Disjuncture – Tradition – Indirectness

A conversation with Qiu Anxiong

Qiu Anxiong is a video, animation and installation artist who lives and works in Shanghai. He was born in Sichuan, China in 1972 and studied initially at the Sichuan Academy of Art in Chongqing from where he graduated in 1994. Qiu later studied at the Kunsthochschule of the University of Kassel in Germany, graduating in 2003. In this conversation, which was recorded at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, Qiu talks among other things about the significance of his video work Jiang Nan Poem (2005), his commitment to Buddhism and his eschewal of oppositional forms of criticism.


Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking you some questions about your video Jiang Nan Poem, which is made up of a series of more or less static ‘establishing shots’ of trees silhouetted against the sky, without any discernible narrative or music soundtrack. Now and again branches and leaves can be seen to move slightly in the breeze, and birds fly in and out of shot … but that’s the extent of the action. I have to say that it reminds me of certain films by Andy Warhol, such as Empire (1964), which make use of the same formal device. What was your intention in making Jiang Nan Poem?

Qiu Anxiong: Although the formal technique of using single static shots is quite similar to that used by Andy Warhol in films such as Empire, ultimately what interests me is not just the technical process of video making but also the idea of change. So, although it looks like a fixed scenario … there are actually very small changes that are quite difficult to notice. I think that’s quite marvellous. It’s the process, and the change inherent in the process, that interests me.

Paul Gladston: Aspects of the Chinese intellectual tradition also focus on issues related to change. For example, the doctrine of Fan, or reversion, in which all things are understood to transform over time into their opposite, before eventually reverting back to their original state of being; or geomantic conceptions of change implicated in the I Ching or Book of Changes. Does Jiang Nan Poem have an intentional relationship to that intellectual tradition?

Qiu Anxiong: Chinese philosophy isn’t part of the video, but what’s interesting is the way we look at things now. We are very much more impatient because of the way contemporary media influences the way we deal with things. I believe that in the process of watching this video you have to come to a point where you relearn how to look at things. You have to come to a means of being more settled as a spectator; understanding the work in its own time. We are all used to the process of change and we expect that when we watch movies … just like a rolling train. In the case of Jiang Nan Poem, I just cut some real things together in real time. We see them very slowly and our feelings change. Everything is changing all the time. If you have very strong feelings in your heart, you cannot see this change. In this film everything changes, but in small ways. If you adopt a settled attitude then you can begin to feel that everything is changing.

Paul Gladston: That suggests a position critical of current circumstances in China where modernization is taking place, in some places at least, at break-neck speed. And maybe not just within China, but more widely—a position critical of present day modernity … of the consequences of globalization, perhaps. Is that an intentional aspect of the work?

Qiu Anxiong: I’m not really opposed to the way we deal with things contemporaneously. It’s more of an observation on my own part—the way I tend to see things … the way I tend to deal with the pace of everyday life. It’s not really opposed to the way other people deal with it. I’m a Buddhist and in making Jiang Nan Poem I was influenced by Buddhism. I didn’t want to make a desert. It’s empty, but it’s not empty. In Buddhism that’s very important. One cannot simply give one side. One always has to consider both sides. Buddhism is based on life. The scenario in Jiang Nan Poem is not somewhere; it’s everything, every time, everywhere. Nowadays, the pace of life in the city is too fast. We have learned materialism, so we use materialist views to see the world. It means one sees life and the world from this single point of view. Materiality is not the single most important thing, however.

Paul Gladston: So, rather than being a direct form of critical opposition or negation, Jiang Nan Poem is perhaps better described as a meditative intervention?

Qiu Anxiong: I position myself in relation to something rather than being critical.

Paul Gladston: A kind of juxtaposition or supplementary positioning?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes. Nowadays, many people in China are proud of modern culture. But there are problems. There are many things that are not right. I think that’s why I did something like this.

Paul Gladston: The title of the work, Jiang Nan Poem … what does it refer to exactly? Does it refer to an actual Chinese poem or a form of Chinese poetry?

Qiu Anxiong: In Chinese it also means ‘Jiang Nan Mistake’.

Paul Gladston: Mistake? So why is the title translated into English simply as Jiang Nan Poem?

Qiu Anxiong: In the Song dynasty there was a different sort of Chinese language. The meanings of some characters were close together … a character might have one meaning and then it might be a sort of double-entendre. I chose the word ‘poem’ in Chinese because it fits in with the mood of the piece; you know … the attitude, the overall mood, which is poetic. It doesn’t translate into English [laughs].

Paul Gladston: So, in Chinese the title refers to poetic form and to some sort of mistake?

Qiu Anxiong: Correct.

Paul Gladston: Still, does the title refer to an actual poem?

Qiu Anxiong: It refers to many old Chinese poems. But it’s a title that I invented myself. So the reference to old poems is indirect.

Paul Gladston: So, the title Jiang Nan Poem doesn’t refer to a specific poem, but to poetic form in general?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes, an older tradition of Chinese poetry making. A Chinese person would grasp what was behind the title very easily and understand the reference to poetry. But a non-Chinese person might not understand the reference to tradition or history. They might not be able to penetrate the meaning behind that fully.

Paul Gladston: One of the defining aspects of traditional Chinese painting is its close relationship to the writing of poetry. There is often an attempt to give visual form to poetic texts and vice versa—poetry inspires painting, and painting inspires poetry. In the case of Jiang Nan Poem are you attempting to complicate this traditional relationship between poetry and image making by suggesting a very particular relationship that doesn’t actually exist?

Qiu Anxiong: No, I don’t think so. Historically, the relationship between visual representation and literature in China has always been quite strong. The ‘mistake’ has nothing to do with complicating Chinese history and tradition but the contemporary apprehension of things.

Paul Gladston: Can we unpack that further? The ‘mistake’ has to do with the contemporary apprehension of things; what precisely?

Qiu Anxiong: It’s more to do with modern times … the mistake of contemporary life. There are many different ways to interpret this. The word ‘mistake’ in Chinese doesn’t mean exactly what it means in English. It can also mean ‘missing the point’. It’s very ambiguous … it’s ambivalent … there are many different meanings. It doesn’t just refer to language, but also to a kind of Chinese mentality. It’s true that in Chinese culture we don’t have a clear view of things. It’s also reflected in the language.

Paul Gladston: Inevitably, there is slippage in meaning as part of the process of translation from Chinese to English. So, we are not dealing simply with the notion of a ‘mistake’, but also that of a ‘disjuncture’?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes, disjuncture …

Paul Gladston: The notion of disjuncture, and in particular a sense of time being out of joint, is an important aspect of post-modernism; a sense that there is some sort of irreconcilable disarticulation between past, present and future.

Qiu Anxiong: Yes I agree with that idea. The ‘mistake’ I’m referring to involves misunderstandings and disjunctures between modern life and a longer Chinese cultural tradition or outlook. There is great value to traditional forms of Chinese art. What might be held slightly in question about contemporary Chinese art, however, is that it would seem to bear very little relationship to history. Western art, by contrast, progresses continually through history. Chinese contemporary art is often very separate from tradition.

Paul Gladston: I’m not sure that the history of Western art is quite as continuous as you suggest …

Qiu Anxiong: What I mean about Western art history is that first there was modernism and then post-modernism. But the influx of these ideas into China came all at the same time. It’s quite a mélange of ideas. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but some misunderstanding arises as a consequence.

Paul Gladston: I would understand things differently. Post-modernism is in part a critique of Western modernist notions of historical progress and sequential development … it complicates the relationship between past, present and future … sets sequential time out of joint.

Qiu Anxiong: But we’re talking about existing narratives. There’s a Western narrative … it’s fragmented, but there’s a certain theoretical rigour to it, a logic the Chinese art historical narrative doesn’t have. With Western art history there is an awareness of lots of cultural misunderstandings or borrowings. But in terms of Western art or art historical discourse, it’s seen to come from a certain inheritance. It comes always to be seen from a Western point of view and not from that of the art that’s appropriated. In China there’s not enough of this logic—its own logic, on its own terms. So in China this borrowing tends to be more practical. The Western art historical tradition … is just more formalised than it is in the East. By turning more closely to traditional Chinese culture and also to Buddhism, I do have something new in mind. I think it’s very important that culture is not just a copy of traditional things. What I do now is not just a way of reflecting back on or repeating traditional culture. What I would like to do is look at life nowadays by using traditional culture.

Paul Gladston: Are you conscious of different audiences for your work; maybe Chinese audiences and non-Chinese audiences?

Qiu Anxiong: When I was making Jiang Nan Poem, I didn’t really think about audiences or different kinds of reception for the work. But, I believe that everyone can come to an understanding of the work ‘on their own’. 

Paul Gladston: Is it ‘of their own’, or ‘on their own’? Because if they come to an understanding ‘on their own’ there is perhaps a sense of a shared understanding that everyone can come to in time; or is it that individuals coming from different places will arrive at different understandings?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes, I guess it’s that … the latter. I have no way of controlling what the audience feels. That’s not really my intention. It’s more about what I feel personally in relation to a scenario. In the case of Jiang Nan Poem people might look at it and be quite bored. Or they could enter into a more peaceful state of mind; like a new means of looking at the world, basically.

Paul Gladston: You have used two distinct terms there: one is ‘bored’ and the other is ‘peaceful’. By using this pairing, are you referring in any way to differences in the cultural positioning of Western and Chinese observers? From a Western point of view there is a tendency to find an image of something where very little is going on rather boring. But there is a long tradition in Chinese painting of showing such things–empty landscapes and bland depictions of flora and fauna, for example. From a Chinese cultural viewpoint these things are considered to be very rich in meaning and to carry all sorts of aesthetic possibilities. So is the difference between ‘boring’ and ‘peaceful’ potentially a matter of the way in which we come at this culturally?

Qiu Anxiong: It’s less of a cultural thing than it is a personal thing. I believe in the end it’s subjective. Some people will not have the patience to sit through Jiang Nan Poem, whether they are Chinese or Western. It’s a kind of personal stage. Going back to the issue of peace of mind, maybe you could say there are two options: people either stay or they leave. Some people won’t feel anxious or bored; they’ll really get involved with the details. The details really come to the fore. I’ve seen the video many times with other people watching. I tend to observe the people watching: initially they might appear to be bored, but in the end, if they manage to watch it all the way through, they come out feeling relaxed. Historically, through Chinese aesthetics we try to pass on peacefulness to the audience rather than strong feelings. This has something to do with Daoism.

Paul Gladston: You studied for a time in Germany. Could you say something about that experience and how it has influenced your work?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes for me it was a very important experience. During that time I had many different ways to see myself in such a different environment. I started as a painter in Sichuan. When I came back to China from Germany I realised that I must do something new. When I eventually came to live and work in Shanghai I had a new start.

Paul Gladston: Did the work of any particular German artist influence you?

Qiu Anxiong: Beuys … Beuys. Before I went to Germany I already new his work and I was already interested in it. But later he became a very special artist for me. Also, I think it was the culture as a whole. When I was in China I saw that Beuys used oil and fat in his work. This work for me was very strange, special … a special thing. But I didn’t know why he used those things … his special taste. But when I was living in Germany I realised that this was part of life … these are very ordinary things in life … things that are with everyone. And this feeling, I think, is special for people in Germany, in that culture; very meaningful. But, as for the Chinese, they cannot catch that.

Paul Gladston: So when you came back to China did that make you think about making art that was part of Chinese culture … that had a strong relationship with your own cultural identity?

Qiu Anxiong: Also, it’s before that. When I was in school and in college I had no interest in traditional Chinese culture. During that time I was just interested in modern life. But later I gained some knowledge of traditional Chinese culture and I developed an interest in it. For me it was something new. For me old things were something new. Also, it was something different … different from what I had heard in our political policy and our education … our propaganda. For me, it’s because those things … you can feel those things. You can feel that they’re not outside of you … they’re inside. When I was in Germany, I had increasingly strong feelings about that: yes, you’re Chinese! Yes … I think this history … one cannot say it’s simply outdated and no use. I think it exists in one’s body, in one’s blood and in one’s culture. I think it’s not so easy to say we are new and there’s nothing to connect us to history. This is completely wrong … this is wrong. In Germany it’s better than China. In China everything is coming in from the West. And it’s also very easy to copy things. So many traditional things are just lost … we lost direction, I think. It’s very difficult … modern Germany is based on tradition. They have a base. But nowadays in China we’ve just given up the base. When we have no base, there’s just no direction. Today, follow the Americans; tomorrow, follow the Europeans … this is no way to go. Yes … for me, I’ll try to find my own way. This way is not just a matter of following somebody else. One must have a base. This base comes from where? From history, from tradition, I think. Some members of the older generation of Chinese artists, they have this base in the background of Western knowledge. They think about Western art history. It’s not based on their life. It’s not based on the Chinese situation. I think the Chinese situation is not so simple. It’s not a Western problem … some, for example, they say it’s a problem of art history. I think it’s also based on society, based on the particular historical circumstances of society and politics and of power, culture … philosophy. One cannot just take things from Western art and transplant them to here … here, it’s something else completely. So, for me, a good artist must do what he feels in his own life. We Chinese have some misunderstandings of Western culture. Western people also misunderstand Chinese culture. There is always misunderstanding between cultures, but one cannot misunderstand one’s self. I think that’s very important. One must know what one is doing.

Paul Gladston: Could you be specific? Exactly what aspects of traditional Chinese culture have influenced your work as an artist?

Qiu Anxiong: I like painters from the Song dynasty and the Yang dynasty …

Paul Gladston: So traditional forms of Chinese ink and brush painting?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes. I think the history of Chinese art is also very deep in our memory. When I was a child one heard many stories about history. For every Chinese this is something that runs very deep. I think that’s our base. History for us is also … for example, two thousand years ago and two hundred years ago is for us sometimes the same; not exactly, but …

Paul Gladston: From a Chinese cultural point of view the past is always somehow contemporaneous … past, but ever present.

Qiu Anxiong: In my view, the Song dynasty is interesting … the art of that time is different from that of later periods: later it lost something. Later, it wasn’t as good as it had been during the Song dynasty. For me, some later painters are good, but most are bad.

Paul Gladston: Did any Chinese contemporary artists of the 1980s and 1990s influence you … artists of the ’85 New-Wave, such as Wang Guangyi and Zhang Peili, for example.

Qiu Anxiong: Of course. They did … normally as our teachers. Zhang Zaodeng is my teacher. So this generation for me … they gave me more knowledge about Western art. That’s also part of my background.

Paul Gladston: The work of contemporary Chinese artists of the ’80s and ’90s is often open to interpretation as political in intent …

Qiu Anxiong: During that generation … yes, I think it’s more political because in their time nobody could avoid politics.

Paul Gladston: Do you see your own work as political?

Qiu Anxiong: Not directly; there isn’t a direct relationship with the political. When one touches on something to do with politics—like the work of Wang Guangyi … Political Pop, for example—later, it will become a very simple symbol against the government, against ideology. I think that’s boring. Western writers … they want to see that; they have an interest in that. It’s easy for them to understand, and it’s easy for them to use it. I don’t think that this is the Chinese way to put pressure on. Yang Fudong’s work is also not directly political. I think it’s about his experience of life. Inside there’s something, but it’s not about saying directly that the Chinese government is bad … [laughs].

Paul Gladston: Historically, Chinese intellectuals sometimes detached themselves from public life and politics as a form of criticism; withdrawal as a signifier of discontent. Do you recognise this kind of withdrawal in relation to a younger generation of contemporary Chinese artists; a withdrawal from the more obviously political work of previous generations that nevertheless carries with it an oblique political message?

Qiu Anxiong: Yes. I think intellectuals in traditional Chinese culture … they had character. They wanted to preserve some idea of independence. Also they … and this is always a problem in Chinese culture … they also wanted to survive. This is always a problem. In the past in China, if the intellectual wanted to say something about politics it wasn’t as much of a problem … until now … now if you want to touch on this it’s dangerous.

Qiu Anxiong, Jiang Nan Poem, 2005. Video still. Courtesy the artist. 

Qiu Anxiong, Minguo Landscape, 2007. Courtesy the artist. 

Qiu Anxiong, New Book of Mountains and Seas (Part 1), 2006. Painting, video stills. Courtesy the artist. 

Qiu Anxiong, Temptation of the Land, 2009. Courtesy the artist. 


This conversation was transcribed and translated by Xu Sujing. 

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Culture, Film and Media and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was inaugural Head of the Department of International Communications and Director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. His book length publications include Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005), China and Other Spaces (2009), Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists (2011), ‘Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality’, a special issue of the Journal of Visual Art Practice co-edited with Katie Hill (2012) and ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979-89 (forthcoming 2013). He was an academic adviser to the exhibition Art of Change: New Directions from China, which was staged at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2012.