Whether in his artwork or in the lectures he gives his students, Qiu Zhijie’s “Total Art” principle permeates everything he does. According to Qiu, “Total Art” is a “an artistic strategy that, taking cultural research as its foundation and shouldering concerns about society and the everyday experience, proposes comprehensive solutions to the problems of art and life.” In “Brainstorming,” Qiu reveals the pedagogical process behind Total Art, though the pieces shown are, for the most part, products of a relatively early stage in this process. In other words, they embody a sort of “research on culture,” i.e. a simplified version of Total Art’s “cultural research.” Especially in terms of the attention paid to and analysis made of everyday life, we are offered a deeper understanding of the work of Total Art Studio (Qiu’s quasi-department at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou) students.
From conceptual beginnings to social investigation, the collection of visual materials, and finally, their exhibition and transformation, artwork can be conceived from any concept in Qiu Zhijie’s hands. As such, students of the Total Art Studio are afforded clear creative reasoning. Several different projects that use sociological research as a foundation were on exhibit, such as “Total Art Hospital,” “A Survey of Zhongshan Parks,” and “Subversive Shangri-la—A Survey of Tibetan-themed Painting.” The “Museum of Poor Design” is one of the more accomplished: students collected household goods from the poor, and formed a sort of living space in the middle of the exhibition hall. Including a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, staircase and garden, this “house” was built entirely from rotten wood. Up close, it was obvious that everything inside had been modified by hand, crudely but cleverly, with a do-it-yourself kind of insight. The project offers students training towards improving their overall knowledge of and familiarity with different materials, as well as an archive that includes large collections of data, interviews and discussions. Academic training like this, involving field research, is doubtlessly inspired by anthropological research methods.
The multi-media performance project Jiuqu No. 3 was another piece of Total Art. An extension of Qiu Zhijie’s “Nine Songs” series, the project saw student performances of “urban slapstick” on a stage Qiu built, including fighting, protesting, and a fashion show. In front of the stage, people made giant silkscreen fingerprints on the ground, while others hauled waste paper from beneath the stage. Videos were projected onto the walls and onto big white screens placed both behind and to the sides of the stage. The scene behind these screens was equally busy: four middle-aged couples were engaged in ballroom dancing; one student made shadow puppets; and others played Chinese jump rope. Qiu was alternately busy controlling the lighting and helping to swing the jump rope. Music played in the exhibition hall throughout, and on all four walls panels and screens introduced the other artworks on display. With such a feast for the senses, it was hard for the audience to know where to begin.
Audiences have raised some doubts about this exhibition. First, in the traditional sense, this exhibition was neither a solo show nor a group exhibition; instead, it only showed the scope and practices of Qiu Zhijie’s own artistic concept. Second, as a pedagogy, is Total Art as open and responsive to students’ intellectual needs as it first seems, or is it to become another form of mind-control? Lastly, the works in this exhibition were actually not at all that good. Qiu responded to all these points and others during a Q&A session after a lecture at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. He unflinchingly affirmed the righteousness of Total Art, joking that if Chinese contemporary art had twenty more Qiu Zhijie’s there would be hope for the (art) world. To be sure, Qiu is an exceptional artist as well as an educator who has developed a workable model for China. The only thing we need worry about is Total Art’s excessive idealism. In the process of using art to reform and solve the problems of life and society, artists face the danger of being drowned out by the ever formidable language of methodology. Wu Jianru