Author Ian Johnson of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao meets controversial artist Qiu Zhijie for the New York Review of Books.Before the interview, Ian Johnson puts Qiu and their first meetings into perspective. Here is the introduction of the interview.
One of China’s most influential artists is forty-eight-year-old Qiu Zhijie. A native of southern China’s Fujian province, Qiu studied art in the eastern city of Hangzhou before moving to Beijing in 1994 to pursue a career as a contemporary artist. At the time, contemporary art was illegal in China and artists often lived in villages on the outskirts of town, held underground exhibitions, and were patronized almost exclusively by foreigners.
Qiu quickly made a name for himself as one of China’s leading artists, creating one of the most famous images of that era: a picture of himself from the waist up, shirtless, against a white wall with an enormous red character, 不, or “No,” painting across his face and torso. Another was a video of him copying a classic piece of calligraphy, the fourth-century Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion, one thousand times until it became illegible. More recently, he has embarked on major conceptual art projects, such as an exploration of the suicides that take place at a major bridge that for decades was a symbol of Communist self-reliance, and dozens of enormous idea mapsthat juxtapose mythology, politics, and social critique.
I got to know Qiu in 1999 when I wrote about the controversy surrounding an influential exhibition called “Post-Sense, Sensibility, Alien Bodies & Delusion.” Held in the basement of an apartment block, it was a backlash against the political pop art of that era, purposefully creating art that couldn’t be sold or collected: a human cadaver encased in a block of ice, for instance, or dead animals nailed to the wall. Disgusted, the authorities closed the show the day it opened—a response reminiscent of the one that greeted the Guggenheim’s current major retrospective of Chinese art, with authorities forcing the museum to remove live animals from several exhibits.
Qiu’s work features prominently in the Guggenheim show. He was the only artist commissioned to make an original work, one of his idea maps; his Orchid Pavilion calligraphy is also on display.
Unlike prototypical dissident-artists such as Ai Weiwei, who have shunned China’s art establishment and work mainly abroad, Qiu is now firmly part of the Chinese art establishment. He teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the most influential art school in China, as head of the Department of Experimental Art, and curated the Chinese pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Last month, I met Qiu at his studio in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, where we talked about the challenges of maintaining artistic integrity inside the system, censorship, how he lectures on Communist Party ideology, and the Party’s transformation to a party of nationalism.
(The New York Review of Books is mostly hidden behind a firewall, but was this time free available for us. If you run into a firewall, you will have to wait till China File offers free access next month.)
Are you looking for more experts on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.