5 Apr 2013

Art: Realising Nostalgia in a Rising Economy

Douglas Blyde discovers the work of artist Liu Qinghe capturing nostalgia in a rising economy (for Vertu)
‘ALTHOUGH it might be good to grow fast economically, it’s against our natural development,’ says the artist Liu Qinghe with the patience of a teacher.
Curated in collaboration with Australian, Brian Wallace of the local Redgate Gallery, Qinghe’s work spans the atrium of Beijing’s boutique Opposite House hotel. Designed by Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma to showcase quarterly installations in addition to an arresting permanent collection throughout the building, its loftiness is softened by deceptively heavy mesh drapes. Acoustics are watery. 
Qinghe’s work, ‘Piao’ (Floating), core of an exhibition five times the size, concerns Suzhou outside Shanghai, an important centre for the silk industry. On account of its canals, Suzhou is often dubbed the ‘Venice of China’. Qinghe explains the subject: ‘I worried about the loss of the city’s identity, so sought to remind people of its’ past.’ 
Figures cast from Qinghe’s imagination bathe after dark. But there is only one man. Qinghe paraphrases writer, Cao Xueqin: ‘women are water; men are earth.’ Some figures have punk hair while others are bald, ‘for the fantasy of fiction.’ 
Although their expressions show discontent, representing ‘loss of innocence’, Qinghe endeavours to make figures beautiful, ‘lighting them like a stage.’ Feedback by hotel guests was to ‘put more clothes on,’ Qinghe recalls, adding ‘I’m numb to being labelled controversial’. He mentions, too, that international check-ins react ‘better’ then locals. ‘Given China’s habit of rejecting nostalgia, I’ve shown many uncertainties, which can be depressing.’ 
So, what is happening in today’s China? ‘If you set an objective, you can not only achieve it quickly, but often overachieve, and overdo. Is it good long term? When I re-visit other countries, I recognise where I was. Not here.’ But Qinghe admits a tension, ‘because I want China to succeed.’ 
Qinghe was born in financial powerhouse, Tianjin, five years before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. ‘Until recently, it was a city burdened by an industrial past, and developed slowly.’ A graduate turned Vice Professor of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, ‘China’s first such national school’, Qinghe specialises in silk ink wash paintings, a technique dating from the Yuan dynasty ‘much developed in the Qing dynasty.’ Originally concerning landscapes, Qinghe harnesses the discipline to profile people. The installation in our midst shows a transformation ‘into three dimensions.’ 
‘From where does my students’ inspiration come?’ demands Qinghe. ‘Fashion? What they’re told to care about? Or to realise return on high fees?’ His story came from within. ‘My parents, doctors, didn’t pay me much attention. Bored, with time to try my hand at painting, I found I was good at it...’ 
Although Qinghe doesn’t negate the West, citing admiration for Hockney and Dali, cradling tea in strong hands, he keenly underlines our interview’s final words. ‘My message to China’s artists: please don’t blindly follow the West and the pursuit of profit.’
For Vertu