Reflecting on “Heaven”Spectacles Constructed by Desires and Reality Author:He Guiyan Date: 2013-09-04 Size:
Heaven is a land of ideals and happiness, which has long existed in our religion or imagination. Its opposite is dark, fearsome hell. Between the two extremes lies the real world. In the 13th Century, Italian Dante wrote about them in his The Divine Comedy. If a man sins in the real world — just as the seven deadly sins go: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust — then to the hell he will fall with due punishment.

  Heaven is a land of ideals and happiness, which has long existed in our religion or imagination. Its opposite is dark, fearsome hell. Between the two extremes lies the real world. In the 13th Century, Italian Dante wrote about them in his The Divine Comedy. If a man sins in the real world — just as the seven deadly sins go: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust — then to the hell he will fall with due punishment. However, if one wishes to go to heaven, he must repent his errors and cultivate himself in the purgatory. Only those with a cleansed and purified soul will be admitted into heaven. According to Dante, heaven consists of nine spheres, which, along with the God, can by reached only by the noble souls. Similarly, there are also heaven and hell in Buddhism’s cycle of life and death. The Buddha holds that men feel pain because of their very own emotions and desires, such as greed, anger, ignorance, living, aging, diseases, worries, sadness, depression etc. It is from them that disasters in the real world arise. However, different from what has been depicted by Dante, the Buddhists believe that both heaven and hell exist in the cycle of life and death. As long as the boundary between life and death is not crossed, everyone might face either heaven or hell. Having received their due quota of punishment, those in hell can go to heaven; and vice versa, if the blessings brought by one’s good deeds are all consumed, those in heaven can also fall into hell. Christianity and Buddhism have one thing in common: the root of men’s descent to hell is their uncontainable desires. However, differences exist between the two religions in the way that one enters heaven. While Dante contends that a soul must go through the purgatory first, in Buddhism, it is believed that the key to entering heaven is to transcend oneself through cultivation and meditation. In other words, heaven is open to anyone who comes to apprehend reason and understand the true meaning of life, which means his inner self is awakened, brought to the sublimation of his spiritual world and wisdom.

  In the solo exhibition “Heaven: Prophecy of the Century” by Qiu Guangping held in Guangdong Museum of Art, we can see the intersection of a real world and the spectacles of desire, rather than an effort to simply depict an idealized land. It seems that “desire” has set a scale with heaven and hell on each side. Excessive desire can drive people to hell; its extermination can cleanse our soul. In this way, those who have achieved the great awakening can go to heaven. One can easily sense that the world of desire is no more than a reflection of the real world itself. As far as this is concerned, “heaven” is but a representation, whose meaning of existence lies in reflecting the real world filtered through desire. Art critic Wu Hong once interpreted the work in this way, “The widely accepted prophecy of ‘2012’ reveals the paradox of development in the existing civilizations. It is the paradoxical development that leads to the dilemma we are now faced with. By borrowing the 2012 prophecy, Qiu Guangping has developed it into a sub-theme for the exhibition, which constructs the structural tension of the exhibition along with the theme ‘heaven’.”

  Heaven and hell have built the structure of meaning, closely connecting life, death and existence. The two each represent an opposite, with human fighting in-between to determine their own end. However, Qiu does not present hell in his work. Rather, he tries to construct a meaningful chain between the real world and heaven, developing it into a narrative connection. We can read two logics out of the connection in the art pieces. One is to follow the binary narrative, which is clearly reflected in the concept of “Heaven No.1”. The piece is a complex made up of a painting and an installation. It is the artist’s conception that the painting represents “heaven A”, while the installation serves as a metaphor for “heaven B”. From what is presented in the art pieces, what’s important is not whether “heaven A” or “heaven B” has revealed our imagination about heaven. On the contrary, the artist thinks that the meaning lies in the binary narrative discourse as well as the tension existing between the two worlds: one is metaphysical and imagined; the other concrete and real. The piece “heaven A” depicts a grand scene in a large scale. However, the heaven here is not a world of goodness and happiness, since desire, greed and cruelty have risen to domination. If we say “heaven A” puts more emphasis on the imaginary narrative, then “heaven B” is a direct representation of our world. By collecting materials at a construction site, Qiu Guangping tries to reproduce a real working shed in the museum. Since the external environment has changed, the working shed here is not merely a physical existence. Rather, sociological meaning has been given to it, which is to say, a social spectacle can reflect the living conditions of those working on a construction site from a certain perspective. According to the logic of binary narrative, the imagined heaven and concrete reality meet here. The two interact with each other in a complementary way. The artist wants to present the different meanings of heaven in various contexts exactly through the comparison.

  The other narrative logic opens in a multi-leveled and multi-dimensional way. “Heaven No.2” has several large pieces of installation and multimedia works, whose common theme is the description of a reality filtered through desire as well as one’s delusional world. In terms of narrative logic, they are not presented in binary opposition. Rather, the objects are depicted from symbols, imagination and reality. More than 100 years ago, Marx mentioned a unique phenomenon in the capitalist age, which is “commodity fetishism”, referring to people who present themselves through commodity. After one hundred years’ time, French thinkers Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord named the post-industrial consuming society “the society of spectacle”. While the human-object relationship is inverted into an object-object one in commodity fetishism, when we enter “the society of spectacle”, there never again exist the so-called real things, which can be replaced by visual images and become only something illusory. Obviously, Qiu Guangping has borrowed the consumption of “symbols” to reflect people’s material pursuits nowadays. In one installation, numerous consuming symbols are presented in different ways, either on the wall, or in a closed space. While walking in it, visitors will be surrounded by different symbols. It provides a unique exhibition experience, conveying the message that the desire to consume is devouring our existence. In another installation, various media stemming from the reality, such as weapons from wars and internet videos about disasters, along with numerous visual symbols and the museum environment, together create a spectacle that seem real yet illusory at the same time. In this way, a different image of “heaven” is available. However, in this particular “heaven”, the self is lost. By analyzing the desires layer by layer and viewing from a plural narrative angle, Qiu has depicted a “heaven” constructed by desires and reality, which also has the features of a spectacle.

  Speaking of the form, to analyze “heaven” from different dimensions and levels can not only enrich the media of expression, but also lead to a close relationship between different pieces, which grows from the inner narrative logic. Although “Heaven: Prophecy of the Century” has touched upon many issues, two striking features can clearly be concluded if we focus on the generation of the artist’s creation concepts. Firstly, the subjective expression strives to be grand and magnificent with the use of metaphors and symbols. In this solo exhibition, the artist’s early painting style has been continued and developed. For example, in “The Fable of the Horse” (2007) series, the artist tries to embed everyday reality into the composition, in an effort to emphasize the irony and allegory nature while retaining an absurd and strange style. “The Non-existent Knight”, on the other hand, mocks and satirizes the legend of heroism. In “Heaven No.1”, we can see quite some similarities to the previous works including the “Red Temptation” series (2008) and “Gone is the Hero” (2009). Going through all these pieces is the same solemnness and sadness as well as the unavoidable atmosphere of tragedy. If we understand the difficult situation in which the “horse” in the early works is placed as a metaphor for the people’s actual existence, the “vulture” in “Heaven No.1” can be seen as a symbol representing desires devouring life. The second feature is an intensified realist perspective. While “heaven B” is a direct representation of the reality, “Diaries in Heaven” intervenes with the real world from a different angle. 365 paintings together make up this project. They present a “reality” shaped by information in a way resembling a diary. The reality has a wide extension and a rich content, However, the fragmentized existence leaves them in a disrupted and discontinued state. Different from the direct depiction of reality in the traditional realism, “Diaries in Heaven” offers a “spectacle-becoming reality”. The reason why it is becoming a spectacle is that the artist has gathered pictures and videos from Internet and TV, and grouped them into an image about “reality”. Speaking of the method, the artist has not directly reproduced the reality. Rather, he “borrowed” and “regenerated” different images. The traditional realist perspective has changed in this process. The new pictures may well come from reality, but after all, they are used “second-handedly”. We can see that the artist is not questioning the truth behind the “second-hand reality”; rather, he tries to tell us that the so-called reality is constructed. It is a visualized spectacle constructed by different powers and discourses. Of course, the strong subjective expression in an art piece is not completely detached from the tendency towards realism. Nor do they conflict with each other. Instead, the two can be complementary, supporting and merging with each other.

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[Editor] 常霞