A Map of the Mind: Charting the Depths of Wisdom with Experimental Artist Qiu Zhijie

By Sabrina Liu,
Amelie Wan,
and Andy Peñafuerte III


Qiu Zhijie is known for his avant-garde creations that show the struggles between human destiny and self-assertion. For many Chinese, defining Mr. Qiu is difficult. He is an artist, a curator, a calligrapher, a professor, a writer, and a father. His creative vision spans the art forms of calligraphy, ink painting, printmaking, photography, video, installation, theater, and so much more. His vigor and curiosity have led him to the paths of art, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, technology. He seems to be a soul trying to understand everything.

But it is art where Mr. Qiu has thrived. Not only is art all-encompassing for him, but it also satisfies his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and becomes his way to find the truth.

Mr. Qiu has repeatedly emphasized how art awakens and enlightens society with works that focus on the “human standpoint” or the situation of a particular person upon which he bases the theme of his creation. He has regarded the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the institution where he works as a professor, as a laboratory to transform the world and a centerstage where he proclaims his message: “My comrades, I implore you: let us compete against the destructive forces that surround our youth.”

Since 2012, Mr. Qiu has turned to maps, which are “a way to unify research, writing, fantasy, and action scripts” and condense his imagination and understanding of all things. Being a “mapmaker” has led him to find an identity beyond his socially defined roles. He has continuously broken new ground, created art paradigms and theories, and subverted and reconstructed himself, forming a larger and more distinctive art map that is truly his.

The Keystone Academy Office of Marketing and Communications (OMC) had the honor to invite Mr. Qiu as a speaker for the return of the Keystone Education Salon in 2021. In this edition of Beyond the Gate, OMC Director Sabrina Liu talked to Mr. Qiu about fundamental topics in art, including its myths, tradition, and future. They further discuss balancing rationality and sensibility in artistic creation, integrating tradition with the world education system, and helping young artists chart their futures.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


How does Qiu Zhijie see Qiu Zhijie?


Sabrina Liu: In preparing for this interview, we have realized that it is difficult to describe you in one word. You wear so many different hats: you are an artist in the forefront, but also a calligrapher, curator, university professor, Dean of the School of Experimental Art, Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), doctoral supervisor, and an author of several books on art. Artist Gao Shiming called you a “‘perpetual motion machine’ connecting all fields of the art world.”  Which of these epithets do you think suits you the best? Or do you think of other titles to describe yourself?

Qiu Zhijie: These titles given by other people are part of who I am. The ancients approached the same goal in many ways. We know the terms literati in ancient China, renaissance man in Europe, and faylasuf in the Arab world. Not surprisingly, a person in the ancient world had multiple interests and pursuits. Since the modern industrial society, we have committed ourselves to training people in specialized fields. In pre-modern times, educating people with a wide range of interests, also known as liberal education, would have been a fundamental phenomenon.

Liu: It reminds me of Mr. Li Jingze’s comment about you: “In Qiu Zhijie’s case, art is an overarching practical way of capturing the world. It calls for a full range of one’s body, intellect, and talent. Comparatively speaking, the literary man has lost such temperament, ability, and grandeur.” This reminds me of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Blaise Pascal who found boundless knowledge in their world. The difference only lies in the curiosity and willingness to explore a particular field. As you will eventually find, all these different sources of knowledge will converge somewhere and reflect each other.

Qiu: Yes, this is an ideal state of learning. As the ancient Chinese said, wùdào (“enlightenment”) is a kind of common knowledge. In other words, wùdào is to gain the truth of the world. One can perceive the truth by cooking, practicing medicine, reading, and even chopping wood. As a result, we can see that ancient Chinese figures like Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, and Wang Yangming—all of whom came from scholarly backgrounds and had never studied in military academies—were all good at commanding and leading in warfare. This is closely related to our traditional education that targets reason rather than knowledge.

Liu: We later found out that you position yourself rather interestingly. Since you started drawing maps in 2010, you have defined yourself as a “mapper, which, in your own words, could integrate your multiple identities. Can you share with us why you define yourself as such? How does being a “mapper reflect your artistic ideas and perspectives about the world?

Qiu: I said this in jest, of course, but also with sincerity. Even as an artist, I am diverse. For example, I use cutting-edge technology for my works. Actually, I’m working on new materials with artificial intelligence. I also produced ink painting and calligraphic works back when I pushed forward media art. Moreover, there is a distinction between artists in and out of the system, and those from southern China and northern China. I am usually in between.

The artist brings to a new relationship what we have been used to in our daily lives. In such a new relationship, new insights into the world will come out.

A “mapper” is a cartographer who buries themselves in plodding work, like an ascetic monk or a low-profile scribe. However, the mapper is exceedingly noble at the same time. In other words, a mapper has all the relationships at their fingertips; they are aware of the many usual routines and winding nuances and can build connections. We can describe Deng Xiaoping as the “mapper” or chief designer of China’s reform and opening up, because he was the one who interpreted the world into images.

If I were to draw a map of “travelers”, it would include Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, and Xuanzang. However, a drifting bottle may suddenly appear on this map, creating a poetic sense. Mapping is as much about understanding the existing relationships between things as reorganizing those existing relationships to lead things to new possibilities. Many of my efforts attempt to break down the gaps that people stereotypically think are unbridgeable and build or find connections between many fields.

Liu: Your maps strike me in two main ways. In today’s age of fragmented information, having a holistic vision is very difficult. The other aspect is about what you just said regarding relationships. It requires an accurate grasp of details, including a deeper understanding of time, space, concepts, logic, history, geography, and culture in an intellectual panorama. You need these details before such relationships can be established or creatively subverted, or a completely new relationship can be reconstructed.

Qiu: Finding out how to get into the details without destroying the whole is an ability acquired through training. Today, organizing computer systems and scientific classifications into a catalog that unfolds into a mind map has become common. This helps us grasp the world from its entirety to the minor details. This is arguably the only rational way to sort out the world.

Nevertheless, we must also be wary of rigidity. Certain things must not be categorized but rather intertwined into more complex networks. In general, a map is a visual way to show operation, which leads to a rational understanding of things.

Liu: Just now, you warned us to “be wary of rigidity”. This is quite important. While we organize and grasp the world rationally, we should also alert ourselves not to be controlled by rationality. In other words, don’t create your own mind cage.

Qiu: Being rational is essential, and we must build ourselves on rationality. Rationality can help us arrive at a place that enables our sensibility as quickly as possible.



The “Three Myths of Art

 Liu: You once said that there are two common misconceptions about art, that it is about the desire for expression, and that it is about beauty. But you also define it as about “possibilities”. Why is that so?

Qiu: There should be three main misconceptions about art. The first is it is about expression. Many people believe that artists only want to express their ideas or emotions. If one simply wants to express, language is enough. Many people don’t like art; they enjoy expressing their attitudes and opinions. But it is precisely the originality beyond a language expression that is art. For example, a poem goes as “The vernal wind has greened the southern shore again” rather than “Spring breeze comes to the southern shore again”. It is precisely the overflowing expression where art lies.

Second, art is not about beauty because beauty standards constantly change. Some of the great classics such as The Dream of the Red Chamber or Bach’s music still touch us today because they remain fresh. However, we have a completely different reaction to the Mona Lisa today from the people in the days of Leonardo da Vinci. The Mona Lisa, now encased in bullet-proof glass at the Louvre, no longer functions as art. Because beauty standards change all the time, what an artist presents is novelty and surprise, which can subvert people’s habits and sometimes cause anxiety and excitement. Such subversion allows people to realize, “I’ve been thinking in a rut”. After viewing Van Gogh’s paintings, you see trees covered with lumps and bumps in the way that he painted them, which reshapes your view of the world. But you can argue his painting is beautiful.

All good works are, above all, astonishing, incredible, and provocative. Sometimes, they can be sensual, giving us anxiety and tingles. The feeling of being unbound by art is called emancipation. Further, if you feel roused by more advanced craft, this is called awakening. The most advanced art brings a sense of inevitability: it turns out there is such a vast world; you feel that this is the way it should be, and nothing else is right. In general, art is about subverting, ending your old habits, and leaving you open to the need to reconnect with your senses. When you can reflect on your habits and routines, you become an innovator. This means that art serves innovation and creativity, not beauty.

Liu: Novelty and surprise in artworks are compared to original artistic standards. That is to say, a paradigm of standards in various art forms has existed for a long time. For sure, art is bound to subvert itself every time it reaches a particular stage of development, waiting for an artist to break through this barrier for another new phase. But as I see it, there will always be a stable period of understanding of and standards for art. How do you see the standard of art itself?

Qiu: A “stable period” is a phase when art silently accumulates small experiments within a larger, more stable framework. These small experiments slowly converge into the next significant change. When we talk about artistic standards, we cannot solidify them.

Art acts as a stopper for habits in which people are deeply involved. It allows them to reflect. But to achieve the same goal, art must evolve its specific content constantly, otherwise it will stall. In this sense, the boundaries of art and its particular standards and practices are, again, changing. This is why art requires constant innovation. Otherwise, we would always read the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion. We would not need Yan Zhenqing, Qi Baishi, and Wu Changshuo. We would just perceive the same work over and over again. This constant accumulation of innovation enriches human civilization and art.

Liu: Now I see why you say “art is based on possibilities”, because it keeps innovating and bringing new possibilities.

Qiu: Yes. Next, we come to the third myth of art: People think that artists are nuts. This relates to the idea of art education. I have been asked questions like: “Mr. Qiu, do artists have to drink at night to be inspired?” This is equivalent to saying that we artists are all lunatics.

After the emergence of Protestantism, Romanticism appeared. Artists at the time considered themselves genius votaries, or craftspeople who painted only what inspiration and passion drove them despite lacking orders or customers. I would say that in the past 40,000 years of art history, a majority of artists received requests first before starting projects. The few geniuses who could paint out of inspiration happened as recently as 300 years ago.

Art has always been a form of livelihood since ancient times, akin to service in society. On the surface, art is presented as poetry, music, painting, and sculpture. But when we look deeper, art serves spiritual awakening. Like the hotel receptionist who phones in to wake you up, artists constantly call on the world to wake people up from their lethargy.

After Romanticism, the image of Bohemian artists spread throughout the world. This image overemphasized art as requiring genius. As a result, art became devalued too much by many people who believed only geniuses or lunatics could become artists. Practicing artists lost orders and therefore became poor, so many families kept their children away from learning art unless necessary. As a professor at CAFA, I feel offended when people ask, “Mr. Qiu, my child is neither good at natural sciences nor social sciences. I think there is no hope for my child to enter Tsinghua University or Peking University. Can he learn to paint with you and enter CAFA?” The truth is artists are not chosen from a few lunatics or geniuses. Art is for everyone, and everyone should be educated in art. Art education is the perfect blend of creative and critical thinking.

Liu: Exactly. We would like to know your thoughts on this because the public’s understanding of artists may lead them to overlook the diligent practice behind artistic creation. The level of rationality, intense energy, and exhaustive mental and physical efforts required for artistic creation is unimaginable. To presume that art is a romantic and mysterious creative experience obtained only by genius misleads our understanding of artistic creation. Any creation serves human enlightenment, backed by artists’ persistent and extensive mental training.

Qiu: Yes, artists also need to develop efficient methods ranging from mindset adjustment to the design process. The best artists work in the same fashion as scientists and engineers. The difference is that scientists can stay long in the laboratory and focus on experiments while the world around them moves on. An artist cannot be good without knowing what life is, as they have to tell the story of the world to awaken people. To do this, an artist must look into society and public feelings; they must grasp mundane affairs and understand worldly wisdom. Artists have to spend a lot of time working behind closed doors while working for the world. It is actually a paradoxical career.

Liu: Yes, an artist must go deeper into the human mind and nature. I want to go back to your point that some parents may see art as the less-than-ideal alternative for their children. What kind of student is suitable for studying art?

Qiu: The admission score requirement at CAFA is close to that of first-tier colleges. This means that a student aiming to enter CAFA must first pass the specialized course, go above the minimum passing score, and be good at drawing and painting. There is also an exam on logic and calligraphy for the School of Experimental Art. Calligraphy is a near-perfect training for one’s mind, sensitivity, perception, and control. Not only does calligraphy encourage a sense of safety and perceptiveness, but it also strengthens one’s upbringing and connection to tradition and fosters a sense of respect and elegance for the classics.

On the whole, the university’s requirements for students today have become comprehensive, requiring students to learn algorithms, logic, and artificial intelligence, as well as calligraphy. I hope to cultivate a new kind of talent capable of pursuing both arts and science.


The Artist’s Hard Drive

 Liu: Let’s talk about an artist’s “hard drive”. You once said that an artist should understand time, space, history, humanity, and emotion, all of which are the sources of creativity. An artist’s knowledge should extend from art history to literary accomplishment. Thus, the histories of literature, music, theater, film, technology, politics, and ideology are all within a reasonable range of assessment.

However, we also know many famous artists who have become dazzling figures in art history despite not having such knowledge or accomplishments. Can you tell us more about the concept of “panoramic cognition and why it has become crucial for artists today?

Qiu: Artists face different demands based on the times they live in. For example, before the Renaissance, painters in Europe belonged to guilds of apothecaries (or modern-day pharmacists), while sculptors belonged to jeweler societies. Both were regarded as craftspeople. Each artist produced works unlike philosophers and poets who were considered intellectuals.

The human civilization has reorganized itself into a creative society whose innovation accelerates at breakneck speed. Knowledge is updated right away so that everyone has to become a lifelong learner. This forces today’s artists to become intellectuals because society demands them to innovate actively and even produce awakening works.

Today, we no longer believe that craftspeople can meet society’s demands for art even if they work hard, have a thorough knowledge of humanity, or deeply understand worldly wisdom. We must have a “holistic education” and continue  “lifelong learning”. My CAFA workroom is called “Total Art Studio”, and one of my study directions as a master supervisor is “total art and cross-field research”. “Total art” means “holistic education” and “lifelong learning”, or in other words, to develop comprehensively and learn continuously.

Liu: When you mentioned “holistic education” and “lifelong learning”, including the broad concept of cultivating students’ literary and artistic accomplishments, I recall Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time. Its author, Clive James, mentions what the French writer and literary critic Jean Prévost calls the “pleasure of general knowledge”. Prévost’s way of life can be considered comprehensive and wide-ranging. He seems to have embodied the tenets of humanism: his hunger for knowledge, vision, vitality, and inner light has filled all aspects of life and illuminated each other in thought. A quote mentioned in “To Jean Prévost” makes me think of you: “But my soul is a fire that suffers if it does not burn. I need three or four cubic feet of new ideas every day, as a steamboat needs coal.”

Qiu: On my wall hangs a piece of my calligraphy based on a quote by the intellectual Liang Qichao. He named his workroom the “Ice-Drinking Room” because he drank several jars of ice-cold water there every day to cool down. This kind of extensive interest is rather indulgent, but it lets my curiosity drift. But this is my nature.

To succeed in the art world, you have to make a symbol or two, create a schema, make copies to increase quantity, raise the price by controlling the amount, and cultivate influence. For example, I am famous for writing the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion a thousand times. I can earn money if I do the same with The Book of Songs today and with Serve the People tomorrow. That’s what many artists will do. But it‘s not in my nature to do so. For many years, I seem to have been very indulgent in my own interests, which, of course, can be demanding on the ego. I once came up with a clever analogy using bricks: other artists stack theirs so high and quickly in one place. If I place one of mine in the east and another in the west, for sure, others’ stacks will be taller than mine in the short term. However, I may end up linking each loose brick to another, building a pyramid in the process. It will take me several times and so much effort to create a pyramid, but that’s the truth of my life. I often joke that I disguise my genius with hard work.


The “Human Standpoint” in Works of Art


Liu: Many of your artistic works and concepts let us see your concern and reflection on social issues as an artist. You mention in your book that “great works of art will always return to the human standpoint”. What do you mean by human standpoint”

Qiu: Art can be directed at people in specific social situations: we who live in the present era, the citizens of a nation, or even residents in a nursing home or the left-behind children in a village. We can base works of art for a specific person upon their particular situation. By rousing or moving such a person, we can fulfill our grand mission of awakening humankind. Artists consider that individuals, ethnic groups, or society can be the object of art. In other words, art does not have to be too pure. The vagueness of society, the wounds that afflict us, and the cruelty of life are precisely our opportunities for making art. Artists intervene to express these realities, not to be society’s mouthpiece.

On the other hand, a challenging and turbulent society is also the best place to cultivate your mind. To do this, one needs to “enter” or look at life in the countryside and the chaotic zones of society. These scenarios allow a person to transform completely from the material to the higher and purposeful self, and from a vacuous to a discerning mind, to reach liberation. It is the only way an artist can be great. And this is the second dimension of real art.

Liu: This intervention is courageous. It means that the artist deals with reality through their physical and spiritual self, akin to how the historical figures Gan Jiang and Mo Ye devoted themselves to forging a pair of swords ordered by King Helü of the State of Wu.

Qiu: Yes. We have just talked about Liang Qichao. Now, think about the Qing-era reformist Tan Sitong and how he remained calm in the trying times before his execution. His attitude made him like a person achieving Buddhahood. That misery precisely allowed him to achieve such freedom.


The Ignorant, the Loser, and the Experimentalist

Liu: You have sorted out your artistic thinking and practice over the years with a series of books, including The Ignorant, The Loser, and The Experimentalist. These publications and their respective titles succinctly describe three fundamental attitudes towards life, living, and artistic creation. These keywords show your intention to smash social stereotypes and one-sided, linear narratives of success. You are also in the dynamic process of building, breaking, developing, and reshaping yourself while constructing your artistic theory. Do “ignorant, “loser”, and “experimentalist sum up your attitudes towards art and life at this stage? Are they clues for the public to better understand Qiu Zhijie?

Qiu: I think these words are quite appropriate and closely linked. “Ignorant” refers to the attitude towards knowledge, showing how to remain as an untrained person when asking questions. “Loser” addresses the so-called success or failure and social perspectives. “Experimentalist” is a state of looking for a way forward. If we can build a unique self through experiments and live a life without the undue notions of success or failure, then we are taking on the path of experimentalists.

Liu: All three titles have been very revealing. You argue in The Ignorant that our preconceptions and stereotypes can either cover us or block us from establishing more creative relationships with things, history, and even ourselves. Because of this, we must keep on returning to being ignorant so that we can explore and expand our horizons. In The Experimentalist, you advocate an exploratory approach to creation. As a spiritual orientation, experimental art encourages artists to regard their beliefs and methods as assumptions ready to be challenged or refuted even at the beginning. The Loser is my favorite. You quote Liang Qichao and comment: “There is no failure in this world. Those who fail can succeed in the other world, and those I have defeated can defeat others. Success does not have to come from me.“

Qiu: Yes, this is the piece of calligraphy on my wall.

Liu: This is not only great wisdom but also fearless courage and justice. A person who aims for something great or has a mission in life may need to adopt such a view of failure, that is, they know they are destined for a particular outcome and still go ahead despite the challenges.

Qiu: If you aim high enough, you are bound to be a loser.

Liu: Or long enough, you will also be a loser.

Qiu: Right, there is nothing to fear if you put yourself in the position of a loser first.


An Ideal Academy

Liu: In your previous talks, you have mentioned that the ideal educational organization or form is the Academy by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. You have described it as the greatest academy in human history” and  an academy without teachers”. You also consider students as the most valuable resource of an educational institution, and liken yourself to their big brother. Why do you view students as such? 

Qiu: Today, we understand that knowledge is updated at lightning speed. If we are inattentive and reckless, teachers’ knowledge structure will deteriorate quickly and pass up the ever-changing future. So, what then should we teach our students? I think it should be the belief in truth and the ability to learn: through learning, one can find solutions to life’s problems and dilemmas, and discover the truth about the world. For this reason, we need a kind of meta-learning—or learning how to learn. We obtain specific knowledge through books, searching, and studying, but we need long-term training to learn in a completely unfamiliar field independently. Meta-learning can be learned by demonstrating to students how I learn. In this sense, teachers should be the organizers of learning activities or study group leaders.

I demonstrate to students the joy of learning and bring them along to the experience. I also work with them on exploring new areas of knowledge and discovering a whole range of learning methods. Sometimes in my class, I tell students: “I don’t understand this topic, but we let’s come together and figure it out.” Then we split up to learn different parts and eventually work out the topic together. The classroom should take on this shape of teaching. At this point, the diversity and differences among students become an invaluable resource. After this, they can tackle various problems in the future through independent learning. This is what schools should be doing today.

To me, the most important aspect of a school is not its teachers or curriculum design, but an education that awakens the desire of students to learn on their own, teaches them according to their needs, and forms a community of learners.

Liu: In such a learning situation, students reap the fruits of their hard work, get enlightened from confusion, rise above challenges, and continue their reflective journeys.  Speaking of teaching, we know that being an “artist and an “educator are two of the most important among your many identities. What is the relationship between creation and teaching for you? How do they inspire and promote each other?

Qiu: My different identities as a teacher, curator, father, and artist mutually nourish one another. Sure, being an artist and an educator occupy my time, but they do not affect each other. In fact, they hold each other up. At the forefront, I am an artist who brings practical experience to students. Meanwhile, my role as a teacher gives me a broader perspective to understand the problems artists and young people encounter in society. These experiences, together with my research and study, lay the groundwork for my creation.

Liu: I can understand the relationship of mutual nourishment. Our previous guest, Liu Xiangyang, the translator of Nobel Laureate for Literature Louise Glück, talked about this topic. Glück, who teaches poetry at Yale University, once said in an interview: “Every time I walk into a class, I encounter two or three students with brilliant poetic minds who inspire me with a new desire and enthusiasm to create poetry.” And in teaching, she would re-examine her motivation for creation.

Qiu: Yes. As teachers, we get another advantage: the questions young people ask are naïve yet straightforward. As artists, we may sometimes get into a conventional process, like how curators develop plans and how collectors promote works. Young people will ask why we do so. That’s a big question that always brings us back to our roots and keeps us awake.


Seizing Opportunities of the Times

Liu: In your speech to new CAFA students in 2017, you mentioned that “We are now living in a great historical moment”. You compared today’s China to Renaissance Italy and the industrial-era United States, both of which were full of vitality, possibilities, and experimentation. Now, the wealth of experience and resources available to Chinese artists are rare. As a backbone of the current community of Chinese artists, how should young creators seize this opportunity? 

Qiu: What I said in 2017 remains true to this day. To be more specific, what is that “historical moment” we are facing today? First, it is the irreversible process of globalization, which leads to many new situations and challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is a result of globalization, even though it has forced us to hit the pause button. At the bottom of this reality are modern technologies such as the internet and airplanes, which are also irreversible. The second is a new round of technological innovation, such as artificial intelligence, bringing convenience and challenges to humanity. The third is China’s rise to economic and political power. Following a century of setbacks, Chinese civilization has now reconsolidated and reconstituted to make a new China. Now that the Chinese are back on the world stage, what should they bring to the world? This is what Chinese artists of this generation should do.

Young people should be confident and recognize this big historical moment. The biggest problem among young people nowadays is that they are losing confidence. They are overwhelmed by the enormous cost of living today. They live in fear and doubt that they can survive in the world through simplicity.

I often remind young people that they should not attend CAFA if they just want a diploma or to be a spectator; they may become a dean after 30 years or even someone on whom the greatness of this school will depend. This historical moment will inspire students to learn with enthusiasm and passion, become responsible citizens, and ultimately, change and shape the world.

Moreover, we should move towards a purposeful self as we ride the waves of the times. A person achieves self-realization through surrendering themselves to something larger than them. In this regard, we must abandon our corrupt and vain ego because it imprisons us. When we muster the courage to reject ego and begin contributing to society, our greater and purposeful selves emerge. Finally, we should adhere to rationality. The foundation of China is Confucian rationalism.

Liu: Young people should pursue an existence that is bigger, broader, and bolder than themselves. This is a vital attitude towards life. Placing ourselves in the grand scheme of human history makes us humble as much as it drives our thirst for knowledge and transcendence. It makes us more willing to apply what we have learned to our times. Because of this, no era is perfect since each of us bears a mark that influences the course of time. The said course changes us in return.

This is also a crucial point in school education. We hope that our students consider the world in their missions in life to maintain their impetus for self-empowerment, and just as you said, to advance human civilization. It’s just like a relay race done by successive generations.

Qiu: Such goals are challenging. Goals that are too easy to reach make us feel empty, because a smooth-sailing success makes them worthless.

Tradition Is an Invention


Liu: Ordinary people usually divide art into traditional and contemporary. You have tried to break down this binary relationship on different occasions. For example, CAFA once had two impressive exhibition themes, the “Archaeology of the Future” and the “Tradition is an Invention”. Both pointed to breakthroughs in the awareness of time and understanding of art. Why is it necessary to break the dichotomy between traditional and contemporary art? What is their common spiritual core? How should we look at their coexistence?

Qiu: There is no boundary between the two. History records contemporary art, which becomes traditional art for later generations. For example, Wang Xizhi was an experimental artist in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, while Yan Zhenqing was a contemporary artist in the same era. Leonardo da Vinci was the most avant-garde technological artist during the Renaissance.

The distinction arises specifically in the field of art education. Some of us go into the more serious studies of traditional art and art history. But art education on a national or even the most basic level should start with readily accessible and affordable contemporary art. It’s not a big deal if a Chinese child cannot play the piano like a non-Chinese who cannot carve a seal. But isn’t it regrettable if both children never watched a movie, right? Contemporary art should become the spiritual wealth shared by society.

Contemporary art also has a practical value for social innovation as it encourages a culture of tolerance. It makes quirky things more enjoyable, allowing society to be more understanding and open-minded towards new ideas or strange concepts. Such a society is more creative.  

Once everyone gets a shared sense of contemporary art, those who have more time for leisure can go deeper into classical art to understand more. But in today’s basic education, it is often reversed: we aspire to enlighten children with classical art. I am a bit skeptical about this. At the time when learning Latin became a must for European aristocrats, knowing and engaging in classical art also became a status symbol. Contemporary art is more egalitarian and democratic.

Liu: In your opinion, is contemporary art more accessible to most people?

Qiu: Yes, but this defies common sense. Many people think contemporary art is complicated but feel classical art is explicit. I have copied the Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion 2,000 times, and I can say with confidence that classical art is perplexing. Many people believe that they easily decipher Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy, but those of the Japanese calligrapher Yuichi Inoue or mine are easier to understand.

Liu: Let’s go back to art education. The artist Xu Bing says it is the quantifiable part of art education that can be taught. However, this part is not essentially the core of real art, leading to a paradox. What do you think about this issue? How do you resolve this paradox? 

Qiu: In art education, what can be taught is the future, not the past. Let’s consider a child: it is a fait accompli that the family has shaped that child into what they are. What I can steer is the child’s future direction, not their past. However, the past heavily shapes the child’s future. This makes me feel helpless as a teacher.

Regarding the future, we can teach everything from hands-on training and ideology to a teacher-student relationship. When I was young, I learned art through applying ink on paper, drawing sketches of monks and temples, and painting with strokes, which we call jiē tuòmo xīngzi (or “splashing specks of saliva”) in Southern Fujian dialect. Part of it is rote practice akin to athletes’ training that improves their endurance and stamina. But more often than not, our lives have an invisible influence on how we learn. I believe anything can be taught, but time is our only obstacle.

My experience shows that if you pay attention to students and check on them from time to time, they will naturally get better, even without you. Young people aspire to be appreciated and want their dignity to be valued; when they feel so, their inspiration shoots up that they will always try their best to accomplish things very well.

The paradox here lies in the fact that we do not have the means to do that for every student because of limited time, so we design curricula that apply to the majority. This makes it more necessary to combine the helpless and scientific approach of schooling with the master-apprentice teaching and learning method complemented by our study. In this scheme, teachers and students become members of one family, which somehow becomes a complicated relationship.

Liu: Regarding what can and cannot be taught, the former may be easily noticeable, such as knowledge, skills, and techniques. The latter, meanwhile, may be more related to an artist’s spirit, which requires a considerable investment of time to develop. Just as in the past, masters had to train apprentices day and night.

Qiu: Only a sage like Confucius can foster a handful of thinkers out of thousands of students.


You Don’t Need to Win Others’ Race

Liu: There is one lucky child who can learn your core, and she is your daughter. Aside  from being an artist and an educator, you are also a father of two girls. Your artwork 30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa conveys your pieces of advice and expectations for your daughters. One of these reads: “You don’t have to win in others’ race. As the years have passed, have your expectations for them changed? How does being an artist and educator inspire you regarding your children’s education?

Qiu: 30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa was associated with the idea of “how to be a loser”. In that painting, I drew my daughter Qiu Jiawa like a snail crawling on the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, blocking several sports cars. I drew another Qiu Jiawa, who uses a hook to lift the surface of the water during a dragon boat race. So many “tiger parents“ are worried about their children losing at the starting line because everyone vies for the same goal in the rat race. Children experience intense stress and suffering because of the absurd notions of success and failure today. Rather than engaging in a fierce race where thousands force themselves into a narrow path, I encourage everyone to go their own ways. Why not reinvent the game in which you are the sole player, winner, and loser? If this becomes the belief of many, I bet that society will be much happier.

Liu: As educators, we hope that more parents will understand that everyone treads on unique paths to success, and as such, there should be as many kinds of success in this world. We allow such an idea of success to exist, perhaps the phenomena of nèi juǎn (or “involution“) and tang píng (“lying flat“) that everyone talks about now will be prevented because everyone moves forward in their own tracks, finding their goals, happiness, and a sense of belonging.

Qiu: Yes, and we can also share and contribute to the world.

Liu: I was struck by a passage you once wrote near the door of a church in Brussels in 1997. It occurred to you that the entire art world is actually a giant sphere of interest divided into many forms of style. Each form has a specific flair, and the spaces between these collectively form a history. And each style, in turn, is a sphere of influence of its own. Wit was claimed by the French painter Marcel Duchamp, and his followers can only subdivide this sphere into even smaller stakes.

Then you wrote, “What style do I want to claim? What is it that I must do? What can I do to move myself and others, and what does that even mean if it moves no one? Do I still feel I need to do that? Later, I discovered that it was about the impermanence of life, about xuění-hóngzhǎo (“traces of the past”), about that sort of sentimental, melancholic, but austere tranquility.”

You strike me as a particularly active, enthusiastic, and cultivated artist. This state of life, however, seems to be a contrast with your taste for finding xuění-hóngzhǎo. This brings me to see the other undertones of your life: a kind of enlightened and open-minded.

Qiu: As Chinese culture had been sensitive to transformations, a list of changes called the Book of Changes was produced very early on. We are a particularly precocious nation; as early as the Zhou Dynasty, we have been singing the “Song of the Wheat in Flower” to remember past dynasties and capitals as the Records of the Grand Historian indicate. So thick is the Dream of the Red Chamber that its style goes in line with the idiom bái mángmáng de yīpiàn dàdì zhēn gānjìng (“All that’s left is emptiness”), which is as much as the “traces of the past” as said by Su Shi. We are highly sensitive to the replacement and the rise and fall of dynasties, which is why many literary works such as Meditation on the Past in Chang’an, Meditation on the Past at Jinling, Meditation on the Past at Tong Pass, particularly reference—guess what—the past. After its introduction to Japan, this culture evolved into the concept of wabi-sabi or the aesthetics of impermanence and imperfection. But this is not my style. My paintings are filled with many forces fighting to grow outward, toward many corners.

This sense of time, which is like a drop of water in the ocean and seems as transient as a fleeting cloud, is deeply rooted in the Chinese people. Picture a pot with boiling water with tumbling and surging bubbles. Those bubbles will somehow form a mysterious figure of a face that will disintegrate quickly. Those figures are like our earth, our civilization: a mere speck of light in the vast darkness of the universe that will eventually fade away. The most fundamental understanding of the Chinese regarding the universe is that it is chaotic and confusing, yet we have to create order in it. This order will not last long and collapse, but it is precisely the most orderly way to do it.

Liu: I can see a Qiu Zhijie who constantly builds and deconstructs. Having such profound wisdom allows us to constantly strive to do something and create a new world, despite knowing in our hearts that it will be a short and futile endeavor.