by Michèle Vicat
calligraphy by Liu Yongqin©2010
Fei photograph © William Dowell 2008
Fei inherited her taste for learning and the creative fields from
her father, a painter, and her mother, a schoolteacher. She spent
her early childhood, in Jinan, a city located between Beijing and
Shanghai. Spared some of the turmoil affecting the rest of China during
the Cultural Revolution, Jinan managed to hold on to its traditional
values anchored in Confucianism.
In 1985, Cui Fei experienced her first great emotional shock, when
at the age of 14, she was sent from the comfort of her family to attend
the High School of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. The
school was 18 hours by train from Jinan, and the separation forced
her to begin an independent analysis of her own life. Over the next
several years, she received rigorous training in drawing, painting,
calligraphy and Chinese literature.
In 1993, she received an undergraduate degree in oil painting from
the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (Now China’s National Academy
of Fine Arts). Although the teaching was strict and formal, both teachers
and students found themselves struggling to move beyond the Russian
style of realism. For Cui Fei, the process meant finding an anchor,
and this involved deconstructing and reconstructing herself.
The search for identity continued when she arrived in the United States
in 1996. She concentrated on learning English, and studied at the
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she received her Master
of Fine Arts in painting in 2001. In contrast to China, where the
teaching focuses on technique, her art training in the US taught her
to verbalize ideas.
The changes in her life left Cui Fei with a feeling that she no longer
had control over herself. Coming from a tradition of oil painting,
her daily experiences were making her see life in increasingly three
dimensional, sculptural terms.
Today, her work is embedded with the constantly changing questions
that she asks herself about culture, nature and human existence.
As a child, she had felt that she had clear answers to right and wrong.
There were not many choices in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
But as China opened its door to change and she approached adolescence,
she observed the fragmentation of China’s unique cultural landscape
into a quest for individualism by millions of people.
of Zhaoling (detail) photograph ©Michèle Vicat
Mixed media on four panels, 24" x 192", 1999
In Six Steeds
of Zhaoling, which Cui Fei made in 1999, while studying in
the US, she takes inspiration from China’s ancient history
to make us aware not only of history’s implacable weight on
the psyche, but also of the fragility of our destiny, and its potential
for ultimate destruction. The emperor Taizong (AD 626-49) commissioned
the carving of six stone relief sculptures representing his six
favorite Persian horses to be placed in his tomb. A poem, written
at the time, recounts: “On armored horses, the Emperor won
the world under Heaven, and the stone images of the Six Steeds are
as distinguished as their achievements in battle.” The story
of an emperor wanting to commemorate his victories by placing stone
reliefs of his horses in his own tomb seems simple enough on the
surface, but today, two of the horses are in the museum at the University
of Pennsylvania, while the other four are in Shaanxi’s provincial
museum. The six stone reliefs were damaged by smugglers in 1914,
and needed extensive repairs. The voyage of two of them to America
involved intrigue and controversy. The US claims that they were
rescued, while China insists that they were stolen.
The point of Cui Fei’s work is to show that power exists for
a moment in time, and then fades. Power can pass from one generation
to another, but the control over it can be very limited. Using mixed
media to tell the story, she underscores the fragility and the material
inconsistency of our destiny.
In her work, leaves become a metaphor for the limitations of the
human condition. Their imprint reflects the cultural heritage shared
by people and transferred over generations. Their intrinsic composition
leads us to question our relationship to nature.
notion of destiny often strikes you unexpectedly. In the Forest
of Stone Steles Museum on a recent trip to Xi’an, China, my
attention was caught by a long, angular and very powerful crack
that runs across the Yishan stone. I immediately thought of the
same pattern in Cui Fei’s painting, “Six Steeds of Zhaoling.”
I knew that the artist had not taken her inspiration from the Yishan
stone, but I was astonished by the similarity in the form of the
crack. I didn’t realize at that moment that I was only a short
distance away from another building that houses the sculptural stone
reliefs of the Six Steeds of Zhaoling, the six horses that had belonged
to the emperor Taizong.
The craftsmanship of the Six Steeds is exquisite, but I was even
more affected emotionally because I was physically standing in front
of them with Cui Fei’s painting in my mind. The stone relief
of the steed Shifachi is pierced by a triangular cut that seems
to suspend the horse forever in his gallop. It is that fracture
which is echoed in her work. Cui Fei focuses on the marks that history
imposes on objects that once possessed the power to recount and
to pass on the stories of the great figures of the world.
©William Dowell 2009
Shifachi Steed © Michèle Vicat 2009
Suddenly, my trip to China took on a new meaning. I could see the
connection between the material existence of these pieces, which
had been made fragile by time, and the internalization of their
spirit, which the artist had now fixed onto a canvas. The fact that
the same pattern had appeared by chance on two different stones
was already quite extraordinary. That these two stones had no obvious
connection, and yet were so near to each other was amazing. That
an artist had transferred this piercing wound across lands and seas
is a reminder of our own fragility.
of Nature V (detail), photograph © Cui Fei
Installation, tendrils and pins, dimension variable, 2002-present
Manuscript of Nature
V is a personal reflection by Cui Fei on her approach to nature.
Chinese philosophy emphasizes the continuity of nature. Nature is
linked to the universe. It is organic, and the same rules apply
to all its components. There is order, even in chaos.
When Cui Fei arrived in the United States, she traced marks on rocks
as an echo of the marks left on her mind by her past. Her fellow
students, who were American, told her that they only saw physical
marks on the rocks because they could not see or feel the soul of
the rock. Cui Fei realized that Chinese see life in metaphors. For
them, everything is connected. “If we are talking about water
dripping on a stone,” she explains,” we will also look
at the holes created by the water inside the stone. The Chinese
will ask themselves, ‘which is stronger, the water or the
The West, she realized, went from its belief that God created man
in his own image to believing that man controls nature. As soon
as she understood the difference in approaches, Cui Fei began searching
for a way to connect people and culture through nature. Using twigs,
tendrils and leaves, she creates a universal language. Tendrils
can be found anywhere. They belong to everybody. Writing a manuscript
in a Chinese way forces people to look at nature through a Chinese
perspective even if neither Chinese nor Westerners can read it,
but they can recognize the materials used. The tendrils become letters
or ideograms and they can be mounted on any changing background.
They are movable, replaceable and ephemeral. The connection is made
between people and nature across cultures. Cui Fei has discovered
a personal as well as a universal language. She sees life as both
a Chinese experiencing cultural diversity in the US and social transformation
Wei Qi III,
photograph © Cui Fei
Installation, 71" x 73" x 5", grass and papier maché,
is in that spirit that she created Wei Qi III. Wei Qi is
an ancient Chinese game that was introduced as “Go”
in the West through the Japanese. Cui Fei’s representation
is an image of the universe, showing the interconnectedness between
East and West, and the artist who created a game in the process.
The material used, grass, softens the game, which is normally competitive
and strategic. The color of the grass fades gradually to make us
aware of the passage of time.
see more of Cui Fei’s work and life history, you can visit
her website at www.cuifei.net
Read by Touch, photograph © Zheng Lianjie,
Thorns on rice paper, each page 9-1/4" x 10-3/4", total
11 pages, 2005-2006
copyright 2009 by 3 dots water