A Conversation with Qiu Xiaofei: Connecting the past, present, and future through painting

Qiu Xiaofei

Chang Xuyang

Chang Xuyang (C) × Qiu Xiaofei (Q)


C: Most people are unfamiliar with your work over the last two years. Their impressions of your work paused on your abstract series presented in your previous solo exhibition “Apollo Bangs Dionysus” at Pace Gallery Beijing. Many wonders why Qiu Xiaofei’s work seems to have regressed, particularly with the re-emergence of figuration. It is quite apparent that the recent figuration may be related to your earlier paintings, at the same time, different. On the one hand, the imageries still revolve around your memories and your family; on the other hand, they’ve become more subjective, whether in composition or color scheme.

Q: Very early on, painting introduced me to the experience of a non-linear sense of time. Previously, to paint was like roaming in a wormhole, where I was transported to the depth of my memories. Painting’s other function has also taken me to the future, and an experience embodied in the abstract series. Today, I am more inclined to consider painting as a medium that simultaneously connects the past, present, and future.

C: Like those frequently appearing spirals on your paintings, marking the movement of a point thrown into the distance in a parabolic trajectory without repeating itself. This is perhaps the best metaphor for your creative journey. Let’s begin with the abstract series you started working on in 2013, a transition that shocked many people then.

Q: My painting practice before this phase was essentially grounded on photographs and found images, including some installations. Since 2012, I realized that translating pictures into icons on canvas was a limiting approach to painting regardless of how tactile the surface was rendered. The components of a painting still came from an existing world. This realization led to two-directional shifts taking place simultaneously. One was to further materialize the materials to a point the painted objects were given a physical form in space (Mountain Behind Wood Behind Mountain). As you might have seen in my 2013 solo exhibition at Beijing Commune, “Rauschenberg Said, The Walking Stick is Always Longer Than the Maulstick, After all,” many artworks in the show were painting installations. Through those experiments, I searched for a breaking point; the other direction involved painting with my eyes closed to release the subjective, where I couldn’t rely on any picture from the real world. I often started with a color or a line, which became what people saw as my abstraction.

C: In other words, “Apollo Bangs Dionysus” embodied two forces. Can I also think of it as a reluctant transition to abstract forms, or was it a phase when you tried to adopt a freer approach to painting?

Q: In essence, all paintings are abstract. It’s a practice of using limited colors to portray an object. The real world is not composed of dots and lines. Physical objects have inherent forms. The canvas, the frame, a piece of paper all take on their respective forms. A painting is conceived through a canvas. Although there might only be a dot or a dollop of paint on it, it is nevertheless considered a composition.

C: Your abstract works are given definitive titles, which afford the viewer a departure for imagination. And among many of your paintings, there is a literal sense of space, for instance, a wooded area. In recent years, the figurative gradually re-emerged on your canvas, and many of them portray stories that unfold from such a setting. In other words, the abstract works are related to the re-emergence of figuration at the present moment.

Q: For me, the forest has a priori quality. It approximates my imagination of a mysterious dimension. When I painted the abstract works, it was as if I stood in the mist where everything was hazy. As colors and lines came together, the fog dissipated, and I found myself standing on a clearing. Suddenly, the forest became visible. At that point, I realized that I’d been there for a long time. Hence the figures and stories began to unfold naturally. Now, I am more inclined to adopt the impromptu and meditative approach, so pictures do not confine me, only then had I been getting closer and closer to painting.

C: The set of rules for painting taught at the art academies is no longer appear on your recent works. This is certainly an outcome of your proactive shift to allow the subjective drive your work, whether in composition or the use of colors. Although this impulse towards bringing the personal world to the fore was already apparent in your earlier works. Since your graduation from the art academy, your paintings were based on old photographs or pictures from old publications. Some of were your family photo albums, others were pictures of Heilongjiang and elsewhere, but all of them are related to your childhood memories that stir your mood and emotions. Even though you were depicting a series of objects, yet they were compelled by your psychological experience.

Q: Compare to the other image-engendering mediums, painting is unique. For example, in photography, you press on the shutter, an image is born, but the time it takes for a painting to complete is much slower. Even if you were only to paint a line, it would still take time from the beginning to end – a time that allows the brain to leverage and revise. What I pay attention to in painting occurs in this small window of time, spans from my psychological activities. Those works based on old photographs allowed me to traverse through wormholes of time and return to places in my memories.

C: For instance, in the Photo Paper series on view in this exhibition, the imagery was not entirely considered of realist style. Instead, the work highlights the painting medium’s materiality, including the thick canvas, incise brushwork and composition, etc.

Q: I bound very thick canvas on small frames to mimic the hand-made albums’ uneven edges. Before I start painting, I had to measure the objects I was going to recreate accurately. In other words, the composition of this work was not only on canvas, but the painting was conceived as an object. After I moved into my new studio last year, I re-organized my earlier works, which gave me the impression that I had gone a long way in my practice, only had I realized many things have not changed. For instance, my interest in materiality continues to drive my work to this day. I always considered painting as an object rather than an illusional surface. The imaginary scenes on my mind would only be presented through an exchange with actual material. A raw canvas, a smooth wooden board, primer made with gesso, watercolor, and oil paint are all different types of materials. One material symbolizes another, and I am fascinated by the relationship between them.

C: If we were to enter a scenario, we would imagine that a real situation would better engage us in that time and atmosphere.

Q: There is a difference between how a painter immerses in time travel and the viewer’s approach to a particular scenario. If the artist were to depict something realistically, the viewer might immediately identify it as a flower or a vase. This is done with techniques of representation. It does not necessarily suggest that the painter was once part of a flower or vase situation. The other painting approach is grounded on meditation, which allows the painter to engage with the flower or vase, yet what the viewer ends up seeing maybe color in abstract form or things unrelated to those objects.

C: I noticed some of your works strictly followed the dimension of the depicted objects, for example, Factory Image From A Magazine, Photo Paper, while others such as Album Page and Old Water Stained book expanded to 2 meters in length.

Q: I noticed if I adopt the same approach frequently, the feeling of entering into a meditative state would disappear. So, I would try different techniques in various paintings. I would never decisively begin to “produce” a painting. Some works emphasize airiness and atmosphere; others take more quiet efforts in rendering the spots and marks of ruins. I am open to using all kinds of methods.

C: I think these two aspects are what make your painting appealing. One is inward, in other words, the act of painting is directly related to your experience and cognition, rather than producing an image; the other is external. Your experiments on painting’s materiality have shown variations between the works viewers may receive more visual information. Since 2009, your practice has seemed to enter a new phase. The works in your solo exhibition “Point of No Return” shifted from portraying “personal memories” to “collective memories.” The imageries had a social dimension, including socialist architectures, news events, etc.

To some extent, they inquire about the kinds of social contexts that shape the individual’s circumstances. The imageries are rendered through appropriation and collage. For instance, similar geometric shapes appear in different works.

Q: Right. The earlier works that were based on old photographs did not require me to make any pictorial input.  And later on, the geometric shapes that appeared in my paintings became the focus. For example, State-Operated Object without the cones on the table would be an incoherent scene. The cones in the middle transform the imagery into an engulfed site. Boundary River, in this exhibition, has two geometric shapes on the sofa, while the focus of the painting is the flattened apple. For me, the components of a painting became free to appropriate and replace. At that moment, the psychological experience of a painting was also set free and broadened.

C: Among the works from that period (2009-2013), the more liberal approach to administering elements on the painting had nevertheless preserved some traces of memories, while mobilizing your consciousness afforded the works a degree of fantasy.

Q: Since Interglacial Stage and works from that time, I stopped portraying infinity of a real space, but something finite where the distant mountain and water served as stage curtains, drawing the parameter of the stage. As such, I placed various “props” on stage.

C: On one of the walls in your studio, you put up many drawings you’ve done over the last two years. The series of watercolor, Trotskyky Grew into a Tree presented in this exhibition are drawings that adopt a different approach to one specific subject matter. I am curious about the iconographic components, for example, the trees and houses, in your recent works. You’ve personified them, giving a face or a tail to the house, and the trees might be transformed from people. Why are you interested in these icons? A person embraces a skull while holding a baby, is this imagery related to your father’s passing and the birth of your child?

Q:  Many subject matters in my paintings come from my family. Over the last two years, my family’s changes urged me to rethink various questions, such as the cycle of life and death. To a large extent, the new works still revolve around the wormhole while connecting memories and the future. These personal experiences of life made me more interested in biological things. For example, my current paintings would not include a particular architectural style found in, for instance, Stiffness of the Limb, and the houses take on the basic form of a typical shed. I imagine the shed’s structure could be the human rib cage while still related to wood and forest. I visualize the rafters devoured the leaves and the trees ate the rafters. Be it the tree, house, or human figures, they are all biological beings. By blurring the definition of what is what, they become part of one big clan. Now, every painting becomes very specific; like writing a novel, it has certain literary quality, which is different from translating literature into painting.

C:  The latest work Trotskyky Grew into a Tree, in which the baby looks like Leon Trotsky, who is he holding?

Q: In my imagination, the one who holds Trotsky should be a secular figure. I painted his mouth into a hanger, and his eyes are like the sun and the moon, which qualifies him as a regular person. I think this painting takes two kinds of figures, a symbolic one and an everyday one. If it were him, the one lying down is not Trotsky, then it would be a political symbol. Instead, he’s a figure I invented that embodies some of Trotsky’s qualities, so I gave him the name Trotskyky.

C: What are your views on the symbolic and metaphorical components of a painting?

Q: Symbolism and allegory have always been there. In painting, if the object of symbolism and allegory becomes a notion or a real symbol, then it would lose its meaning. What I want to do is to restore the source of symbolism into form, through double narrative, rather than a notion.

C: Lastly, let’s talk about your view on painting today, or put it more literally, why paint?

Q: I think painting has rewarded me more than I anticipated. In the past, I sought out inspiration from pictures of the real world. Today, I am digging into a world that is yet fully formed. Recently, I am more inclined to use a darker colored canvas and draw shapes on them. On which, things with a sense of life began to take shape. Pulling forms out of the background is filled with irrational and spiritual experiences. I felt the forms float in from afar, like ghosts. The world gives me an unprecedented sense of bewilderment that I know nothing about. Painting allows me to understand the world without adopting any measures of judgment and offers novel understanding. These judgments are often related to the essential questions of human existence, what is reason? What is a society?  What is death? And what is growing?

I think maybe painting is a mistake. Historically, the function of painting has been gradually replaced by photography. In the end, what are we left with? Man is a being whose thinking tends to change due to fear and anxiety. The appeal of painting today is perhaps related to the shortcomings of the human species.

end? Humans are creatures with fickle thinking, fear and anxiety. The charm of painting today may be related to the flaws of the human species.


Qiu Xiaofei

Qiu Xiaofei was born in Harbin in 1977. He graduated from the Subsidiary School of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1998 and received a BFA in oil painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2002.

Qiu Xiaofei’s artistic practice mainly focuses on painting, as well as installation and sculpture connected to painting, connecting concepts and aesthetics in unique ways.

His works have been a constant presence at art museum and institutional exhibitions around the world, including at the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Tate Liverpool in Britain, Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, the Groninger Museum and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in the Netherlands, the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe in Germany.

His important Solo Exhibitions: 2018 “Fade Out” at Pace Gallery in South Korea; 2016 “Double Pendulum”at Pace Gallery, New York, USA; 2014 “Apollo Bangs Dionysus” at Pace Beijing, Beijing, China; 2013 “Repetition” at Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, China; 2010 “Point of No Return” at Boers-Li gallery, Beijing, China; 2006 “Heilongjiang Box” at Art Museum of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China, etc.

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