Dust (Thomas Ruff: 16h 30m/-50°)

Ni Youyu


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chalk dust on wooden board; framed photograph
drawing 193.5 x 280 x 14 cm
framed photograph 37 x 55 x 3 cm
Dust (Thomas Ruff: 16h 30m/-50°) (2015-16) is one of a series of works relating to the cosmos; some are drawn from nineteenth century astronomical prints, some from twentieth century photographs, and others from NASA images of space. Ni Youyu begins with an existing astronomical image that he uses as a ‘blueprint’, and divides it into a grid of squares. Then, using the pre-digital method of faithfully copying and enlarging an image, he carefully replicates this ‘sky map’ onto a large black-painted board, one square at a time, ensuring the coordinates of each star are as accurate as possible, ‘drawing’ with chalk dust that is stuck, speck by speck, to the black surface. Ni estimates that each work in the series takes between 150 and 300 hours to complete. It’s a very slow, meditative process, ‘like a devotional practice’, says the artist.
For this work, Ni began with an image by the German photographer Thomas Ruff. From about 1989 to 1992, Ruff used negatives of the night sky above Chile, acquired from the archives of the European Southern Observatory, to print enormously enlarged photographs of stars and nebulae. His photographs seem abstract, complex patterns of white dots on a black ground. Later, Ruff used images from NASA’s public internet archive, enlarging them until the images begin to pixelate, blur and dissolve. Ni Youyu’s process of laborious hand-creation further dissolves Ruff’s images, in an ironic inversion of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated notion that works of art had lost their ‘aura’ in his modern age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin believed that a singular, authentic, one-time encounter with a work of art — generally a work made with skill and craftsmanship – is an experience that cannot be reproduced. By copying images by hand, using simple, even archaic, materials, is Ni Youyu returning the lost ‘aura’ to the artwork, or merely making another shadow image, a copy of a copy of a copy? Ni sees his appropriation of Ruff’s images, and his intention to render them identically, as a shift from a western methodology of ‘instant’ image making to an older, slower, oriental one; he makes an analogy with ancient Chinese farming practices, and to a particularly Chinese contemplation of the temporal and the eternal. Although the chalk dust has been sprayed with adhesive, invisible particles will, inevitably, float into the air around it. The work is at once stable and unstable.
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