Humour and heresy: Qiu Zhijie’s “Satire” in Beijing

Aristotle, ancient calligraphy and mythical beasts converge in Qiu Zhijie’s cross-cultural solo show in Beijing.

With his characteristic flair for the unexpected and his use of a variety of media in a single exhibition, Qiu Zhijie brings his latest solo show “Satire” to Galleria Continua from 26 September to 1 December 2013, in Beijing’s now well-known 798 art district.

Qiu Zhijie, one of the artists in whom Chinese buyers have most confidence in 2013, according to ArtTactic's April report.

Qiu Zhijie poses with an installation. Image courtesy ArtTactic.

In “Satire“, Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie explores the convergence of East and West, as well as the evolution of past iconographies over time and their transmission to other cultures. Through his multimedia works, Qiu shows the existence of commonalities despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Although only a few of the pieces in the current show are a direct result of Qiu’s recent engagement with two collections – one made up of classic Italian art and the other housing ancient Chinese cultural treasures – many of his works on show at Galleria Continua explore the theme of cross-cultural communication.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Elysian Fields', 2013, crosstie, bamboo root carvings, electrical machine, 620 x 580 x 550 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Elysian Fields’, 2013, crosstie, bamboo root carvings, electrical machine, 620 x 580 x 550 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

The premise of the exhibition is Umberto Eco’s well-known book The Name of the Rose, which was made into a movie in 1986. Eco set his story in a monastery in the Middle Ages where several bizarre murders take place. After much painstaking investigation, it is discovered that all of the murders were related to a book of particular significance. Whoever read this book was murdered by the librarian, the guardian of that book and of the ‘forbidden knowledge’ that it contained.

Heresy and havoc in art 

The book in question was the much-coveted second volume of Aristotle’s treatise On Poetics, the first volume of which deals with ‘tragedy’. In contrast, the second volume supposedly deals with the topic of ‘comedy’ including techniques on how to create laughter and how to bring pleasure to people’s lives and to society.

In a mediaeval world ruled by dogmatic Christian values, such a book was equivalent to heresy and was believed to cause havoc by diminishing the rule and authority of the Church. Hence such texts had to be fiercely guarded at any price, even murder. In the end of Eco’s novel, the forbidden book and the library it was contained in were burnt down, with the murderer/librarian inside.

Qiu claims to have found a copy of this forbidden book and allows the audience to view some of its pages in “Satire”. Walking through the three floors of the solo show, the audience realises that all the components that make up this exhibition deal with the topic of ‘comedy’ or satire.

The first visual encounter for visitors entering the gallery is a wall filled with around seventy masks, in a work titled Greeting (2013). Most of the masks are unique in their look and of various sizes; some are smiling, others grinning, but most seem to be in a good mood. The audience is encouraged to join in this cheerful atmosphere by choosing a mask from the many that are on display on a nearby table and walk through the show while wearing a “grin” on their face.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Greeting', 2013, paper masks, silicon masks, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Greeting’, 2013, paper masks, silicon masks, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Buddha in Roman heaven 

The second work in the exhibition, titled Elysian Fields, is an installation comprising a tall structure made out of dark wood crossties and thirty laughing Buddhas carved from lighter coloured bamboo root. Qiu Zhijie’s work is never devoid of commentary on China’s social and political situation, and so it is with this piece: the crossties represent industrial and political oppression, while the laughing Buddhas represent happiness, wisdom and contentment.

Despite the heaviness of the crossties, which potentially could crush the small carved Buddhas, the figures are still smiling and some of them are even “spinning” with joy. The artist has added a motor to make some of the Buddhas spin around their axes, some on their feet and others on their heads.

The title Elysian Fields comes from classical ancient literature referring to an afterlife akin to paradise. Qiu has taken a western concept and interpreted it with Chinese iconography.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Elysian Fields' (detail), 2013, crosstie, bamboo root carvings, electrical machine, 620 x 580 x 550 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Elysian Fields’ (detail), 2013, crosstie, bamboo root carvings, electrical machine, 620 x 580 x 550 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

During the first three opening days of “Satire” a live band, wearing costumes and masks mimicking famous leaders or clowns, played sacred songs and national anthems in a performance piece titled Bastard Concert. The work treats the songs’ sanctity with irreverence and mocks their importance through the use of costume, masks and instruments designed to resemble intimate body parts. For the remainder of the exhibition, a screen has been installed showing a video of the band’s performance replacing the live band.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Bastard Concert', 2013, installation, performance, screen, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Bastard Concert’, 2013, installation, performance, screen, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Mao, Marx and Elmo from Sesame Street

On the second floor of Galleria Continua, the show continues with the theme of humour, laughter and Qiu’s special flavour of sarcasm. Cannot Hold It Anymore is composed of several laughing red Elmo toys placed all around the gallery floor. Dispersed amongst the Elmos are books of both religious and political significance, some of greater importance to the West and some particular to China, such as the Bible or Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping Theory and The Theories of Marxism.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Cannot Hold It Anymore', 2013, books, Elmo toys, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy: Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Cannot Hold It Anymore’, 2013, books, Elmo toys, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy: Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

The video installation Out of Control shows a Chinese audience watching a screen and laughing, while the soundtrack we hear is Obama’s inaugural presidential speech. In actual fact, the audience is watching a Chinese comedy of some sort rather than a political talk. The work raises the question of what would happen if citizens were in fact to laugh when serious talks are delivered by politicians.

The piece that brings the exhibition together is on the third and last floor of the gallery, where Qiu weaves a fantastical story about how he found a version of Aristotle’s second book on Comedy, in China of all places. How much of the artist’s tale is true and how much is fiction is left to the discretion of the viewer. Titled Book of Comedy, the work consists of eighty drawings, eight of which are on display. They are hand drawn but look as if they were woodblock prints from the Middle Ages, comprising images and Latin text. Through them the artist tells the story of how he found his own version of the Book of Comedy, weaving eastern and western scholarship and cultural authority in equal measure.

Qiu Zhijie, 'The Politics of Laughing', 2013, ink on paper, 250 x 145 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy: Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘The Politics of Laughing’, 2013, ink on paper, 250 x 145 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy: Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Some excerpts of Qiu’s Book of Comedy:

“To laugh is human nature. Laughter can no more satisfy hunger than can it ward against the cold, yet people laugh all the same; quite despite this serving no apparent purpose. In the most wretched of circumstances, the fiercest of rages, the gravest of occasions, it suffices for man to perceive comedy for tears to give way to smiles and for smiles to give way to laughter….

Ridicule is derived from ignorance. As we are all ignorant to one degree or another, each and every one of us is thus ridiculous. Laughter lies dormant in every man’s inner being. Yet, of all human emotions, laughter is in fact that which is most salutary and sought-after. The flair shown by comic poets for provoking laughter comes precisely from their appreciation of human ignorance…”

An apt conclusion to the “Satire” exhibition is a work entitled Forbidden Books, which is composed of a pile of ashes on the gallery floor. The ashes are the remains of books that have been banned in different countries. Many of them are now available to the public, but others are still banned. Occasionally, we can still see and recognise some of the words on the charcoal coloured pages that the fire did not completely destroy. For Qiu, the act of burning represents the manipulation of the mind and the ashes are the remaining evidence of that act.

Qiu Zhijie, 'Book of Comedy', drawing, 45 x 79 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘Book of Comedy’, drawing, 45 x 79 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Although not directly part of the “Satire” show, there are several other pieces on view at Galleria Continua that exemplify Qiu’s belief in “Total Art” – or his preferred Chinese term “Guantong Art” – and his endeavours to create cross-cultural communication. These works arose out of a collaborative project between two museums, Arthub Asia and the artist. Qiu’s engagement, research and re-interpretation of the works in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice and the Aurora Museum in Shanghai have led to the creation of several works. Among them are large maps and sculptures of unicorns.

Qiu Zhijie, 'The Map of Mythological Creatur', 2013, ink, paper, seven pieces, 240 x 120 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘The Map of Mythological Creatur’, 2013, ink, paper, seven pieces, 240 x 120 cm. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu is known for his Chinese calligraphic work, yet in The Map of the Busy Gods and The Map of Mythological Creatures he opts to use ink rubbing to create two large maps, a traditional technique that, according to the artist, was “used to turn messages and patterns on ancient vessels into text” (pdf download). When the first version of The Map of Busy Gods was exhibited in Italy in the summer of 2013, the curators Chiara Bertola and Davide Quadrio wrote in the exhibition catalogue:

The artist has titled this work ‘Map of the Busy Gods’ because of the diffused tendency in every cultural context of creating deities according to people’s needs, pretty much derived to [sic] humans’ daily struggles. So, for example, in a fisherman’s culture we would probably encounter gods related to the sea whereas in the huntsmen’s traditions logically we would have divinities linked to woods and forests.

The Map of Mythological Creatures (2013) is composed of seven sheets of blue ink rubbing in which the artist has identified and mapped out the creation of magical creatures in different cultures. In 1993, Umberto Eco came to Beijing and gave a lecture, part of which revolved around Italian explorer Marco Polo’s time in China. Marco Polo, following the scientific classification systems available to him at the time, claimed to have seen a unicorn when in fact he had seen a rhinoceros. Through his research, Qiu shows that in Chinese traditional culture unicorns (bixie or tianlu) were an accepted mythical chimera, although not in the same exact form as their western counterpart.

Discussing the dragon of China and the unicorn of Europe with curators Bertola and Quadrio, Qiu says,

I realised there are actually limited techniques to visualise an imaginary creature. Almost all cultures have the variations of the winged beast, unicorn, polycephalic (sic) animal, chimera, and human-head animal (…) The result makes us see that the differences between civilizations are really not as big as we think.

Qiu Zhijie, 'The Plan of 100 Unicorns', project started in 2012, ongoing, camphor wood, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘The Plan of 100 Unicorns’, project started in 2012, ongoing, camphor wood, dimensions variable. Photo: Meng Wei. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin.

Qiu’s interest in the meeting point between East and West continues in The Plan for 100 Unicorns (started in 2012, ongoing). Qiu’s first sculpted unicorn was classically western in form – a horse with a horn – made in Italy from Murano glass and exhibited in Venice. In “Satire” one can view several newly created unicorns, each with a unique design and carved in China out of camphor wood. Their look is very different from the first western unicorn: they seem to be designed out of an amalgam of unicorns and dragons, but we can also see a camel’s back or the shadow of a water ox. This project will continue until 100 unicorns have been completed.

Nooshfar Afnan

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Related Topics: Chinese art and artists, events in Beijing, woodcut art, performance, installation, gallery shows

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