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The cartographer of humanity

May 11, 2016


Qiu Zhijie is one of the main Chinese figure of the world art scene, known for its large maps that illustrate the roots of our cultures. We have met him to talk about his art and his idea of our world.

Hi Qiu, good morning. Give us a little introduction about yourself: who are you and what are you doing here?

Good morning, I’m Qiu Zhijie, a Chinese artist based in Beijing, professor of China Central Academy of Fine Art-The School of Experimental Art and China Academy of Art-School of Intermedia Art. My studio is called Total Art Studio. I make all kinds of art, like ink painting, calligraphy, installation, performance, theater, video, photography, and writing; everything. And curating — I was the co-curator of the first video arts exhibition in China in 1996 (e.d Image and Phenomena at CCA of Hangzhou). Then in 2012 I was the chief curator of Shanghai Biennale. In general, we can say that now I make a lot of maps, so I say, okay, I’m the “mapper” of the art.


Your last project, Racing Against Time, is about the battle of powers and the war between empires, a theme that is unfortunately always up-to-date. Could you tell us something more on what your research methods and sources have been?

Basically, this year, my method is quite based on mapping, and to make a map — it’s always like a tool of research of every topic. For example in this exhibition in San Gimignano I focused on the empire. I had the research on all the elements of an empire; the political system, the economic system, the architects, the flags they use, the weapons they use — everything. Then I started to set up the divisions in-between, and started to mix all the historical elements together. That’s the way I saw it. So in the exhibition at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano I actually made this archeological pit. It’s like an archeological site; a space where many visitors can go inside — people can walk in and discover something. So you can see, one of my methods is to make things in a ''peaceful atmosphere'', and then people can connect them on their own, based on the connections and the relationships in their minds. It’s not this physical interaction, but a spiritual interaction.




Your work is profoundly related to the antique art of calligraphy, which is used to re-write and imitate what has already been done. Can you explain to us a little bit more about this tradition?

I was actually trained as a Chinese calligrapher and ink painter in my childhood, and it’s a very typical, traditional practice, totally different from a modern academic system. When I was young I had to follow my master, my teacher, to temple and they told us to grab the ink for them, and we listened to them, how they talked, and so on. So, it was very different from the modern education idea, like you have your personality and you develop your personality. From my childhood we copied the traditional, classical work, doing a lot of exercises and also my teachers did that. They used the water writing on a brick, doing the exercises every day, and then, when the work is dried, they used the water supply again. It never gets any shape.

On this idea, in 1990 to 1995, I copied Lanting Xu’s the Orchid Pavillion Preface, which is the most important classical calligraphy work in Chinese history — it’s like the Mona Lisa of Western art history. So I copied the calligraphy on sand paper in the summer for five years. At the very beginning it was typical and traditional Chinese calligraphy, then after thirty times writing on the paper, it became something like Jackson Pollock. It was dried painting. And after one hundred times, when the paper totally broke, I kept writing on it. It became a type of zen meditation. But in that process in which you study this traditional piece, is the method for you to develop yourself. So I think that it is a quite special tradition for me and deep in my way of working. 


There is a sense of repetition in all these things of calligraphy, a sense of deja-vu, related to your art. What will you be showing at the Centro Pecci?

This sense of so-called deja-vu is quite at the center of people’s feeling in China, of people’s sensibility. You can always feel things that are on their way of getting older, everything is on the way of disappearance, of passing. In this exhibition entitled The End of the World, I think it’s not talking about “don’t stay”, but it’s about the transformation of things, and the relationship between objects and transforming objects. We know every object, for example this book, it was just paper before and then in some years this book became some task. So it’s on the way — in the middle part of its transformation. And that’s why I made the map because the map tries to present the situation nowadays.

So I think for this exhibition at Centro Pecci, I based my idea on this mapping, but mapping not only of the world; cartography can be developed, it can be interacted with, touched. It’s in a state of unclarity. It is based on the idea of the mapping of human life, the map of people’s ideas, the map of people’s behavior. It’s a kind of a human map, not a geographical map.


What does it mean to draw a map in your practice?

A map, for me, what’s most important is relationships. I don’t think it’s important to talk about one object, or more important to put it in a dry place, a dry location. What this means for people — it’s different, because of the time, because of the location. For people here, a book is more important, but for people there, a noodle is more important than the book. The meaning of the object depends greatly on where it is and when it appears. So the mapping for me is about how and when something has been locked; to set up relationships between things. It’s not a representation of existence, but to create a new relationship, which is a type of new understanding of the world. And I think that is really important. People really add their essence, which is actually very much based on their mental “mapping”. Everyone is a mapper, actually. 




And how do ruins and memory affect your imagery?

You know, I was born in China, and I think that with Italian people it is the same, like every nation, every culture that has a long history in its lifetime, there is a lot of memory, there are a lot of ruins. So when you look at these fancy buildings, these fancy cars, it gives you some advanced perspective, like you know that everything will become ruins in the future. So when you look at this fancy car, you know, in fifty years it will be something terrible — even if you look at a beautiful girl, you know in fifty years she will be an old lady, so this kind of knowledge becomes kind of an advanced understanding when you look at the world; when you end reality; when you end the world. With anything fashionable, you already know it will become old, in advance. People and cultures that have long histories and historical knowledge can have these feelings. I can say that this idea affects me a lot.


Which are the differences in your opinion in the way Western and Eastern cultures look at its past and imagine its future. Is this distinction still meaningful?

I think it can be quite meaningful. In the ancient time, the Greeks built the golden age, then silver age, then iron age… the past with its golden age is beautiful, and then it gets bad, worse and worse, and nowadays, it’s terrible. Also in China people have the totally same idea, that the past, the ancient times, is beautiful and this current day is terrible, it’s painful. But I think in Europe, out of Christianity, people changed their idea and started to believe that the future is better, that the Messiah will come and save the people. Today is no good, but the future is better — the idea of the utopia. I think this so called Western idea and Eastern idea, for me, does not have that big of a difference — it’s in different periods that people have those ideas. And nowadays, in China, it actually follows the western idea of looking forward to the future. So nowadays, I don’t think that difference is quite meaningful.


How do you think an exhibition about the end of the world may be?

I think that it’s going to be kind of like a blend of both the practitioner artist and the visitor in a wider world view. Recently nowadays, sometimes we get too detailed. For example, this art piece is based on some sort of events, and this piece is about the center of some special event. But still I think art is very important to give people a metaphor, and to give a total world view. For me, The End of the World is to try to give this big world view of the people. How people think with their history, how people think with their future imagination, how people think with metaphysical ideas, so for me I think ideas like this will really bring people back to the the quite basic understanding, the philosophical thinking of our lives and our realities. 


Thank you very much for joining us.



[Cover image: Photo: Ksenia Kolesnikova, Courtesy of Press service of 6th. Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art]


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