In the 1950s, given the opportunity of changes in the domestic and international environment, the Soviet Union, known as the “big brother,” assisted and had influenced Harbin. Despite challenging times in the past, the city was rapidly transforming from a base for light industry and commerce in the Republican era into heavy industrial in the new China. It has since been cultivating a spirit and temperament of industrialization and collectivism.
Qiu Xiaofei’s (b. 1977, Harbin) oil on canvas, Factory Image From A Magazine (2004), recaptures this spirit. He reproduces a pictorial spread of a large factory with a drawing approach while preserving the seam between the two pages as it is and the printing error that caused the page on the right to appear much greener. What is vital to Qiu Xiaofei is not to document the page as it is, but how to revisit memories that have been dimmed and obscured through the painter’s touch when confronted with references to real objects such as photographs.
The invention of photography and the popularization of mass media have given people the illusion that the glimpse of an image or owning it would allow them to travel in its alternate dimensions the picture, the so-called, “to collect photographs is to collect the world.”1 But if we were to pay attention to the details of Factory Image From A Magazine, we would discover this painting dissolution of the illusion: by adopting coarse brushstrokes, preserving the texture of the canvas, and applying the technique of mixing small clusters of pure color in a sizeable figurative pattern. Like the works such as Factory Image From A Magazine, Pyongyang (2004), Ends of the Bridge (2005), and Floating Clouds in the Sky (2006), and others from the same period, Qiu Xiaofei sketched objects such as newspapers, books, and photographs are expanded them from mere visual icons to complex dimensions with conceptual and material qualities. In this sense, Qiu Xiaofei did not possess or collect these objects through his paintings’ outcome but rather re-identified them in the process. The course and the marks left on canvas record the trajectory of the artist’s recognition. The folded seam of the pages, the off-color, and the glitch painting incoherent from the objects of depiction are pieced together through the painter’s eye and hand. All of these contribute to transforming The Factory on the Pictorial as a gestalt holding or even producing memory.
In the Photo Paper series (2003), Qiu Xiaofei used coarse linen and meticulous thick-paint techniques to render a worn-out texture similar to that of old album cards on the borders of the painting. Likewise, he adopts a skillful approach to render flatness in achieving an opacity like the interleaving tissue paper. Those blurred images from the photographs are wrang dried as remnants of history. It turns out these neatly dressed group photos, healthy and upright couples, and energetic individual portraits, as well as the attentively cared for albums, are all products from the collectivist life cycles. From this series, we are given a glimpse of the Leviathan-like “collective” dimming behind the basic family unit and the self. As Harbin’s economy from heavy industries declined and collective life faded, this series of melancholic paintings became an elegy for the city’s golden age.
In order to withstand the frigid and bitter winter, the outer walls of the houses in Harbin are much thicker than those on the south side of the Great Wall. In the dead of winter, these hefty houses are further isolated from the outside world and become lonely islands scattered on a frozen landscape. They are like hibernating beasts or safely guarded fortresses. Qiu Xiaofei recalled in 2006, “I’ve moved around a lot since I was very young, and I counted three or four of the houses I’ve lived in that have been torn down. When I returned to Harbin that year, I even stood under the old building I lived in and took pictures of the old houses and windows with my camera. It’s kind of like the paintings I’ve done, which rendered scenes I’ve experienced or drawn some inexplicable idea from the past, something that neither belongs to the past nor the future.”2 let us revisit the interior view of Boundary River (2012) with these impressions in mind. The yellows, greens, and pastels in high-brightness; the smooth and glistening texture of the wood; the perverse direction of the light source; and the polyhedra and cones without shades do not construct a simple stage or an experimental site in respond to questions concerning painting, but a hybrid space of various temporalities and subject matters. More importantly, the sense of security and stability that the house symbolizes has been reaffirmed through Qiu Xiaofei’s meticulous arrangement of pictorial elements.
The house is familiar imagery in the painter’s twenty-year career, found in paintings such as 1984 (2003), Thing of the Past (2010), Hospitals (2010), and Utopia (2010), and in the painting installations Home (2007) and Wall Painting for BASEL 39 Art Premiere (2008). Although the shapes of the house vary from one period to the next, and so are their sources and meanings. After the period of “abstraction” around the 2010s, figuration re-emerged in Qiu Xiaofei’s paintings. On the “ruins” of his brushstrokes and paint, one discovers houses, trees, figures representing life and death, the Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, or the intriguing shapes of the spiral. Unlike what we have seen from his earlier painting periods, these imageries, both new and old, do not come directly from objective representation, but the free associations based on memory and personal experience. Along a secret path paved in the artist’s subconscious, his memories and various “arbitrary ideas” begin to congeal on the canvas.
The house in Qiu Xiaofei’s most recent work, Snow House (2019), has broken free from constraints of the realistic style. We can no longer distinguish the stark socialist or Corbusierian modernist style from the house’s internal and external structure, as we have with Stiffness of the Limbs (2009) or Gloom of old Age (2010). The painter added eyes and a mouth to the snow-covered roof, making it look like an elderly character with a broad forehead in macabre fairy tales. During the early outbreak of this yea’s pandemic, Qiu Xiaofei recorded a vlog for PSA (Shanghai Power Station of Art). The monologue, recorded in a low-voice whisper, would be the fairy tale’s accent on this snow house. In the backdrop of the image, and unadulterated blue and green and an unsettling crimson compress each other, exuding a nightmarish and enigmatic atmosphere of the Snow House. Qiu Xiaofei admits that, unlike those who grew up in the eastern coastal provinces, his vision of vastness and mystery comes from the vast forests instead of the sea. Although Heilongjiang is one of the largest forest-covered regions in China, the Songhua River basin’s impact plain, where Harbin is located, is not considered forest land. Harbin: The Lesser Known Story, written by Yelena Tascina, an expert on the history of Sino-Russian expatriation history and culture, records the austere landscape of Harbin in the early days of the city building a century ago, “My grandfather Peter Stepanovich, was among the first to arrive there. What did he see around him then? To the south, there was a wide swamp and depression. Further away was a gently sloping hillock – which soon became the future center of Harbin. The left bank of the river is low-lying and stark, where there was a swamp. Looking afar along the left bank, the riverbank seemed to disappear into the wide river. To the west was an endless open plain with countless lakes and small puddles.”3 For Qiu Xiaofei, born and raised there, the forest was more like a friend he knows well but rarely met. In the photo album “Forestry Construction in New China” (1960, edited by the Ministry of Forestry), the icons of the northeastern forest region and forestry are depicted as “the forests on both sides of the Ergun River in the upper stream of Heilongjiang River,” “the luxuriant red pine forests in the Dailing forest region in Heilongjiang” and “the education building of Harbin Northeast Forest Institute” not far from Qiu Xiaofei’s former residence. They are the background tone of Heilongjiang, or perhaps the color in his memories of this place. This in part explains why it is only in recent years, a long time after the painter has left his hometown, and began to explore his inner landscape. The imagery of the forest has become an essential and striking component in his paintings. Heidegger describes the “Lichtung” as a clearing into which things are illuminated after exiting the forest’s darkness. From this perspective, the snow house on the clearing is a place for Qiu Xiaofei’s contemplation and dreams, a gathering place, and refuge for the artist’s memories, experiences, and emotions.
Compared to the 2000s, keywords such as Harbin, the Northeast, childhood memories, and the Soviet Union have paled Qiu Xiaofei’s recent paintings. But just like his interest in “wormholes,” which allows him to travel through time and space, keywords that symbolize the past have made a return uniquely and unexpectedly. In Qiu Xiaofei’s studio hangs a photorealistic portrait of Leon Trotsky, which is mounted on a used cutting board that his parents almost threw away when they moved. As such, a revolutionary mentor and the most mundane household item came together in a half-playful, half-serious way, without contradicting each other. According to him, his grandfather was a “Trotskyist” working on diplomatic services who dealt with the Soviets on many occasions. This undisclosed family history suggests that Trotsky’s image has been internalized as part of Qiu Xiaofei’s visual memory. In recent years, the imagery of Trotsky’s bulging head frequently appeared as other embodiments of his paintings. For instance, sometimes it appears as a cat in Untitled (Black and White Cat) (2020) and Untitled (Bonsai) (2020); sometimes as a “tree spirit” in the middle of the intricate branches, as in the series of Trotskyky Trees (2020); and other times as a baby in Trotskyky Grew into a Tree (2020). The themes of history ( the story of “Black Cat and White Cat”), guardianship (Trotskyky Grew into a Tree), nurture (the cave in Untitled Potted Plant), and life and death are integrated to create new works that is yet to be deciphered. As Qiu Xiaofei mentioned in a recent interview, “I imagine the relationship between the structure of a wooden house and human ribs, which is akin to that between trees and the forest. I also imagine the rafters eating the leaves, and the trees devour the rafters. Both the tree, the house, and the man are all living forms. Once the definition loosens to identify what is what, they become part of the same family.” I believe that the visual elements of grandfather, father, the painter himself, child, birth, growth, old age, death, history, present, future, images, clusters, brushstrokes related to Trotsky on Qiu Xiaofei’s recent paintings become the same thing with blurred borders in such a cycle.
1. Susan Sontag, translated by Huang Canran, On Photography, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2010, p. 7.
2.Qiu Xiaofei, “The Old House,” Heilongjiang Box, Hebei: Hebei Education Press, 2006, p. 64
3.Yelena Taskina, translated by Ji Yuga, Harbin: Lesser Known Stories, Harbin: Harbin Publishing House, 2018, p. 2