What does an artist do when he arrives on the far side of the world, only to find that the works for his gallery show, scheduled to open in 48 hours, are sequestered in U.S. customs—with no reason given for their delay and no hint of when, if ever, they will be released? Qiu Zhijie, 40, one of the most prolific and conceptually astute members of China’s post-Mao avant-garde, responded by re-creating a version of the impounded image suite directly on the walls of Chambers Fine Arts in New York. Beginning at 3:00 p.m. on Mar. 11, he worked for 20 sleepless hours—pausing only for food and cigarette breaks—to create a flowing brush-and-ink fantasia that wraps around three and a half walls of the roughly 1,000-square-foot display space. After finishing at 11:00 a.m. on Mar. 12, Qiu immediately crashed from jet lag and exertion, almost missing his show’s opening that evening.
Titled “Mochou,” like the series of 14 ink-on-paper paintings on which it is based, the ephemeral wall work—on view until May 9—alludes to the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing (since 1968 a symbol of China’s modernization and a site of many suicides), as well as to an eponymous young beauty of legend. Depending on one’s mythological source, Mochou was either a young bride who pined so intensely for her husband, absent in the army, that she turned into a lake in order to flow to him, or she was an impoverished maiden who drowned herself after being forced into a loveless marriage in order to pay for her father’s funeral. Qiu’s involvement with Nanjing began in 2005, when he curated the Second Nanjing Triennial. Since then, he has worked closely with the city’s suicide prevention agencies. His fluid mural mixes classical references with such contemporary images as soda straws and the hand of his own young daughter opening an ancient Chinese text.
On Mar. 27, three weeks after their arrival in New York, Qiu’s hostage works were released from customs—still without explanation. Chambers staff members, who had previously hung photocopies on the walls to show viewers (especially potential buyers) the mural’s on-sale antecedents, have now installed several paintings in the gallery and keep the remainder in a back room for client inspection.
Qiu’s bureaucratic snafu in the U.S. mirrors problems encountered by dealers and booksellers recently attempting to bring material into the still haphazardly censored People’s Republic. Last summer, Danish-run Galleri Faurschou Beijing experienced a customs delay of Warhol works, while PRC authorities toyed briefly with the idea of restricting art exhibitions during the Olympics to pieces made in China by Chinese artists. And this writer’s own book New China, New Art, surveying the last 30 years of experimental art in China, was held in Mainland customs for three months last fall, only to be released in January without comment and without restrictions. —Richard Vine
Above: Qiu Zhijie at work at 4:32 a.m. on the day of his opening.