Born in 1984 in Jiangxi, China
Lives and works in Shanghai, China
To Measure with a Subjective Ruler
by Zhu Zhu
Ni Youyu's ruler has an almost identical shape, texture and creating process like the ones used in real life. Except for the scale. Just as the artist said, "On these ‘rulers’, every 'millimeter' slowly expands according to my instantaneous feeling. Each scale eventually forms certain 'numerical length.' However, there exists a difference in error between each distance and therefore in the real length of the ruler." In other words, he makes equal divisions of the distance through physical perception, thereby creating a "subjective ruler".
“I use my hand to 'caress' the rationalized objective,” said Ni Youyu. After the body gets involved, the differences appear. Although during the work procedure, subjectivity still endeavors to seek objectivity; "Subjectively, every scale is set extremely carefully, but objectively speaking, it is a make-believe and inaccurate."
The foundation of such practice derives from the artist's skepticism: skepticism about the standard of value and the quality of art in our era. The former corresponds to the disorder after the disintegration of the belief in Utopia. Loss of individualism and wandering has become necessary within the historical context. After such differentiated recognitions gradually replace identical recollections, then the body, like Nietzsche advocated, becomes a new measurement. The latter implicates how a ruler has become a formal carrier; powerlessly rendered in the present, the art of our era is evolving into a disastrous spectacle production. Such personal statement conveys the artist's sarcasm in which he states,” In my opinion, doing fashionable installations are just like undertaking massive projects.” The artist only plays the role of designer and contractor. There is no detail to be weighed to the point that the difference between the artists can be discernible. In an era craving for greatness and success, even Duchamp and Beuys would have appeared inferior in comparison, let alone Morandi, Cornell and Twombly, who spent much time dawdling along.
Therefore, he would rather identify his work as "still life." They usually appear miniature, minimalist and labor intensive, which demands the audience to gaze upon the works in detail. If we say in other works, for example, in the "Coin" series, these works were inspired from "collection, deconstruction and falsification" of ready-mades and exist in the molding of some sort of micro image. Then the "Ruler" constitutes the most extreme contextual backwash and even forms a secret center in his many methodically developed sequences.
From the angle of fetishism, among many regular items of the old days, ruler does not possess various looks of materialism or historical nostalgia. It also does not appeal much to our infatuation of images and spectacles. What it embodies is the minimalist aesthetics with a trace of handwork, "concise surface and reduced geometric shape", "appearance as a formula", similar to a silent model waiting for the audience to consciously engage: Ni Youyu measures with a subjective ruler. Above all, he uses its materiality to achieve his aesthetic goal so as to explicitly distance his practice from those gigantic and empty "projects".
Apart from the distance displayed in the form of the ruler, as content, the substitution of scale states distance as well. Personal adventure is different from collective value recognition such as individuality from universality. What he adopts is a peculiar way of "self-control", as mentioned before, during the entire work process, subjectivity still endeavors to seek objectivity, and it seems to be an error that eventually appears only when regarded as an inevitable and unavoidable result. In my opinion, this has more significance than an act of unlimited subjectivity. It is similar to Kafka's desperation and sense of inferiority "in front of law"; it does not point to the single context of social system, but the eternal destiny of exiling an individual. One desires to be integrated into collective, but cannot betray his own perception.
In this age of time, there are multiple ranges of influence and the challenges we face: tradition, totalitarianism, post-colonialism and consumerism. Ni Youyu utilizes a triangular ruler, which can be seen as a form of Cubististic self-portrait. On one side of the ruler shows a new measurement formed after dividing his height into 1, 000 equal parts. The other two sides are respectively hand-estimated "centimeter" and "cun" (Chinese traditional measurement of scale). "With three different measurements fusing together in one ruler, like they are in a race in a set distance, but in different standards in which the errors form different contrasts". In this work, the body of "oneself" unifies with the ruler, which collectively constitute a space allowing the mutual existence of diversities and differentiations.
Marking distance and differentiation is not his only ambition. The writing of scale obviously triggers the thought about the principle of universe, which resembles Pythagoras' theory of "everything is number.” Further, it is the testimony of the invisible philosophy of Daoism. Thereby, the working procedure that embeds a feeling of understanding through meditation, "a bit similar to a monk knocking on the temple block or copying scriptures." Such character allows one to break free from the realistic realm and enter in to the abstract form of meditation. Meanwhile, the work of following and correspondently inscribing one to another, removes all sorts of characterizations and meanings. Ruler is like an unnamed skeleton, which becomes the commemoration of the passing time.
Another fascinating element about Ni Youyu's works is that his subjective surmise and forgery of the ruler actually happens to coincide with the history of ruler. The primitive form of ruler originates from the human body itself. The Chinese character for ruler, "Chi", is a pictographic word. Bai Chuanjing's Notes on Basic Vocabulary of Chinese Characters writes, 'the shape of thumb and middle finger that stretches to the maximum pointing down.' In ancient times, such was their way to scale. "They used their body to measure length: finger for 'cun', palm for 'chi' and arm for 'zhang'" and tacitly admitted to the existence of errors. Furthermore, the standardization of measurements in the Qin Dynasty did not mean that the scale had become an eternal or that it is a fixed standard. In different dynasties that followed, the measurement of ruler has always been changing and fluctuating, in which political economy closely have influenced.
Realizing that a ruler embodies such a dynamic history, one is overwhelmed with a feeling of amazement. A constant object that helps decide a concrete measurement has shifted throughout the history. Ruler has the shape of a still life, yet it seems to be a secretive lightening. The semantic definitions behind alternates like a streak of lightning that Ni Youyu deciphers through his art practice.