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