Belief means absolute obedience to authority without any doubt. It is impossible to question it before accepting it.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
Religions and myths begin with no particular forms, but after interpretation by different ethics with the knowledge and logic they had imply, the connotations have been largely changed. In many cultures one single deity has eventually replaced the anonymous many, and the individual responsibility of each god was therefore given to the new god. The Isis of Egypt is the name of thousands of deities, and Allah in the Koran means the name above one hundred gods.
China, so far a nation under control of a centralized state government, recognizes no higher power. On the one hand, this lack of recognition is due to the nature of oriental religions in a Chinese society, on the other it means that there is no clear boundary between sacred and profane worlds in China. Through traditional Chinese art forms, Liu Dahong and Qu Guangci make use the ambiguity between the two worlds in their art in order to dissect the ideas of religion, monotheism and worship as they question the compliance to authority and the obedience to religion by the multitude.
Like religious paintings, Liu Dahong’s artworks are all narrative, and his narrative system refers to western art history. The scurrying pygmies are the Chinese edition of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the similarities in styles, hues, the collage fashion, metaphors applied by the narrative structure and the religious implications are quite evident. Such an appropriation– allegorizing heaven and hell to the social situation, or intervening in classical paintings by adding or substituting some modern elements– is more and more common in contemporary Chinese art. The fermentation of Chinese flavor in the 21st century gives Liu Dahong’s art a fresh feel, but undeniably such a development is a matter of course.
The “Hall” series conveys multiple levels of text and meanings. The series includes the “Buddha Hall”, “Mao Hall”, “Confucius Hall” and “Christ Hall” that symbolize people’s beliefs in authority, and “Dining Hall”, “Ceremony Hall” that represent the practice of doctrines upon class consciousness. Among these halls, the “Buddha Hall” demonstrates the artist’s attempt most directly. In the Orient, artworks regarding religious themes usually will be presented with perfection and heavenliness, but such characteristics are not seen in Liu Dahong’s work at all. Instead, the artist has calculatedly created chaos by placing parallel elements in his painting. Images of the frequently waged crusades in the history of the West, the horrifying witchcraft and the rigid statues of westerners have changed the Tibetan Buddha hall into a theater of the absurd. In the center an innocent girl struggling to get away from the stake is the most dramatic spectacle, and the giant, puppet-like Buddha along the people standing or sitting around constitute the scene of trial. In the backdrop, the landscapes and atrocities of wars often seen in western religious paintings are a keen contradiction to the people piously praying in the front. Their belief looks so hopeless.
With similar endeavors, the artist has created disarray in his “Dinning Hall” again; nevertheless, this time he placed peace among the disquiet. Liu Dahong vividly depicted the people, men and women, old and young, dinning in the hall, and the viewer can almost hear the sound of their chewing. The disturbance was restrained. Zhang Hong has an unusual view about this painting: “Eating in the communal dinning hall soothes everyone because it assures us that we share the same stomach, even the same digestion system. That’s the basis of the “Communist histology”. The beggars behind the dinning room, presented sculpturally, reminds me of the Japanese comic “Drifting Classroom”– what it implies is not class difference, but the discrepancy between worlds in different dimensions.
The fatalism in Qu Guangci’s art has been compared to the myth Gotterdammerung. Fatalism can’t be clearly interpreted without depicting fears and anguish, that’s the reason why Qu presents suffering, despair, regret and helplessness in both his “Knife Gang II” and “Killing Bear”. “Killing Bear” is an exceptional work and the first featuring a riding animal. The dynamics of an obese man riding on a cow is comparable to the lively movements presented by Peter Paul Rubens, and the protagonist bending backward to stab the bear draws an association in my mind with the image of Japanese writer Mishima Yukio as a savior.
Qu’s people are not as noisy as Liu’s, the former simply wants to create a personal stage for his own sarcastic mimes. According to Roland Barthes, “coldness” is an essential element in popular shows, and the killing in popular shows “has inherited the legacy of myth. For example, a nod of the god would change the whole fate of human beings, and the magic wands of fairies and wizards also follow this tradition”. The stages of Qu belong to the same narrative tradition–gangsters or deities don’t talk, they solve problems simply by signaling. The black humor carried by the moves of Qu’s works is a proof of Barthes’ idea: “What is really effective is silence.”
The obesity of Qu’s figures is also suggestive. Overweight figures with stereotypic Chinese facial characteristics have expressively represented the insignificant multitude, and their intolerable mediocrity is an irony of the divinity they believe in. Such a sardonicism has existed in both the eastern and western worlds for a long time, but the artist did not merely appropriate it, instead, he transforms it . The icons of “Tall Man I” and “Tall Man II” come from the old European autocratic regimes. The artist has reproduced symbols that were loved by autocratic powers. The frozen gestures are august and authoritarian, as dignified as gods. But their solemnity is disturbed by one thing: the long and thin legs that destabilize them and the audience is urged to reflect on their overly empowered authority. In a complete symbolic system, Qu Quangci’s has proposed a deep self-examination of the past, of the collective memories we rely on and the truth we pursue.
At first glance of Qu Guangci’s Knife Gang II (2008), the European myth Gotterdammerung emerged in my mind. In the bloody fight by fate, the gangsters are circling in the clouds, ledding their hands to kill, and their sophisticated facial features are showing the entanglement of nervousness, indifference and distraction. Their expressions are drawn taut by rigid muscles.
In Gotterdammerung, the entire world is supported by the Yggdrasil Tree. There is a serpent of despair called Nidhogg under the tree gnawing the roots. When the roots are eventually snapped, it is time of Gotterdammerung. In Gotterdammerung, the kingdom of the gods will be captured by evil and all the resistance of the gods is doomed to failure.
Myths reflect the human mind through the vague and abstract philosophy, and express the connection between them by the obscure imagery. Qu Guangci’s works are tinged with the ambiance of fatalism in northern European myth. Many art critics have pointed out that Qu has successfully transformed western artistic elements into the text of Chinese history and social conditions, but if we see his works from the perspective of the authority and the observer of the authorization, we’d find the allegory is very insightful. Firstly, the characters in uniforms imply the assembly, the order, the position, the legal authority, or even the legal violence. However, Qu puts these authorities in the stage being watched. All the movements are monitored by a superior audience and become the passive ceremony.
Moreover, in Qu’s sculptures, every figure, either in a group or alienated from a group, shows his fatigue and helplessness. This expression not only reveals the passivity of the authority, but also breaks the admiration of immortal heroes. Qu shows the G?tterd?mmerung moment by the subtle imagery His works describe the natural human desire to terminate something, or be terminated by something. Behind the turmoil and violence are the fears and vulnerability of the hierarchies.
Bonzes excavated from Yunnan can be a good comparison to Qu’s recent sculptures. As offering of utensils, the cylinder or cone-shaped bronze with ornamental lines provides the public with a most direct way to understand Tien Culture. With a comparable aesthetics, the theatrical presentation of Qu’s sculptures carries out a similar narrative logic to these bronzes. In his individual figures, Qu presents the solitude found in the bronzes from the Warring States, such as Bronze Parasol Decorated with a Standing Bull and Bronze Cylindrical Sewing Case Decorated with a Standing Deer Standing appears the same visual impacts with Qu’s Beloved Motherland (2005) and The Invincible Eastern Warrior (2007). Other works such as Giant series distinguishable for their long sharp shape are also similar to the awl in the bronze. And his group figures such as Knife Gang II give an amusing feel reminiscent of Bronze Cowrie-Container Decorated With a Battle Scene on its Cover found from the mid-Han Dynasty. The circles further emphasize the dramatic movements and the fatal tension, it captures a moment of extreme excitement.
In Qu’s sculptures, the contrast between the lanky trees and heavy figures, as well as the contract between the huge figures and the unproportionate becomes the irony of the the authorization. Especially the Giant series, his latest works, intimates the standard pose of Hitler, but the hand and the feet are anomalous small, by which Qu pigmies the icons of authoritarian.
Knife Gang series is among the most mature art works of Qu’s artwork. The story of Knife Gang (2007) has been changed from fighting together against a rat, to fighting each other in Knife Gang II. By this change, the artist has outlined his definition of rivalry and his motif of social situation. With smart visual arrangement, the tension between the six figures is well demonstrated by their special relationships as well as their frozen movements, their expressionless round faces and their hollow, inane eyes.
Looking closely to the facial expression of Knife Gang II, one might associate them with the ladies from the cave paintings of the T’ang Dynasty. There is a common hedonism in these two ages. In terms of forms and themes, Qu’s works respond to the pop culture, especially to western pop culture selected by the mass media. Qu transforms our cognition of pop culture by badinage, and reserves the artistic elements into entertainments. All these transformation finally achieve a sense of nonsence.
Walter Benjamin thinks, the real comprehension of history comes form the melancholy, as well as “ the wish for peacefulness, also know as the empathy from laziness”. Qu’s art creation realizes the two incompatible processes precisely. The entertaining elements in his works should be esteemed as the reflection of hedonism in China now. However, it is not the same as the western entertainments. Though Qu’s deep observation of society, he narrates the nonsense and the inanity of hedonism, which is his real melancholy comprehension of history.
Discus Thrower is a special work by Qu. Based on Myron’s classic sculpture of the same title, Qu converted the muscular male body usually demonstrated in museums or for educational programs into a fleshy, even feminine or obese figure. The imperfection created by the artist concerns the viewer, one can’t help but notice the destroyed beauty and the derision which are the artist’s attempt to deconstruct the sacredness of icons. It is a regretful nonsense of paradox. Moreover, the collapse of perfect body suggests the metaphor of anti-totalitarian. Totalitarian countries always emphasize the perfect body to consolidate their mores and orders by formalizing the body into militarism. The reversal of Discus Thrower should be a significant statement of his political ideology.
As to the theme and the motivation of this work, it is worthy to make another comparison with The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. With a similar theatrical premise and sense of excitement, these two works show comparable forms, affection and plots; the difference being that in Qu Guangci’s work, the subversive logic of survival developed by Chinese people in their deplorable reality is represented through his irony.
Qu Guangci was born in 1969. He studied in Central Academy of Fine Arts and graduated from the MA sculpture program in 1997. Qu has been invited to exhibit in China, German, France, and USA. Important group shows include “Witness——Sculpture of Xiang Jing and Guangci”, He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, China in 2004, “Sculpture a Century”, Shanghai Sculpture Space in 2005, “Fiction @ Love”, Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai in 2006, “Soliloquy: China-Indonesia contemporary sculpture exhibition”, National Art Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia in 2006. Important solo shows include “collectivism-Guangci work 2005-2007”, Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai and “Last Supper—solo exhibition by Qu Guangci”, Aura Gallery Hong Kong in 2007.