Qiu Shihua: The State of Freedom

By Wang Xiaorui, Translated by Joyce Lee, Image Courtesy of Gallery Urs Meile

On the 20th May, Qiu Shihua’s solo exhibition debuts at Galerie Urs Meile, presenting the artist’s recent works. As soon as visitors enter the gallery space, they are at once drawn away from the noisiness and brashness of life, their scattered thoughts too settle down. The walls of the new gallery space are exceptionally clean, the concrete floor has a soft grayness to it, the triangular rooftop is apparently stable and firm, only a few old pillars with peeling plasters artfully divide up the view, ambivalently guiding the visitor's path. 

These unstained pure white walls are the ideal way to present the paintings of Qiu Shihua. As soon as our gaze falls on the tableaux, we are plunged into a limitless expanse. From afar the canvas seems to be just a piece of plain white cloth. The viewer tries to find some details in it, but their attempts invariably fail. The painting overturns the habitual mechanism of viewing, compelling the viewer to automatically question what painting is and what art is. 

During our interview, Mr Qiu keeps emphasizing the importance of “looking” at the painting, thus he makes clear that “looking” is the only way to enter his work. When we approach the painting and look carefully, the ostensibly empty tableau gives the impression that it changes instantaneously in a hazy moment – sometimes seeming to disperse like dust, sometimes seeming to gather then disperse again somewhere else, quite unpredictably. When one clears one's mind or unintentionally glances at it, to one’s surprise, one can distinguish the artistic spirit of traditional Chinese landscape paintings – carefree and contented, vast and spacious, infinite with an indeterminate ending when looking far into the distance. It gradually transports us to a distant place, the further one goes, the more peaceful the mind becomes. When talking about Qiu’s paintings, the curator Dr. Xia Kejun speaks of different phases of viewing: “at first glance”, “looking attentively”, “looking with a wandering eye” and “looking when the mind is calm”. Evidently, the canvas offers diverse viewing experiences when looked at in different ways and in different states of mind. 

Qiu states candidly that “observation is also the reflection of the self” – the interpretation of his painting is a kind of portrayal of one’s own mind. One’s understanding of painting deepens over time, with increased knowledge and the accumulation of life experience, together with those sudden “eureka” moments, meaning that how we perceive now differs from how we may perceive later. It means too that what we see today differs from what we will see in ten years time. The viewer is like a boat on the water – when the river rises, the boat floats high – the painting is forever in harmony with the viewer, it transports them to far away places, then brings them back to their inner – self. 

The artistic quest of Qiu Shihua has also gone through this process of “going far away then coming back to the inner – self” – his sensitivity for the medium of “cloth”, the color white, and the misty atmosphere in his paintings are all related to his childhood. For, when he was a child, he taught himself to weave cloth very rapidly, with the shuttle flying as quickly as the beating of a wooden drum. The repetitive actions allowed him to become focused and forget himself. In the unique climatic conditions of the Sichuan Basin, the artist found himself in lingering mist all of the time. These small fragments of childhood permeate his spirit, leaving an ingrained impression on his life and provoking frequent passages of retrospection in his exploration of painting. Qiu’s investigation of white paintings, more specifically dates back to the 70s and 80s. Without the teaching of his tutor, Wang Ziyun, the genesis of his artistic concept would not have taken place. Qiu praises Wang’s deep and thorough understanding of Chinese culture – for him, Wang was the most committed Chinese artist, most dedicated to art, and most indifferent to fame or wealth. 

When students failed to understand Western paintings sufficiently, placing them high, out of reach on a pedestal, Wang Ziyun as a teacher suggested that the starting point of Western paintings was realism and that it only became abstract after being influenced by the Japanese “Ukiyo – E” (picture of a floating world). In comparison with Western painting, Chinese painting has its roots in a different philosophical tradition. Since ancient times, it stresses artistic conception and grace, searching for the spirit that is beyond the surface of the painting. Therefore, compared to the artistic trajectory of Western paintings that started from realism, Chinese art is closer to “abstraction” in terms of temperament and spirit. 

What most impressed Qiu Shihua was once when Wang drew a circle on the blackboard saying: “If we merely follow the style of Western paintings, we will never outdo them. But if we ‘reverse the arrow’ and turn around, then we will be ahead”. This suggestion became Qiu's personal quest and has led to his continuing artistic enterprise. The manager of Galerie Urs Meile tells us that Qiu has taken part in many important exhibitions outside China, such as the Venice Biennale and the Berlin Biennale. He has also had solo exhibitions in Berlin, Hamburg and the Kunstmuseum Basel. As a Chinese artist, he is very famous in the West, highly respected, the equal of any Western painter. 

In his school days, Qiu Shihua's education was just the same as any other Chinese student. It followed the Western educational system; starting with sketching, moving on to understanding and studying in – depth different genres of art, and finally achieving the collective comprehension of the different painting schools. But, as soon as a student adopts a particular painting style, they get locked in and barriers appear around. A long time ago, Qiu, on picking up his brush, also began to think about composition, colours, and different genres. He didn't know what to keep and what to abandon… Overthinking about technique often prevents one from knowing how to make a choice. Thus, after having learnt, it is more important to try to forget, for then one is free to use all the techniques available. Qiu tells us that his attitude to Western painting tradition is that he is not trying to outdo or deconstruct it, but rather to inherit from and expand it. In his paintings there are aspects of both Chinese and the Western traditions, the division between the East and the West evaporates; all kinds of obstacles and barriers are broken down, and there is a return to the most natural state of man. 

When talking about his state of mind when painting, Qiu says that he “gets inspired as soon as he sees the canvas”. There was a day this happened to him when he was sitting meditating and he had a flash of enlightenment. Meditation nurtures spiritual development and that day, as he meditated, his gaze fell on the white canvas quite accidentally, and suddenly he forgot everything around him. The whole world ceased to exist anymore and he attained a state of oneness. His insight is translated onto the canvas, and the painting is in harmony with his inner – self – the two have become one. However, it is not easy to maintain such a state. The artist has abandoned the pursuit of fame and wealth and for thirty years now he has focused solely on his exploration of art. According to Qiu, his studio is his “cave”, and the process of creation is akin to meditating whilst facing a wall. 

The result of Qiu’s transcultural approach to creating art and his unique artistic concept is that we are unable to guess his process of creation, even when examining his work carefully. The artist has told us his secret: in his paintings, images become air when dispersed and become shapes when gathered; there’s mist, imagery, and landscape inside each of his paintings. Once one has attained the state of egolessness, the paintbrush moves with the heart and one paints with the soul. Then the creation is no longer at the level of technique, but rather as if painting the “dust”, as if painting infinite space, the whole universe is in the painting. 

Qiu says jokingly: “It is nonsense to speak of traditional or non – traditional, or of Western painting or Chinese painting. They are only paintings by the hand of Qiu Shihua.” His study and appreciation of Chinese and Western paintings, together with his comprehension of Taoism and Buddhism in traditional Chinese culture, fuse together in his paintings – he doesn't fall into the trap of any “ism” or methodology. He belongs to his own school, and has achieved independence taking the leap from the physical world to a state of freedom.