Sunday, May 04, 2008

Artforum Top Ten

Qiu Zhijie is an artist, writer, curator, and educator, based in Beijing and Hangzhou. A major retrospective of his work opens this coming fall at the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai.

In January 1986, eleven days before his death, Joseph Beuys gave a speech as he accepted the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize in Duisburg, Germany. He said that Lehmbruck had taught him not only to understand sculpture in spatial terms, but also to take spiritual power as the fundamental motive behind the act of giving form. Beuys connected this notion to his own ideas about political reform and social evolution. The influence of Beuys’s integrated concept of art is well known, but what interests me most here are Beuys’s insights into how concepts are transmitted and passed on through generations. He saw any two individual lives as the medium for the transmission of a concept, and from this basic understanding of how humans influence one another, he formulated the idea of an intimate connection between a given human and humanity writ large. When I first read Beuys’s lecture in late 1989, it helped me come to terms with the massive social trauma my generation had faced earlier that year, and healed my personal wounds.


The great ancient Chinese Taoist thinker Zhuangzi used lively tales and romantic language to offer an all-encompassing critique of culture’s value systems—he was the Nietzsche of his day. Famously, he once dreamed that he had been transformed into a butterfly, but then doubted himself upon waking up: Had he dreamed of being a butterfly, or was he a butterfly dreaming that it had turned into Zhuangzi? Such stories are a source of basic wisdom for many Chinese, and his book—also known as Zhuangzi—has generated the most set phrases of all the classics. My basic understanding of contemporary art as a game is deeply influenced by Zhuangzi’s writing. For example, he writes that a tree that is too small will be cut down and used for kindling, but one that grows too large will be felled and used for lumber, so a tree—like an artist or a particular work—will thrive best somewhere in the middle.


In the early 1990s, I saw a small Magritte drawing from a set of drawings published in the journal La Révolution Surréaliste in 1929 under the title Les Mots et les images, showing a horse standing next to a painting of a horse on an easel next to a person saying the word horse. The piece obviously anticipates Joseph Kosuth’s famous 1965 work featuring a chair, a photograph of a chair, and chair’s dictionary definition—and it immediately led me to a better understanding not only of Surrealism but also of conceptual art, and it later encouraged me to connect Wittgenstein’s ideas about language as an autonomous system to the internal logics of modern art. Thus this one work has given me a completely new perspective on both art and art history.


I first encountered traditional Tibetan art in the early ’90s, and I subsequently traveled to Tibet many times in order to see its stone carvings, sand mandalas, images painted with grain upon walls, sculptures made of yak butter, and ubiquitous ruins—as well as to grasp the Tibetan understanding of travel and the miracles of daily existence. All of these things showed me the power of materials, the symbolism that sprouts from everyday life, and the meaning of art for people who live simple lives in extreme hardship. In recent years, reading Tibetan history has provided me with much material for understanding colonialism.


The drawings Da Vinci made for his design of a tank and a helicopter—as well as for research into human anatomy and motion—indicate how art is not merely an investigation of beauty but a path to understanding. Combining depictions of existing objects with designs for objects that did not yet exist, Da Vinci’s sketches are certainly beautiful, but their exemplary value lies in how they make art into a tool that furthers comprehension of the world and life—a way, in other words, of better understanding human existence.


By placing a table and a chair covered in mirrors inside a cube composed entirely of mirrors, Samaras created a room of infinite depth and changed our perception of space. For not only do the mirrors induce visual vertigo, but they carry a psychological metaphor as well: Visual experience and philosophical reason are integrated perfectly; existing objects are hidden from view; and what appears visually does not necessarily exist. Such a clean and rich work is difficult to surpass.


This exhibition in the American pavilion of the 1995 Venice Biennale brought the power of the senses to bear directly on the body, creating an exquisite aesthetic experience for viewers. The shock of seeing Bill Viola’s work led me to experiment in earnest with video, and even to become something of a missionary for video art in China. At the same time, Viola’s method of actively constructing a spiritual genealogy out of cultural experience encouraged me to more actively seek my own personal place within Chinese culture.


My first piece to receive wide attention involved writing the “Orchid Pavilion Preface—a classic work by Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE) calligrapher Wang Xizhi, that ranks among the most important works in Chinese art history—one thousand times on a single sheet of paper. For me, the literary value of the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” transcends its calligraphic value: Wang articulates a Chinese intellectual’s consciousness of time, namely, the idea that our present view of the past is the same as the future’s view of the present. By contrast, the anonymous inscription in stone on the Yang Er Stele in Shandong province is famous neither for its calligraphy nor for its narrative. Yet the text, which describes the fate of an ordinary individual (Yang Er, literally “the second son of the Yang family”) by way of the reactions of his friends to his death, shows an ordinary Chinese person’s understanding of family and memory. If the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” represents an elite Chinese attitude toward time, the Yang Er Stele serves as its popular counterpart. Together, the notions of time and by extension history articulated in these two texts have been incredibly significant for me.


When this movie was first made available to Chinese youth in the late ’80s, it offered a powerful form of spiritual enlightenment, and, like others, I was influenced by its treatment of the strong conflict between individual will and social systems. In fact, the idea of the “wall” and breaking through it has become a major concern in contemporary Chinese art over the past decades.


The calligraphic works of this early-twentieth-century Chinese artist—who was active in painting, theater, poetry, music, and other fields and eventually became an eminent Buddhist monk—have a distinctly strange and powerful style. On the eve of his entering the monastery, he entombed all the seals he had used as a layperson inside a wall of a printing plant in Hangzhou, marking the suspension of his life as an ordinary individual and the beginning of his life as a monk. As a child I studied with the old calligraphers of my hometown, and Li was a natural point of departure. To me he represents the whole Chinese calligraphic tradition, not only in terms of technique or style but also as an entire lifestyle or philosophy. His work still provides a basic methodology for my creative practice.

Translated from Chinese by Philip Tinari.

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