Webson Ji is a Chinese multimedia artist currently residing in New York City. He holds an MA degree in Sculpture from Savannah College of Art and Design and a BFA in Public Art from China Academy of Art. He is a member of the International Sculpture Center and an associate member of the National Sculpture Society.
Webson is inspired by Eastern culture and by his background as a competitive swimmer.
These two elements contribute to his personal viewpoints and art creations. He is an international award-winning artist, that was honored as the Best Young Artist of the Year at the 2018 GAMMA Young Artist Competition in Japan. His works were also exhibited in the World Trade Center, NY in 2019.
China-Underground: How and when did you get into art? Why did you decide to become an artist?
Webson Ji: I was born and raised in Jiangsu Province on the east coast of China. My hometown is called Changzhou, which is located in the highly urbanized Yangtze Delta region of China. My family decided to move to Suzhou for my education. My parents had been incredibly supportive of my education since I was a little kid. I was lucky to get the opportunity to learn how to sketch and paint when I was young. It was a good start for me to perceive the world with some basic understanding of artistic techniques. I started to pursue my career as an artist when I decided to apply to art colleges.
I graduated from the China Academy of Art with a bachelor’s degree in Public Art, and I moved to the US for graduate study. After I got a master’s degree in Sculpture from Savannah College of Art and Design, I moved to New York to continue my career as an artist. Focusing on a personal expression doesn’t mean that I can skip out of society and don’t care anything about it. It is more like a social engagement or commitment between the artist and the community the artist is contributing to, and that is fascinating to me.
– What does art represent for you? Who influenced you and what is your artistic philosophy?
– Art is about being existent. It is just like a ripple – I came to this world, I make an impact, and I leave. I don’t matter. What I did matters. The whole process is the circle of life, and on the other hand, it is what art means to me. I expressed myself, I contributed to art, I asked for nothing, and that’s it. I was influenced by artists like Joseph Kosuth, Mark Rothko, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cai Guoqiang. However, I would like to talk about Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is my mentor during my art-creating process.
I would say we share something in common, not only the heritage of being Asian and Chinese but also more of what we appreciate. Bruce is well known for his quotes, and a lot of people follow these words of wisdom. “Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.” His efforts to broadcast Eastern philosophy with the martial arts did contribute a lot.
I believe I am also sharing my values and ideas with my audience with an eastern-based expression, visually or conceptually. I used to talk about the potential of individuals, using the contrast between small containers and the massive materials that they pour out. Now, I am trying to become someone who helps to contribute to the human culture and philosophy neutrally and objectively, like water.
– Can you tell us about your kid’s experience as a competitive swimmer? How did it affect the way you see the world and make art?
– I started getting professional training when I was in elementary school, beginning with a swimming camp. I was around ten years old, and It was very a basic startup for kids like me at that time. Surprisingly, I was amazed by the perspective I gained when underwater. Everything was so different from my whole body embraced by the malleable material—water. I made a significant decision shortly afterward under the guidance of my parents—continue the training and be very dedicated to it.
My efforts and time did not end in vain. I got selected to the competitive swimming team for my city as the coach discovered my talent in backstroke since I had already won the championships in several city-wide matches. Then, my career as a competitive swimmer began.
My training started right after my school ended, day after day, month after month. Sometimes I felt desperate, feeling that loneliness underwater. It was like taking a long-distance ride, with no company, no sound, no vision of others. It was just me swimming between the lanes, looking down at the bottom of the pool, listening to the buzzing sound from the water’s waves. You swim alone.
That’s how I started to meditate underwater, knowing that there was nothing to speak, nothing to hear, nothing to touch. I was surrounded by the unknown— uncertainty—and that was what I got from water to further develop my theory as an artist.
– Your art has a special focus on water. For different technical reasons, water in art representation is more seen and “physically” less used. How do you choose the materials to best represent it?
– Talking about something without the presence of it is my strategy. I would love to bring my audience to the context with their own experiences with water, or interpretation of water. This process is critical since the engagement helps my works complete. In this way, I tend to choose malleable and soft materials that could easily bring the images of flowing feelings to the conversation.
However, as I learn more about water, I realize that different states of water can be presented in different materiality, which is interesting to me, knowing that each state of water is just part of a process and this process never ends.
– Are there any materials you prefer to use to create your artwork and why?
– I use daily products and common materials that people can recognize immediately. For example, I use hot glue, tapes, plasters, plastics, ready-made, and some items that were kicked out from their original homes.
Generally speaking, my works are more based on conceptual and spiritual levels instead of figurative shapes or forms so as to switch my audience’s recognition from the outside shapes to the inside content.
– Do you get in connection with water when you are looking for new inspiration or do you get any kind of physical contact with it?
– Water is more like a meditative partner to me. Sometimes I use the characters of water to illustrate an idea, but for most of the cases, I reach out my hands to the water trying to feel how it feels. When I was a kid, my dad guided me on the way to meditation. My father used to learn Taoism, and he was fascinated and dedicated to how the human body reacts to spiritual interactions. He used to do meditating practice while I, as a child, had no clues about what he was doing.
I used to think meditation was nothing but pointless action of insanity. Even though I was not a fan, my father gently led me to calm myself down, lie on the bed, feel the pace of my breath, and meditate. He gave me guidance like “imaging a picture of yourself lying on the surface of the water while there is nothing but the water there” “you lay back, dive deep, deeper, and deeper” “you focus on yourself, you see nothing, you feel nothing.”
I wasn’t sure, at that time, whether I fell asleep, or my spirit dived into the nothingness. After a while, he would tell me something like “now you can hear me, and you are about to float on the water again.” It was a unique experience for me. I see it as a way of hypnosis, but I don’t have an answer. Nowadays, I do meditation myself, and it is a path to learn and feel more about existence. Being in the water is not just a physical contact to me; it’s more like the destination of my soul.
– Can you tell us about your artwork “Black Water”? Where did the idea come from?
– Black Water is more like a self-portrait of all the emotions that I am going through. No color palette, no severe brush marks, no specific textures or patterns, nothing. Left alone in a foreign country, knowing there is no one from my past that I can turn to, standing in the middle of the unknown.
I feel like it is okay to stay in solitude. It is okay to live with loneliness. It is okay to bear with vulnerability. The black water will take away everything and just keep going. It is all about that moment, the unknown. All the differences between age, gender, class, and race will be washed away, and all that is left is the soul itself. You were there; you are not there.
– The sounds of water in the swimming pools, those of the sea, and their different smells. Water with chlorine or saltwater. After years of training to swim, how is your relationship nowadays with water?
– The characteristic of water as an outsider to human beings is quite attractive –– it ebbs, it flows, it watches, it does not care. Water was there long before human beings existed, and it will still be there after we disappear.
The existence of water does not rely on human activities. However, at the same time, 70 percent of the human body’s composition is water. Water does not count on us, and it will not in the future, but we do. There is no difference between gender, race, class, and so on to water. Everything stays the way it is. It is so inspiring to find an element that is so organic and matches my topic so well.
I developed my expression of art, trying to figure out the right way to put up my ideas and all the materials I use altogether. I would say it is part of my body, and it is part of me.
– From China to New York. How did the US appear to you when you moved? What cultural differences did you find more particular? Does it offer you new ideas for your creations?
– Born and raised in China, I grew up in a particular Asian environment where whatever we do, we do without racial differences. That contributed to a circumstance where I saw myself as an individual playing my role in society, trying to mind my own business.
I made several artworks during my time in Asia, talking about the potential of individuals who have the capabilities to do more than others think they can. Several sculptures were made then, such as “All You Need Is an Opener”, “Gravity Knows” and “Rolling”. Those were the only arguments I made against prejudices against individuals about age, sexuality, class, or whatever. However, things changed when I started my career in the USA, getting to know a different country, a different community, and a different cultural system.
I was amazed by the way how people express themselves, show their concerns about what they value, and give love to what they cherish. There was one word that I learned –– about diversity.
The diversity in the USA shows how Americans respect each other. Different ideas and mindsets are appreciated here. People share the values that human beings can only live better when they are holding hands and cooperating with one another. I am delighted to have the opportunity to have conversations with people from different areas of the world. They showed me other perspectives of the world beyond the misunderstandings I used to hold.
I then realized that there are so many issues people are dealing with that I can take part in to offer my help. Right now, I am working on projects related to depression and self-recognition.
Aware that there is still so much going on with Human Rights, Civil Rights, LGBTQ rights, Women’s Rights, and so on, I would like to be a voice for my generation as a young power in our society.
– In your artworks, water plays a significant role. What do you think about the current environmental situation? How can art, in the digital era, contribute to awareness and overcoming of water pollution?
Something tells me that the pollution in our environment is getting worse, not only from the media but also from my personal experience. Summertime is getting so much hotter and longer than before. I believe that global warming and water pollution are causing some serious problems now and if we don’t take action to stop it, we will pay for the consequences.
From my perspective, awareness of how important water is should be raised, and then, we can concentrate on water pollution. I created a project called “I Deserve to Stay” in 2018. I collected plastic bags from supermarkets like Walmart, Home Depot, Kroger and I bought the plastic sheets which were commonly used for picnics.
I formed a huge plastic flow against the pure water, which indicated that something more significant was left behind. This project was simple and straight, which was a good thing. Art is never complicated. If an idea is executed in the right way, it will spread and gain recognition from the common public.
Photo courtesy of Webson Ji