Calligraphy by Xin Song © 2010

Revisiting the Garden of Eden

by Michèle Vicat

Xin Song portrait by Michèle Vicat © 2010


Paper-cut is a traditional folk craft. Although it often represents peaceful scenes, Xin Song uses the technique to challenge our taboos, our relationship with society and the way we think about ourselves…and this only with a piece of paper and a pair of scissors!
“When I arrived in New York,” says Xin Song, “I saw a big difference with China. I come from Beijing, but New York is very impressive. For me, it was like eating food: you need time to absorb, to digest. People come from all over the world. They live their culture and they share it. It was too much for me. I decided to understand things individually, to look at the Africans, the Vietnamese, the Italians. So, when I first came here, I realized that I came to learn. It was a process of learning life.”
Earlier, she learned with humility how to paste together life’s fragmented visions when she went to the Chinese countryside to do research on folk art. When she was 18, she saw the harsh conditions encountered by people on the impoverished land, which left them only a few moments to express joy or pain. In this environment, Chinese New Year, wedding, harvest, birth, death offer an occasion to be exuberant, to express feelings and to decorate the house mainly with paper-cut. This technique, called Jianzhi, developed with the invention of paper in China more than 2,000 years ago, was at first the privilege of women in high society. It spread to women and young girls in villages with the popularization of paper. Because the themes are anchored in the expression of daily life, paper-cut symbolizes traditional culture. A fish or a fruit, for example, represents a good harvest.

Noticing Xin Song’s taste for drawing, her mother sent her to the local community center for children in the Haidian district of the Zhongguanchun area in Beijing. At 14, Xin Song was the youngest in the class. She learned calligraphy and drawing during the weekends and summer vacation. Being with older, more experienced children, taught her to overcome difficulty and, later, gave her the self-confidence to apply to an art school. In 1990, Xing Song majored in Fine Art at Beijing Haidian Art School where she learned the basic tools of painting, drawing and understanding color, all skills an artist needs to pursue a career in art.

One of Xin Song's early paper-cuts

“At that time, I was 18, and I went to Yuan Ming Yuan where many art students spent time doing landscapes, much like the 19th century French Impressionists. The mother of one of my teachers was a nurse and she had left a pair of surgical scissors lying on a piece of paper. I took the scissors and I started cutting the paper! People around me thought that I knew paper-cut, but I was not familiar with the technique.” Intrigued, she started to go to the library and discovered that paper-cut is common in China and that different provinces have developed different themes, some very humble like flowers, birds, children playing and others more elaborate such as the Zodiac signs or characters from the Beijing opera.

Xin Song had just graduated from the Fine Art School and she spent the summer experimenting and enjoying paper-cut. It was, as she said, “a happy time, a happy summer,” a moment when she could let everything go and express herself naturally. She was inspired by the simple life of the rural areas: birds, fruits, fields, farmers working side by side, rivers, took shape with the blades of her scissors following the course of her imagination.

The cover of Xin Song's first book

She did almost 200 paper-cuts. A publisher noticed her drawings and put them in a book, which sold 7,500 copies. Today, the book is out of print and Xin Song never learned what happened to the drawings that were also bought by the publisher! The book opens with double pages that form a story.

What Xin Song learned either by experimenting herself or, later, by doing paper-cut with farmers, is to develop a story in an unbroken line. The story is told with the precision of the gesture: a slight mistake and everything has to be done again, an extravagance in a poor economy.

It is at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing that Xin Song fulfilled her dream of acquiring a deeper knowledge of paper-cut. Chinese universities began offering departments of folk art after the death of Mao Zedong. She was extremely lucky to study with Lu Shengzhon, an artist who turned paper cutting into a fine art. He prevented it from being submerged in the commercial production for tourists. With Lu Shengzhon, Xin Song sensed that she could shape an enchanting world that would not be frozen into tradition, but which could grow into an artistic statement. The pulse of New York would provide her that.

"Life=Sex?" Series, Paper-cut with magazine collage, 12"x26", 2007, © Xin Song

“ Before, I usually used Chinese red paper or a plain white paper. When I arrived in New York, I saw the magazines that people buy, read rapidly and throw away. I thought I could recycle them and bring them back in another manner,” says Xin Song.

The first difference with publications in China she saw was the pornographic press. She was shocked to realize that these magazines were on sale in public places. Children could see them, and she thought that they were too young, too innocent, to be exposed to that.

Xin Song saw this as a question rather than a statement. She was curious to understand the difference. She started to collect porno magazines that she found in dumpsters and she cut the images, asking herself in which way she could put the pieces together.

“When you look at these magazines,” remarks Xin Song, “you see the sexual element right away. When you cut the images, you cut them into elements. You select what should be in your story. You reflect on the way you were brought up and educated. Not just me, as a Chinese, everybody. I think that by fragmenting the image, I can make things more attractive, more seductive. People can see things differently because it requires attention, another type of attention.”

"Life=Sex" Series, Paper-cut with magazine collage, 36"x36", 2007, © Xin Song










Later, Xin Song developed the Tree of Life Series. “I transformed the pornography into the Tree of Life, because making a life is sexual, but after that, life grows as a tree does,” she explains.

The Tree of Life is an important cultural and spiritual component in nearly all cultures. The use of a tree as an element of connectivity is revealing of our times.

"Tree of Life" Series, Paper-cut with magazine collage, © Xin Song

Xin Song now finds images in all sorts of magazines: travel, fashion, computer, food and others. The images from these magazines give the artist a sense of what the public is being exposed to. The myriad sources that she uses embody the directions in which we are being uncontrollably driven. The images belong to a world in which everything has to move quickly. We do not have much time to buy the latest design before it looks out of date. Resolutely and as a counter-offensive, it takes Xin Song two months of work to finish a Tree of Life and the visual effect is astonishing. From a distance, we can recognize the branches, the leaves, a bird flying, a flower in full bloom, peacocks snatching snakes. We can decide to relax and to see it from a distance. It is peaceful. But, our curiosity can also entice us to look more closely and to discover that the colors come from fragments of images and texts. In our mind, we can try to recompose where the image came from and what the context was. It is a way of restructuring the world of consumerism and media. But, deconstructed, we have another understanding that has to be carefully deciphered.

“People can look at me as a woman who stays at home and spends her time looking at magazines,” explains Xin Song. “But, for me, there is more here. The media, the advertising companies work on the idea of a woman staying at home, especially when she has children. I read the information in a different way. I look at a written piece describing Cuban children using guns at an early age. I can take it as pure information, a frightening information. But, what is the real purpose of the magazine? I start to put these questions, these fragments together…and there is a tree.”

In Xin Song’s vision of the Tree of Life there is a deep connection with Chinese language in which one character represents a tree and doubling the same character means forest. We have the “I” as the center: we are a tree, then we become a forest and people become the world. It is the essence of the cycle of life: things grow and take another configuration. It was most probably a necessary step for Xin Song to take. With a tree, one gets roots and a balance; something that she needed as a woman between two worlds. The shape of the tree, composed of different parts coming from imaginary places, links us with the notion of growth.

Detail of "Tree of Life" Series, © Xin Song

Detail of "Tree of Life" Series, photo © Michèle Vicat

Not much was needed for Xin Song to take the next step, to fragment even more finely the information circulated through the media and to space it out in a visual field without any limit. Transformation is a series that brings us to a solitary journey. The tree is no longer there as a visual anchor. Xin Song found connections with American folk art, and especially the art of quilts, which is also done mainly by women. Transformation is composed as a floral quilt whose flowers and branches lead us first into a Garden of Eden. The closer we get, the more we find strange, even unsettling elements inside the floral contours. The artist wants us to look at things, but not in a defined way. The patterns are composed of fragments of objects from our contemporary society, a society that lives at a certain point in time.

"Transformation," Paper-cut with magazine collage, tracing paper,65"x80", 2008, photograph © Michèle Vicat

Today, people are very oriented toward technology. A computer represents technology. Take a computer apart and you fragment the technology. What do we need exactly? Magazines may try to convince us that a computer was created to change the society as well as the way we should look at our self-improvement. But, what do we finally take from that? What the magazine is doing is to vehicle an image of an era. It is up to us to accept its interpretation or reject it. It is a bit like negotiating the translation of a word in a dictionary. Several possible choices add to our perplexity. Which one do we chose? Which term best captures our intimate sense of the word? The paper-cut images of Xin Song are already a patchwork of our daily visual, auditory, sensorial routines. Xin Song extracts what touches, shocks and provokes her the most. What she offers us is an aggregation of her vision, it is the vision that a bird has when it flies high over a field.

Deatil of "Transformation,"
photograph © Michèle Vicat



The chocolate-flower, a detail of Transformation (see image to the right), captures Xin Song's thoughts about celebrations: “This is something you produce for Easter, for example. I think that in this world some people are rich and can pay as much as a thousand of dollars for chocolate, while other people cannot afford basic food. Where is the frontier between luxury and fundamental need? This is the conversation I have with an image when I look at a magazine. What does the image vehicle exactly?” The question takes on its importance when magazines are thrown away, torn into pieces, reduced into a pulp, then recomposed as paper to lay out the icons of our latest trends. In Transformation, Xin Song lays out the broken pieces of our full illusions.

Tree and Birds © Xin Song

For more information on Xin Song, visit her website

All material copyright 2010 by 3 dots water