View of “Xisha, South China Sea 1#,” 2011, Hemuse Gallery

Xu Qu gained a certain degree of recognition after his contribution to “51m²” at Taikang Space: the single-channel video work Upstream, in which the artist and a friend navigate a rubber dinghy along Beijing canals starting outside of the city center and ending in the vicinity of the central government’s headquarters in Zhongnanhai, where they were stopped by police. This kind of symbolic and pointed action remains an important method of expression in Xu’s work. He is an artist that prefers to be physically involved in his projects, and for his latest work— titled “Xisha, South China Sea 1#”— the setting is removed from any environment with which he is familiar, having been displaced to Xisha, the undefined frontier of Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. For Xu, the choice to set this project in such a remote and strange environment, and to employ as-yet unknown materials for its composition, presented a true challenge.

“Xisha, South China Sea 1#” is the first part of Xu Qu’s “Xisha” project. It is easy for one to see the title “South China Sea” as a metaphor for geopolitics, but Xisha is by no means a confession of Xu’s political attitude. Instead, he is interested in the contradictory relationship between the real and the internalized to which this sensitive area— the object of both desire and restriction— gives rise. This is a contradiction that parallels all kinds of questions within contemporary art. While Xu, like many artists, possesses concern and passion for social issues, he cautiously maintains the distance between his artwork and society in “Xisha,” attempting to use richly symbolic action to offset the clearly political implications of the location.

Coral Reef, 2011, single-channel video, color, sound, 4 min. 6 sec.

“Xisha” has its roots in the joy produced by childhood memories of the sea, and of reading the occasional book or two on the same. After Xu Qu began to read Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, he went to work planning an “Origin of Species” project. After deciding on Xisha as the focus of the work, he began to research the boundaries of this esoteric territory. Xu began his musings about the project at the end of 2010 and finalized it in June 2011. He and his friend, Zhao Yao, were only able to proceed with the project with the help of a photographer connection at Xinhua news agency whose influence gained them access to the sensitive location. The flight from Beijing to Sanya marked their first time traveling to the south of China, and also their first breaths of tropical air. Immediately, Xu boarded his own Beagle— a supply boat called the Qiongsha III— and set out at evening from Haikou’s Wenlan Harbor, slowly following other pleasure craft out to deep sea. The scene before him melted into a horizonless plane, unbroken by any geometry. The deck rolled with the waves beneath his feet, seemingly insignificant, until all sense of direction was lost in an expanse of abstract blue. At ten o’clock the next morning, after 14 lengthy hours at sea, they at last reached their destination— Yongxing Island.

While in transit between the mainland and the island, Xu Qu developed the ideas behind A Sea Level and Ship and Propeller, exemplifying his method of “applying ideas born of minimalism.” In A Sea Level, the “sea horizon” that appears and disappears with the rising and setting of the sun is translated into a pattern of mild light produced by neon lamps. In Ship and Propeller, the lone boat floating in tranquil, blue light bears forth Xu’s imaginations of the unknown island, but the boat has run around after losing its propeller, symbolizing the disconnect between the ideal and reality. While the “Xisha” project sounds like it is full of deeds of Quixotic, errant passion, it is in fact a journey through a hostile environment, thick with suffering, and devoid of all romance.

Yongxing Island presented the only possible location in Xisha for Xu Qu to carry out his project. It is part of Hainan province and one of the few islands of the Xisha chain open to tourism at present; it is evidently forbidden to set foot on those more tranquil and pristine. Yongxing is narrow and far from the mainland, and its environment vaguely resembles the national “rural-urban continuum.” Transportation is difficult, and fresh water, foodstuffs, and items of daily use must all be supplied to the island from the outside. While living conditions on the island are unquestionably luxuriant, there are some peculiar scenes of artificial nature: once in a while there will appear strange military facilities, Sansha municipal government buildings as illustrious as the White House, or the rather symbolic “Xisha General Forest.” Every coconut palm in this grove of dancing green shadows is inscribed with the name of its planter; those who have left their mark include national leaders and over a hundred generals. Xu’s Coconut Graveyard also captures this aspect in detail. The island trees have been divided into myriad levels according to the various ranks of the figures who adopted them: some are accompanied by ostentatious steles, while others are conversely adorned only with a nameplate; some trees are dead, while their planter remains among the living, and some trees are robust, while their planters have already passed away. Is there a correlation between the health of the trees and the lives of those they represent? Both the good and the bad intermingling, these coconut palms form a solemn monument to authority, waiting— day upon day, year after year— for the next “great figure” to join their ranks.

View of “Xisha, South China Sea 1#,” 2011, Hemuse Gallery

The island was not as wonderful as one would imagine, and Xu Qu often had to alter his project. In response to this, he incessantly asked, “What reason is needed to create a work, and why is that?” The answer, however, wavered as Xu carried out his work. In all “risky” works, Xu had to consider the balance between sentimentalizing elements and personal experience— dealing with the immense contrast between imagination and reality is the part of an action most difficult to control. Before his arrival, Xu learned from his reading that the island was composed of coral reefs. However, it was not until he actually walked on the island itself that he realized the components that formed it were these once-living coelenterates from the bottom of the sea, many of which were destroyed in demolitions for land reclamation and dug out with giant excavators in the building of a new harbor. The coral continually “grows,” and the surface area of the earth expands along with it, the accumulated remains of the coral thus forming a concrete frontier. His discovery of this “secret” of the islands directly facilitated Xu’s creation of Coral Reef.

Coral Reef was filmed at the shooting range where the local garrison carries out artillery exercises. Here, Xu Qu takes coral debris collected along the way over and hurls them into the ocean, giving them burial once again in the depths of the sea, as well as symbolizing the desire to destroy the man-made boundary of the island. In the entire act of doing this, his body resembles a machine perpetually shooting artillery shells— unceasingly aiming and firing again and again at some remote and unattainable target. Xu chooses a ceremonious game to assign anew aesthetic value to these pieces of coral and uses the gesture of “returning” them to liberate them. In this record of images, Xu chooses a calm and concise rhetoric to control this sentimentalized and seemingly vain act.

In the final exhibition of “Xisha, South China Sea 1#” Xu Qu does not directly hurl the visual experience of Xisha at his audience, but handles it with relative rationality, using symbolization and ordered arrangement of a series of actual images from the related island. The artworks themselves ultimately appear in an exceptionally moderated manner. As for using the symbolism and imagination of an island for the framework of the story, the motive behind this act is not accorded a direct solution (this seeming aimlessness of action permeates all of Xu’s previous works). It is clear, however, that in “Xisha,” the relationship between action and the works is the facet most worthy of investigation, and this relationship causes the reasons for the work’s very existence to continuously appear in the process of our exploration and digestion of Xu’s action. Xu attempts to find his own utopia in Xisha, but it is only after he leaves the island behind that he discovers this kind of utopia can never be reached. (Translated by R. Tyler Cotton)