Inches of Time

This work questions our habitual “standards” from another angle. Centimeter, inch and cun all are conventional standards in our society. As an artist, I try to experience these standards with my hands, meanwhile break or bend these standards in my own way. In the series work of “Inch of Time”, the key word is the relationship between “time and distance” and “standard and deviation”. Roughly speaking, I processed a batch of old teak from a demolished house to pieces of wood of different length, width and thickness; then carved “millimeters” on a piece of wood according to subjective feeling until a “false ruler” with a margin of error is produced. The technique of inlaying copper wire or nail in traditional Chinese ruler is also used to make fake Chinese measurement.

 

On these “rulers”, each “millimeter” slowly came into being based on the feeling of the very split second and in the end a certain “numerical length” was formed. However, each ruler has a certain amount of error with its actual length. For example, the deduced length of the ruler appears to be “207cm” while the actual length of the object is 200cm. The whole process of production is similar to a monk knocking the temple block or copying scriptures-subjectively, the graduation is much carefully set, but objectively, everything is make-believe and inaccurate. Eventually each ruler produced in this way is a subjective ruler.

 

Besides, the artist made an upright trigonal ruler according to his own height (172cm). Each facet is a “standard”. Among them, one facet has new standards “MN” and “SN”, which are obtained by dividing the artist’s height into 1000 equal parts. The other two facets are respectively “centimeter” and “cun” deduced through hand measurement. Putting three different standards onto one ruler is like racing within a fixed range. Different standards and deviations form different contradictions.

 

Video “Inch of Time” , which was filmed based on this series of work, is the first micro documentary directed and acted by the artist himself. The four-minute black-and-white silent film documents Ni Youyu’s process of making a ruler at Three on the Bund, Shanghai.

To continue his investigation into the physicality of time is the unifying thread of this ongoing project. Simply titled as Ruler, Ni harnesses a meditative-oriented approach to making the sculptural installation. And challenging the viewers to discover their allure only after a period of contemplation. The centerpiece comprises 9 strips of different wood in varying lengths of 90 – 200 cm, where the artist has approximated and carved, via his own naked eyes and instinct, lines to measure distances. While an affinity for artifice fuels a great deal of what he does here, knowingly that these error-marked pieces will not do what they are supposed to do, the function of being a real ruler, a penchant for disclosure the structure of artifice underpins his artistic operations.

He treats a piece of wood (ruler) as a kind of expanded composition, to be articulated through freestanding elements, with correspondences of shape, surface and material inspiring trajectories of thought and narrative across the space. Countering the idea of viewing sculptures as autonomous objects, Ni also captures the passing of time as a material so that it may not be overlooked. In bringing time into the work, its instantly there, fully noticed and active in the experience. Time, not as social, but sculptural construct, the sculpting of the ‘rulers’ have emerged from intense concentration and patience as the work also charts his psyche, directing our attention to a tactile sensibility and in part by the painstaking labor. This process is also about private experience, the barely perceivable, and the incommunicable. It brings to mind art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss’s description of the late artist Eva Hesse’s Continent (1969) as “delivering the message of privacy, of a retreat from language, of a withdrawal into those extremely personal reaches of experience that are beyond, or beneath speech … a declaration about the expressive power of matter itself, of matter held down to a level of the sub-articulate.” Ni’s work also inhabits this realm of the sub-articulate. His interest is as psychological as it is material.

The apparent simplicity and economy with which Ni operates in this project can be pleasantly deceiving, and to take him at face value is to fall, at least to a certain degree, right into his trap. Which is to say that this work is as rich in personality and concealed narratives as it is humble in material and awareness. Also there is a sensation to “one at a time” viewing method as we take our time with the ‘rulers’. While they look at first glance like ready-mades, in closer look, the surface details of certain pieces depict intricate formations reminiscent of interstellar multi-star systems, and their spatial distribution has something of the typographic – almost hieroglyphic – about it. The small variations in configuration and surface appearance register gradually on the viewers walking across the pieces, noting the shifts in achieving increasing assurance and fluency. Each piece has an ingrained purpose and spirited sensitivity honoring a workmanship that is both as familiar and as foreign as the recognition of our own breath.

Put together, the 9 pieces constitutes an immersive installation, all the works reinforcing one another even as they successfully stood alone. A display either as a long straight row alongside each other or in stacked arrangement vertically, as one reflects on the underlying interface between ritual repetition and material, internal perception and external stimulus, all sorts of measures emerge – your place in time, your place in reference to the world, your awareness of the patience and difficult labor of creating something from mere scratch and it become apparent the extent to which the work captures the artist’s own language of altering familiar constructions and shaping it into new narratives.

The project is also accompanied with an independent and mood-altering component, in the form of a video work - filmed within a gallery space as well as featuring shots of the outdoor environments, essentially the sceneries around the Bund in Shanghai. The 4-min silent work acts as a landscape simultaneously reflecting both a metropolis’ skyline and the interior of a room where the artist is seen sculpting the wooden pieces in private, multiplied by the layering of windows, and other reflective surfaces within the filmic space. Impeccable shot compositions, and production values transcended the dialectics between the visual representation of the real and the real as a physical yet temporary phenomenon. Architectural interference in natural environments as well as visual interventions in the dynamics of interiors led to an interplay between reality and fiction. Thus, Ni forges a sequence that in turn creates an unfolding of narratives. When viewing, the slowness of the VDO reduces the rate of our perception, or being hyper-perceptive. Film is designed to operate very quickly, but in this production, Ni lets the narratives live a little, because that way, it absorbs more experience, in finer details. So if we think of landscape as also absorbing experience, a longer and unhurried exposure allow us to receive more emotion from the landscape. The artist is interested in the amount of thought the VDO can evoke. And a quality best described as intellectual nerve.

It's the kind of a nuanced intertwining of the identical and the difference played out almost simultaneously – in and out of time – hand in hand and hand on hand by which the filmed projections reveal or conceal their intentions, hide or exhibit their subjects, in order to reflect themselves in each other, casting light on the spaces in between. So while Ni’s ruler-like sculptures are conceptually tight as an entity, it is also sensitively attuned to the specifics of characteristics. With a video adding a documentary-like dimension, this project plays upon viewer interaction and is dependent on memory and connective combinations as well as individual interpretation. It is, by turn, an ocular pleasure where there’s a lot more going on here in related ways.

At the same time, it is intended to be the reconfiguration of the relationship between the viewers and the art object within the exhibition space. By playing with the domains of sculpture and video, this installation resists the static quality that flat compositions can have, embracing, rather, the dynamics of movement that link time, space and material. At hand is a notion of duality – of the object that lives and of the living being that is an object – which recurs throughout the video. Through this deeply felt project, the keen edge of which derives from a dense layering of quietude and focus, Ni is on his way to creating visual forms that demand new modes of physical and perceptual interaction. On the whole it is elegant, and most important, intelligent work.(By Zhu Zhu)

Inches of Time I(17.3h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

49.8x3.4x0.35cm

Inches of Time II(40.3h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

155.6x4.5x0.6cm

Inches of Time III(46.5h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

128.45x3.95x0.6cm

Inches of Time IV(42.7h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

113.1x5.6x0.5cm

Inches of Time V(50h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

109.3x4.3x0.7cm

Inches of Time VI(17h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

109.3x4.3x0.7cm

Inches of Time VII(13h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

94x3x0.7cm

Inches of Time VIII(18.5)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

78.6x5.85x0.65cm

Inches of Time IX(71h)

2012-2013

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

167.25x7x0.6cm

Inches of Time XI

2014

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint, steel

172.5x34cm

Inches of Time XII

2014

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint, steel

171.5x34cm

Three Steps Ruler

2014

Old wood, copper wires, copper nails, paint

560x8cm (Arranged according to the space )

NI

Youyu