JTF (just the facts): Published in December 2017 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Acrylic hardcover housed in a paper box, traditional Chinese binding, with 44 folds. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Yanyou Yuan Di and Cheng Yinhe. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Xiaoyi Chen is a young Chinese photographer whose practice is influenced by a combination of Western abstract art and the ancient Eastern philosophies of Tao and Zen. Growing up in Sichuan province, in southwest China near Tibet, she was constantly exposed to its magnificent landscape and her affinity for the moods of nature has found a central place in her work. In 2015, she won the Three Shadows Photography Award, the most prestigious photo contest in China, and in 2017, she was named one of Asia’s “30 Artists under 30” by Forbes, the recognition coming for her project Koan, a series of black and white photogravures.
In 2014, when Chen was studying in the United Kingdom, her project was published by the London-based book maker PJB Editions (here). That first edition is a hardcover book with the letter “o” in Koan appearing as a round hole in the cover. Recently, the Chinese publisher Jiazazhi Press has released an entirely redesigned edition of the project, with the focus placed more on the Chinese tradition of book-making. These two competing approaches offer a unique way to experience the same project from separate points of view.
The Chinese edition of Koan has an elegantly spare design, rooted in exciting construction. The book itself is extremely vertical, its shape long and thin. It features traditional Chinese binding with the folds held together by acrylic hardcovers, the extended fan of paper allowing the images to easily flow one into another. It is hosted inside in a long black paper box, with the title appearing in black letters on top (the arrangement of the letters echoes the strokes found in Chinese characters). A folded insert contains the artist’s introduction to Koan.
Chen explains that “the inspiration for the project comes from ancient wisdom.” A koan is a riddle, story, or question used by Zen Buddhists during meditation to help in “the attainment of a state of spontaneous reflection, free from planning and analytical thought,” where the inadequacy of reasoning becomes clear. The images in Chen’s Koan are meant to be understood by spirit and intuition (rather than direct indentification or categorization), so she is encouraging the viewer to bring a different kind of awareness into what we see, pushing us to follow a more primal set of feelings in experiencing the work.
Chen started working on the project during travels to Iceland, and many of the included photographs were taken there. Observing the extreme and often eerie Icelandic landscape with its icebergs, lakes, and floating blocks of ice triggered an emotional response in her, a sense of purification as one connects with nature. She brought this feeling into her work through her use of abstraction and minimalism, paring the natural forms down into elemental visual essences.
The slightly wavy and dark surface of water appears on the glossy acrylic hardcovers, setting the mood for the book experience. The sequence then opens with an image of the surface of water, and as the visual narrative gently unfolds, the pictures bounce, flow, and change into icebergs, natural textures, leaves, water, and mountains. These photographs are mysterious and poetic, and each presents a single emotional space. Different sized images are placed in various locations on the paper folds, our eye forced to move in and out, up and down, continually recalibrating what we see. As the photographs connect into one dynamically elongated flow, they express universal themes of movement and cyclicality, in beauty (and decay), in life (and death), and in the constant evolution of nature.
Chen largely invites the viewer to experience this shifting progression of work as it is, without providing any further guidance, asking us to just look at the photographs and to face them without preconceived thoughts or conclusions. Deliberately placed in a state where the meaning is not immediately clear (and edging toward abstraction), we find ourselves in unsettled space – and it is this feeling that Chen wants us to discover in her work. It is the moment where she hopes we will allow intuition to guide us.
While the first iteration of Koan took a more conventional (and Western) photobook form, this version feels more like a singular object, where the photographs have become component parts of a more integrated artistic expression. By taking cues from Eastern book making traditions, where scrolls, fans, and intricate folds have long been integral parts of storytelling, Chen has done more than simply repackage her pictures with a new publisher. She has made a second effort to refine and rethink her presentation, allowing herself the freedom to go further toward the ultimate embodiment of her intuitive artistic vision.
Collector’s POV: Xiaoyi Chen is represented by Matèria in Rome (here). Her works have little secondary market history to date, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.