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In conversation: Cecilia-Xixi Liu

This interview with Cecilia-Xixi Liu, an artist and illustrator, delves into her unique approach to blending art, nature, and sustainability. Through her work, she explores the concept of the Anthropocene and the interconnection between humans and the natural world. Liu's use of natural materials and recycled items in her art reflects her commitment to environmental consciousness. Her upcoming project, a response to the Sustainable Development Goals #15: Life on Earth, promises to offer a thought-provoking visual narrative.

Joana Alarcão
15 de dezembro de 2023
Can you begin by telling us a bit about the artist you are today and what steps led you to become one?

Hi, it`s Cecilia-Xixi Liu, a painter and illustrator with a background in graphic design having recently completed the illustration MA studies. Originally from China and currently living in Kingston upon Thames. Becoming an artist for me is as natural as breathing - I've loved drawing since I was old enough to grab a pen in my palm. Communicate by visual language is part of my thinking and world view and I am happy to share this perspective world view to people. On the other hand, I used to be a lonely child who had to find friends in almost impossible places, and it's not hard to imagine what kind of grown-up that kid would turn out to be.


How did your cultural background and exposure to British Fairy Tale poetry influence the anthropomorphization of mushrooms in your projects?

In my culture, the anthropomorphisation of objective things and the projection of one's emotions on the outside world are both important components of the core spirit of literature in the majority culture, as well as the ideological bedrock of nature worship among the ethnic minority groups and their communication with the sky and the earth. For instance, in ancient poetry, there is a sophisticated textual code that assigns emotions to different objects, plants or scenes. To be able to empathise with the " others " beyond themselves and the human community is considered to be philanthropic and dignified. While in the case of some inhabitants in Yunnan Province, the dancing art is a way of communicating with the sacred, celebrating the change of seasons, harvests and fertility, the whole of nature is seen as a communicative living being. And as this area is renowned for a huge variety of fungi as well, there are many fun jokes around picking and eating them at the risk of being poisoned in the current internet memes, which inspired me to personify the mushrooms. The experience of living in Surrey, wandering in the hills and encountering mushrooms that would follow people home reinforced my vivid impression of British folklore. Specifically, influenced by my tutor, the English poem "Goblin Market" gives my work a slightly dangerous tone. Giving species and origin together to give appearance and personality to the characters is something I care about, plus I enjoy the commonality of how people understand the world that I find when comparing different populations.



Image of the work of  Cecilia-Xixi Liu
003-observe secretly by Cecilia-Xixi Liu. Image courtesy of Cecilia-Xixi Liu.

Can you elaborate on the significance of using natural materials to represent the will of nature? How does the incorporation of rubbish collected during your no-trace travels contribute to the visual storytelling?

 

During the early stages of producing this story, the natural world and the human world were completely dichotomous in my mind, and I didn't think I was there to give voice to both. However, during the research process, which was also a search for the " pristine paradise" of my family's context, I realised that there is almost no place on the earth that is free from human activity, that we live in a geological phase of space-time called the Anthropocene. Nevertheless, this binary idea is retained as a visual rendering, the natural material says a lot - the colours, the textures, the characters. Whereas human influence, glossy surfaces and geometric shapes are so abrupt when as they exist in nature. Perhaps for natural beings, human is equal to the human-made and leftover rubbish.


You mentioned presenting your project in both illustrated book and short video versions. How do these formats complement each other, and what unique aspects do they bring to the storytelling?

The 1st ver storyboard was initiated with the premise of making a video, considering that the use of short films fits well with the aesthetic trends of today's viewers. I was later advised that I should consider a wider readership, such as younger ages and not using digital devices. I edited the story as a graphic book. All with the aim of communicating more effectively.



Image of work of Cecilia-Xixi Liu.
001-picnic by Cecilia-Xixi Liu. Image courtesy of Cecilia-Xixi Liu.

In aligning with SDG 15 (Life on Earth), how do your artistic practices, such as using natural materials and repurposing rubbish, reflect a commitment to sustainability and environmental consciousness?

In my opinion, it is necessary to keep the content consistent with the form, unless an ironic manner is desired. The materials sourced directly from the environment, apart from their textural informativeness, also carry a meaning above it all in the totality of the work, which encompasses the process of making and developing it. Things could be transformed into something else through appropriate use, given a new life and discourse, an element of sustainability thinking.


How do you navigate the fine line between depicting the impact of human activities and maintaining a sense of hope or activism in your work?

Rather than directly educating or pointing out that people should do this and should not do that, I usually favour thought-provoking works. Instead of human beings being portrayed as super-villains in the plot, there is a strategy of raising sympathy and shifting positions around the concept of home. The place where lives reside is home, and the anger that is triggered if one's home is destroyed is something to resonate with. Through empathy, at the end one is led towards the stance of life on earth, a method of storytelling in which the reader is not made to feel criticised, largely abating any possible resistance in delivering a similar initiative.



Image of the work of Cecilia- Xixi Liu
002-following home by Cecilia-Xixi Liu. Image courtesy of Cecilia-Xixi Liu.

Could you share more about your commissioned project for the Kingston Museum in 2023, where you painted an artful archive of endangered local architecture? How did this experience influence your current work?

This is a commission with a long history of being designed to make a record in the art archive form. I was assigned to paint the current view and surroundings of the mural that will be removed. It gave me a strong and intuitive sense of how meaningful it is there to do something about people's shared memories. The atmosphere carried by historical heritage and common space can be sealed by sensual touch, not only through realistic drawings. The atmosphere carried by historical heritage and common space can be sealed by sensual touch, not only through realistic drawings. In a way, this has influenced my artistic path, and I have shifted from the pursuing of "it is what it is" landscapes with a calm tone to the creation of holographic tactile works that consciously record the wind, the temperature, and the feelings when staying in the place.


Congratulations on having two of your landscapes selected for the 'On Purple' theme hall as part of the London Design Festival. How does your work contribute to or challenge the festival's theme, and what reactions are you hoping to evoke from the audience?

Thanks for the congrats! This theme has been divided into two paths of taking, the colour theme intended and the humorous tongue-in-cheek idea. My pieces belong to the former, a pond full of azaleas and a building obscured by wisteria, respectively. Although they illustrate plants and landscapes, I paint them with a consistent sense of personification. Using colours to emphasize the power of coexistence of motion and stillness, and painting still life in a portrait-like composition, I expect the viewer to find an almost puzzle-solving pleasure from observing them.




In your opinion, how can art be a positive driving force in the current contemporary atmosphere?

Keep it real. I have a notion that there is no shortage of amazing artists in the world at any given time, but more amazing audiences. I admire the fascinating and incredible masterpieces, while loving the insight to witness and interpret it all and beyond. Once a temple and sanctuary, today art can be entirely a product of personal expression. Yet it should be sincere first and foremost, when people need a symbol to stand for, the art that has such qualities has the effect of being a fully functional public discussion chamber, where pretension and kitsch fade the capacity to do so.


What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

Where we live is home, whether it's in a building or in the open air, so join together to tidy up all the places we are able to access.


Know more about the artist here.


Cover image:

004-blow up the house by Cecilia-Xixi Liu. Image courtesy of Cecilia-Xixi Liu.

hardcover-book-mockup.png

This school project comes in response to the SDGs #15: Life on Earth In my illustration MA stage. During my reading and research trips to Surrey hills, my understanding of humans and the natural world changed from a dualistic dichotomy to the concept of the Anthropocene.


Based on the minority animistic ideas from my own culture and the British Fairy Tale poetry, I anthropomorphised these mushrooms that follow me home and take over the grass in my backyard. Using natural materials to represent the will of nature by handicrafts, and equating human impact by employing rubbish collected while practicing no-trace travelling in the hills, I have given this story a particular visual language.


In terms of format, for easier communication, it is there in both illustrated book and short video versions.

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