Chi­nese artist Qiu Zhi­jie fuses the nuances of cal­lig­ra­phy and deep philo­soph­i­cal and mo­ral is­sues into his ‘to­tal art’, writes Brid­get Cor­mack

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Qiu Zhi­jie had ev­ery in­ten­tion of cre­at­ing his Map of Utopia at the Gallery of Mod­ern Art when he stepped off the plane in Bris­bane in Au­gust. He had been in dis­cus­sions with the gallery’s cu­ra­tor of con­tem­po­rary Asian art, Reuben Kee­han, for months about mak­ing the gi­ant map of dif­fer­ent utopias, which spanned ev­ery­thing from Noah’s Ark and Marx­ist economies to glob­al­i­sa­tion and heaven.

The gallery had sent out its press re­lease an­nounc­ing the ar­rival of the lead­ing Chi­nese artist to cre­ate a high­light of the ninth Asia Pa­cific Tri­en­nial of Con­tem­po­rary Art. And a scis­sor lift was on site to launch Qiu 16m into the air to trans­form the Long Gallery wall with his enor­mous ink paint­ing. Kee­han, the APT’s cu­ra­tor, had writ­ten his cat­a­logue es­say ex­plain­ing how the artist would ex­plore “the hu­man pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with imag­in­ing per­fect so­ci­eties” with Qiu’s “to­tal art” method, a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary prac­tice with its roots in cal­lig­ra­phy.

“He’s an ex­tremely en­er­getic per­son,” Kee­han says. “You know, he was fly­ing overnight, so we hadn’t ex­pected him to start that day, but he wanted to come straight in.”

Like any re­spon­si­ble cu­ra­tor, Kee­han told Qiu to have a rest at the ho­tel first. Af­ter all, Qiu would be get­ting into that scis­sor lift.

What Kee­han didn’t an­tic­i­pate was that by the time they met that af­ter­noon, Qiu would want to make a dif­fer­ent work al­to­gether.

“You know for Chi­nese peo­ple we have a cer­tain stereo­type for all of Aus­tralia,” Qiu says, speak­ing over Skype from his home in Bei­jing. “Peo­ple al­ways imag­ine it as a par­adise, as spe­cial as a eco-utopia.”

But that day when he ar­rived in Bris­bane, though he had seen the city be­fore, he no­ticed some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“I stood on the bal­cony and looked at the traf­fic bridge, which is very com­pli­cated, by the river. It seems like it is a very well-or­gan­ised city. Also the bridge to the gallery is quite a tech­no­log­i­cal style.”

Some­thing about the name of his ac­com­mo­da­tion, the Evo­lu­tion Apart­ments, also had stuck with him. He started think­ing about how the evo­lu­tion of hu­man be­ings re­lated to the de- vel­op­ment of cities and civil­i­sa­tion. And when he got to the gallery, the wall it­self was big­ger than he had imag­ined. Some­how, mak­ing his map about utopia didn’t feel right any more.

“The whole city is very dif­fer­ent to my im­pres­sion. You can see the ten­sion [be­tween] the two im­ages — the well-de­vel­oped, well-or­gan­ised mod­ern con­tem­po­rary city and eco-utopia,” Qiu says. “And there are the birds when you have a cof­fee at the mu­seum, they stand around the ta­ble. This is what made me de­cide to make this map in Bris­bane.”

“This map” is the Map of Tech­no­log­i­cal Ethics, a sprawl­ing ar­chi­pel­ago of the mo­ral is­sues raised by sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment. It orig­i­nates from Qiu’s 2016 ink paint­ing of the same name and is part of the map­ping project that he be­gan in 2012. Like the planned Map of Utopia, it draws on his skill as a mas­ter cal­lig­ra­pher and his en­thu­si­asm for con­nect­ing ideas across his­to­ries and dis­ci­plines, yet its sub­ject mat­ter is vastly dif­fer­ent.

Should we clone hu­man be­ings? How far should we go with re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy? The map raises a tan­gle of ques­tions.

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