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Qiu AnXiong
Art Monthly, June, 2009 by David Briers

QIU ANXIONG HAS BEEN CALLED 'ONE OF THE QUICKEST RISING STARS' of a generation of Chinese contemporary artists who exhibit and sell internationally, but who have elected to live and work in China rather than abroad. Difficult to pin down, Qiu's diverse, even hybrid practice moves with apparent ease between painting on canvas and animated film, video art filmed in real time, and installation projects.

Qiu was born in the south-western region of Sichuan in 1972. He studied painting at the Sichuan Art Academy, one of the first institutes in China to embrace modernist painting and western avant-garde art. Qiu not only immersed himself in modern painting, he also opened a club, which became an artists' meeting place and a centre for live underground music. In 1998 Qiu began a six-year period as a postgraduate student of painting at the University of Kassel in Germany. The effect of living in a very different cultural and social environment was to turn the artist back on himself. Instead of looking continually to the West as a referent, as he had done in China, he turned to classical Chinese texts, Buddhism, Confucianism, poetry and supernatural tales. An essay written by Qiu in 2000, during his years in Kassel, is highly critical of the contemporary Chinese art world, exhorting artists to become responsible for preserving their cultural heritage and being spiritually vigilant. He also developed a form of modernist oil painting that related to traditional Chinese ink and wash landscape painting without becoming a mere pastiche of that tradition.

In 2004 Qiu moved back to China to live in Shanghai, where he now teaches at the Shanghai Normal University. Only at this point did he become interested in making videos. Whereas previously he had disparaged video art and other 'new media' as belonging to western culture, and not of interest to him, he changed his mind. Painting alone was at that point 'not enough'. His first film work Jiangnan Poem, 2005, titled after a classical Chinese poetic metre, is an unhurried sequence of static images of the branches of trees, intermittently traversed by the rapid flight of birds. The cast list in the film's credits is given as: 'Wind, Cloud, Tree, Bird'. The critic Chang Tsong-Zung has described this short film as 'A simple work, austere and undemanding, compelling attention by its unpretentiousness'.

Qiu also made his first short animation in 2005, entirely hand-painted in black and white on a canvas repainted for each shot. Qiu's animated works are influenced by pre-90s Chinese animation, but just as much by the animated films of William Kentridge, and are obstinately handmade, in the artist's Shanghai apartment. A subsequent animation, Flying South, 2006, encompassed allegorical images of rampant modernisation, animal plague pandemics and messianic political ideologies. Similar themes were expanded in the artist's next animated work, a tour de force of the genre. The New Book of the Mountains and Seas, 2006, refers to an ancient encyclopaedic Chinese book comprising a world view of geographical and scientific knowledge. By turns lyrical, absurd and terrifying, Qiu's apocalyptic, half-hour long, three-channel animation presents a continuously transmogrifying narrative sequence of mythical and historical iconography, featuring mechanised tortoises, black angels and giant scorpions. A jaw-dropping allegory of the dangers of global overdevelopment and its environmental consequences, The New Book of the Mountains and Seas required Qui to paint by hand 6,000 separate images over a draining six-month period. The film attracted attention at the 2006 Shanghai Biennale--it is currently being exhibited in Manchester as part of the first Asia Triennial (see AM316).

Qiu's latest animated work, Minguo Landscape, 2007, alludes to the establishment of the Republic of China following the close of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Qiu sees parallels between that unstable but rich period of flourishing hybridity between traditionalism and modernism in Chinese art, film and literature, and the current condition of culture in China. His pictorial vision of a 'Minguo period' is not a historical one, more a dreamlike mirage, irrationally juxtaposing ancient and modern.

The most distinctive of Qiu's installations is probably Staring into Amnesia, 2007, for which a real railway carriage was transposed to a darkened exhibition space. Inside the carriage, 24 film screens replaced the carriage windows, showing clips from historical documentaries, the artist's own footage shot from train windows, and his animated paintings.

Qiu's recent solo exhibition, called 'Nostalgia', presented earlier this year in Shanghai, centred on a number of new video works shot on location in real time. Field, 2008, for example, shows an almost colourless agricultural landscape, changing minimally during 40 minutes' duration. Not knowing themselves to be observed, like the tiny figures in a Dutch landscape painting, two peasant farmers are engaged in their prosaic task of piling straw onto small bonfires, creating trails of smoke like blurred ink. Road, also 2008, shows another static image of a rural lane receding into the distance. Two men, walking away from the viewer, disappear round a corner, their mission unknown, their destination unseen. The artist will not prescribe a documentary role for these video works: 'In some works, we try to bring a certain message or belief across. However, this time around, I feel that the pictures themselves need no explanation. The mere existence of this place captured on film is strong enough to tell a story.' These are not picturesque confections. They are exactly the sorts of scenes witnessed fleetingly by any traveller on motorways between China's huge cities, where right next to endless new housing estates for China's burgeoning middle classes, there are fields of vegetables, clusters of ducks and fish ponds, essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.

In 'Nostalgia', these video works were displayed as a carefully interrelated installation that incorporated a real tree, suspended upside down from the gallery ceiling, and the looped projection on the floor of the filmed surface of a pond, with the sounds of insects buzzing and the indistinct shape of what might be a mobile phone intermittently disappearing into its depths (a modern version of the Japanese poet Basho's famous haiku frog-pond-plop, maybe). The 4-minute video Snow, 2008, projected no larger than a leaf from a sketchbook, seemed the strongest work in the show, despite its size: it has the riveting impact of an old postcard that unexpectedly achieves an unforgettable poetic identity.

Not only do Qiu's works employ different media but they also broach different frames of reference, switching from an openly socio-critical stance to detached quiescence. Never tentative, Qiu confidently employs the spectacular and performative aspect that characterises much Chinese contemporary art, but he is equally willing to reveal his more intimate, somewhat bookish side (a comparison with the coexistent artistic personas of Ilya Kabakov might here not be out of place). Qiu's oeuvre runs counter not only to the stereotypical distinction between traditional and modern in Asian art, but also between ancient and modern. According to Chang Tsong-Zung, 'The perspective Qiu brings to the viewer cuts across historical time.' In a timeless landscape, a motorbike suddenly flashes past.

Qiu Anxiong: The New Book of the Mountains and Seas is included in 'Contemporaneous' at the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester April 5 to June 15.


Off the Track
Qiu Anxiong's salvaged 1960s trarn takes viewers on a ride back in historv to the Mao-era.
By Andrew Cohen

The artist is as humble as his work is monumental. "It's hard for artists to explain their work. I won't be able to do that," Qiu Anxiong said, smiling at the seated audience at the opening ceremony of "UTOPIA," this February at the Arken Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen. "Everything I wânt to say is in my work. So please experience it for yourselves." After Qiu's laconic introduction, the curious crowd streamed into a
long, neon-iit gallery that housed UTOPIAs centerpiece, Qiu's Stcring into Amnesia (zoos), a video installation which takes place in an authentic 1960s train coach imported from China. Expectations grew as the crowd lined up patiently to board Qiu's train. Christian Gether, the museum's director, remarked, "Staring into Amnesia is a turning point in the way art will be viewed here-this type of art has never before been seen in Denmark." Once inside, one reaiizes that Qiu has transformed each of the 2+ indows into a video screen, and each gaze out of a window is met with documentary and propaganda ciips of China's turbulent past: 193os Japanese occupation, World War II, the famous meeting of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek and Red Guard campaigns.

Qiu has intermixed these excerpted fragments of history with short fiims that he has written and directed himself. The combination of documentary and fiction takes passengers on both imagined and recalled journeys, yet they remain grounded in the physical present. 'Ihe musty smell of the past lingers in the air and on the paint-peeled walls of the train carriage, a smell that Qiu says returns him to his childhood
when he rode trains iike these with his family. The Chinese and Pinyin instructions on the fire xtinguishers, exits and tea closet bring a foreign world closer. Traditional Chinese folk songs, 1940s Chinese pop, Tibetan Buddhist chants and modern jazzfrlter ftom the speaker systems, further creating the sensation of otherworldliness and time-travel. With all these sensory stimuli combined, one experiences a transcendental train trip. Staring into Amnesia is an ironic title linking together two seemingly antithetical concepts: the inexorable erosion of memory with the examination of a history that was almost forgotten by an e'tire nation. Appearing on one of the window-screens is an archival clip of Chairman Mao riding a train, the countryside whizzing by. ,,Mao never liked flying" Qiu explains. "He first flew to Chongqing in 1945 during the war-he flew later in life, but he always preferred to travel by train. He had his own private train." The propaganda clip shows Mao,s train rolling through farm country during the gïeat famine ofthe early 1960s. In place ofdesolate fields and hung4' peasants, he looks out his train window i'to
fields ofartificial plenff. These scenes, like movie-sets, were engineered for Mao by the propaganda department during the Great Leap Forward (1958-6D. Here is Chairman Mao staring into his own amnesia.

Just as Mao's vistas of lush farmlands were fabricated for him, eiu creates views for his passengers, forcing them to remember the horrors and pleasures ofthe past, the individual or collective experiences of
youth and old age, life and death, love and suicide. The action in eiu,s short films takes place in black-and-white silhouetted dream worlds that contrast with the archival footage,s brutality. The actors communicate through mime and body movement, never speaking. .A modern shadow theater," Qiu calls it, about daily life and personal appearances. ln one window, f,r,yo men wearing gas masks play chess; in another, a woman is abandoned in 1ove, while jubilant Red Guards raise their hands to the sky, reaching for their red books-all rendered in shadow. In a different scene a soldier interrogates a woman; at the end of the sequence, the woman has a rope around her neck, the chair tips over and her legs dangle down from the top of the screen. Was it a hanging or a suicide? After sitting in different compartments and viewingvarious videos, passengers eventualiy make their way down the corridor and exit the
other end ofthe train car. They climb down the stairs onto solid ground, planted in the present, only to be transported again by the next work. Projected on a white-washed wall just outside the train is another
video by Qiu entitled The New Classic of Mountains and Ocedns (2006;), an animation of the ancient Chinese myhological text, Classic of the Seas and Mountains. A devout Buddhist and Confucian scholar, eiu uses the technique of ink painting to recreate the cycles of life, which comment on the history of man and the state of civilization today. Through his animation that combines Chinese landscapes with
phantasmagoric cityscapes populated with strange mutating animal and human creatures, Qiu tells a conternporary tale ofevolution starting from the separation ofheaven and earth, to the birth ofcivilization where little huts springup like mushrooms and are soon demolished. Over time, small villages sprout up that in turn are also destroyed; from the ruins spring the modern city. In his allegory, eiu shows the natural order of the universe and society being thrown off balance by industry and mass_marketed
products, fast-food and war machines. Llamas transmogrifi. into oil rigs, eagles into 82 bombers, kangaroos into Apache helicopters, elephants into tanks, turtles into Hummers. By the film,s end, as minimalist music builds from a gentle rhythrn into a chaotic pulsating beat, religion and politics clash with progress as the tn'in towers of the world Trade center are destroyed by black shrouded bird-men crashing into them.

Qiu, 36, is an artist's artist: he draws his own drawings, writes his own scripts, directs and edits his own videos. Tireless and inexhaustibly prolific, he is techr.rically sawry. Asked about his influences, eiu names
Zhang Xiaogang', one of China,s most celebrated painters. Through different mediums, Qiu and Zhang both explore the theme of identity in a society bent on breaking down the individual. A careful student ofhistory, eiu has created a modern aesthetic experience in a diiapidated train, reinterpreting a past that has been revised and regurgitated countless times by the party for ideological purposes. This rusted vehicie, stuck in China's past while bound for the globalized future, evokes insuppressible memories and promises unfulfilled, finally asking the question: do you really want to ride?


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Nr. 235, Dienstag, 13. Oktober 2009, Münchner Kultur, S. 43,By Süddeutsche Zeitung

update on Mar 16th, 2010