Qiu Zhijie is a practitioner and pedagogue with a broadly articulated view of what he has called “Total Art.” Having graduated from the China Academy in Hangzhou shortly after the turmoil of 1989, he was the youngest figure included in the rounds of international exhibitions organized in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, after having settled in Beijing, he was the intellectual engine behind the hugely influential Post-Sense Sensibility exhibitions, which gave rise to a generation of artists now thoroughly in ascendance. In the early 2000s, following the increasing official acceptance of contemporary art in China, he returned to his alma mater, opening a studio in which he has been able to shape a generation of artistic minds with his unique combination of social research, creative labor, and political engagement. His prolific output has recently included an extended “suicidology” of the Nanjing River Bridge—a touchstone of socialist infrastructure that has recently become China’s leading site for suicide jumpers—and an ongoing series of ink-and-wash maps that render both the conceptual geographies of intellectual movements and geopolitical dynamics in elegantly extended topographical metaphors.
The Jinling Chronicle Theatre Project on view at the 2015 Biennale di Venezia unites Qiu’s key aesthetic and social concerns in a room of objects and images that can be activated by performers throughout the exhibition. Compositionally, this setting takes its inspiration from the colorful antique scroll known as Lantern Festival at Shangyuan, an anonymous late Ming (1368–1644) genre painting that, in depicting people celebrating the end of the lunar year in the city of Nanjing, illustrated a detailed taxonomy of social relations. Qiu’s work likewise offers 108 objects, each representing a recurrent role in what he sees as a universal history, a provisional gathering of rulers, schemers, assassins, poets, prostitutes, propagandists, whistleblowers, censors, and hangers-on, to name just a few. Another twenty-eight “hanging lanterns” invoke various emotional states and subjective conditions.
As objects, the sculptures in this constellation carry a roughness wrought of labor at the intersection of physical and intellectual toil, and betray a directness that harks back to the earlier Chinese art scene of basement exhibitions and improvised production in which Qiu was so instrumental. Ingeniously, many of these works reference traditional cultural implements as well as the shanzhai improvisation of contemporary Chinese culture. A web of pipes with interconnected wells represents the heretic, for example, while a mechanized circular table with a sandy surface on which lines are repeatedly ploughed by metal teeth and obscured by a grindstone represents the farmer. For Qiu, the eternal return of a wide swath of archetypes imbues human progress with a genetic circularity, turning history into an unending rehearsal.