At White Space until Monday 30 Born and bred in the financial and shopping hub that is Shanghai, painter Shi Zhiying lives a life of contradictions. Far away from the neon, flashing lights of her native city, she found her muse in the countryside. Where others would be fretting, she is calm. A few weeks before she’s due to display her new solo exhibition at Beijing’s White Space, Shi is more concerned with the ‘calming whispers of rustling bamboo mingling with birdsong’ that filter through her studio windows. It would be safe to say that she is not your average city girl. Tidy and composed, her paintings rest around the studio, ready to be transported. Each reveals wide expanses of water and what Shi calls ‘sand seas’ – cracked plateaus of salty, dry earth. Landscapes emerge in repeated patterns, seemingly without end; the small fault-lines in the desert and ripples of water almost hypnotize the viewer. It is an effect made all the more powerful for one thing: they’re all painted in black and white. Paring things down is what Shi does best. She claims to draw influence
from painters such as Yan Pei-Ming, a fellow Shanghainese, born in the 1960s and famed for his two-tone portraits – although it was more his ideas she absorbed. ‘He once said: “the most important thing is the artwork, all other things are unimportant,”’ Shi quotes enthusiastically. ‘I’m not concerned with whether my art is contemporary or stylish, but rather: is it good or bad?’ Good and bad, black and white, past and present – we sense a theme developing. The title for her exhibition, Between Past and Future, comes from a slim work of political theory by the German scholar Hannah Arendt. ‘Although not much of what the book wants to say has to do with the exhibition,’ interjects Shi. Instead, it was the preface that piqued her interest: a piece by the writer Martin Heidegger, which argues that neither the past nor future come as a direct result of each other; they’re simply along for the ride, like the rest of us. Fascinated by perceptions of time and space, it is Heidegger’s idea that Shi explores in one particular series devoted entirely to the Mani stones of Tibet and Nepal. These shards have been carved upon with prayers from devout Buddhists over generations, she explains. They are placed on the ground or along the tops of buildings, and gradually, as more prayers to the local spirits are added, they become small mounds. Looming under a thickly dark sky, the knee-high clusters of stones in Shi’s paintings are almost monolithic. ‘I went to Tibet and Nepal with some friends, and the Mani stones made a deep impression on us. One friend even had a physical reaction to them. He said that, when he touched the stones, it felt as if he were touching water, making him feel as if time had been fixed there. When you are there, in person, looking at the stones, you feel wonderful.’ The Mani stones, as well as the sand and seascapes included in her exhibition, echo Shi’s obsession with chronology, nature and ritual. ‘Buddhists make threads and paintings out of sea-sand. Doing this, day in and day out, it becomes about both time and ceremony,’ she muses. ‘In this, we can see that people all lead different lives, but when you look at these little ceremonies in the great river of time, they all seem to be the same.’ In difference, Shi finds similarity: past is the same as present, patterned monochromatic images blur into one. She has painted subjects as diverse as giraffes, lizards and cans of food, but she is always drawn back to the single dominating image of the sea. It is the same one that she’s always painted; a perfect metaphor for time and eternity – her enduring obsessions. Perhaps Shi’s world isn’t so black and white after all.