Ni Haifeng’s practice stems from an interest in cultural systems of return, exchange, language and production. Through the media of photography, video and installations, Ni explores the simultaneous creation and obliteration of meaning while drawing attention to the cyclical movements of people, products and goods that are often reflective of patterns of colonialism and globalization. He aims to subvert the status quo and counteract preconceived notions of art in, in Ni’s words, an effort to reach a ‘zero degree of meaning’. The concept of uselessness, as seen in the desire to offset ‘the production of the useful’ that is central to the operative conditions of consumerism and the ‘dominant economic order’, plays a key role within Ni’s practice, lending his works a distinct political and social dimension.
After graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou in 1986, Ni joined 'Red 70%, Black 25% and White 5%' - a group of artists working with conceptual art and nonsense text. These early works focused on acts of writing, re-appropriations and deconstructed forms of language. What first began on two dimensional surfaces later moved to outdoor locations, notably with experimentations on his hometown island of Zhoushan in Zhejiang province. Covering the landscape with handwritten numerals, symbols and characters, Ni’s temporary acts can be seen as subversive attempts to undermine systematic ways of looking and perceiving. The nonsensical words and symbols scrawled across stones, walls and external surfaces were a way of destabilizing landscape and connecting it to notions of endlessness and infinity.
In the mid 1990s, after emigrating to Europe, Ni created a series of installations that featured objects and tableaus suspended from knotted ropes. Precariousness and instability are dominant factors in these works, as is the persistent sense of weight, balance and feeling of danger elicited in the viewer. The Angle (1995) features a set of white bedroom furniture on a platform that appears to be suspended from the ceiling by a medley of heavy ropes but is in fact counter balanced by a group of massive boulders. Every visible surface is covered with hand-written numerals and symbols in red and black paint. The use of ropes and knots contains biographical significance as they are linked with Ni’s upbringing on the seafaring locale of Zhoushan Island, but for Ni ‘A knot is a metaphor. It can be an end or a beginning. Starting down the path of a new cultural identity—as a Chinese artist living abroad—the acts of tying and knotting symbolize an newfound exploration of junction points, nodes where places, identities and cultures merge, intertwine and fasten themselves to one another.
Perhaps the most important work in Ni’s repertoire is his series Unfinished Self-Portrait (2003-ongoing). The conceptual starting point for this work is a digital passport photo of the artist’s face which has been deconstructed or broken-down into a sequence of symbols and digital code. Ni uses this data to paint in situ on walls, doors, windows and/or floors of exhibition spaces creating a wallpaper-like effect. The near endless sequence of information that makes up Unfinished Self-Portrait is infinitely repeatable and scalable to different environments, and yet in each case viewers are witness to an image that is neither whole nor even visually legible. Translating his own visage as a stream of continuous code, Ni himself becomes a cipher, the very image of meaninglessness and void distributed across disparate and unlikely environments. Given Ni’s personal identity as a Chinese artist living and working in Europe, the work captures the feeling of living in a state of constant translation—in between languages and cultures—and the efforts to mitigate this condition through a process of literal grafting or inscribing oneself to a physical space.
In the last several years, overt and covert references to manufacturing and production have formed recurring themes within Ni’s artistic practice. Of the Departure and the Arrival (2005) is a project Ni undertook in the Dutch city of Delft, a place that has long been synonymous for its porcelain industry owing to its history in the import/export trade with China during the 17th and 18th centuries (it was the former site of the VOC or Dutch East Indies Trading Company). Utilizing everyday objects donated by the citizens of Delft, Ni contracted with a factory in Jingdezhen to make molds and produce porcelain copies of the items in blue-and-white underglaze style characteristic of Delftware. These objects were subsequently packed and transported back to Delft via ocean liner and exhibited in a sprawling display that included their shipping cartons and in later installations, wooden shipping pallets. Ni’s project in Delft rests on a variety of trajectories, from histories of trade and import/export between Europe and China, to porcelain ceramics as signifiers of Chinese heritage, to the contemporary elucidation of movement, exchange and the circulation of goods in the global economy. His involvement with the community of Delft is yet another dimension, one that brings in aspects of collectivity and interactions from participants-viewers.
Return of the Shreds (2007) is a work that Ni first exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, The Netherlands. The work centers upon global systems of manufacture and trade, in particular the symbolic return of unwanted materials resulting from mass production in China. Several tons of shreds of discarded fabric from garment factories—byproducts of the 'Made in China' phenomenon—were shipped from Zhejiang to Leiden for the exhibition. The venue itself carries its own connection to garment production, being a former blanket factory before being converted to a museum for contemporary art. A large woven wall hanging made out of leftover scraps of fabric was displayed alongside piles of shreds and other imported items like porcelain shards, tea leaves and spices. The complicated customs procedures—customs permits, obtaining codes, shipping and transport—involved in bringing mass quantities of these materials to Leiden is an important aspect of the work itself, illustrating the symbolic systems that govern the movement of certain goods across international borders. […]