Thursday, December 04, 2008

Letter from Beijing and Seoul

Installation view of Monuments by Qiu Zhijie at the Long March Space, Beijing, 2007.

Dear friends:
In Beijing I met with Zoe Butt, Director of International Programs and Curator at the Long March Space. The Long March is a project that was started in 2002 by Lu Jie and Qiu Zhijie, and has involved many of China’s most interesting artists. Their aim is to reach out to the community: “Mao's March symbolized the deliverance of the Communist ideal to the Chinese proletariat, it is with this symbolism in mind that we now choose to march contemporary art out to China's peripheral population." Qiu Zhijie is one of China’s foremost contemporary artists. He is also a curator and organizer of exhibitions, and has done several projects with the aid of students and volunteers. Their website shows all of their projects. There is an essay by Enhua Zhang that gives an overview of the Long March:
For Sao Paulo, the Long March project presented The Great Survey of Papercuttings in Yanchuan County (2004). This is an ongoing project that aims to document and highlight a tradition, which while still alive, is slowly but relentlessly disappearing. This was one of the highlights of our version of the Bienal, a very strong statement in the context of a show titled How To Live Together.

Qiu Zhijie is an accomplished printer. He studied the art of traditional ink rubbings with the renowned masters Xie Longshou and Wang Zuoren, and did a series of works based on steles or carved stones he discovered or visited in various archaeological sites. He printed these stones and presented as his work on preserving collective memory. In 2005 he salvaged a historical stele that had been uncovered by the construction workers of a huge real-estate compound in Shanghai. He persuaded the developers to preserve the stele, which was later collected by the Shanghai art museum, and made an imprint of it. Qiu Zhijie has also recently worked with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute on a series of lithographs, which are technically more conventional but nonetheless fascinating.

In 2002 Qiu did the performative work Left/Right: Long March, which involved re-tracing some sites on Mao Zedong’s historical Long March, with the Chinese characters for “left” and “right” etched on the soles of his shoes. The inscriptions were left at various historical sites. In a moment where China was debating about maintaining a political line while opening itself to the ways of Capitalism, Qiu Zhijie’s gesture is a poignant one.

Ink rubbing and concrete plate, Monuments (2007).

There is one of Qiu’s projects that I found especially strong in terms of reflecting on the tradition of the printed image in China, but more precisely, on how personal and collective memory intermingle, and the role of prints and the printed word in disseminating knowledge. It is called Monuments, and was exhibited for the first time on occasion of Qiu Zhijie’s retrospective exhibition -aptly titled Archaeology of Memory- at the Long March Space in 2007 For this work, Qui collected many different forms of writing, something that he had been doing since he was a child. For example, he never throws away a piece of handwritten paper -no matter if it is a letter or a simple quotidian annotation. He is interested in how calligraphic characters evolve according to social and political history and are thus imbued with ideology. He is also interested in how every form of writing is a code that is readable by some at a given moment, but that these codes are contingent to time, historical and social context, and, more recently, to technology. In addition to historical books and documents, political statements, official papers and headlines from newspapers, which are public and more conventional sources of knowledge, Qiu Zhijie has also included very personal “documents” such as emails sent to him that appear as pure scrambled code, and also the contents of his own computer after a virus turned all of his documents into illegible text. Also integrated are texts from his own childhood diaries, which he had written in a code that he invented to prevent his parents from reading it. When he saw them again a decade later after graduating and coming back home, they were as cryptic to him as they would have been to anyone else.

Concrete plate and ink rubbings, Monuments (2007).

Qiu Zhijie selected the writings according to thematic categories: revolutionary slogans; Chinese views of foreigners throughout history; the genealogy of Chinese calligraphy; song lyrics; Chinese sayings; handwriting; scrambled code; and the aforementioned diary. For each form of scripture, Qiu Zhijie etched a "plate"(a layer of concrete). After the plate is dry the inscriptions are printed on paper, and a new layer of concrete is poured, upon which a new set of characters is then inscribed. Each new layer obliterates the previous one, burying the plate forever and replacing it with a new form of scripture; the only witness that remains is the single print, done with the traditional rubbing process that entails placing a sheet of paper on top of the stele (that is carved in bas-relief) and inking the paper with a handheld pouch filled with pigment. The resulting concrete monolith can be exhibited as a sculptural piece, alongside the set of prints that came from the plates it embodies and that are buried within it. Qiu Zhijie intends that these eight blocks become the pillars of a tower in a large-scale work that has the working title Constructing the Pagoda.
The Monuments series is condensed in a beautifully printed catalog, which includes images of each one of the blocks before the layer was obscured by the newer one, the printed image, and transcriptions of the texts with their English translation whenever possible. They range from the poetic (“Grief and happiness intersect”) to the political (“In order to fight against foreign invasion we must first pacify the internal” –taken from Chang Kai-Shek’s original handwriting), and from the practical (“Education should be oriented towards the world, the future, and modernization” –Deng Xiaoping) to the philosophical (“Life has a limit, but to serve people is eternal”). And, of course, the computer-scrambled texts, whose meaning is unfathomable. Even Mao Zedong’s famous dictum is also there: “The imperialist powers are all paper tigers”. The captions sometimes offer a bit of historical context that allows someone not versed in China’s political history to understand the historical significance of these phrases and words.

I quote from from Qiu Zhijie’s long text in the catalog, which is a marvelous description of the process and contains his own views of China’s political history as well as his own views of the capacity of monuments of retaining memory: “If memories can only rely on medium to exist, where can we find such a permanent medium? And if a kind of medium can seal and thus preserve the memory, then it also possesses the capacity to forget. For these stone tablets which have not been preserved through rubbings, it is not necessarily that they have not been transferred to another medium that they are forgotten. After all although absolute memory is impossible, what happens in our physical body and internal spirit is in fact reality. Perhaps what is recorded should not be remembered, or are not the things that we would want to remember. What becomes memory are only those things that enter onto the stage of larger events. "

Korea foundation art handlers working on the installation of the Narcissi series, and the video installation Project for a Memorial.

Which brings me to my trip to Seoul, where I spent time installing Immemorial, Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz’ show at the Korea Foundation. For many years, Muñoz' work has dealt with the capacity of images to retain and evoke memory. His work is largely drawing and print based even if the end result is a video installation, and he has devised innovative processes like screen-printing on water, photoserigraphy on mirrors with a greasy "ink" resulting in images that only appear when they are breathed upon, or the dot-matrix pattern of commercial photolithography rendered with a burning tool on paper, to name but a few.
I have written about Muñoz for Working States, Philagrafika’s online publication, so more information can be found on this link:

J. Roca.