Qiu Zhijie is one of the most active and versatile Chinese contemporary artists, with a body of work that spans across many different media. He assumes the roles of artist, art critic, curator, academic, and writer. As an artist, he is adept in painting, calligraphy, photography, installation, performance art, and video art. His works insightfully investigate issues of history, genealogy, the dissemination of culture, and societal conditions. Qiu Zhijie participated in numerous international exhibitions including Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013, São Paulo Art Biennial in 2014, Post Pop: East Meets West at the Saatchi Gallery in 2014, and the Venice Biennale in 2015.
Qiu Zhijie graduated from the printmaking department at the China Academy of Art in 1992. His graduation thesis project was an installation of prints entitled Large Pieces of Glass: On the New Life. In this work, he used silkscreen to print images and text on 26 large panes of glass, subsequently mounting them on the floor vertically in the configuration of a maze. When viewers walked inside the maze, they could see different layers of images superimposed atop one another. At the same time, viewers become integrated into the imagery that flows throughout the entire composition. Qiu Zhijie positions his audience inside a complex visual world, thus examining the relationship between space, time, opportunity, and conflict. These elements become a metaphor for the information overload and chaos of the contemporary world. By replacing the canvas with panes of glass and suspending them away from the walls, Qiu Zhijie was referencing Duchamp's masterpiece The Large Glass (Fig. 1). It is a subversion of the format and concept of the traditional painting discipline. Upon the conclusion of the exhibition, Qiu Zhijie cleaned the images off the panes of glass and sold the material at cost to the Infrastructure Department at the China Academy of Art, effectively subverting himself and the art work that he created.
Large Pieces of Glass: On the New Life demonstrates young Qiu Zhijie’s talent and breadth of spirit by combining the strengths of installation, two dimensional images, conceptual art, and performance art. With this work, Qiu Zhijie made his name in the art world and was subsequently invited to the touring exhibition China’s New Art: Post 1989 in 1993. Because the original installation of Large Pieces of Glass: On the New Life was destroyed after the conclusion of the exhibition, Qiu Zhijie reproduced the work with 30 panes of acrylic. The new iteration was entitled Homage to Vita Nuova (Fig. 2). This series of work was widely collected by connoisseurs, including China Club in Hong Kong where multiple panels of Homage to Vita Nuova can be seen on display in the VIP room.
Offered in this season's auction, these two panels of Homage to Vita Nuova (Lot 69) came from the original series of 30. They are an excellent point of departure for a retrospective on Qiu Zhijie's artistic career. The subject matter of these two pieces are human figures which reference the small photographs of the figures that are pasted on each of the corresponding works. Qiu Zhijie thoroughly subverted the palette, details, narrative, and various aspects of these found images. His treatment is devoid of any depiction of detail, instead emphasising the flatness and intensity of colour in these images. The skin tone of these figures is transformed into a saturated magenta in a psychedelic and mysterious rendering that unifies their appearances; as a result, a barrier is placed between the subjects and reality, both visually and psychologically. Despite being stylistically similar to Pop Art, the subject matter of these works is more concerned with cultural life, thus they represent a divergence from Political Pop works produced during the same period. Because of their transparent property, the acrylic sheets allow viewers to see the images from the reverse side as well. On the panel depicting a group of soldiers in camouflage, Qiu Zhijie has painted the verso with the same images. In doing this, the artist has created a visual experience that is uncannily familiar, yet markedly different, challenging the visual short-term memory of the viewers.
When oil on canvas was still the dominant medium in Chinese contemporary art during the 1990s, Qiu Zhijie was already contemplating the diverse possibilities of painting. During the same period, he was also rigorously researching on the nature of text and the act of writing. In his early work, the ground-breaking Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times (Fig. 3), he documented the process of himself writing repeatedly on the same piece of paper. The result is a solid block of ink, akin to the Minimalist rectangle. Since 2000, his works such as Reverse Calligraphy and Light Calligraphy combined the disciplines of calligraphy, photography, and videography. This fluidity across different disciplines is what he calls “the holistic cultivation as an artist.” In more recent years, Qiu Zhijie developed a series of large-scale installation projects which critique society. Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge is one of the iconic works from this series.
One of the duties of the artist and a vital characteristic of art is provide commentary on Society to evocative responses from viewers. As Qiu Zhijie elaborated, “When everyone is buying the same clothes and same appliances, someone should be making their own unique and exotic items; When everyone is hurrying to the next shore, someone should be yelling stop and suggesting that everyone should enjoy the ride; When everyone was cheering at the Ebony Cliff (fictional sacred ground of a cult), someone should sneer sarcastically. The duty of the contemporary artist is no different from the ancient master: to be a professional traveller. We travel and bring back news of different worlds for those who have not yet tread outside.