QIU ZHIJIE (b. 1969)

Dictionary Series: Thoughts, Words, Plants, Worms

QIU ZHIJIE (b. 1969)
Dictionary Series: Thoughts, Words, Plants, Worms
signed in Chinese (3rd scroll on the reverse)
Painted in 2001
four ink on paper
each: 176.5 x 27.5 cm. (69 1/2 x 10 3/4 in.) (4)
Painted in 2001
Galerie Loft, Paris, France
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Chinese Century, Paris-Pekin, Paris, France, 2002 (illustrated, p. 54).
Skira, Modernites Chinoises, Paris, France, 2003 (illustrated, p. 62).


In the 1980s, the Chinese government adopted a more liberal and open policy toward the development of art. The translation of large volumes of Western publications into Chinese brought an influx of new ideas on modern art, and the 1985 'New Wave' art movement was born: young artists, stirred by the influence of various schools in Western art, brought these new creative ideas to realization in their work. Questions about imitation and borrowing from the West and the complementary relations between form and content sparked intense intellectual debate and discussion, particularly with respect to the issue of sustaining Chinese traditional art forms and adding creative innovation.

We see in the works from the Ullens collection the various paths out of this debate that artists took on. Artists like Xu Bing, Qiu Zhijie, and others found in Eastern philosophy the opportunity to add a distinct skein of Chinese tradition onto conceptually innovative new works. Xu Bing's Tian Shu: Book from the Sky is one of the most important and groundbreaking works of installation and conceptual art of the period. Executed over four years, Xu methodically deconstructed the Chinese written language and rebuilt it, hand-carving thousands of individual characters that were composed of the component parts of Chinese but which were wholly unrecognizable. Using these woodblocks to then print bound texts, exegetical texts, and hanging scrolls, invoking everything from esoteric sutras to current newspaper walls, the work successfully indicted the authority of the written word by rendering its content maddeningly unstable if not meaningless (Fig 1, 2, 3). The example from the Ullens collection is one of the earliest studio copies of the piece, and its original title, Book from the Sky (A Mirror to Analyse the World) (Lot 259) highlights the ambitiousness the artist. Writing, literature and poetry have traditionally been the highest valued art form in China, but Xu's , A Mirror to Analyse the World suggests that writing no longer holds any authority over describing the world or experience. As such, it is as scathing an indictment of contemporary life as any world-gone-mad painting of Yue Minjun's. As an artifact of the period, the study copy perfectly embodies not only the significance of the final piece but of art-making at the time: a simple, humble, and obsessive project, executed in monk-like solitude, and which would break open the possibility for digging deeper into traditional Chinese aesthetics in order to redefine contemporary art practice.

As conceptual, installation and performance art proliferated in China. Zhang Peili's Artistic Project No. 2 (Lot 260) is just one object. Like Gu Dexin, Zhang originally worked as a painter but quickly found its language too limiting for his aesthetic ambitions, and he is now well-recognized as one of China's foundational video and new media artists. Where experimental and perhaps especially performance art aims to explode the certainty of interpretation and meaning-making, with Zhang's Artistic Project No. 2, the artist produces an elegantly Kafkaesque outline of an imagined situation: the object consists of a simple typed script detailing instructions for a largely formulaic and meaningless dialogue between two actors that is in the meantime silently monitored by 47 observers, who struggle violently with each other for the opportunity to view them through a peephole. Echoing the deliberately mundane, repetitive happenings and performances of Alan Kaprow, Zhang's instructions for performance does not seek to elevate or expand one's awareness through embodied performance, but rather to create a tableau highlighting the oppressive mechanisms of every day life in all their absurdity. This deceptively simple document identified core problematics over power, autonomy, and absurdity that would recur in Chinese art across every media for years to come, as can be seen in the deliberate claustrophobia in the graffiti-embossed canvases of Wu Shanzhuan and his Today No Water series (Lot 246). Similarly, Wei Guangqing, in his Red Wall series paintings (Lot 266) borrows the images of courtly, feudal life, and its supposed moral and ethical standards, in ironic, flat and pop-inspired compositions, to suggest that disappearance of any moral standards in the current era, Confucian or otherwise. This interest in revealing the inanities and absurdities of life were a defining principle of art from this generation. Although best known for his paintings, this can be seen, too, in Wei's historic early installation from 1988 Suicide Plan (Lot 265), which shows the artist enacting a fragmentary, dream-like narrative, full of oblique references and cryptic symbolism, a montage of modern alienation on par, steeped in French existentialism but rooted in the quotidian ennui of the artist's existence.

Zhang Peili along with Geng Jianyi were founding members of the Pond Society in 1986, a group that sought to move art making out of the academies and into more interactive, socially engaged terrain. As a painter, Geng anticipated the work of the Cynical Realists, his figuration emphasizing a life that was tedious and dull. Though equally productive in other media, Geng's paintings retain the conceptual sophistication found in his video and photography pieces. His Those in the Light (Lot 248) from 1999 offers a schematic and loosely expressive portrait in reds and blues. The composition mimics that of archival historical photography of officials or politicians, commemorating some diplomatic gathering. The indeterminancy of the Geng's handling reduces the figures to a series swooping, lyrical forms that emphasize the drapery of their suits and flesh. The seated, foreground figures are the most realized, while those standing in the back only appear as semi-realized, disembodied faces. The work than suggests the disorientation of a photography seen in negative while, equally, the slow disappearance of the figures into the red background suggests the mutable and arbitrary nature of history and its representations. Similarly, Geng's simple watercolour, also from 1999, Page Five, Page Six (Lot 261), presents a highly detailed rendering of a yellowed, ancient book, its pages yellowed and darkened by time and wear. The pages however are empty of content. More recent works would show Geng drawing deeply from Buddhist traditions, and for many artists the play between absence and presence, the duality between materiality and ephemerality, proved a rich area for aesthetic exploration, as well as an adroit metaphor history and experience in the post-Mao era.