The largest solo show to date of Chinese contemporary artist Qiu Zhijie is on show at the Centre d’Art Contemporaine Genève.
Displaying works from over the past three decades, the show is aimed at presenting the main themes within Qiu’s works.
Running until 18 January 2018, “Qiu Zhijie: Journeys Without Arrivals” focuses on the work of the artist Qiu Zhijie, who made waves for his satirical, often tongue-in-cheek calligraphic maps of the world. The Beijing-based artist is known for producing enormous, overwhelming ink maps, which often provide an underlying commentary that weave physical geographies together with socio-political observations. Presenting his works in a thematic fashion that resonate with the space of the gallery itself, the exhibition forms a retrospective that allows visitors to explore Qiu’s works.
Born in Fujian Province in China in 1969, Qiu Zhijie has extensively exhibited within and outside China. He is currently featured in the exhibition “China’s New Art Post 1989”, the largest survey of Chinese experimental art displayed outside the country, which is currently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York. “The exhibition Qiu Zhijie: Journeys without Arrivals” is curated by Andrea Vellini and Davide Quadrio, and is accompanied by an illustrated guide.The show was developed with Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, where it was on display in the earlier half of 2017, and Lunds Konsthall, where it will be shown from 16 February to 27 May 2018.
“Journeys without Arrivals” explores one of the central themes of Qiu’s works: the concept of Total Art. In a previous conversation with philosopher and writer Boris Groys, Qiu describes Total Art as a means of studying movements that occurred within Western history, distilling their driving principles and concepts, and integrating them within the modern Chinese context. By using the methodology of Total Art, Qiu acts as a mediator between the often seemingly contradictory poles of East and West. Qiu’s approach to art stems from a need to come to terms with globalization. Indeed, much of Qiu’s art points to a desire to unpack what globalisation means for those in the modern Chinese society and even those beyond it. The enormous calligraphic ink maps, or “Mapping the World” as the series is called, bears some indications towards that desire.
Drawing upon pictorial traditions such as calligraphy, handcraft techniques and other forms, Qiu’s art elicits the rapid changes that Chinese society has gone through ever since it opened itself up to economic and cultural globalisation. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, economic reform began in the early 1980s, where the country adapted 改革開放 (“Gaige Kaifang”, the Chinese economic reform, literally ‘reform and opening-up’). With the broad aim of incorporating more market principles into the Chinese economy, the beginnings of Chinese economic reform introduced decollectivisation, opening the country to foreign investment and increasing privatization.
A product of close collaboration between Qiu and the curators of the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneva, the exhibition ultimately aims to translate the work developed by Qiu Zhijie. Rather than conceiving of the exhibition in chronological or media-based terms, the exhibition display is presented as a series of themes that overlap and respond to one another. Pivoting around the broad themes that are repeatedly evoked over the course of Qiu’s practice, the exhibition is a retrospective that looks into the wider convictions of the artist himself.
Exploring contradictions in architectural symbols
The starting point for the exhibition is The Nanjing Bridge Project. Centred on the site of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the work interrogates many of the symbolic and cultural contradictions embodied in this one structure. The structure bridges Beijing and Shanghai, which have historically been divided by the Yangtze river. An enormous, double-decker structure that supports part of the China National Highway 104, as well as a double-track railway, the construction has been hailed as an icon of Chinese modernity. Appearing on mugs, photos, textbooks, pins and other paraphernalia, the bridge’s status as a cultural symbol has been firmly cemented. Although a symbol of Chinese progress, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge simultaneously lives a parallel life in the urban knowledge of residents: it is also known unofficially as one of the world’s top suicide destinations.
Collaborating with volunteers who patrol the bridge to rescue suicidal individuals, Qiu’s project encompassed painting, sculpture, installation, photography and video. Much of the project also stemmed from research of the bridge’s design and history, as well as about the city of Nanjing itself. Qiu also collaborated with suicide-prevention volunteers, who regularly patrol the bridge in order to rescue suicidal individuals. Exemplifying Qiu’s socio-artistic activism, the wider project provides an opportunity to reflect on metaphysical issues such as time, memory or destiny. Included in the exhibition as a reflection on the theme of time, which recurs greatly in Qiu Zhijie’s works, The Nanjing Bridge Project is presented in the same room as My Hundred Objects, which is a personal collection of objects that served as points of inspiration to Qiu over the years.
Mapping the World
Another section that explores one of the main driving forces of Qiu’s works is a room devoted to the broader “Mapping the World” project. Surrounding the visitor with Qiu’s vast works, the exhibition invites viewers to delve into the sprawling, almost overwhelming maps. A project that began in 2010, the process of map-making remains as, according to Qiu, a means of tying together the different strands of “research, writing imagination and action”. Qiu’s maps are made by adapting the centuries-old technique of Chinese ink rubbing, a technique used to copy stele inscriptions and graphic motifs onto paper. Yet, rather than attempting to represent actual land geographies, many of Qiu’s maps trace “pyschogeography” – the topologies of our mental realities. Attempting to relate the basic elements of human existence to larger, metaphysical ideas of history, philosophy and imagination, this special section reveals Qiu’s take on how we understand and perceive the world.
A Multiple Art Personality
Apart from allowing distinct themes around Qiu’s works to develop, the exhibition also turns the lens back on the artist, examining the various roles that Qiu has taken on over the course of his artistic practice. With terms such as “The Calligrapher” and “The Traveler”, “Journeys without Arrivals” also addresses the various ways in which Qiu has intervened into the world through art. One of his more evocative projects, Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, saw Qiu retracing the 19th century British Indian spy Nain Singh’s journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Singh was under commission by the British to map Tibet; Qiu travelled with the aid of ankle fetters that allowed him to measure 31 inches at a time, imitating Nain Singh himself, who had been trained to keep his stride in similar lengths in order to accurately measure the land.
Qiu also commissioned Tibetan artists to paint six thangkas, or traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings, to depict Singh’s training, journey and return to Kathmandu. Tracing the fall of Tibet through the thangkas, Qiu’s project evokes a thorny history of the land, using his own act of journeying and travelling as a means of accessing the narrative of Nain Singh. By carrying out various acts of mapping, journeying and painting, Qiu behaves as an intercessor to parts unknown, allowing different realities to surface.
“Qiu Zhijie: Journeys without Arrivals” is on view from 17 November 2017 to 14 January 2018 at Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 10, 1205 Genève.
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