In his article titled “Past” (2012), Liu Qinghe repeatedly sighed how good it would be if one could live like the protagonist in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, who starts his life with an old face, and gradually grows to youth, childhood and finally becomes a baby back in “the arms of the beloved”. According to this logic, he continues to imagine that if his life starts with 70 years old, then after all these 50 years, “I’m in my charming 20s, with youth, strength and capital of life. But next I would experience a time of restlessness and ignorance, until I return to be a baby crying piteously for food.” This is like turning a book backward. “You experience each episode, only in a reversed way.” According to this kind of life, Liu Qinghe, whose hair is gradually sparse, will gradually have more hair and return to the handsome guy I knew more than thirty years ago. His crafty smile on the wrinkled face will also return to be innocent and ignorant of worldly affairs. But is it worth living in that kind of life? Besides happiness, all the pains in the past will also return. All the wounds will re-emerge like the sunflowers in his paintings.
The key is not whether it is worthy, but that there is no choice. Such a day will surely come. It’s interesting that 2012 is really a special year in the entire artistic career of Liu Qinghe. In the previous two years, marked by his “Emergence” held in Suzhou True Color Museum, Liu Qinghe, who has been famous for his ink painting, blended sculptures, installation and painting together in an incredible way. He occupied the strongest fortress of Chinese traditional ink painting art in a king’s gesture of attacking the city, and then transformed it into a small part of his art. In this way, he made himself one of the most creative contemporary artists in China. From the 1990s, his artistic images ranged from the enclosed lovers’ world in Urban Ink to the vast natural world in “Meteor Shower” in 1999, to the giant portraits that accompany the improvement of studio conditions in 2005, and to the all-around occupation of space in Suzhou Plan in 2010. From the image of enchanting female body to that of ink-color landscapes, it has undergone an extreme trend of expansion, which in essence is the realization of his artistic expression, as well as the peak of male power. As a result, a kind of emptiness and void after the extreme prompt his strong mind of return. First, he returns to sketch, that is, from the fake man to real person in Emergence, “to return the instant feeling at the scene of painting.” In fact, Liu Qinghe’s paintings have always maintained this sense of sketch. But in the past, this feeling is always used to show the flexibility in paintings. It changes this time. The sketch mainly serves the intelligence of the object, endowing it with titled existence. Another kind of return refers to return to youth and childhood. Such return was first seen in his “Sunflower” in 2013, and reached its peak in his individual family history “Groundless Talk” in 2014.
In “Groundless Talk”, Liu Qinghe was the Benjamin who grows backwards. As he himself confessed, he first returned to his “20-year-old charming life”, to “a baby crying piteously for food”, to his father’s life and then to the life of his grandfather. Consistent with the overall feeling of nostalgia, the size of the picture changed from huge frame to small one, nearly squares of 65cm×55cm. Sometimes he even painted pictures in the picture, such as the old picture embedded in the frame and old paintings on the back of the mirror. They seem to be looked upon with tender affection, just as the faint sunshine at dusk. Such pity doesn’t come from others, but his view towards the past. His self in the past is thriving under the sunshine of his self today.
However, the other half of the story missing in the “Groundless Talk” was to be found in the “Traffic Control” Series in the later year. “Groundless Talk” means empty promise, while “Traffic Control” means taboos, which must be accompanied by pains. “Traffic Control” was not the Freudian daydream in the “Groundless Talk”, but a recurrence of trauma. The protagonist of “Traffic Control” is exactly the little Red Guard who was happily immersed in the sun in “Groundless Talk”, only that he sits on a towering white building and is overwhelmed with loss in the latter series. What is embarrassing is the building below him: viewed from the masonry exposed in the incomplete area, it should be an entity; but this part is actually the only blank space on the picture. In the latter sense, the little Red Guard is actually floating above the picture without any support. So, is he anxious about his own condition?
The same composition also appears in works like “On the Top of the Wall”, “Lofty”, “So Deep”, etc. The common compositional feature of these works lies in the vertical middle axis, as well as an elevation perspective, which is extremely rare in Liu Qinghe’s works. And such perspective directly transfers the protagonist’s fear of foundationless to the audience, and makes it eternal.
“The stars tonight are no longer that of the last night. Whom are you waiting for in the cold wind of midnight?”
The above analysis is a key to understanding Liu Qinghe’s latest works.
Into Ashes is the first and the only solo exhibition after Liu Qinghe’s Groundless Talk. In 2015, “Groundless Talk” and “Traffic Control” were divided into two parts. In 2018, “Groundless Talk”and the other two works in the “Unity” show the same piece of work. In Hall NO.3 of the Wuhan United Art Museum, the “Groundless Talk” is still “living in vain” and daydreaming; but at the same time, its tone is reduced, for the “Powder” and “Gray%” are soaring, suspended and enveloped beside it just like a thick layer of fog, giving the city a touchable texture.
The “Make—up” occupies four walls of Hall NO.1, which are installed with more than 20 pieces of works, forming a space that reminds us of the pool in the atrium of Suzhou True Color Museum. But none of the works on display this time is installation. All of them are paintings. In other words, every spectator who enters the exhibition hall is like entering a goldfish pool filled with water. While watching the works on the four walls, he is also watched by the works.
The entrance is facing the wall. Under a pink curtain, a giant girl appears. She is illuminated by the spotlight. But she covers her ears as if she can’t see. We clearly see her fear. Another spotlight illuminates the eleven people who squat at the corner. Most of them are female. They turn their back on the viewers, either hold their heads or hide their faces. Only one of them faces the audience and reveals a pure cartoon-like face. Above their heads, there is a huge irregular black stone. On other walls and under other spotlights, images appear one by one. There are an ambiguous red curtain blended with the silhouette of the enchanting woman, the face of a man, the sideways image of an old man holding both hands, a half-length portrait of a security personnel in a uniform, a wriggling giant green bug…At the same time, everyone entering the exhibition hall is just like the goldfish in the tank, suddenly feel panic while swimming at leisure. We find ourselves are also gazed at by the serious or hidden characters on the walls. And next to the entrance, a pair of male legs crossed and squatted on the wall. According to the perspective, the man’s body should be in the exhibition hall, then, does he come to our space, or do we enter his space? In the constant interweaving of the two types of vision, a disorder has also emerged: Who are we? Are we the objects being gazed at or are we the viewers? Or are we both? Are we the images in our eyes, being crushed by our own eyes?
This kind of thinking is also brought into the work “Gray%” in Hall NO.2. The exhibition hall shows Liu Qinghe’s latest big paintings in the past two years, but the works present another return: the return to original color of ink . Most of them are gray and white in color. Just as the artist said, the intention is to “show less technology or skill, and to show more freedom in the process”. The perspective is either view at a distance or overlooking. For example, Tower and Red Wall continue the elevation perspective. The bed in the “Big Bed” is extended, but the combination of the couple playing with mobile phones on the bed still takes the shape of pyramid. The Remain Dust and Warmth adopt the overlooking perspective. They also present the tendency of returning to Chinese quaint composition. For example, in the Offshore, a scroll-style composition is added with a picture-in-picture rectangular frame. The undulating hills below are very similar to the multi-level composition of window-opening style in Coffin of a Dutiful Son in the Northern Wei Dynasty. Colored ink painting is rare but very wonderful, especially the “Burning Sun” is a work destined to go down in history. The best of the work is first contacted with the “Sunflower” series in 2013. Liu Qinghe said, “Do ‘sunscreen’ even if you can’t bear to part with the sunlight.” When the hot sun burns, our lyrical protagonist doesn’t hesitate to stand on the edge of the cliff, so as to turn his back on the sun. But in this piece of work, the most compelling is the perspective it adopts, which is neither looking-upward nor overlooking, but a perfect horizontal angle. This compositional form seems to mean: in the path of life, “he” only wants to stand in the middle, maintaining a balance with difficulty.
But within the arts, Liu Qinghe’s return is still continuing.
In the 2010 Suzhou program, Liu Qinghe entered the installation and contemporary art field. His success on the one hand proved that as an artist, he had enough power to handle all art problems; on the other hand, it also reflected his deep-seated anxiety. This anxiety concentrated on the status, meaning and limits of painting in contemporary art. If “painting dies out”, that is, if painting can no longer fully represent contemporary people’s emotions in the era of multimedia or even artificial intelligence, then, what is the significance of painting? In his words, can the “ink painting with little background” reveal the “big background of contemporary art”? “To be or not to be, that’s the question.” Yes, this is a matter of life and death.
In an interview, Liu Qinghe boasted that even if the “painting dies, I’m confined to my own pleasure,” but this seemingly generous sentence was a bit bleak after all. If it is real, it’s based on the fact the “painting dies”. Perhaps it is this bleakness, mixed with some “art will” that is indispensable for outstanding artists, explains Liu Qinghe’s feat of marching into contemporary art and three-dimensional space. However, the grandness and emptiness of contemporary art followed, and the exhaustion and emptiness after success also led the way. Finally, Liu Qinghe was urged to return to sketches, to painting, to the childhood and everything that happened before.
However, is contemporariness really a question of painting or non-painting? When the painting is dead, is the painting exhausted or is the painter dead? If the painting is dead, won’t the painters die? If the painters live, won’t the painting survive? Do paintings have contemporariness? Is it the contemporariness of paintings or painters? What’s the contemporariness of painters?
Just as life and death are not theoretical issues, the artistic issue related to life and death is also not theoretical. It’s either yes or no. These questions can only be answered by works. But now, we hear Liu Qinghe’s reply and heard the answer from “Into Ashes”.
The answer of “Into Ashes” is “unity”, and there is no exception. If the era is the “dust”, then the artist is also “dust”. If the era faces difficulties, then the artist is also faced with difficulties. If the era is “anxious”, the artist is also “anxious” and even more “anxious”. “If you ask me how much my sorrow has increased, just see the over-brimming river flowing east!” The character in the painting is the artist himself — “Madame Bovary is me”, this is the “contemporariness” according to Liu Qinghe and his “Into Ashes”.
The answer of “Into Ashes” is “unity”. And the “Make—up” is the “powder”, that is, the “dust”, which comes from dirt. The ashen “Gray” is the “ash” of ashes. Everything is like this without any exception. Golden phoenixes are born in the dust and ashes.
It is in the context of returning to “life and death” that “Unity” transcends “life and death” in its own way, and it welcomes the resurgence of painting at the same time.
Just as the “revival of historical glory”, it happens that there is a similar case in “Unity”, which returns to painting, and also unconsciously returns to more ancient Chinese painting tradition, that is, the tradition of etiquette and art that embraces the actual space. As long as people don’t hold prejudices, it is easy to find the same elements from the “Powder” and the murals in Xuanhua District of Liao Dynasty, for example, there are elements of men and women, the elderly and the children, the bed-curtain, doors and windows, the singers and servants, the guards and security personnel, even the half-covered women and huge worm-shaped monsters, and the same mood beyond life and death. This gives us reason to feel confident that we can re-examine the traditional contemporary artistic potential of Chinese native images.
In August 1881, when the philosopher Nietzsche walked by the lake, an idea occurred to him beside a huge rock. He put forward the idea of “Eternal Recurrence of the Same”:
All things come and go, always turning the wheels of existence. All things live and die. The time of existence runs forever. Things separate and combine. They are always faithful to themselves. Every moment is a start point for survival. The ball “there” rotates around every “here”. The center is omnipotent. The path of eternity is curved.
In another place, he wrote:
The biggest burden — if a devil infiltrates into your most lonely loneliness in a day or night, and tells you: “the life you currently experiencing or you experienced in the past is the life you have to repeat in the future. There will not be any fresh bright colors. And every unspeakable thing in your life, either big or small, must reoccur on you and be arranged in the same order—there would be the same spider, the same moonlight between the trees, the same moment and the same you. The eternal hourglass of existence will rotate repeatedly, and you are only a slight dust compared with it!” What would happen?
The core of the idea of “Eternal Recurrence” lies in the infinite repetition of the world, so everything that has happened will be repeated indefinitely. But at the same time, in Nietzsche’s view, “Eternal Recurrence” is the “highest affirmative formula” for life, for even if you are as small as dust, you will not disappear and will eternally come back.
Therefore, this fine dust may be just like the artist described by Liu Qinghe, who did eternal balancing gymnastics on the edge of the cliff while shooting a glance down. What did he actually see? The artist did not explain. However, according to my understanding of Liu Qinghe, he usually would want to “desert one’s post” to indecently “peek at some one’s breast” even in front of “the orthodox thought”. This time certainly is no exception.
So I believe he must see something. You get me.
April 15, 2018