By Wu Hong
Anyone who knows him would agree that Qiu is a sentimental and passionate artist. His earlier works make frequent use of the horse image, which, of course, is presented through personification. We are aware that horses are closely related to the development of human civilization, so that the culture revolving around horses is also a reflection of humans themselves. Horse remains one of the main motifs of this exhibition.
When he invited me to be this exhibition’s curator, Qiu had almost ended the 19-meter-long huge painting, which gave me a strong visual impact as well as the sensation that it implied a different way of thinking from his previous works. The artist later told me about the other works he was going to exhibit and I could gradually grasp the theme that went through all the pieces. Thinking about his two other solo exhibitions—the first one was “Besieged on All Sides” held at Shanghai Art Museum with me as the curator and the other was “The Previous and Present Life” curated by Lu Hong at Wenzhou Museum—I felt something deep inside like a silkworm stirring in its cocoon, which, from my point of view, is humans’ struggle against the now material dominated society. But this time, the cocoon is to be broken.
When staying in the hotel, Qiu and I grabbed a piece of letter paper from the hotel and listed all the themes that were mentioned in his new art pieces, including spirit versus material, soul versus body, utopia versus dystopia, religion versus secularity, the transcendence of spirit and the degradation of body, just to name a few. At that point, the two of us found that all the themes pointed to one single motif: the way humans expressed their inner desires. Both the world we are living in and its patterns of civilization—they represent how the world expressed itself—are the ways for us to express desires. Then the word “heaven” came to our head, which we wrote down on the paper almost at the same time!
The driving force for the development of human civilization, or all the civilization patterns, is in essence the difference between people’s understanding of “heaven”, which, started from either a spiritual or a material perspective, is expressed and acted out. Yet what is behind the heaven stands the very best interpretation of inner desires. Pictures taken by Qiu at Wuming Buddhist College in Tibet’s Ganzi demonstrates asceticism on the path to the spiritual heaven; in the spectacles of urban “heaven” in cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, on the other hand, we can sense the growth of humans’ desire in pursuit of material wealth. Then “heaven”, or how inner desires are expressed, has become a thread for us to develop the main theme of this exhibition. Somehow the unique structure did meet our requirement. Getting our hands on the floor plan, we immediately thought of mandala in Tibetan Buddhism, which is an abstraction of Buddhists’ perception of the world’s structure. To make it more convenient for its believers to understand, in Tibetan Buddhism a visual symbol is usually adopted to represent the spiritual existence of heaven. Mandala is exactly what they use to describe how the heaven is like. So we came up with this idea, could it be possible that we convert the architectural space in line with the spirit of mandala?
In the very process, we found that the space expanded in a symmetrical way, which bore symbolic relationship to the structure of human body. As both the limbs and head of a human unfold symmetrically along the spine, we can probably take the exhibition space as a representation of human body and try to build the logical connection between the two. What’s more, the dualism being played within also responded to the conflicting concepts of spirit versus body, or metaphysics versus physics. Thus, based on the architectural feature of the second floor on Guangdong Museum of Art, we tried to make arrangements so that its unique quality in spacial expansion and psychological effect would respond respectively to the layout of mandala and the symbolic semantic conversion about the desires in human body.
The venue is basically symmetrical. Ascending from the stairs and entering the exhibition space, the audience would face a foyer, which used to be a dooryard but was later blocked and rebuilt. Behind it stretches a passage along which stand symmetrically four independent exhibition halls. There is still a last one that is irregularly shaped and affiliated to the venue. So our exhibition is to be presented in these five exhibition halls as well as the passage. The basic idea with which the exhibition is designed goes that it is not constrained to each hall’s independence, separation or closeness. Rather, all the space on the second floor is considered as an integral whole. In this way, while walking in such a venue, the audience would become the dynamic elements of this spacial organism. So by making use of the physical quality of the museum, we try to have an intertextual relation built around the body between the audience and the space.
In dealing with the foyer, most exhibitions take it as the place to put up posters of introduction. However, if this practice is adopted here in our case, it would be difficult to demonstrate the organic integrity that we try to pursue. What’s more, this particular foyer happens to be in the shape of hexahedron, which inspired us so that we have turned it into a prayer wheel. When the audience set their feet on the second floor, they would be faced at first with a visual spectacle, or a man-made passage that is to lead them to an unknown world, which, again, is created as well. Therefore, once the audience enter the exhibition space, they will placed in a context with symbolic psychological implications. As for the other five sides, we put the introduction about what is presented in each exhibition hall counter clockwise, thus while reading the words, the audience moves in a way resembling how the prayer wheel is turned. Beside, a strong symbolic meaning and psychological effect will also arise from such a ceremonial activity.
Presented in the first hall on the left is a visual model about “heaven”, which actually includes two separate pieces, one standing for “side A” and the other “side B” of the heaven. The former, titled “Heaven No.1”, contains a 19-meter-long painting and a mute video. In the painting there is a group of biting vultures and a neighing horse, which symbolizes the spiritual relief achieved after physical sufferings. The mute video, on the other hand, is an edited collection of clips from TV news and movies, which not only reveals the disasters now occurring in the world but also suggests what are the potential misfortune to fall on us if we blindly continue the current pattern of civilization. In this case, the painting is not simply a painting and the video is certainly more than just a video. Rather, there is an intertextual relation between the two, combining them to become a new art piece. Such an installation made up of a painting and a video, as a matter of fact, has built a spacial field with special meaning. With the involvement of video, the description of celestial burial is turned into some kind of cultural symbol, which encourages the audience to reflect on the current state of human civilization. Then they will realize, all the disasters that have happened in the name of “redemption” are just projected by our inner desire.
Standing in opposition to this theme of “soul redemption” is another piece of installation tiled “Side B of Heaven”. It has something to do with Qiu’s brief working experience in his early days and presents a work shed commonly seen in the “world’s mega factory” of Pearl River delta region. Numerous yet petty migrant workers have gathered in this area and worked to improve their material life. But while aspiring for a material heaven, at the same time they have to put up with great inner struggle and suffering. The anxiety, aspiration, contrariness and anger build up in their heart, forming an invisible darker side of “heaven” which exists in contrast to its visible affluence and glamour. In this way, the installation warns us of the dangers of promoting a GDP-driven pattern of economic development.
Exhibited in the second hall on the left is also a piece of installation named “Heaven No.2”. It is made up of sound, video, smoke and physical entities. After entering the audience will see scattered visual images floating dreamily. The psychological experience is further intensified by the light smoke drifting on the site, to which a mysterious atmosphere is added by the sound of vultures tearing dead bodies apart. Passing the folding screen at the hall’s entrance, audience would be exposed to a set of shiny weapons hanging at the center, which tell them that these are the very source of the brilliancy presented just now. It implies that to fulfill the desires which grow in our heart, heaven, or the end that is much chased after, becomes dominated by the means adopted, which create dark forces inside humans.
Paintings by Qiu are on display in both the halls on the right. Exhibited in the first one are mainly previous works that focus on horses. In this series, with a change in the context, we can see that “horse” is no longer an independent and symbolic vehicle of meaning. Instead, it has become an element of meaning embedded in the context itself. A group of yellow figures, which serve as the end of this series and the beginning of the next stage in Qiu’s creation, continues the color used to paint the horses. However, their facial expressions are dull and inert, which might lead us to think, is it the quietness one experiences after struggles, neighing and feeling hopeless?
In the second hall we can see his latest series “Mountains and Rivers in Heaven” as well as “Bird of Paradise”. The first one adopts the traditional composition in Chinese landscape painting, which, according the symbolic schema of “heaven” understood by Chinese traditional culture, use the artist language of oil painting and the grafting of materials and turn it into a scene that suggest such psychological implications as dangers and crisis. Is the burning “heaven” where fire erupts from the ground sending a prophecy about our culture or society? If so, who are the “birds of paradise” that walk through the heaven? Are they the savior or prophet? Next comes the exhibition space in the passage. It is the central axis of the whole building through which the audience has to pass. When passing it, the spacial framework also concerns time, turning the axis of space into an axis of time. It is along the passage that another piece of work created in 2012 unfolds, which represents Qiu’s attitude towards the century prophecy about “2012”. It has been circulated among the Mayans yet never has solid proof, so why is the prophecy still widely recognized in the world? Qiu is interested in how the “2012” doomsday prophecy was created and in what kind of psychological isomorphism it comes to be interpreted.
So he created “Diaries in Heaven” in tribute to 2012. From the first day of the year, the artist produced a painting everyday based on the news he was exposed to through cell phone, the most convenient media for us to receive information today. There is an APP named “News Headlines” which presents news quite differently. While other APPs would first edit the news in a chronological order, in other words, arrange it like the traditional media according to significance, “News Headlines” does not enforce the personal understanding or will of the editors on the users. Its editor does not decide what we would read first and second, which is instead determined by how much attention has been given by the readers. The pieces of news with the highest click rate tops the chart for us to read first. The message here is that in an age of “we media”, what we see and would like to see everyday is constructed by ourselves. We are not the passive receivers of information, rather, we actively participate in building a general perception of the world. As for “2012”, be it a global prophecy about disasters or a metaphor for the current pattern of civilization development, how on earth did it come into being? In fact, “2012” reflects no more than what we need deep inside, which needs to be projected on a more general level and targeted at a wider and bigger audience by the means of media. In this way, it came to be constructed in the whole world. Therefore, this piece of work seeks to explore the relationship between the “2012” as a cultural metaphor and our inner world through “visual diaries”.
To stress that the news presented comes from “media transmission”, the caption that accompanies the painting has been printed on the canvas in the way of screen printing. What’s more, it is also stated which media organization the news comes from. So the work represents the general visual perception we have about last year, 2012. Such a perception is closely related to every individual’s expectation for the world as well as his anger and disappointment with it.
At the end of the passage, after passing the axis of time filled with visual constructions, the audience would come to see an image of “guardian”, which is a group of sculptures that presents a personified vulture dragging a horse. As both the vulture and horse has appeared in the works before, their coexistence in one single piece has a different semantic connotation. In the current pattern of civilization, the “utopia” prophecy, which is not only a theoretical hypothesis but has also been put into practice, can be represented in various ways. Despite the difference, there is a base for their coexistence: all of them are proposals to improve and save the real world. But if the salvation scheme of utopia ideals has in itself numerous problems as well, where exactly is the future for us?
The last exhibition space is the affiliated hall, in which two pieces of work are on display. One of them is an installation titled “A Handful of Water”. The audience has been exposed to so many complicated art works at this stage that they should now be presented with a piece that is simple and clam. This work is a basin of water into which a fish has been put. A beam of light is projected onto the water so that when the fish swims and stirs the calm surface, a reflected image will appear and float on the wall. It is our hope that after a long series of complex visual experiences, the audience can look into their heart in a quiet space. The “handful of water” is itself pure and clean, just as the Sixth Patriarch Huineng has said, “there is nothing originally”. Whether the world is restless or motionless, simple or complicated, is in fact the projection of our inner world.
Back to another visual work titled “The Delta Project”. As a reversal of the previous works’ semantic sequence, it returns to the scene of “spiritual city” in Wuming Buddhist College after presenting the materialism in Pearl River delta region. So the whole exhibition has a starting point with a religious connotation and eventually goes back to where it begins. It is not simply a return, but represents the ultimate questioning of human spirit that goes far beyond religious foreordination.
About the exhibition
Dates: 6 Sep – 7 Oct 2013
Venue: Gallery 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Second Floor, Guangdong Museum of Art
Curator: Wu Hong
Academic Host: Yang Xiaoyan
Exhibition Organizer: Jiang Cui
Host: Guangdong Museum of Art
Opening Hours: 9:00-17:00 (Tue-Sun)
Add: 38 Yanyu lu, Ersha dao, Yuexiu qu, Guangzhou
Courtesy of the artist and Guangdong Museum of Art, for further information please visit www.gdmoa.org.