Studio Visit: Mei Xian Qiu, Ephemerality, Magic and Rebirth
By Gary Brewer
“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Zhuang Zhou
Memory exists in the mind and body. Artists convey through their work, the experiences that have shaped them; these external forces inform consciousness and shape one’s worldview and the content of their art.
We are born in a place and time of a certain sex and ethnicity. The vicissitudes of fate determine whether these are auspicious facts of life or not. The machinations of history impose contours to the values of a culture: what is good or bad, acceptable or not.
It is a cruel logic born of the human desire to control and shape the world. Artists who are born into worlds that they are not accepted in, have a particular vantage point from which to see reality. It is a fiction that casts them in an uncertain state, a shape-shifting mirage to survive the capriciousness of human folly.
Speaking with the artist Mei Xian Qiu was a fascinating journey into the rich life history that informs her work.
Mei was born in Java, Indonesia. She is half Chinese and half Indonesian. At the time it was illegal to be Chinese and to live in Indonesia. Her family had to change their name many times to fit the different needs of a shape-shifting universe. There were crack-downs of the Tionghoa, the ethnic Chinese who have lived in Indonesia for centuries, so it was an uncertain state of mind: an ambiguous realm where one’s identity was unfixed. Mei was not fully Chinese or Indonesian. This fugitive state of being has shaped the poetics of the shifting histories and identities in her beautifully staged and conceived images.
At the age of six her family split up and Mei was sent to live with her grandparents in a small village that retained its ancient traditions. The village was located next to a dense jungle. Komodo dragons, giant ten-foot long carnivorous lizards that have been know to attack and eat humans, especially children, lived in the region.
Though her family had converted from Buddhism to Christianity several generations before and lived in a Muslim majority country, animism and magic were still a dominant part of the rural village life where she lived until she was 11. Mei described this to me. “The belief in magic was a powerful presence. The people of this village believed that the spirits of deceased children lived in the trees in the jungle and called upon shamans for healing and divination to foretell the future. There were many witches and warlocks in my family, and my uncle was a powerful warlock. His eyes were so intense; to look at him was terrifying.”
Each Sunday they walked one hour to church to attend the morning mass. The sun rose at 6 am everyday, as they lived near the equator. The shafts of light that came through the stained glass windows represented in Mei’s young mind, the promise of the West, of a better modern world.
She said of this, “I feel that my work is informed by a post-colonial context. That in my youth I looked to the West and the modern world as something superior, something I desired. It was a form of magic represented in these shafts of light from the stained glass windows. It has shaped the narratives that inform my work. The layers of history that shape my aesthetic, and my tenuous unfixed identity of not being Chinese or Indonesian, of living in a fugitive state, has had an impact. I create work that expresses renewal, rebirth, of how new identities emerge. My work deals with self, and the need for a kind of magic self that we use to survive intact and whole, and evolve.”
Her images have always affected me in a subtle way. They are beautiful and have an erotic aspect, with a sense of gender fluidity to their sexuality. There are political elements and a strong presence of historical allusions. Caravaggio is suggested in some, the propaganda images of Maoist China in others. The feeling of highly staged fashion and glamour come to mind, as well as early twentieth century portrait photographs of Asians donning Western attire and sensibility, suggesting their quest for modernity and Western values. Each of these characterizations has a fleeting evanescence. They are mirage-like in their unfixed nature.
Mei spoke about her work and some of the ideas that inform the metaphoric language she explores. “ My work is about rebirth and renewal. It is not about identity per se, but about the fleeting nature of identity and how we continually reform and recreate our selves.” Her work expresses the ever-becoming nature of reality, that nothing is fixed; it is the creative spirit that animates form, the spiritual essence of life, that continually fills the shifting forms we are required to inhabit in order to survive.
I asked about several pieces that have a male model, dressed in what appears to be a Maoist uniform that was worn during the Cultural Revolution. The young man has a flower in his mouth and is formally posed before many iconic locations; the Hollywood sign, the stained glass window of a church, or the Grand Canyon.
Mei told me, “These works are a reference to the 100 Flowers Campaign of 1956 in China. Mao had lessened the restrictions on critical discourse and encouraged artists and intellectuals to come out and openly critique the government: to have an open discourse and create a cultural flowering. It was abruptly changed after several weeks and many of the artists, educators and intellectuals were imprisoned. We do not know if it was intentional or not, if Mao was trying to get the foxes out of the holes. But it is a famous incident of hope, followed by calamity. So the models that I used for this series are all Chinese educators, artists and intellectuals. The flowers I placed in his mouth are a symbol of the 100 Flowers Campaign, but they are also meant to feminize the model. I am also interested in beauty and find that the beauty of a flower is in part, its fleeting nature. Its impermanence adds to it’s beauty.” One can feel the metaphoric poetics of beauty as a fleeting experience in Mei’s work, that beauty is enhanced by its temporal nature.
Most of the photographs by Mei that I know, have been printed on sheets of plexiglass mounted on spacers that suspend them several inches away from the wall. Or if framed, suspended off of the white background. The image is naturally projected onto the surface behind it by the ambient light or the artificial light in the room. It creates a secondary image that has a spatial quality that is subtly evocative. It is an after-image that suggests memory, it also creates a 3-D dimensionality reminiscent of 19th century stereoscopic photographs, and it has a mirage like quality that is spectral and ghostlike all at once. They express the fleeting evanescence of a state of being in flux.
Mei had one piece in her studio, from a new series that she is working on. It is a small lenticular photograph that superimposes an image of a crucifix onto the portrait of a young man. When I asked about it, Mei responded, “This piece has photographs of some images and objects given to me by a German family. Their father had been a soldier and fought in the WWII in support of Hitler. Germans have largely tried to erase away this history and to forget. They do not look upon and honor their elders from this time as they made this horrific historical mistake. These are things that they have kept as part of their family history and they asked me if I could create a work that would purge these objects of the shadow of history that they contained. Many people from different cultures believe that objects can carry the weight of history, and that a trace of something terrible can become embedded within them. I took these objects and brought them to different holy men to have them purged and purified. I went to a Rabbi, a Priest, a Buddhist monk and a Shaman and each of them, in their tradition, cleansed the objects of their historical shadow. I then photographed them and created this work.” The piece has a religious reliquary-like quality to it – it is a new direction in which Mei continues to explore the idea of transformation and renewal.
Magic is alive. It is as simple as the marks on this page being transformed in your mind into images, stories and metaphors. Our mind is a form of cinema where the memories of the past and musings about the future flicker in rapid succession, each moment transforming the future into the present and then to the past. A river of shadows that we weave into stories and images that fix an identity for a moment, a century or millennia.
Mei Xian Qiu is an artist who sees the fugitive nature of self as a form of potential. Her art is an expression of magical realism where history, identity and self are a reflection of her life experiences that have given her insight into the endless possibilities of transformation and renewal.