Nine Chapters on "Heaven" Discussing the Graphic Expression of Utopia and Dystopia Author:Wu Hong Date: 2013-09-04 Size:
Of the same metals they likewise make chains and fetters for their slaves, to some of which, as a badge of infamy, they hang an earring of gold, and make others wear a chain or a corone of the same metals; and thus they take care by all possible means to render gold and siver of no esteem.

  Wu Hong ( Curator )

  Of the same metals they likewise make chains and fetters for their slaves, to some of which, as a badge of infamy, they hang an earring of gold, and make others wear a chain or a corone of the same metals; and thus they take care by all possible means to render gold and siver of no esteem.

  — St. Thomas More

  What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven. — Friedrich Hlderlin (quoted from Chapter Two “The Great Utopia” of The Road to Serfdom written by F. A. Hayek)

  Marx’s Carriage

  Among the art circle in Chengdu, Qiu Guangping is usually addressed jokingly as “Marx-Qiu”. Qiu earned such a nickname as his beard looks exactly like Karl Marx’s and he does like to be called this way. It’s probably because, I guess, it in a way demonstrates others’ affirmation and appreciation of his masculinity, since beard is closely associated with gender characteristic. On the other hand, the temperament contained in the name “Marx” echoes with what Qiu seeks to pursue through his works. In a most sensitive way, he grasps and makes use of it, thus creating two pieces both named “Marx’s Carriage”. This is where we begin our journey to explore the subject matter of heaven. (Marx in Chinese pronunciation shares the same first sound ”Ma” with the horse, which is Qiu’s favorite subject in his paintings. That’s why Qiu’s nickname, “Marx-Qiu”, has double meaning)

  Putting aside the factor of ideology, one can easily find that our generation, who had been instilled with the mainstream collective values in school, would more or less have an idealist salvation complex. Therefore, what “Marx” can invoke in the heart is not specific to individuals. Rather, it’s a collective spiritual metaphor loaded with idealist humanistic values. However, since “Karl” is absent from the name, here the spirituality of the subject is impliedly missing. In this context, the combination of “Marx” and “carriage” denotes a sense of loss and helplessness.

  Under the theme of “Marx’s Carriage”, Qiu Guangping firstly launched a project of performance art. In the year of 2007 he paid the first visit to the base camp in Tibet for exploring Qomolangma. Surrounded by sceneries that looked so solemn and divine, he was inspired and felt in his heart some kind of indescribable emotion that needed to be unleashed. Thus without any technical preparations, he created the very first piece of performance art in his life. Although the technique employed might not be refined and sophisticated, there is a pure essence of his personal artistic expression without overcrafting it. As we can imagine, when the artist positions himself as a sacrifice in the carriage that has lost direction, there is no need to question or seek a well-defined meaning behind the creation. Rather, we tend to sympathize with the strong feeling of sorrow and loss. The second piece of art with the same topic is a painting, in which a Chinese man from the ancient times drives a carriage against the backdrop of running and neighing violent-tempered horses. He might be Confucius or Lao Zi, instead of “Marx” as is mentioned in the title. From my understanding, Qiu has used this kind of vague figures to express his concern of universal humanistic values, by deliberately misplacing the image of the figures.

  These two pieces might not be representative of Qiu’s art when compared with his other works. However, that the same creative theme has been explored in different times through different media precisely indicates that we can follow this theme as a clue to understand and analyze Qiu’s works, as well as his spiritual temperament.

  What is striking about Qiu’s personality is that there is a sense of humble humanistic careing within him. He was born in a farmer family and grew up in the countryside, which, along with his later experience to make a living in the real world, has provided a realistic base for his creation, so that it is impossible for him to produce art pieces which adopt an affected and sentimental gesture as his contemporary do. Generally speaking, artists can be categorized into two types. While some of them pursue “art for art’s sake”, others seek to explore art for the society’s sake. One might think that it is a little bit old-fashioned to speak of this, but Qiu always insists that his art expressions be born out of his own experiences in life and feelings about the society. Therefore the works are all dominated by a strong flow of energy and life, which we can not isolate in a simple and direct way. To me Qiu is like a singer who likes to sing about the deepest feelings for his hometown. His art works are the honest representation of what’s in his heart — he strives to face his own living experience, the social reality and to find out the true meaning of life through all those suffering. Such are the clues for us to understand Qiu’s creation.

  For Whom the Sad Song is Sung?

  I was the curator for Qiu Guangping’s solo exhibition held in Shanghai Art Museum in 2009, which is named “Besieged on All Sides” and the artist’s very first solo exhibition. The name actually comes from one of his representative works with the same title. At that time Qiu’s heart was torn between splitting emotional tensions: there was a heroism complex which called for passion and aspired for solemnity, against which the dullness of ordinary life stood out. The two got twisted together, so were humanistic ideals and the materialized society. Therefore “Besieged on All Sides” is the image most representative of his works in that particular period. To examine from the signans, the heroic tragedy of Xiang Yu, the hegemonial king of West-Chu, provided a narrative framework and image foundation for the artist to express what was in his heart; to examine from the designatum, the tragic atmosphere associated with the historic past was turned into a sense of sorrow that mourns the present: it was like an elegy about our times. As is written by Lu Xun in his Comments about the Fall of the Leifeng Pagoda, “Tragedy is to demonstrate the destruction of what is most valuable in life.” So what is the “valuable” things that are being destroyed by our times?

  In this period, the horses that appears most frequently in Qiu’s art are used as the vehicle of expression. In the pre-industrial era, the horse is one of the animals most closely associated with humans and has been turned into a metaphorical image with a touch of personification, which, specifically in the Chinese culture, has been established as a stabilized system of representative images. The relationship between the tenor and the vehicle can be correctly conveyed even if the switch between rhetoric is not complete. On the other hand, it is a great risk to employ figure of speech that is highly mature and formalized, since others can easily take it as a graphic repetition of what has been passed down for generations. What Qiu has achieved is a metaphorical reconversion of the aggregate of the above-mentioned system of representative images, through which a new form of rhetoric was invented.

  Firstly, the horse image in the art pieces is also an embodiment of the artist’s personality. Qiu has a bold and unconstrained personality with a preference for being carefree. He especially admires the swordsmen in the ancient times who spent their time wandering casually. However, most people in the modern society tend to be more and more rigid living in a formalized life. It encourages Qiu to think, “Why would we live this way?” , which is also projected into his art creation. Having a closer look at the exaggerated and transformed horse image, we can find that they are actually fighting for freedom in the hell of modernity. It is true that the development of themes in Qiu’s earlier works is based on his temperament and experience.However, if it were the whole picture, the art pieces would be probably expressionism-oriented graphic language, obsessed only with the expression of personal emotions. In fact, Qiu’s work starts from individuality but ends up touching upon something that is universal, and therefore comes to question and reflect on how the patterns of human civilization develop.

  The result of such a reflection is that the current pattern civilization is placed in a sociological evolution based on the narrative of “a brighter better future”. While people’s wishes for material comfort have been satisfied, we have to consider what are the precious things that lost during the course of development. While marching towards modernization and listening to the synchronized sound of steps, have we ever noticed the shuddering and crying of the weaker and underprivileged souls?

  Thus the meaning of “Besieged on All Sides” lies in that its creator has sensitively grasped the sufferings and fightings within human nature in the process of modernization, which is exactly caught in such a dualism. Moreover, the common psychological feelings driven by more and more assimilated experiences are combined with the personal characteristics and temperament of the artist. Thus a form of graphic language expression rich in spiritual appeal has been achieved.

  All That is Solid Melts into the Air

  American political scientist Marshall Berman borrowed and used a famous quotation from Karl Marx’s Capital as the title of his book All That is Solid Melts into air, in which he wrote, “If we think of modernism as a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world, we will realize that no mode of modernism can ever be definitive. Our most creative constructions and achievements are bound to turn into prisons and whited sepulchers that we or our children, will have to escape or transform if life is to go on.”

  In this assertion, what Marshall Berman has revealed is a paradox of modernity — while we are struggling to make ourselves at home in modernity, the result of the struggle or, to be more specific, a different set of institutionalized social relations which is created in the very process, would in return be alienated, becoming the power to dominate and enslave us. If Marx’s theory still stands true, which is to say, we are indeed moving from the realm of necessity towards the realm of freedom, then one might wonder, will “the realm of freedom” really be a land of freedom for humans?

  Then Berman continued, “The innate dynamism of the modern economy, and of the culture that grows from this economy, annihilates everything that it creates — physical environments, social institutions, metaphysical ideas, artistic visions, moral values — in order to create more, to go on endlessly creating the world anew. This drive draws all modern men and women into its orbit, and forces us all to grapple with the question of what is essential, what is meaningful, what is real in the maelstrom in which we move and live.”

  After the innate and “progressive” dynamism in modern culture helped our civilization step into modernity, all the experiences and values humans had accumulated in the past years came to be questioned more than ever while experiencing on-going change and creation. The questioning, along with the deepening of modernity, has become part of the mainstream ideology. Then, where are the man who “really” exist placed in this process?

  During the reflection on the paradox of modernity, human-oriented pursuits for the ultimate meaning, in which humanistic concerns are embedded, would easily end up in the conversion to mysteriousness and religion, since we are living in an age when modernity leads to a sense of loss. In fact, the reason why Qiu’s work came into the early period of transformation, has indeed something to do with his experience in Ganzi, Sichuan, a place famous for its religious enviornment.

  In the very same period, Qiu encountered a bottleneck in his artistic endeavor. As has been mentioned, with the long-time inter-dependent relationship between humans and horses, the cultural connotation about the latter has already been well established as a formalized system of spiritual representation, particularly in the Chinese culture, where the appearance, temperament and homophonic elements etc. of horses have evolved into a highly stabilized system of graphics and sounds. Although Qiu added other metaphorical symbols such as burning scarecrows and charcoal fire, viewing from the feedback of the market, most people still tend to understand his works only from a single established form of rhetoric, which seriously troubles the artist. He feels this way because, firstly, the works are only too well received in the art market; secondly, he is very alarmed that the satisfactory reception will bring about rigidity, resulting in symbolized and formalized art creation. At that point, Qiu needed desperately to find a breakthrough, a way to stimulate his rethinking of art.

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[Editor] 常霞