Yafei Qi – ⻬齐亚菲, born in 1987 in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, lives and works in Berlin.
She majored in Film and Video Art with a BA in China Central Academy of Fine Art and graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Bergen Academy of Art and Design in 2016.
Her art video works explore themes of family and generational gap, industrialization and environment changes, isolation, and social expectations.
Her 2016 video “Wearing the Fog” won the award for “Best Experimental Film” at the Broadway International Film Festival in Brooklyn and Honourable Mention at The First International Film Festival.
In 2017, her video performances “Life Tells Lies” and “I Wonder Why” received international acclaim.
The artist recently has her first solo exhibition in Germany. Yafei Qi is now painting editing and working on her new December exhibition.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
China-Underground: How and when did you get into art? What motivated you?
Yafei Qi: I felt bored in middle school and I was very bad in math，chemistry and those regular courses.
I tried to run away from boarding school once. It was a raining night, I hid in the rose garden outside of the dormitory, I waited for the door lady turned off the lights, then I climbed over the school wall.
I guess I was seeking other possibilities in life, I thought the world outside of school is full of mysterious and bustling, so I left school with a big ambition for my new life.
Of course, my father found me on the second day, I was like a drowned rat in the street and he sent me back to school immediately, my ambition was damped down by reality.
So look, I didn’t like school and there was no way to walk away from it.
After that I found drawing and oil painting, I felt making a painting is something fun to do, I didn’t think about what art it is and what it means to me. On another hand, that was the way of running away from my school life.
Talking about motivation, I think it was the desire of running away from life when I was 15 years old, my grandma was the one made it happen after, she paid my tuition fee secretly behind my parents when they didn’t agree with me on going to an art school to continue my art study.
“Yafei Qi is a performance video-artist with a background in filmmaking and painting.”
You make videos and you are also a painter. What does a painting mean to you? Which art medium most represent you?
Painting is more personal for me. It shows what we cannot describe and we cannot see in reality.
I gather the thoughts from my daily life experience into painting, it always shows up with a feeling or emotion of a certain moment.
I guess I need that kind of quiet and lonely time to stay in a studio and to see what would show up on the canvas, sometimes it shows up with good surprise.
There is more random space than video making.
Video is linear, based on time.
Everything shows with video is in a form or structure of time, the certain moment, emotion or story can be shaped by acting, movement, lighting, sound, montage, space, and so on.
It has its multiformity to play with and it needs more arrangements and pre-planning before you get the camera rolling, most of my videos are teamwork.
Painting and video are both my tool or weapon against time and my own life.
Where did the idea for “I Wonder Why” come from? Is it related to a particular experience?
“I wonder why” is related to my personal experience.
I went through my first breakup after I spent 11 years with my ex-boyfriend.
In my case, what made me more confused was that the reaction of the surrounding society, my friends, family, colleagues had strong opinions of our breakup, most of them were against my own ideas.
It was the suggestions that drive me to think about what is the social expectations for an individual person in China?
Actually, It was four and a half pages of text work, in the beginning, the text I wrote was more dreamy and sad.
Then I decided to do it in a physical way and hit the point more directly, to show the psychological impact of when the individual goes away from the normal standards of the social expectation and how the society punishes a female betrayer.
Can you tell us about “Wearing the Fog”? What is the idea behind?
Wearing The Fog is a double-screen video with a non-linear narrative structure.
It centers around the coldness of the industrial world in China and the indifference of a family. All the actors are my family and the shooting location was in my parent’s apartment.
I used a double screen to express the gap between the two generations, as well as the relationship between individual and society.
The story is related to my personal growth environment and life experience. In the city where my parents are living, air pollution is very serious in the wintertime.
It caused a surrealism scene in that city, people have to communicate with each other through the obstruction of gauze mask and fog.
The whole city is in clouds and all the people live in a dream.
My family owns one clothing factory at that time, the factories are one of the sources which cause air pollution.
We play both the victim and perpetrator of the environment.
At that time, I have a communication problem with my parents. whatever how hard we tried to solve this problem, it always end up with an argument.
China is developing so fast, so the growth of the environment between my generation and the last generation has a big difference, which causes a great generation gap.
What the last generation has been through is incredible. For them, it’s also difficult to understand what we are thinking and doing nowadays.
That is one of the problems when a country develops rapidly, bring to a single-family.
What the last generation and the city suffered today, is the results of other things continuation and development.
Just like the environment where I live, we play both the victim and perpetrator for our generation too.
The process of working on this piece has become the process of solving my practical problem as well.
The dynamics of family have been central to her art videos “Wearing the Fog” and “Life tells lies”.
In the video “Wearing the Fog”, we see the signs of modernization and well-being, but the dialogue where the mother concern emerges is equal to the concerns of the past when the Chinese society was economically different. This indicates a strong cultural component. Do you think Chinese parents abroad have the same concerns or are these feelings stronger in the mainland?
“Wearing the fog” cannot present the whole image of generational conflicts, traditional role-models, and the impact of environmental changes on modern Chinese culture in China.
It’s a window to glance sideways in China, especially in those secondary cities.
But I believe that generational conflicts are common in every corner of the world since people are changing as the world is changing.
It’s hard to say if the Chinese parents abroad have the same concerns or not. I think it depends on person-to-person, family-to-family.
But yes, these feelings are stronger in the mainland.
“Life tells lies” touch very personal inter-generational relationships. What do you want to tell with this video work?
“Life tells lies” was made at the same time as “I wonder why”. It’s an extended-expression of what is the social expectation for an individual person, more specifically what is the social expectation for me.
All the plots in that work are adapted from my observation of the survival state from my grandma and mum’s life, who chose to meet the public expectations, and the video also shows the imagination of my own future.
I’m trying to weave a seemingly conforming woman’s life to social expectations.
In the video, the four generations of women’s lives are going in a circle, from birth to middle age, marriage to death. such as a collage of life. It tells me what my life would look like with social expectations.
What were the biggest challenges you encounter in the realization of your videos?
There are many challenges during the process.
How to converting the ideas and thoughts into an artwork is the most challenging thing.
Art is a form to shape and extend the thoughts which I collected from daily life, otherwise, the thoughts are just fog or a piece of jam.
“She express her ideas creating video as installation and her minimalistic multi-screen moving images express personal human emotions giving to time a multiplicity content.”
How was to directing your parents in your videos?
It was fun, my parents were 100% supported and helped me with it. In addition to that my father thought he was going to be a movie star and he was very excited about starting. Of course, the movie star thing didn’t happen.
I stayed with them for 2 weeks before filming, during that time I used a small camera to record them every day, as long as they got used to being filmed and to be familiar with the camera, the filming process would be more smooth.
They are not professional actors, in some scenes, we only can go over once, in case they will be got lost in struggling on how to act. Sometimes we do practicing before the day we film. They were very collaborative during the whole process.
Can you share with us a story from the backstage of one of your videos?
During the filming of “Wearing the fog”, I ordered a whole package of face masks with 50 pieces inside, which is for everyone who was working on this project.
I collected several of the used filters from the masks when the shooting process was finished since I was shocked by the heavy air pollution.
I know the Chinese government is really trying hard to solve the problem of environmental pollution, I hope that day would come sooner, so I can just throw those mask filters in the garbage can.
Can you tell us something about your next projects?
I was inspired by the book “Existentialism”, with texts selected and introduced by German writer Walter Kaumann.
This book led me to think about “existence” in many ways.
I am hoping to complete the next creative project in Berlin and start from everyday concerns, using daily life existence as the main theme and the influence of natural light on the environment, to create a video work without specific characters.
In order to emphasize that those living in a foreign country can hardly measure where they are standing and the feeling apart of the “incompatibility” of their identity. The concept of this video work is a question of contemporary human living conditions and identity issues based on the research of immigrants in Germany.
At the same time, I’m also working on a series of paintings that are related to the same topic. it will be shown in Iceland in December 2019.
Photos courtesy of Yafei Qi
Thanks to Migrant Bird Space for the collaboration