XIE NANXING: (Mandarin) The keyword of the triptych, ‘The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth’, is ‘struggle’. It’s meant to be very dark and extremely absurd because imagine: the damage to the environment is done for sure. It’s a crippling tragedy. A demon in your heart wants out. It becomes a twisted form of expression. It’s a question. It’s three questions or more.
The work establishes a kind of dialogue with the viewer. However, in this dialogue, no one is asking you questions. You must infer the issues yourself. That’s why it’s a struggle. On this wall are some sketches I made at the time, sketches for the triptych. Their ideas stem from inspiration. All three paintings have to do with sewage. For instance, I was inspired by the vacuum trucks I see frequently on the streets. Especially the septic trucks that remove excrement and take them elsewhere for treatment.
I may have observed these things daily and unintentionally for years. And then, I found this aspect that stirred my emotions. I began to mull them [my emotions] over. I ended up making sketches that allowed me to start working. I imagine the city’s infrastructure, the construction of all the buildings, the development of communities, water pipes, water sources, and sources of human excrement and where it’s headed. What came to mind was, ‘What an interesting system it all is’. What interests me is the comparison of how people blindly head to the same pit of raw sewage, a cesspool where everything is lumped together, and there’s no distinction between real and surreal. In other words, life is shit. That’s it.
How do concrete objects come together? It’s an indescribable, abstract relationship. I believe many painters have had similar experiences. You’ll notice your painting [looks different] under sunlight. It’s because the paint is not always thick. It’s probably not uniform in thickness. So, you’ll notice thin and thick strokes, and you’ll realise the interplay of light completely transforms the artwork.
‘The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth’ comprises three parts. One part is related to the Rorschach Test, the psychological test. The second part turns ‘diarrhoea’ into a monstrous image. The third features the demonisation of a sewage pumping situation in a park. The title ‘The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth’ concerns folk ballads. The entire triptych evokes the tradition of poetry from the Middle Ages. It embodies story, description, mockery, as well as feelings and worldviews that can’t be put into words.
I believe this set of paintings projects very strong feelings and a strong sense of uncertainty. Between this pink wall and the work, the contrast is striking. At the same time, it’s as if the work has been excised from the space. I like this pink colour because it’s close to human skin. The theme of the work is people. Painting itself has the power to create scenes just like poetry. It’s poetry in the form of images. With paintings, you can’t tell others how they should perceive it because they may see different aspects of the work from you. Otherwise, it would have no relation to art and become [an] illustration or promotion.
It’s not only about what my work expresses. Viewers need to struggle to understand it. ‘In this work of yours, I read what I can read.’ I feel this is the process of the struggle.
Xie Nanxing is a radical experimental painter who challenges the traditions and conventions of painting taught within art schools. His practice often turns to investigative psychology to question the true nature of things.
For his presentation in the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition, Xie uses humour and the absurd in three paintings to reflect on his experience with social isolation and restrictions during the pandemic. Titled The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth, the work associates the act of ‘tooth-picking’ with human secretion and excretion. One painting features a vacuum lorry spewing raw sewage. On another canvas, a twisted, monstrous being roams the sewers and is covered in vague Chinese characters. The composition of the third painting is inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind, though Xie’s work features roast ducks heading into a well in a flower bush. Together, the abstractions express the artist’s pandemic-induced malaise as well as his dissatisfaction towards environmental neglect in the world.
- Produced by
Moving Image Studio
Kenji Wong Wai Kin, Angel Ng Wan Yi
- Director of Photography
Rex Tse, Ip Yiu Tung Zachary, Kenji Wong Wai Kin
Lau Tsz Hong, Kenji Wong Wai Kin
- M+ Video Producer
- M+ Curatorial Research
Isabella Tam, Ariadne Long, Chloe Wong
- M+ Text Editing
Amy Leung, LW Lam
- Special Thanks
Xie Nanxing, Chris Sullivan