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Addressing Environmental and Cultural Issues through Ceramics and Painting

Oct. 10, 2017, New York – Invited by Co-Chairman of Worldview Global Impact (WGI) Jasmine Wang, artists Beibei and Leilei Chen delivered a talk on “Art for Sustainable Development Goals” at the headquarters of the United Nations. Focusing on social issues, Beibei and Leilei’s project "Art and Sustainability" has been highly praised by senior officials at UN.

Beibei and Leilei are two Chinese artists who are also twins.  Although they are residing in the United States, their artwork is heavily influenced by Chinese culture, aesthetics, and philosophy. They have always been interested in addressing environmental and cultural issues through ceramics and painting; their "Art and Sustainability" project helps them generate lots of creative ideas for their artwork.


Beibei and Leilei were born in a coastal city in the northeast of China. They remember that not far away from the mainland, there is a small island in the sea called "Penholder Hill.” When the tides fall, a natural cobblestone path appears, and it connects the mainland and the small island. Beibei and Leilei called the path "Bridge to Heaven” and it appears twice a day. Ancient myth says that the path was made by a flying angel with a ribbon (Figure 1).

Haze Series

“We appreciated our carefree childhood, and enjoyed the beauty of nature as a gift. We deeply believe that the world is full of wonder and miracles. Humans are a part of nature,” Beibei said. However, Beibei and Leilei’s hometown gradually changed. Five years ago, when Beibei and Leilei returned, they found that tons of cement and steel were shipped there, refined petroleum was shipped out, all due to a petroleum refinery in the city. Although the factory released harmful gases, people did not consider the pollution a serious problem. However, Beibei and Leilei noticed that the air was not as clear as before, and the polluted harbor was much closer to Penholder Hill. Perhaps in few years, the Moses-like wonder that separates the sea will be gone. 

Later, Beibei and Leilei moved to Beijing, where the air pollution is even more serious. People call the air pollution in Beijing “haze.” According to the Berkeley Earth organization, China's air pollution has led to an average of over 4,000 deaths per day, accounting for 17 percent of China's total mortality. According to US standards, 38% of Chinese people breathe air that is unhealthy and constantly live under a gray dome, having to wear masks sometimes when they go outside. Usually people wear gas masks during the war, so in their artwork, Beibei and Leilei exaggerated regular masks to a kind of gas mask, in order to warn people that air pollution is no less dangerous than war.

The “Haze” artwork series are masks made of traditional Chinese blue and white porcelain. Beibei and Leilei used underglaze color to paint the landscape on the gas masks. They want to express their concern for the environment and imply that the key to solving these environmental issues is related to Chinese culture, according to which human beings, nature, heaven, and the earth exist in harmony. Beibei and Leilei hope that the wisdom of traditional Chinese culture can give modern people some inspiration of living in harmony with our nature.

Title: Haze Series
Media: Ceramic
Size:15 X 8 inches
Artists: Leilei Chen & Beibei Chen

Beibei and Leilei created a series of artworks related to the disappearance of traditional culture and the damage to the natural environment. They made nine gas masks through a mold system consisting of seven steps: making a mold, kilning, painting under colored glaze, kilning again, painting over colored glaze, and kilning a final time. They painted landscapes, butterflies and flowers on the gas masks using Chinese traditional painting techniques.  

In another series named Characters, white unglazed ceramic was used to present Chinese characters. The characters compose a poem written by Wei Wang, a famous poet 1,400 years ago. In his poem, Wei Wang described a tranquil and beautiful environment, as well as a peaceful and broad state of mind. Beibei and Leilei used the font from Xizhi Wang, the most famous calligrapher 2,000 years ago. This series of works hangs on white walls above white grounds. The melted characters are very subtle and silent. 

Similarly, the diminishing of Chinese culture hasn't received much public attention. Chinese civilization is one of the world's oldest civilizations but its traditional culture is gradually disappearing. Through Beibei and Leilei’s work, they hope to invite the viewer to travel beyond the porcelain surface to ponder a real sense of spiritual embodiment, and to reflect on the place of the individual from the perspective of Chinese embodiment. 

Malignant Landscape Series

Beibei and Leilei never stopped exploring the relationship between culture and the natural environment. They painted a series of 13 watercolors, through which they tried to tell stories of life and death, science and art, religion and politics. They hope to create contemporary artworks by combining Eastern aesthetics and Western painting ideas. They used the figure of flying apsaras (flying angels) in Chinese Dunhuang culture, and abstract lung cancer cells that can be seen under the microscope, to create a series of contemporary artworks. Flying apsaras in colorful cancer cells is a symbol of integrated Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Those are three different Chinese religions, but they have the same core idea that human beings are an integral part of nature. 

Title: Malignant Landscape Series
Media: Watercolor and ink
Size:22 X 22 inches
Artists: Leibei Chen & Beibei Chen

Human activities cause air pollution, which can lead to lung cancer. When human destroy the nature, they also hurt themselves. Chinese philosophers often emphasized the harmony between humans and nature. It did not mean an equal relationship between humanity and nature, but a premise of sufficient respect towards the laws of nature.

When Beibei and Leilei started to learn Chinese painting, they had a deep understanding of Chinese philosophy. They hoped to emphasize the belief that humans should be in harmony with nature. In other words, human consumption should always stay within the renewable limits of nature. Beibei and Leilei hope that their work will bring attention to these issues and the shared challenges that people face in the contemporary world.

As for painting techniques, Beibei and Leilei combined Western watercolor painting and Chinese traditional methods. They also used compositional white space, or empty space, with virtual and real Chinese painting composition to create their art. Empty space is an important artistic method in Chinese painting, letting viewers have an imaginary space associated with aesthetics and imagination. This blank composition, thus, is not a void or nihilism of visual perspective, but an improved enrichment of artistic performance.

Beibei and Leilei painted some traditional Chinese patterns such as dragons, flowers,clouds, flying apsaras, hands of Buddha, and ribbons. These images represent many meanings. For example, Buddha hands could mean culture, religion, or a political reference. Patterns in this work gradually became more abstract and the intersection of concepts and symbols more numerous. They decided to use Buddha hands instead of figures to represent all human beings with the ribbons instead of flying apsaras, which is more culturally specific.

Beibei and Leilei found inspirations from the artist Wangechi Mutu, an African artist now based in Brooklyn. Her “Tumors” series is comprised of inked-in armatures punctuated with collage elements taken from glossy magazines such as Vogue and National Geographic. “We appreciate that her works shuttle between abstraction and figuration with dizzying ease,” Beibei said, “Our professor, Margaret Vega, gave us a reference to artist Kim McCarty. Her works inspired us by some elements to be painted inside each  part without destroying the overall shape. Her work is talking about an interesting story where the audiences examine the details. This way of expression is a good reference for us.”

Beibei and Leilei are trying many new directions to express their themes, both macro and micro, to represent cancer in landscape as a global issue. “Cancer caused by pollution is not only inside our cells, but also now a part of the earth,” they say. On a macro scale, air pollution can be considered cancer in landscape, and on a micro scale, this disease is in the cells of our bodies. Beibei and Leilei hope that their work reflects both of these issues.

Gaia Series

The Gaia Series embodies the over-consumption of natural resources by human beings. The figure in the painting represents humankind, whose inflated ambitions are shown through the corpulent bodies. Nature is filled inside the figure's body. In order to fulfill her abnormal material desire, this figure excessively consumes natural resources, which leads to irreversible damage to nature and to humans.

The Gaia Series is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock in 1972: “Organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth and they form a complex self-regulating system. Simply speaking, the Gaia hypothesis means that under the interaction between organisms and environment, the earth becomes a suitable place for the continual existence and development of organisms.” This view is exactly the same as the theory that man is an integral part of nature, the key philosophy of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in China. According to this philosophy, humans are part of nature. Thus, to damage nature is to damage themselves.

Title: Gaia I
Media: Acrylic
Size:66.5 X 45.5 inches
Artists: Leilei Chen & Beibei Chen
Title: Gaia II
Media: Acrylic
Size:66.5 X 45.5 inches
Artists: Leilei Chen & Beibei Chen

The theme in the first painting is the forest. Inside the figure's body are animals and plants in the forest, with the somber green color conveying its moisture and gloom. In such a poisonous world, animals and plants are unhappy and uncomfortable. The orange and crimson mushrooms are toxic. The motions of swans, cows, frogs, and eagles all show their pain and their struggle on the verge of death. Chrysanthemums’ sere stems interweave the inner parts of the figure and her hair is the petal. In Asian culture, the chrysanthemum represents death and transmigration. 

The second painting manifests marine organisms. The gray-blue color is the contaminated seawater, and the marine organisms with their heavy-breathing mouths symbolize social issues such as overfishing. The theme in the third painting is birds and sky. The gray background represents polluted air, and different angles of a bird’s twisted body look like torture. Meanwhile, this figure can be depicted as an "Earth Mother,” whose facial expression is sad and desperate. Humans’ consumption of nature is damaging the balance of self- regulation of this life entity. Due to the loss of balance, her body surface breaks apart. In one of the series, "Earth Mother" is squeezing her breast, so humans are not not only fighting with nature but also with themselves. 

Beibei and Leilei are taking references from the ancient Dunhuang Mogao cave mural, such as the color palette, and also the animal eye style from Buddha figures in this mural. This series’ painting style combines meticulous Chinese painting, surrealism, and graphic design, to make a contemporary painting style that expresses traditional ideas and modern consumerism.

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