Basel

Qiu Shi Hua

The painting of Qiu Shi Hua inhabits the border between the visible and the invisible. Stepping into the hallway on the Kunsthalle’s upper floor, one was greeted by a series of nineteen panoramic paintings, landscape formations composed of a spreading white that at times breaks lightly into gray. On these surfaces painted with the thinnest layer of oil, the gaze loses itself as if it were sinking in, being steadily absorbed. Denied the ability to establish any kind of visual foothold, the viewer is thrown back onto him- or herself by the painting. Gradually, the finest contours of hills and vegetation dissociate themselves from the tranquil background, like distant landscapes rising phantasmagorically from an enveloping fog before fading away again from view. When specific impressions do set in, it is only for as long as the imagination is able to hold on to them. To the Western mind, it may pose a contradiction that the greatest intensity in the experience of these images occurs precisely when the desire for the object is lost.

In the Western tradition, monochrome brings to mind the romantic idea of the sublime. While the vast landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, for example, affirm the supreme individuality of the subject at the very moment of its disappearance, Qiu’s painting seems to dissolve all boundaries between subjectivity and transcendence. The vanishing difference between subject and world in his images reminds one of sayings from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: “Now what is the Tao? / It is Something elusive and evasive, / Evasive and elusive! / And yet It contains within Itself a Form. / Elusive and evasive! / And yet It contains within Itself a Substance. / Shadowy and dim! / And yet It contains within Itself a Core of Vitality” (Boston & London: Shambala, 1990).

Today, Qiu lives in seclusion in Shenzhen. Although he doesn’t belong to the group of Chinese artists whose work is widely circulated in the West today, the discourse surrounding that set may influence the perception of his images in a Western art institution. One can only hope that the newly discovered Chinese art will be spared the fate of the unofficial art of the Soviet Union during the perestroika era, since, with the exception of Ilya Kabakov, no one survived that precipitous embrace. Artists like Qiu must be perceived in their singularity in order for any kind of real “crossover” to take place, for Western manners of perception and Eastern culture to make contact and call each other into question. Far from the cynicism of politically motivated painting, Qiu poses a quiet challenge. His work makes good on the claim that Hou Hanru staked out in conversation with Gao Minglu on the occasion of the traveling show “Inside Out: New Chinese Art”: “The challenge is . . . to reorient Western expectations of the oriental toward the unexpected.”

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Diana Reese.