The Eastern Jin painter Gu Jun’s portrayal of a high-rising edifice entitled with the inscription, “Ascending Without a Ladder, No Point of Worldly Return” is a scene that embodies the pursuit of serenity and peace. Qiu Xiaofei’s new show at Boers-Li Gallery channels this classic, and is aptly named “Point of No Return.” Qiu’s title takes its phrasing from the original classic, but adds the character yi—signifying a state that has already come into being. This not only implies that the artist has already ascended to new heights; it also connotes that he has waved goodbye to the Chinese contemporary art world’s “ladders”: its pre-formed patterns and pre-established modes of thinking.
Since the launch of his career, Qiu Xiaofei has been compared with the older generation of painters such as his mentor Liu Xiaodong. From the self-examination displayed in Vocabulary during his period of collaboration with the N12 Group, to his observation of the laws and principles of survival in surrounding society reflected in Pagoda of the Discarded, the essence of Qiu’s paintings has always seemed to hover somewhere between their material appearance and their conceptual import. The fragmentary nature of selective memory makes the reality of his own recollections seem entirely inauthentic; by employing a mixture of hyperbole and ridicule, he has always pursued a renewed sense of truth and a way to part with the foundations of his own inconsolability. Now, Qiu is more like a modern observer passing through, coming and going—almost as if he has taken on a heavy burden, but no longer has anything to depend on nor anywhere to turn or stop.
Qiu Xiaofei’s “no return” perspective allows him to continue to make peace with and in turn to let go of what are typically taken as binary oppositions in painting: reality or memory, past or future, two-dimensions or three-dimensions, thick paint or thin paint. The present gallery layout plays a key role in this: in Hospital, at the exhibition entrance, a small sliver of green popping out of the structure’s external wall shares its pigment and its contour with the painting’s background layer, which in turn mimics a green-and-white wall like the one depicted in the image. Together, the three-dimensional structure and the two-dimensional surface form the illusion of an endlessly looping mirror image. Geometrical forms typical of a traditional fine arts education suddenly emerge in three-dimensional perspective as visual characters in between the jointly shown State Operated Object and Stiffness of the Limbs. Some of the characters take the shape of upside-down buildings, others of mirror-like interior spaces; all of them carry traces of socialist history. Utopia and To Call a Stag a Horse take the relationship between two and three dimensions and the relationship between the intangible and the concrete, and dissolve each one within the passage of revolution and history. Qiu’s axis of perspective, continuously evolving, superimposes itself on an even more multidimensional, fragmentary narrative with Desolate Wood. The largest piece in the exhibition, it most resembles a world reconstructed after its own complete neutralization.
“It is my hope that painting can actualize a world that I know, a history that has truly affected me.” These were Qiu Xiaofei’s words several years ago, and today, they imply something entirely new. At the time, Qiu, not yet 30 years old, had honed his particular breed of nostalgia into a distinct language; but, when it came to his historical hypotheses, things were always more ambiguous. The Qiu Xiaofei of a few years ago was like a landscape of memory, marked by the footprints of others even as he wrapped himself in his own past experience. However, it was when Qiu disposed of his ladder, commencing his ascendance out of this landscape and onward to the point of no return, that he was able to turn the logic of his own past upside down. Even if the scene up ahead is no longer a familiar one, it is substantial enough for the artist to continue on. Dui Niu