Tell me the Story in your Art!

Updated: Apr 5

Stories are important because that’s how human beings retain memories. That’s how we share over the dinner tables, catch up with friends or even communicate on our death bed. I can’t imagine someone drawing their last breath and counting the numbers of pixels in a jpg. What would you say to your loved ones if it were your last sentence? Do you remember that time when…? I wish we had…


These are all stories…


One way to distinguish artworks from a random online jpg is the story behind a piece of art.


When collectors ask about my artworks, one of their first questions is inevitably “Tell me about the story in your art.”





Even though I’ve discussed my research process, project history and work process on my blog, collectors still really want to know the story behind every single piece.


The Polluta Propaganda Woodcuts project (2018-ongoing) borrows from the visual language of the New Chinese Woodcut Movement during the 1930s and the 1940s to advertise Polluta, a futuristic ecotopian/dystopian artist colony across 99 woodcuts (read more here); think flying elephants, floating dung, and resident-pigs-turned-roasted-pork. The works have been shown in many international galleries, museums, biennales and universities. Click here for a selected list.


I will talk about the stories behind each piece in The Animal Collection of Polluta Propaganda Woodcuts. A lot of the motifs in these woodcuts cross over to my other related bodies of works. Enjoy!



(Feel free to just skip to the image you like and window-read. If you just love a piece, feel free to just collect it without the need to learn EVERYTHING about it.)




Second of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Fragrance in the Air

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2 (for more info on editions, click here)

2018

Chinese text on the print: Fragrance in the Air



This was my very first woodcut ever! I can’t believe I made these intricate lines for my first woodcut. It is way more difficult to carve a solid thin line than a hollow thin line. Basically for a solid thin line, you have to carve out everything around the line.


In my micro-narrative, the only way to gain access to the imaginary artist colony Polluta is through an entry interview (a performative artwork). Here is probably my favourite interview question:


"As you know, Polluta is in midair and we transport everything with flying elephants. Over time, we now have a twenty-storey pile of elephant dung close to Polluta. It is causing us great sanitary and aesthetic headaches. Can you help us solve this problem?"



Dung is a recurring motif in my works. I am interested in the space between cute and vulgar and grotesque and beautiful. I first became fascinated with feces with Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” almost twenty years ago. How does one measure a human being’s worth? Is it her intellect, emotions or bodily functions? Are feces the basest aspect of a human being? But then feces are also beautiful and nourishing in the sense that it can nurture plants. That’s why in the Polluta narrative, residents' waste goes to nurture the rooftop farm. You will see a lot of dung, rainbow-coloured and all, in the upcoming Polluta short film.





Fifteenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Chasing after Light

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: fair and bright



“At Polluta, it is illegal to bury corpses. Deceased residents are cremated by fire-breathing dragons resided in the deep dark dungeon. Ashes are used as fertiliser in the rooftop garden to encourage big fat crops."


This was an idea I picked up from Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In his “perfect” dystopia, corpses are burnt to become fertiliser. I remember working on a Polluta Propaganda painting and listening to the audiobook when my pupils dilated at this part of the story! I knew it would be perfect for Polluta!


“Phosphorus recovery,” explained Henry telegraphically. “On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety- eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.” Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing whole-heartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. “Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.”


In 2019, this was the most intricate and time-consuming piece I had done to date. I remember carving it around the clock for a solid week. For relief carving, carving curve lines is way more laborious than straight ones. You have to steadily turn the block or turn your body as you carve curve lines. If you get the speed or angle wrong, your line sucks. Extra work for woodblocks because you have to take the wood grains into account. Extra work with larger blocks because they’re finicking to turn.







Sixteenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Abundance on the Table

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: Abundance on the Table



Seventeenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Bend Your Back for a Limitless Future

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: Bend Your Back for a Limitless Future



Along with the red dragon piece above, these were really made together as a triptych.

“Sixteenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Abundance on the Table” is one of my favourites. The digital images really don't do the actual work justice. I love the details of the works!


These two works portray two features of Polluta, the food-waste-eating resident pigs that are transformed into salted ham and roasted pork every Chinese New Year and the flying elephants we already met already.







Eighteenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Dragon Never Regrets

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: Dragon Never Regrets


Nineteenth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Green, Peace, Elephant

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: Green, Peace, Elephant


Twentieth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: A Purse Full of Coins

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+2

2019

Chinese text on the print: May Wealth Flow in



These three were made together as a triptych under the theme of heraldry/family crest. I was actually so excited about this idea that I made quite a few more under the same idea later (stay on the blog post to read about them.)


The title of “Dragon Never Regrets” is a play on the saying “Dragon regrets” in I Ching, the classical Chinese divination text. The line refers to how supreme dragons (the emperor) should be cautious and have regrets. At the over-the-top and ridiculous Polluta, regrets are cheap. Dragons are not recommended to have regrets.


The title of “Green, Peace, Elephant” is a play on auspicious Chinese sayings. We Chinese are all about luck and there is a huge auspicious cultural industry. One very popular image/saying is an elephant with a vase. It is a wordplay on elephant and peace and elephant with a vase. For my works, I threw in a bit of green into the title and writing to advertise Polluta’s ecotopian message.


At Polluta, the resident pigs eat up all food waste and turn into salted ham and roasted pork every Chinese New Year. The Chinese writings on the woodcut prints advertise the oily fragrance of the meat but also the auspicious spring that accompanies every Chinese New Year.




Twenty-first of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Tree House

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese text on print: Great Harvest with a Rich Life



You might have noticed that even though all woodcuts describe Polluta, they all look visually and architecturally different. A central concept in the Polluta narrative is that there is no definitive architecture because the idea of this perfect ecotopian is slippery and ever-shifting.


This image of Polluta is a treehouse. You may see a heavy fairy tale influence in my works. I love fairy tales. The leaves did take forever to carve. This block was particularly problematic to print. It took an entire day to print.


Just to have some fun, I hid a partial face (basically just one eye and some hair) of a little girl in a window. It's almost impossible to find for me too.




Twenty-second of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Grandiosity

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese text on print: Grandiosity



Over-the-top is the official Pollutarian language! As I mentioned, resident pigs are transformed into salted ham and roasted pork each Chinese New Year. Hence you see two roasted pork head at the bottom of the image. (We Chinese love putting a huge bow on top of the roasted pig’s head and use lightbulbs for their eyes!) At the top, there is a roasted pig in its full-body glory, radiating light and all standing on the Polluta entrance gate with all the colony buildings. There is bacon, wings and halos and all, flying in the sky.




Twenty-third of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Super Elephants!

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese text on print: Eagerly Delivering Chinese Ink and Sculpture Art Supplies

Nurturing Delicate Artistic Inspiration


The only portal to Polluta is through a red bean stalk. Depending on which part of the world you are from, you will either read a beanstalk that’s red, or a stalk that grows red beans.


If you grew up in Western traditions, you probably associate this with Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. You meet fantastical figures such as giants once you get up there. If you are more familiar with Chinese traditions, red beans are such a part of our cultural consciousness and vocabulary.


However, red beans actually grow on trees, not on stalks.


Does that mean the only portal to this perfect Polluta does not exist?


(I also LOVED carving the texture on the red bean stalk and making the flying elephants into SUPERELEPHANTS!)




Twenty-fifth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Salivating. Scrumptious. Delectable.

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese Text on Print:

It's Everyone's Responsibility to Make Good Use of Resources

Salivating. Scrumptious. Delectable.


At Polluta, pets are only allowed in pet-friendly quarters, as indicated at the time of application. Pets found in other areas of Polluta will be escorted to the kitchen.

Here is an image of the Polluta kitchen! Our chef is busy working at the stove. Swinging on hooks, our beloved resident pigs are in the middle of their transformation into salted ham and roasted pork. On the conveyer belt, various pets are being transported into the pots. On the left side of the chef, a husky dog looks nonchalant on the conveyer belt while a cat is frantically trying to climb back onto the conveyer belt. In the border you see a tonne of tasty snacks and dim sum. Oh and the little top icon made with a star and two wok spatulas!



Twenty-sixth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Comrade Pigs!

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese Text on Print: Salute to the Sacrificed Pig Comrades!



OK, another image of the resident pigs. At that time, I was really into Chinese folk design. Our beloved comrade resident pig has its head prominently in a circular negative space (a plate?) framed by a fork and a knife. Below are our valiant and tasty resident pigs being roasted on an open fire. Above are a few innocent baby sheeps prancing around, folk-art style. Writing this blog, I am tempted to make up elaborate reasons behind why there are sheeps. The truth is that I don’t remember…


I love the creaminess of this woodcut print that can only be enjoyed in flesh. The digital image just doesn’t cut it.



Twenty-seventh of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Giant Tortoise

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese Text on Print: Shouldering the Green Mission



The figures on the giant tortoise are all Polluta residents. In another body of Polluta works, I invited some artist friends to become Polluta resident artists and created their portraits based on their practice and personality. You will meet more of them in the short film and other future woodcuts. The first body of portraits was exhibited at Firstdraft Gallery, the oldest artist-run gallery in Australia, in 2019 and the next body of portraits will be exhibited at the Varna City Gallery, Bulgaria in summer 2022.


Back to the woodcut. The flags they hold feature Contradictoria’s national flag (Contradictoria is the imaginary country where Polluta is part of) and Polluta logo.


Fun story: In an older body of works, I drew a lot of trees. Some of these trees are making back to my current works.



Thirty-sixth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Heaven and Earth

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese Text on Print: Heaven, Human, Earth




Ooooh, in my enthusiastic research in heraldry and family crest, I learnt that only the Europeans and the Japanese used family crests. Of course, after gleaning through every single book on heraldry from the university library system, I incorporated some of my favourite ones in this composition.





Here, you can see Polluta the floating island on top of the ocean among clouds. An imaginary animal looms above Polluta. Our fire-breathing dragons hang out in midair. More red bean motifs adorn the decorative border. You also see Contradictoria’s national flag and Polluta’s official flag. Of course, the sky is raining red beans!





Fortieth of Ninety-Nine Views of Polluta: Big Love

woodcut (oil-based in on cloud dragon handmade rice paper)

Image size: 18x23.5in. / 45x60cm

Edition 9+1

2021

Chinese Text on Print: Big Love



Let’s continue with the theme of heraldry. The bear and the cat are two amazing husband-and-wife Canadian animators Carol Beecher and Kevin Kurytnik I met at the International Motion Film Festival in Cyprus. Their Polluta residents’ portraits will be exhibited at the Varna City Gallery, Bulgaria in summer 2022.


Two giant fire-breathing dragons frame the composition while our heroes in the artwork are riding our beloved fattened resident pigs, dressed the same way a knight’s horse would. (Here Carol and Kevin are portrayed as a lady and a knight!) They sit in a bed of Venus flytraps. Venus flytraps are part of the pollution-purifying process which will be elaborated in the upcoming short film. Various animal skulls adorn the dragons’ bodies, implying the dark dystopian side of Polluta. A shield with Polluta’s logo sits prominently in the middle while the Polluta president (a goat) sticks out her tongue and radiates light.



Film still from Polluta film


✵✶✺ Conclusion ✵✶✺


You can tell that not only is there quite a lot going on in each piece, but a lot of content is also linked to other bodies of works. Some collectors just want to enjoy the image. Others want to know absolutely everything there is to know about. Totally a personal choice!


Each piece actually is based on children’s drawings. I will talk more about that in the next post.



✵✶✺

Love what you are seeing? Check out The Animal Collection of Polluta Propaganda Woodcuts.


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