Article 2011 / 2009 / 2008 / 2007 / 2006

Witness of an enchanted land – Qiu AnXiong
by Yuko Hasegawa

Qiu AnXiong was born in China's Sichuan Province in 1972. After studying painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, he went on to the University of Kassel in Germany before returning to China in 2003. Basing himself in Shanghai, he began working in video.

Following on from the generation of artists associated with the pro-democracy movement of 1989, including Huang Young Ping, Cai Guo-Qiang and others who went exile into after the Tiananmen Square massacre, came a new generation of extremely anti-establishment artists in the 1990s, Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming among them. They developed body-based performance art and Cynical Realism, then the Chinese-brand kitsch known as Gaudy Art. Qiu and others of his generation are also concerned about the prevailing situation, and well aware of the many issues facing China. But their attitude to the system, while both critical and cynical, led them to concentrate more on their own immediate realities. They looked to the everyday lives and sense of values of people caught up in the turmoil of cities undergoing a huge transformation at a breakneck pace. In a sense they were coming to terms with new ways of being human, sometimes by disinterestedly recording what they saw, and other times by mixing it in with existing stories.

Yang Fudong, who is of similar age to Qiu and also lives in Shanghai, appropriates the methodology of the romantic movies made in that city before World War II. He imparts a modern version of the traditional story of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove in his depiction of seven young men and women who flow from the country to the city in their search for a place to live out their lives as they pursue pleasure and engage in intellectual games and conversations rich in metaphor.

Qiu has always shared with Fudong a humanity and a similar awareness of the problems of modern China. His experience of living and studying in Germany has also given him a perspective from which to compare the situation in China. He is also able to place himself within the confusion and metamorphosis of his own country to look outward to assess the state of civilization in the rest of the world.

Commenting later on his own motivation for producing the New Book of Mountains and Seas, Part 1 in 2006, Qiu explained:
"I have been upset by the chaotic situations of the world today and found it difficult to reconcile what is happening around me. As satire, I have set eyes on modern life’s ingenious inventions and clever stratagems as though I was a naïve observer, and looked upon them as exotic monsters."1 Launched at the Shanghai Biennale, this is one of his most representative works, but it is on such a large scale that it requires three regular screens set up side by side.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhai Jing) is the oldest of all fanciful geographies in Chinese culture. It describes a complete world, including mountains and rivers, flora and fauna, minerals, and a variety of different peoples and animistic religions. Amongst all this, some plants, animals and gods are described as having rather monstrous forms, which gave rise to the common belief in later periods that it was predominantly a compendium of monsters. As for why the authors composed Shanhai Jing in the first place, that remains a mystery, but it is a valuable text for anyone interested in the origins of the world and mythology of China's early religions, before the influence of Confucianism.

Seeking to depict the confused situation of the world he lives in, Qiu expressed it through something resembling a modern version of the Classic. That is to say he did not settle on one particular ideology or perspective. His approach is to present the prevailing conditions in an exaggerated way, as something alien and monstrous. He illustrates the situation in China during the great changes of the past 10 years, and the situation in the entire world since 9.11, as a "topography" with the "animals" that inhabit it.

Each scene in Qiu's animations is painted in India ink with a touch that is both lively and generous. Rather than have his machines, which resemble human beings and weird fauna, moving around against a background, he lets them manifest themselves scene by scene. They appear as an element of each of those scenes and sometimes disappear only to return as something else. One feels as though one is looking at an endlessly unfolding picture scroll, one section at a time.

The landscapes that Qiu depicts are vast, and they have an air of mystery about them. The very best Chinese ink painting by the likes of Xia Gui and Ma Yuan often contains blank or empty spaces. Landscapes and people consist of spirit, so a space is actually a place that is filled with spirit – one might even call it heaven. And a place where the very best spirit gathers is referred to as a kiba [SHOULD THIS BE THE CHINESE READING?] (spirit place). Indeed this is an appropriate way of viewing the spaces in Qiu's images.

One work in which he attempted to portray heaven is his study-like Flying South, from 2006. In monochrome, with trees that have already shed their leaves extending their naked branches toward the sky, it looks almost like a still picture. It is only the bird's minimal movement on those branches that suggest this is actually a moving image. And the accompanying music accentuates the sense of eternity, demonstrating Qiu's superlative ability to depict heaven. In his paintings, the scenery and the kiba [CHINESE READING HERE TOO?] that are the subject of the picture reverberate together to give birth to an unworldly yet wonderful sense of unity. He realizes that sense of unity by capturing the music and its tempo, the endless flow of heaven and clouds, and the rhythm of the ocean. 

Qiu's New Book of Mountains and Seas, Part 1 begins with a view of the ocean. As the music plays, rhythmically but also somewhat harshly and with an underlying tension, an island appears in the middle of that ocean. Moving in closer on the land, the scene splits for a while into three screens. The land is cultivated, and a castle appears. Then a creature resembling a whale with several long fins flies over the Great Wall of China, and drops a mysterious box that possibly delivers the beginning of civilization. Then it moves on. The wide lands of China are developed, cities rise, and the trees and forests give way to clusters of black buildings and silhouettes of black highways. As he shows the organic natural world transformed into a modern urban environment, Qiu's subtle yet powerful touch with the brush proceeds amid gloomy silence to portray the flow of water, which is an extremely difficult thing to master.
The scene then changes to a desert, divided again, in two parts this time, with women in black chadors on one side, with only their eyes exposed and visible. On the other side are men in white body suits, their eyes covered by protective glass. Seams of oil run like veins through geological strata shown in cross-section, and machines that look like scorpions with their tails sticking straight up in the air suck up the oil from the ground. A conspiracy causes missiles to be fired from submarines to destroy the oil fields. The black smoke rising from this destruction drifts off in a single mass across the sky, like an emblem of hatred. Two symbolic buildings that tower above the center of a distant city are also destroyed. This is a dark exchange between two sides both in search of energy. With an eerie humor, Qiu has devised the technological means of this devastation and drawn them as weird and wonderful animals: tanks shaped like elephants, automobiles that look like turtles, long-winged flying monsters like military helicopters that spurt fire from their heads, and other flying creatures that look like stingrays but are also reminiscent of stealth fighters.

As the scenes of annihilation continue, the images again split into three, corpses pile up between the white people on one side and the black on the other. Finally, as a mushroom cloud rises from the ultimate weapon and a black-clad figure stands immobile at the left extremity of the picture, like a scene from a [Caspar David] Friedrich painting.

The battle over development and oil supplies is dealt with as a geographic text, with depictions of the topography of the city and the desert, and the creatures that live in them. A vast, silent sense of hopelessness pervades the entire landscape with meekness and calm. Qiu avoids the usual standpoint of critics in such situations and we witness the cool-headedness of people living in an enchanted land watching with their own eyes as that world meets its end, like the old man dangling his fishing rod in the ocean that we saw in the very first scene.

The seams of oil, the entangled trees, the city, fire, the rampant animals, the conflict and annihilation, and the constant intrusion of the vast sky and sea on those images, all illustrate a historical perspective in keeping with theories of space and time of a China that has moved well beyond dialectic.

In New Book of Mountains and Seas, Part 2, Qiu expands the area of his attention to a macrocosm of universal scale and a microcosm at the cellular and genetic level, and he ties the two together through his imagery. The world view expressed by the sky and sea in Part 1 is now the great void and the planets within it, and within that all-encompassing world view he describes in a comical yet unsettling way some of the topical issues affecting life at a very individual level, from genetic recombination and cloned sheep to mad cow disease and bird flu. One scene follows another – of birds collapsing in their cages and melting; of cows falling over in their barns; of males being whisked away in the heat of reproductive passion; and the tragedy of a sheep being taken off to a laboratory, where her outward appearance may remain unchanged but she is turned into something very different and contaminated, like a mutant monster. Images of blood plasma and viruses floating around within a body overlap with other images of planets and spaceships, resembling whales, floating around in space.

Qiu doesn't decipher and critique the world. He merely describes it. He continues to capture a single tree swaying under the heavens, in the winds of Jiangnan Province, and it is the toughness and vivid poésie concealed in this simple act that forms the basis of Qiu's strength as an expressive artist.


"A Material World"

Qiu Anxiong

This is an exhibition about the manufacturing process. The purpose of this show is not to establish some new theory. It is about a predicament, but is also an opportunity to redefine my position in the world and my relationship with it.

A dog brought us to a beautiful world on another shore: the beaches of Cannes peopled by celebrities, well-known charming people, trailblazers, fashionistas, and trendsetters. Through the dog, this faraway celebrity-filled place would be linked to our daily lives. The manmade dog would play a part in this glamorous world, a friend to the celebrities or an exhibit in their homes. It is the dog that connected these two worlds. He is a soul from another shore whose physical body is here, but who will then go back to becoming an immortal spirit after serving his purpose.

Neither the Earthly world nor the spiritual world is real, like our conception of the West. We have many words to describe the Western world . . . knowledge, ideas, images and voices. To us, these descriptions take the place of the Western world itself. If the Earthly world symbolizes the West and the spiritual world the East, then the dog is the only real object and witness of both these worlds.

For the East, our duty was to simply to produce materials and objects so we only needed to think about manufacturing. And the requirements given to us were to make it accurate, elegant, beautiful, and clean. To make a perfect dog, we didn??t need to be creative. Its beautiful appearance would match its soul.

This was originally a perfect scenario, in which we played a small background role. We were clear that the East??s part was secondary, and we were happy to support the primary world to build harmony and a wonderful international party.

Then one day, the harmony was shattered. The curtain ripped and the control panel was exposed. How did we reach this paradox? When did we end up in a minefield? When did we become lost in the labyrinth and become accustomed to its view? Or did the whole world become a huge maze, which no one can survive? Till now we are still unclear - maybe the things that are hidden are not true. When we went back to look for signs, the only thing we could find was a pile of fragmented narrative that could not be sorted.

When we had completed most of the order (the dogs), the client took some of them away to the beautiful beach. He told us that he didn??t want the other dogs and, thus, he wouldn??t pay for them. But we needed the money to pay the laborers, the rent for the warehouse, and the loan for the materials. Meanwhile, the contract disappeared after the last negotiation. Could we just give the remaining dogs to the laborers and tell them that the dogs were their payment for their hard work all those days they worked from morning until night? Could we also give the dogs to the landlord or the friends who lent money to us? This kind of situation is quite common in China - hard work without payment. The employer will have many excuses for refusing to pay salaries. In labor disputes, the employer is always in the power position.

They have the advantage of wealth and relations with powerful people. Lawyers and barristers give them the voice to speak. Our government offers preferential policies to Western investors who appear to be born with superiority. But the workers?? salary only affords them a dog??s life. They have no knowledge, no right to speak, no lawyers or barristers. Who would want to be a lawyer for a worker? There is no protection for laborers and the so-called labor law is like a blank sheet of paper. When a dispute occurs, the red envelopes always work to the employers?? advantage. The police and military men behave as hired roughnecks to protect the employers, while the migrant workers are treated like roughnecks themselves. But our workers did not protest; they are used to delayed payment. All they can do is to wait with hope that one day they will get their money. This is the current situation of Chinese migrant workers.

??Capital accumulates wealth through the labor force surplus value,?? Marx wrote in ??On Capital??. So it is clear that the Western Capitalists want to invest in China for its cheap labor. Chinese government incentives make China a paradise for Western capitalists. Nowadays, globalization allows capital to spread through several countries in a guerilla manner and affect local economics. Compared with the bigger picture, our issue is insignificant like a red blood cell in the body, but this one small cell can reflect the health of the entire organism. We merely execute the production; if more qualified cheaper producers can be found, we will loose our position in the chain. In the big picture, our existence is not important at all. We, the laborers, are just one element in the cost of productivity; without employment, we are simply surplus labor. Our experience is a significant example of the new colonialism. It is an example of the contradictions between transnational capital and Third World labor; that is, it is an example of the desire for maximum profit over the interests of the laborers. Sympathy for laborers is only on the surface; if they apply to improve their working environment, the employer will refuse because of the costs.

Developed countries make the Third World their factory. They take advantage of the cheap materials and labor, and the speed at which they can turn a profit. Then, by accumulated capital and the monopoly of techniques, Western investors will control the local market. When they complain about ??Made in China?? occupying the market, shouldn??t we ask who benefits the most? One Airbus is equal to 0.4 billion ??Made in China?? T-shirts and one iPhone is equal to 6 months salary for a migrant worker. Developed countries complain about the corruption and human rights record in our country. If there is no corruption and our government protects our human rights, how can Western investors earn so much money from the Chinese market? Their business benefits from this corruption. They have different economic and ideologic standards, as does my client. They would never struggle for justice. As the saying goes: ??There are no friends forever nor enemies forever. There is only profit forever.?? Here, justice is only a beautiful coat to clothe stark-naked profit.

How money alienates people is an old topic, but it has been influencing our daily lives over the last 20 years. It is changing our lifestyle and way of thinking. Before the opening up of China and reformation policy, the Chinese lived in an illusion built up by communist ideology. Afterwards, we were woken by the opening up and reforms. We jumped to another illusion built up by money. John Maynard Keynes announced that consumption was the only purpose and target of economic activities; consumption driven by production has become the main model of economic activities in the modern country. In fact, mass consumption is capitalism??s puppet. Nowadays, in a time of technology and globalization, capitalism infiltrates every aspect of our life. An invisible hand is behind the competition between culture and politics - it is even behind sanitary napkins and condoms.

In the consumer society, the value system is built up by several indexes - GDP, CPI, stock index, futures index, confidence index, etc. - which become the spiritual totem of a country. When numbers goes up, everyone gets excited; if numbers goes down, then the opposite occurs. This cycle began in the West before spreading to every corner of the Earth. As soon as Asian countries receive their tickets to enter into the modernized world, money will reveal to them its blood-sucking nature. No matter whether it is financial plundering or a military attack, both follow the will of capitalism. The rules of modern survival bring us fear of competition - no one wants to be a loser. Everyone wants to be a winner in this material world. But latecomers will always take on the role of passive losers. The rules are frequently changing without information, and they are unqualified to formulate these rules.

The ??consumption driven production?? model totally abandons ??supply and demand??. In the new model, investors must create demand to stimulate production so capitalists must take advantage of the mass media to sell latest trends. They need the media more now than ever. Controlling the media means controlling the market, which leads to profit. Therefore, capital creates a materialistic world that guides our lives. Our entire lives are about work and consumption. Work is one element of the production of material images. Leisure time is dictated by consumption and images presented by the media: shopping, cosmetology, going to the gym, interior decorating, travelling, holidaying on the beach, dramas on TV, gossip about celebrities. The media will tell you which one is the most interesting, which one is the most fashionable. But everything will soon be forgotten as fashion is updated daily. What is in fashion today will be gone tomorrow. Today??s hottest celebrity will be slaughtered by the paparazzi for each and every shortcoming tomorrow; each bulge will be exposed for the reader??s amusement. The new mobile you bought yesterday will become obsolete garbage because the design is old today. Everything can be sold and bought - even a disabled newborn. There is no need to remember the past or think in the material, image-laden world produced by capital. The only thing you need to do is to indulge in it.Rapid consumption will also be soon forgotten.? The whole world is flat.In the world consumed with images, it is impossible to realize a free existence. Many beautiful images come from the world and they will guide mass consumption. When we purchase something, we don??t pay attention to the survival of the workers. Meanwhile, we, the producers, will also be neglected by other consumers. Consumption fills our lives with superficial images, which are only temporary bubbles; after these bubbles burst, we must fill our emptiness with new bubbles. Then, we will become the witnesses and accomplices of the images. The ??production-consumption?? cycle makes our existence passive in the materialistic world. Our ego is also occupied with standard images. So-called freedom is only a choice between A, B, C, and D.

The globalized world is not the beautiful world of the future as it is made out to be; actually, it is a jigsaw puzzle based on a production-consumption system motivated by capital gain. Parts of the globalized world are flawless, rich, and developed, but they have achieved such perfection at the cost of places that are poor, dirty, conflicted, and chaotic. The dichotomies can never be bridged. The public is always presented with the beautiful side. People enjoying the festivities on the beaches of Cannes will never know the story behind the sculptures ?C what they see is only the pleasant, shiny glazed surface of the pleasing dogs.

Chinese contemporary art happily embraces capitalism in the open market. Today??s vivid art scene in China is nothing but a speculative market manipulated behind the scenes by capitalism. Karl Marx pointed out that the basic difference between the circulation of commodity and capital operations is that commodity circulation is commodity- currency-commodity, while capital operation is currency-commodity-currency. In commodity circulation, the motivation of the exchange between currency and commodity is to obtain the needed commodity, while in capital operations, the object of the exchange between currency and commodity is to obtain more capital. If we apply this formula to the art business, common collection behavior results from the appreciation of art and the need for interior decoration. Collectors are interested in the artworks themselves. However, the purpose of capitalist operations in the art market is to obtain huge profits through dealing artworks.

The collectors have no interest whatsoever in the artworks themselves. Investors are mainly interested in buying artworks at low prices to sell at high prices later. Artworks are treated as virtual capital like securities, whose prices are entirely decided by investment confidence. For example, popular works that sell at high prices at auction flood the art world with shabby, imitative works. Works with inflated prices eventually become sacrifices of huge-capital-chasing-oriented capital.

All this is nothing but additional proof of how this materialistic world, motivated by capitalism, has manipulated us. If artists become diligent manufacturers in this materialistic world, then the rebellious, subversive, spiritual introspection and suffering they express in their works are nothing but forms of spiritual consumption. As one artist said: ??Every academic theory pales and weakens in comparison to the prices created by auction houses.?? I believe what he said is true. If he feels pale and weak in the game of capitalism, the art value, which is independent from the market, is meaningless for him. If artists lose their awareness of existence and their critical effect on the surrounding world, then art will fall to materialism. So-called creation would be nothing but a cheap trick to please the eyes.

In the 1980s, Chinese contemporary art sprung from the idealist passion of the pre-capitalist era.? Western cultural theory, no doubt, was the catalyst of this passion. But, soon after, the over-optimistic and radical flames were put out by cold reality. In the 1990s after the Cold War, the Western world naturally showed interest in China, which was a large area with opposite ideology. Under these circumstances, Chinese contemporary art entered the international field of vision. The cynicism embodied by artists after values started collapsing was used repeatedly by the West to fight against official Chinese ideology. However, the West didn??t really care about the problems in China; all they cared about was that their opinion of China was proven by Chinese art. Therefore, this was a win-win situation. Chinese art gained success on an international stage and the West found the specimen of Chinese culture they needed.

In the early 1990s, those facts were of value; at least they were a reaction to a real attitude, creating a nominal language. However, when the artists gradually gained success, their art became freeze-frame, stopping at a successful standard point, not daring to transgress the bounds. Obviously by this time, the artists had an understanding of the rules for success in the art world. They also understood the market. They evolved from the purely expressive artists of the past into artists who knew how to manage success. This evolution was a result of the changing environment, which gave no cause for much criticism. However, there isn??t been much exploration of art. Artists are more interested in the levels of exhibitions they are going to participate in and presenting at key museums and galleries. The progression of their works and even their failed exploration of the creation of new works, can hardly be seen, which is the key problem and is the surface feature of the utilitarianism of Chinese contemporary art. We see many successful artists, but not many explorative artists. Many so-called explorations are more like imitations and modifications of popular models. Therefore, Chinese contemporary art can be the art specimen of the colonization of culture.

Chinese contemporary art in the twenty-first century became a target for capitalism, resulting in the condition mentioned above. Art critics and theorists, when exchanging power in the art circle, either crusade in the curator field or act as propagandists who compose complimenting articles for galleries. Academic criticism of good quality has almost vanished. Chinese contemporary art, up to today, still hasn??t taken up the cultural responsibility in reality and history in general. There are few artists who think about problems; most of them have been striving for the best in the production-consumption environment of today. Presently, it is an unpromising situation when capitalism has more and more power. The prosperity of the art scene is like a blooming garden full of plastic flowers ?C they appear to be blooming and abundant, boundlessly glorious and brilliant, but are actually of false vitality.

This exhibition is not initiated by art; instead, it??s a consignment, a deal, a short employed relationship, and tells the story of a financial dispute. What this exhibition is trying to present has nothing to do with art; instead, it is about relationships - the relationship between people and objects, and between objects and objects. They are not some theoretical objects in the distance, which have no relationship with us. We are involved with them, mingled with them, disturbed by them, and unable to free ourselves from them. We indulge in various memories and senses (taste, smell and touch), making us feel powerless. Nevertheless, this is exactly the world we live in.

What the audience will see in the exhibition is more ??evidence?? than artwork. The exhibition displays a scene, the front stage and the backstage of the materialistic world. The hidden backstage in the materialistic world becomes the proscenium. From the manufacturing process to the workers?? living environment, all these factors are implied in the content of those products. However, in the consumption scene, what we see is only the pleasant surface. What is shown here is the whole chain from the processing of the artworks to consumption. That is to say, the general relationship of the materialistic world is shown in this microcosmic scene.? What needs to be mentioned here is that the exhibits are not ready-made pieces. The core concept is the switching of the meanings of the ready-made pieces. Reality itself is presented here, instead of the ready-made pieces whose meanings have been switched. ??To present?? is at the core of this exhibition. It will not become evident until reality is presented. It proves the real condition of the materialistic world we created, as well as the difficult situation we are in. We are the people in the spotlight and the witnesses of all this.

As what is mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is an exhibition born out of a difficult situation. There are double meanings for this ??difficult situation??. On the one hand, it refers to the difficult situations in reality, which are temporary tangible issues. On the other hand, it means a spiritually difficult situation, which consists of more complicated and difficult issues. The more important aspect of this exhibition, for us, is to touch on these complicated issues. What does creation mean to us, the manufacturers at the bottom of the art production chain? Can we communicate in a real way? What can today??s art offer our spirit? Is the production-consumption mechanism of art a trap for creativity or a hotbed for creativity? How should artists respond to this mechanism? Where does our standard of judging art come from? What is its basis? How can freedom be realized in our current survival?

The title of the exhibition is ??We Are The World??, which is the title of a song. Some of its lyrics are: ??We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let's start giving??. Indeed, we are the world, we constitute the world; however, the world is far from being pure and harmonic. The world is segregated and there is still competition and hatred between us, conflicts and battles, as well as cheating and jostling. We are perplexed by the material images created by ourselves.? We are captives imprisoned by ourselves. If we can self-examine our behavior, in which we examine our reality and streamline various false scenes around us, perhaps we can realize our own lives creatively, rid the temptations and sieges of the materialistic world, and approach the truth in our existence. Maybe this can be considered as optimism born out of the pessimism.


update on Dec 16th, 2008