Nova Prize Winner: Mengfan Bai

Interview With Mengfan Bai

by Jennifer Gutierrez

The Nova Prize exhibition is the result of an open call process which sought submissions from emerging artists that could offer innovative perspectives on pressing contemporary issues. After receiving a robust global response from more than 20 countries, an international jury composed of artists, scholars, and curators selected the exhibiting artists whose practice and themes most align with the spirit of the call.

Portrait courtesy of Mengfan Bai

Portrait courtesy of Mengfan Bai

Why did you decide to focus on the everyday and the ordinary?

Bai is interested in conceptions of space and time. She observes the world and attempts to create a pictorial logic to better understand the environment that surrounds her.

How do you choose your subjects and how do you frame them in your paintings?

Bai is in search of simple things, and from there she imposes a geometry on the environment. She is drawn to lines because they are largely indicative of boundaries in society (both visible and invisible).

Who or what influences you and your work?

Traditional Chinese landscape painting have been a strong source of inspiration, in particular landscape painting scrolls from the Song Dynasty period. She is interested in the relationship between the landscape and humans, respect for nature, and she hopes that her oil paintings capture this sense of balance between nature and civilization.

Are there any philosophical concepts, beliefs, or recurring themes in your work?

Sergei Eisenstein, Glass House (1960s) is an unfinished film, speaks to surveillance of architecture, served as the point of departure for the oil on panel work.

Do you think there is a form of beauty in the ordinary?

Bai is less interested in questions of beauty and more intrigued by trying to find the silence, quietude, and solace in the urban setting.

Is there any emotion or feeling that you want to invoke in your pieces?

She hopes that her paintings encourage viewers to rethink their perspective/perception of reality.

In your L.I.M.B.O pieces, you appear to focus on leaves and tennis balls from a court, which suggests an organic, interactive space. Do you plan on exploring more environments with such specific details in the future?

She is interested in the in-between space, those spaces between reality and the virtual. This in-between is an important idea in the history of Chinese landscape painting.

In your work, we see elements of a smartphone and digital camera. How does the role of technology come into play in your pieces?

Bai considers time, too many images, how we are flooded with visual data, trying to process too much information. Art becomes an in-between space to have a reprieve from this flood of external stimuli.


Since you are a NYC based artist, does the city influence your work? How do you view the city in a way that is unique from other artists?

The color of her work has changed since coming to NYC.

Based on your upbringing in China, what are some ordinary aesthetics and environments that are different from New York?

There is not such a big difference between the aesthetics and environments between global urban centers.

Art works from left to right: Glass House, L.I.M.B.O 15:12, and Sunday Afternoon

What are some of the quotidian urban rituals you frequently observe and respond to?

Bai’s work comments on the divide between individualism and collectivism, but it’s not necessarily a critique.

You mention that when you choose to represent a portion of a structure, you pare down or strip away the architectural detail and by extension any attendant styles or ideologies. Ultimately, you try to get to the heart of the design, structure, and the undergirding support. What do you hope to reveal through this idiosyncratic artistic excavation or extraction of urban buildings?

Paintings are based on photos taken by Bai as she experiences the urban environment herself. Overall, her works reveal or emphasize the emptiness of structures and  designs, and she hopes that viewers find beauty in this emptiness, as a break from all the external stimuli.

Your art is a response to globalization and the homogenization of urban metropolises. As a consequence of the development of late capitalism, a nearly uniform architectural style has developed (i.e. Hudson Yards, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, etc.). To your mind, what are the values wrapped in this type of architecture and design? What is lost in this standardizing process that is taking place on an international scale? Can we speak about urban identity?

Specific window designs used to characterize past cities, but now in urban environments this feature is becoming more universal and indistinguishable. The materials of buildings are becoming more universal too.

Mengfan Bai alongside her work,   Glass House   at the Nova Prize Exhibition held in HRY Space.

Mengfan Bai alongside her work, Glass House at the Nova Prize Exhibition held in HRY Space.

Your use of the grid conjures up ideas about line, design, architecture, rationalism, and humanity’s attempt to impose reason and order on the natural landscape/environment. Can you comment on this observation?

Bai is interested in how urban design and architecture controls people’s movements, interested in this art historical tradition of line and order and reason, and humanity’s manipulation of the landscape.

Glass House resembles drafting and architectural rendering programs. Thoughts?

The paintings do resemble the renderings seen in these virtual programs, but she is thinking more about geometric forms.

Read more interviews with the winners of the Nova Prize competition in our second issue of FRESCO Magazine.

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