‘Art Should Have No Meaning’

On Su Nan Chu's efforts to turn a Chinese city into an oasis of contemporary art

By / October 2015

The architect turned contemporary artist Su Nan Chu’s studio occupies the fifth floor of an office building in downtown Xining, a city in China’s far-west Quinghai province. In a city not particularly known for its aesthetics, Su’s space is a refuge. From the wooden walls and abstract paintings incorporating rocks and sand to the leafy plants in the corners, the studio, a kind of secular shrine to minimalism, has the calm and slightly heady air of a San Francisco flat.

I am sitting in a wooden chair next the window while Su heats water for green tea. Through the window comes the sound of horns from the traffic at the busy intersection below. Su pours the tea and plops down in a worn leather chair beside me. He is wearing jeans and a fleece. There is a blue Nautica cap on his desk. His posture and attire do not exactly fit the profile of a successful Chinese businessman, not that Su would characterize himself in that way. Nowadays he’s bent on bringing contemporary art to Xining, a city of two million people with a burgeoning but largely invisible art scene.

It’s an effort rooted in Su’s own movement from architeture into painting and sculpture. Born in Chengdu in 1969, Su’s family moved north to Xining when he was 15. He studied design in college and set out to make it as an architect, starting his own firm and designing more than 500 buildings across Western China. “But in architectural design,” he tells me, scooting a bit in his chair. “I felt there were many places with no freedom.”

Architects work for others. Design is controlled by economic factors, by nature, by climate. These external forces set the agenda. Design can easily become a matter of accommodation over inspiration. “It’s because of these elements,” Su says, “that I began to look for a fun and interesting place. And I found contemporary art.”

Photograph by Debbie Porter“Organization Structure,” by Su Nan Chu

In 1998, he went back to school for a degree in fine arts. At the time, there wasn’t even a contemporary art program available in the province. Everything, he says, was either traditional ink or watercolor paintings. Su, on the other hand, gravitated toward mixed-media pieces, employing textural elements such as metals, rocks, wood, plaster, even Styrofoam, to sculptures and paintings that blended abstraction with elements of pop culture.

After he finished his degree, Su started gathering regularly with other local artists to drink, smoke, and discuss life and art. This group slowly formed into the Motley Crew Art Collective. This past May, Motley Crew held their first contemporary art exhibit, in the XiaoQiaoJie Exhibition Center.

Several of Su’s works were featured in the show, including a piece comprised of seven wooden blocks clustered together, each one impressioned with the backside, in Chinese pi gu, of a different member of the Motley Crew. Su had his friends sit on blocks of mud, feet off the ground. “Usually we use a photo—for example, the ID card—to represent our person,” he said. “My thought: could we not instead use our butts to represent us?”

Su says he is influenced by the work and philosophy of Chinese artist He Yun Chang, who believes art should have no meaning, a concept that provides a freedom to create and explore without the pressure of meeting any cultural or academic expectations.

For another installation in the XiaoQiaoJie show, Su enlarged four metallic coins to 40 times their normal size. On one side of each coin was the traditional lotus flower found on every Chinese kuai. On the other, an emoticon of a face with a toothy smile.

“Coins,” Su tells me, “have a high degree of distribution. They bear the nature of consumerism and the nature of exchange. For example, you can use a coin, money, to purchase food. The emoticon used in our day-to-day social interaction also functions as another type of exchange. They have a wide circulation and have become a recognizable currency, just like a coin.”

Along with creating art, Su says he hopes to use the money he has made in architecture to promote contemporary art in his province through a fund to support artists, an annual prize, and, eventually, a warehouse space where artists can work and exhibit.

“In contemporary art,” Su says, “you don’t need to understand everything. Even if you don’t understand you are still participating with the artwork. Our purpose isn’t to have everyone understand, but if someone does understand and enjoys the art then I am really happy.”


Debbie Porter is a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler.