Weimin He is artist in residence of the Oxford University Estates Directorate, tasked with creating a unique portfolio of drawings and prints reflecting the transformation of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ) project.
How did you become an artist?
I started drawing from a very early age, around five or six. I was born in China and my parents were both teachers. We didn’t have many toys in the house but had lots of papers and pens, so I started doodling. I received a lot of encouragement for my emerging talent, and eventually went on to train as an artist in north-east China, and then studied for a postgraduate degree and PhD in art and printmaking in Northern Ireland.
What first brought you to Oxford?
In 2005 I became a research fellow in eastern art at the Ashmolean Museum, and then became artist in residence to document the refurbishment project there. Since 2009 I have been working for the University Estates Directorate as artist in residence, focusing on every stage of the ROQ project from initial demolition throughout the construction process.
How would you describe your painting style?
Artists describe their painting styles best in paints, not words. Obviously my work combines influences from my training in China, and those I acquired while studying western art in Northern Ireland. I like to use techniques from Chinese ink painting and introduce them to western audiences. My work is very much influenced by Chinese calligraphy. But when it comes to materials I like to use a combination from east and west, including Chinese ink, mineral paints and western watercolours or gouache. I like elements of both eastern and western art to mingle naturally in my work and I feel the combination makes my work unique.
Why does the project need an artist in residence? Wouldn’t photography be an adequate record of the development?
If this project were only about keeping a record then photography would probably be better. But it’s not just a record, it’s a body of works to represent and reflect on the development in the form of art. I would compare the two by saying that photographs are like manuals, but paintings are like poems. I am often on site for many hours or even days to paint one scene, and so many things can happen in that time. I can incorporate many, many different moments in one image while photography represents a fraction of a moment. The ROQ site has been painted by artists of different periods, so I feel privileged to be able to capture this historic transformation of the University.
Why do you enjoy capturing the messy, often brutal transition process of a development?
People might think a building site does not have an aesthetic appeal and they only want to see the shiny new building at the end of the project. But I enjoy the process. Machines may be brutal but they are powerful and dynamic; the machinery and people on site are like moving sculptures, working together to create something beautiful. Artists should be able to transform things seemingly mundane or even ugly into something aesthetically appealing through the language of art, using brush strokes or colours. But I would say that my art is forceful, bold and raw, rather than beautiful.
What have you enjoyed most about working on a building site?
I think that it’s the fact that I’ve had a very privileged view behind the scenes, witnessing a remarkable transformation in progress. I’ve had almost the same freedom to move about the site as the builders. My work has focused on three aspects: woodcuts inspired by the ‘Tower of the Winds’, the alternative name for the Radcliffe Observatory; the scenery and changes on site; and portraits of the people working on the development. I’ve developed an enormous respect for the builders, who are remarkable people who work in very tough conditions outdoors in all weathers.
What will happen to the art works at the end of the project?
When the project is completed I will hold an exhibition, although the date for this is yet to be decided. I will then be donating all the works to the University to hold as a permanent record of the development.