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Visual Arts

Insights: Xinwei Che

Examining our experience of time through various materials in moments of change


Published: 30 Oct 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Bound by the structures of fast-paced, commodified time, it is often difficult for us to truly inhabit time. Xinwei Che’s practice explores how we may practice being in time by observing and attending to material processes that unfold and evolve gradually. Engaging with clay and traditional Chinese herbs through performance-installations, the artist attempts to deepen and expand our experience of time by practising material rituals. Clay is eroded from the earth’s crust by forces of wind and water over millennia while traditional Chinese herbs yield vivid colours that shift with their growth cycles. The works capture the materials in moments of change—drying, cracking, soaking, melting, seeping and spreading—revealing time through attention.

Installation view of <em>Holding Time</em>《实 · 空》, Xinwei Che, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

Time Wells《时纹》emerged from the silent public performance Holding performed by Che in 2021. For forty hours she attended to a field of lit beeswax candles. Each time a candle was consumed, the artist lit the next candle and marked the shape of melted wax with a layer of pigment brewed from traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. Between these moments, there was a shared experience of the unfolding of time by the artist and viewers. In this exhibition, stain-paintings and an installation of handmade beeswax candles reveal the accumulation of these hours.

In Gathering Space《凝散》, Che seeks to understand time through clay’s material properties. Hand-pinched, unfired clay bowls are filled with coloured pigments brewed from Chinese medicinal herbs which inevitably seep through. The prints shown capture the erosion of these vessels by these vivid yet impermanent pigments.

In urban cities, the ground excavated and rebuilt during construction and maintenance work often contains the same clay minerals used in ceramic work. The two-channel video Laying Ground《土铺》 presents excerpts of Che’s performance in 2022 where she maintained a strip of ground inside an art institution using unfired clay. The work is a meditation on care, labour and futility and contemplates the ways in which we could attend to the ground beneath our feet. Holding Time《实 · 空》offers a glimpse of the deep time held within geological cycles and intimate gestures of touch, a silent core of the hours that sits beneath the rush of the everyday.

We began the conversation for this exhibition years back and saw it continue through the pandemic. During this time, you pursued your Master’s in Canada and did a residency in Taiwan. How did this movement between countries influence the way you understand and experience time-space, and was this translated into the works in this exhibition?

No matter where I lived, Singapore, Vancouver or Taipei, the everyday time in these urban cities always felt rushed and strained to me. Many of my friends and colleagues in these cities suffered from time poverty—a chronic sense of never having enough time—even if they were otherwise successful and fulfilled.

I feel capitalism has made time more uniform across different spaces. Capitalist time seems to exist as empty units—hours, minutes, seconds—with no inherent qualities or value unless you pack as much as possible into these time-units or exchange them for something else.

Installation view of <em>Holding Time</em>《实 · 空》, Xinwei Che, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

While doing my Master’s degree in Vancouver, I discovered other times that flowed strongly beneath the rush of everyday time in my studio. One of them is material time, and my connection to this time pervades through this exhibition.

I use material time to refer to the lifecycles of my materials. When I work with clay, my slow processes of wedging, rolling, pinching, joining and mending are only a tiny fraction of its long lifecycle. Clay minerals are eroded from rocks by wind, water, heat and chemical processes over thousands of years. Only the finest particles have the potential to form clay, and these particles sometimes flow with river currents across enormous geographical distances, before they settle in riverbeds where the water is very still.

When I work with clay, I hold this deep time in my hands. I am not simply wedging clay purchased from the art store, I am moving with materials that are literally thousands of years old. This is my starting point for every artwork, and this is what allows me to slip away from the persistent sensation of never having enough time.

You described your film 'Laying Ground'《土铺》 as one that began from a desire to not simply document a material performance, but to reopen time for practicing attention. Could you share more on your engagement with the medium of performance and how it expresses what you are exploring in your practice?

When I am asked about my engagement with performance, I often refer to economics professor Ian Walker’s research, which showed that if people had an endless supply of money, more than 80 percent would use that money to buy time. In other words, he argued, most of us would use money to buy time. But given that time is money in a capitalist society, we would essentially be spending time to make money, to buy time, to spend time.

Performance is my way of side-stepping this confounding cyclical structure. I use my job as an artist to draw boundaries around a duration of time and name it a 'performance art piece.' In doing so, I claim this duration to practice being in time by attending to and observing the changes in my materials.

Installation view of <em>Laying Ground</em>《土铺》, Xinwei Che, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

I often work with the duration of forty hours because that is the standard work week in Vancouver. In the performance shown in Laying Ground《土铺》, I slowly covered a narrow strip of the ground inside an art institution with richly pigmented clays over forty hours. I wedged the clay, rolled them out into coils and joined them with my fingers little by little. When cracks appeared, I carefully mended them with fresh clay. When I laid down the last piece of wet clay, I returned to the beginning to pick up the first piece of dried clay. By the end of the performance, I removed every piece of clay that I laid down and recycled them in a water bucket.

The actions in this performance may seem futile from the lens of capitalist productivity. But by practicing these actions within the performance framework of a forty-hour work week, I hope to invite reflections on the relationship between work and value. What could be the value of the material movements in this performance if we consider them through the lens of deep, geological time?

In your work 'Gathering Space'《凝散》, you wanted the audience to ponder on what it would mean to watch a moment pass. What considerations do you have in inviting or negotiating the audience’s interaction with or participation in your performances?

One of my foremost considerations is how difficult it is for the audience to slow down and step outside of fast-paced, commodified time. I constantly struggle to escape time pressure and have to practice listening to my materials continually to recall other possible time scales.

Installation view of <em>Gathering Space</em>《凝散》, Xinwei Che, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

In this exhibition, Gathering Space《凝散》exists as a set of photo prints. I have also shown this work as an installation, where the clay bowls are slowly being eroded by the traditional Chinese medicine they hold, while I was in residency at Taipei Artist Village in 2022. In both versions, I hope to convey a sense of time in which nothing seems to be changing. A clay vessel placidly holds medicinal pigments, or a vessel has already ruptured and stained the paper beneath. If viewers lose attention and leave, they may return to find a bowl that has suddenly split into many fragments, or a vivid stain has bloomed all the way to the paper’s edges.

Engaging with the audience in this way, I am asking what is unfolding when it seems that nothing is happening? We are used to a constant flow of information, accustomed to being bombarded by new images, words and sounds. What could we learn by attuning ourselves to the durations between moments of visible change, to those long minutes or hours during which we are simply held in time?

I have also created works in which the audience participates in the performance. For instance, in Mend Walks, I invited members of the Emily Carr University community to join me on silent walks to mend pavements cracks with unfired clay. Each walk unfolded over an hour and began with the invitation to consider cracks not as a defect, but as a necessary release of tension, a rupture that allows new possibilities to arise.

By inviting the audience to participate in Mend Walks, I hold this duration of an hour for us to contemplate what it might mean to repair something. On rainy days, the terracotta-coloured clay begins to flow away even as we are filling in the cracks together. Our shared reflections on impermanence and cyclical time arise from this duration, through the materials we engage with.

You are interested in exploring the inherent properties of the materials you engage with like traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, clay and beeswax. What do you look out for in the materials you work with?

I seek out materials that exist in a continual state of change. Any clay that is unfired can always return to the water and begin again, even after it becomes bone dry. Likewise, beeswax melts and releases an aroma when lit and when it solidifies again, there is the potential that it can be reactivated by heat.

In many ways, these changing materials are very uncomfortable to me as an artist. Art institutions and the art market treat artworks as valuable objects that should be conserved and protected to avoid degradation. Having poured an enormous amount of time and energy into making my works, I also want to control every aspect of my artworks and fix them in a single state.

I am drawn to materials that thwart this desire for permanence. Though I often find my materials very visually compelling and moving as they shift through different states, the core of my works lies in the expanded experiences of time they might offer, not in any single moment of beauty. In choosing materials that change continually, every work becomes a practice in becoming aware of and accepting the uncertainty that every moment holds.

In your practice, you explore various perspectives or facets of time that may not abide by capitalist benchmarks of what is considered an efficient usage of time. Could you share on how this interest in time came about?

I grew up in Singapore where efficiency and productivity are highly valued. Time is often exchanged for Key Performance Indicators (KPI), a quantifiable measure of performance over time for a specified objective. I find KPIs problematic because not all value generated is quickly apparent, knowable and quantifiable.

In a late-capitalist society, our sense of value is deeply influenced by the media-driven market. These voices are loud, so I often feel that we do not know what we truly value.

I work with futility—for example mending cracks with unfired clay which I know will be washed away by the rain in a few weeks—to invite reflection on how we assign value. What is a 'good' use of our time?

I am not approaching this in a nihilistic way where I champion futility because nothing has meaning. On the contrary, I feel the impermanence revealed by my materials has deep meaning and I would like to create space for contemplating this through my works.

Holding Time《实 · 空》by Xinwei Che was on view at Esplanade Community Wall from 13 Jan – 14 May 2023.

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