The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge: Qiu Zhijie’s Double écriture
“Never look out alone”
Li Yu, Lang Tao Sha
“Build a memorial to things that never happened.”
Joseph Brodsky, Postcards from Venice
In May 2007, I curated an exhibition in Nanjing on the theme of “The Yangtze River Bridge,” and Qiu Zhijie was among the invited artists. His earlier series “There” touched on this subject matter, and so he chose a nocturnal view of the bridge lit up as his photographic subject, using a flashlight to write the English word “Romantic” in light, thus combining reality and illusion, word and image, description and narrative. The series “There” belongs to a larger cycle of conceptual photography that involves writing in light. Completed in 2005, it dates to the moment when he was curating Archaeology of the Future , the Second Nanjing Triennial. This series also includes five other images of Nanjing and two of Beijing, suggesting an intentional contrast between the former and current capitals. In Nanjing, he photographed the Ming tombs, the former KMT government campus, and the Yangtze River Bridge among other locations. In Beijing, he photographed the Marco Polo Bridge and Tian’anmen.
Qiu Zhijie and I are the same age, born in 1969, just one year younger than the bridge. For us, the Mao era was less a traumatic lived experience than a faint memory that grows stronger with every recollection. As children, we had but a slight concept of the repressed atmosphere that surrounded us, but the totalitarian rule of the moment influenced us greatly, driving us to analyze and resist it for years to come. Qiu Zhijie in particular has a strong political consciousness and sociological interest. The Long March: A Walking Visual Display , an ambitious project that he began with Lu Jie, can be seen as an archaeological excursion into “revolution,” and in that process, his historical understanding of the Mao years deepened. The Yangtze River Bridge has played a political role since the day it was built, becoming the subject of an idol-making movement, a part of a political mythology. It was used to glorify the saintly powers of Mao Zedong, to assert a national complex capable of “regeneration through its own efforts,” to argue for man’s triumph over nature, to posit a utopia. Unlike the Great Wall or Tian’anmen, the Bridge was actually built under Mao, stemming from industrial technology, forged in steel, manifesting the totalitarian aesthetic of the machine age. In the artistic expressions of that time, the Bridge spanned the river heroically with the attitude that “ten thousand waters and one thousand mountains are nothing,” and factories on either bank were generally pictured spouting the thick smoke of industry, a substance detested by today’s urban planners and environmentalists but seen as the ultimate in beauty then, a totem of “Revolutionary Romanticism.”
The word “romantic” derives from Latin, and later the vernacular romanz (legend, story) which appeared in 17 th Century Europe, referring to a literary school marked by its emotion and exaggeration, rich in free imagination. Through the early 19 th Century, the word was used to describe a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement, which we now call Romanticism. This movement existed in opposition to Classicism, and only with the surge of the Modernist movement a century later did it lose its luster, turning ambiguous, taking on a negative connotation in a culture set on progress. As Matei Calinescu argues in his Five Faces of Modernity , “romantic” in the 19 th Century was essentially synonymous with “modern,” or at least can be seen as one of the modern movements of its time. Baudelaire once said, “For me, romanticism is the newest and most current expression of beauty.” And in fact, in terms of its strong subjective consciousness, Modernism can be seen as the clear heir to Romanticism, or rather, we can pinpoint in Modernism certain characteristics that are unmistakably Romantic. The influence of Romanticism was not felt in Chinese culture until the Republican period. Leo Ou-fan Lee in his book The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers analyzes two distinct modalities of influence of the Western Romantic legacy on Chinese literature, which he calls the Young Werther (negative and sentimental) and Prometheus (vital and heroic) schools. The former model easily brings to mind the traditional Chinese prodigy, loving tenderly but brutally, nostalgic and melancholy. They look to take shelter in their own emotional life, and for this reason they are called “negative” Romantics. The other classic example is the Promethean, positive Romantic. This type of person lacks not for feeling, but he does not stress his sensitivity. He is enthusiastic, playing a decisive role, hoping in the end to add his persona to the world, use it to guide the world, or perhaps even create a new world—becoming a new Prometheus.
In the 1920′ s and 1930′ s, one distinctly Chinese historical phenomenon was that literati and intellectuals would often, after years of successfully playing out the sorrows of the Young Werther, then thirst to transform themselves into Promethean personalities. We might as well imagine that writers like Ding Ling who went to Yan’an brought with them a “Romantic” notion of themselves, with the result that they were easily transformed into ideological tools. They designed the systems and wrote the software on which Mao-era “Revolutionary Romanticism” would run. This strain of propagandistic art reached its height during the Cultural Revolution, rinsing over our childhoods. For this reason, the single word “Romantic” written by Qiu Zhijie in light makes me think of the “theoretical travels” of Edward Said, or rather, the near inconceivably vast cultural and historical gap between this word’s genesis in the West and its political and strategic reappropriation in China.
Since he began his mature artistic practice in the 1990a€?s, Qiu Zhijie has continually shown himself to be among the most radical of artists. Using the massive energy that he throws off as well as the considerable knowledge that he has accumulated, Qiu speaks with the authority of a skeptic who doubts every possibility. He has expanded the boundaries of art, profoundly influencing a group of young artists who are becoming ever more important, urging them to cast aside their outmoded frameworks and take up the forms of video, installation, performance, and multimedia. Qiu has enlarged arta€?s space for independent imagination, and maintained a synchronous dialogue with Western art.
The word a€?Romantica€? written in light on that photograph leads us not only to begin a a€?Romantica€? archaeological exploration, but to a certain degree, reveals the artista€?s true persona. Speaking merely in terms of his presence, Qiu certainly carries the shadow of the May Fourth intellectuals engaged in an Enlightenment project. But different from them, he is able to integrate both modes of Romanticism. His works manifest a Wertherian, negative Romanticism, while his actions display a Promethean, positive Romanticism. Qiu Zhijiea€?s early embrace of the notion that a€?form creates effecta€? stood in opposition to the a€?content dictates forma€? dogma of Socialist Realism. He then went on to articulate a notion of a€?Post-Sense Sensibilitya€? in resistance to a rotely Chinese notion of conceptual art, and later a theory of a€?total arta€? based on the intellectual foundations of cultural studies. All of these interventions speak to Qiu Zhijiea€?s passion and daring to change the a€?art world.a€? And yet as soon as he returns to his own practice, Qiu slips back into this other mode of negative Romanticism, the meditative, ruminatory tone of his most unforgettable works, this mood of isolated feelings, this attention to expressions of the subconscious, spatio-temporal dislocation, and the mysterious realm of Zen Buddhism. His work Writing the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times (1990-95), like the a€?writing in lighta€? series that followed, employed a modern linguistic form, continuing or returning to his humanist investments. This method evokes the practice of May Fourth intellectuals in encountering setbacks, then returning to the classics in search of comfort. Different from his predecessors, however, Qiu Zhijie is well-versed in the devices of Western Modernism and Postmodernism, and so his return to traditional culture comes as a pleasant surprise effected by one who has traveled beyond its grasp. This return is the outcome of his continued contact and conflict with contemporary Western discourse. As he once wrote:
a€?When I was in Brussels in 1997, I sat one day near the door of a church, thinking about what sorts of questions I really wanted to take up. It occurred to me that the entire art world is actually sphere of interest divided into many forms of taste. Bill Viola has laid claim to the impermanence of Christianity. Boltanski has laid claim to a feeling of mourning, Kiefer to a sense of epic. Film lays claim to the aesthetics of the moving image, video art to the way these aesthetics play out in particular spaces. Each sub-sector has its own taste, and the spaces between all of these collectively form a history of taste. Each taste is in turn a sphere of influence. Wit was claimed by Duchamp, and his followers can only go on to subdivide this sphere into ever smaller stakes. And so I started thinking, What is the taste I actually want to claim? What is it that I absolutely must do? What can I do that will move myself and others, and what is that even if it moves no one, I still feel I need to do? Later I discovered that for me it was about the impermanence of life, about vestiges of the past floating just below the surface, about that sort of somewhat sentimental, somewhat meditative, sober, cold tranquility.a€?
For Qiu Zhijie, this moment in front of a Western church was nothing short of an awakening. If we say that Modernism, stemming from Romanticism, was a never-ending road along which Qiu had been deeply influenced by the West, then this revelation at the church doorstep was the juncture at which this road turned back on his own historical tradition. Qiu Zhijie went on to find a starting point at the core of Chinese taste, taking from it a certainty with which to speak. Of course, this was no befuddled return to the past, nor was it a card pulled to play on the international art market. In a powerful extended essay entitled a€?The China Card: My View,a€? Qiu Zhijie talks in detail about his process of return. a€?Step by step, I abandoned my designs on macro-cultural interpretation, and attempted to use my own as a field in which to actively engage in micro-cultural experiences. a€|Out of this I began to narrate micro-histories, to engage with specific spaces, to grow interested in particular encounters and memories, surface colors and shapes.a€? Qiu Zhijiea€?s earlier notion of a€?macro-cultural interpretationa€? recalls Shelleya€?s famous definition of the mission of Romanticism as a a€?legislator for the world.a€? In abandoning this burden and turning toward arbitrary and fragmented expression, Qiu Zhijiea€?s Romantic spirit began to disappear, his consciousness growing ever more modern.
However, even as Qiu Zhijie’s “negative Romanticism” has led him to create works that combine an almost classical aesthetic sensibility with the most contemporary of forms, his “positive Romanticism” has never let up. Until now he has realized these ideals through writing, curating, and other sorts of activities. The present “Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge Suicide Intervention Project” uses the methods of art to engage with a social reality. This project brings together works, virtual works, and non-works of every position and medium, and includes elements of collection, creation, adaptation, and cooperation. Qiu has called this project “both a long-term program of cultural research, and a massive outline for cultural production.” Listening to his introduction, I wondered it he was perhaps preparing to spend his entire life working on the Nanjing Bridge.
Official records maintain that over two thousand suicides have occurred on the Yangtze River Bridge since its completion. Qiu Zhijie made up his mind to approach the theme of the Bridge from this perspective, coming at this ideological monument from a perspective endowed with concern for reality. In fact nothing more ingeniously mocks the earlier role this architecture played as incarnation of the myth of utopian communist politics than the reality of the suicides that take place from atop it. These suicides form a microhistory that stands in sharp contrast to the official narrative of increasing prosperity and progressive socialism. In another sense, since the end of the Mao era, the Bridge’s power as a political symbol, like its capacity as an artery of transport, has gradually weakened and exhausted. The frequency with which people choose this place to take their own lives cannot but remind us of the extinction of belief, the upheaval of society, and the inhibition and despair of life.
One key part of Qiu Zhijie’s sprawling project calls for collaboration with a grassroots organization dedicated to saving suicide victims, an organization that works to return to normal life those who have been talked away from the ledge, those who have attempted suicide and been pulled back into the fold, those who have walked to the edge of the earth and returned. In doing so, this project transcends the realm of art and becomes a social action, such that when it is “exhibited” or otherwise presented “in the name of art,” it becomes a contradiction. Qiu Zhijie has always been sensitive to this problem, seeing the project as an opportunity to pose a question about the purpose of art. He hopes that this project can “transcend the quandaries of medium and style, expanding the site of art into the side of history.” Behind this ambition we can glimpse the influence of Fluxus, and more importantly, of the aspirations of modern art best personified by Joseph Beuys. As Beuys said, art “should not be only a metaphor, but a real tactic with which to enter into and change the battlefield of power that is society.” Nonetheless, as Robert Hughes argued in his The Shock of the New , the Western avant-garde of the 1960′ s and 1970′ s often erred on the side of “mistaking the art world for the real world,” even though art was incapable of intervening meaningfully into political life. Artistic discourse and practice that engaged social reality were not capable of changing objective social conditions, and in the end left nothing but works by artists, or rather, the image of the artist himself.
In another sense, however, even if the artist did not initially predict his own victory, he might nonetheless have attained nothing other than that. This method brings us back to the topic of Romanticism, as this ideal of using art to transform society is precisely the posture of the positive Romantics. True Modernism, on the other hand, espouses the prerequisite that art live only in an autonomous world of discourse, even if it does not rule out expressions of political circumstances and social existence. Perhaps, in completing this project, Qiu Zhijie will push us to reconsider these questions, or even change our opinions of them.