Li Jia: This reminds me of Fluxus and of the older generation of artists like Song Dong who would turn art into a way of life, for example, Song Dong also had a water diary project where he would use water every day to write his diary, but the water would evaporate and leave nothing behind. This work is more like a personal exercise for him, or rather, a way for the artist to validate what he is about. This practice is very radical. Going back to your series, although painting is considered a traditional medium, it is probably closer to Song Dong’s radical attempt to keep a water diary. Perhaps because you are a painter, the approach you take is still painting, using painting to define your fundamental relationship with art. But this painting is no longer a profession, no longer a process separate from your life in a studio, but a way for you to perceive and validate yourself, to connect your life, to find meaning.
Xue Ruozhe: This project is a lifelong project, it is closely related to my personal experiences, my thought about life, and even my daily schedule. It’s not a state when I have to dedicate time to one painting/group of paintings – to bounce everything off and do something. Instead, it is an inherent part of my life — a continuous state.