A cat and Mao game for art

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 17, 2013

Through intricate pencil drawings, artist Qiu Jie confronts the history of Chinese society and the impact of Western popular culture.

His work, which combines elements of ancient Chinese art with contemporary imagery, often draws on his past and is in several important collections, including that of the Saatchi Gallery in London.

His solo show, now on at Art Plural Gallery in Armenian Street, features 21 of his recent artworks, including 18 pencil drawings, two oil paintings and an installation created for this exhibition.

Prices start from $4,000 and go up to more than $100,000.

In an e-mail interview with Life!, the artist, who is based in Geneva, says he was drawn to pencil as a medium for his drawing when he was a student at the School of Fine Arts in the Swiss city.

Working on a limited budget, the Shanghai-born artist says he could not afford expensive art materials.

But he wanted to create a large-scale artwork for his final-year project and pencil on paper "turned out to be the cheapest option".

As a struggling artist, he continued using what he calls the "simplest possible art material - pencil and paper - because of my financial constraints".

"But I ended up falling in love with its bare simplicity and it soon became my artistic style," he adds.

His pencil drawings are intricate, detailed, layered and nuanced. Each work tells many different stories.

His Da Zi Bao series, which can be seen in this exhibition, draws inspiration from the handwritten, wall-mounted propaganda posters used during the Cultural Revolution in China.

"I borrowed the form as it is very flexible and it allows me to talk about many issues," says Qiu.

"The form itself is open to many possibilities. I like how it allows me to use elements of drawing and mix them with propaganda images. I often use these to talk about issues related to Chinese society."

Another recurring element in his art is his cat.

"The cat happened quite by accident. I had introduced my cat named Mao in some of my artworks and they were very well-received. The word 'mao' means cat in Chinese," he says.

The word also gave him the option to pun on some of the things that happened in China during former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's time.

His art was profoundly shaped by those times.

The 52-year-old spent his childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution drawing and copying propaganda images from local newspapers, inspired by the "dazibao" aesthetics.

"My personal life is the biggest inspiration for my creative process. Each work is triggered by my past experiences," he says.

"Growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China and moving to Switzerland gave me the opportunity to understand and appreciate the differences between the two worlds.

"The distance I have also helps me look at China differently. In the process of creation, I often draw on memory and on past experiences, even when I am looking at contemporary Chinese society because the present is always shaped by the past."

He graduated from the School of Decorative Arts in Shanghai in 1981 and worked as a designer for a state company. In 1994, he moved to Geneva to study and the move proved crucial to his practice.

His work has been exhibited widely including in gallery and museum shows including those at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel, at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai.

He has been working on this solo show for nearly four years. The artist is married to a former photographer and has a 14-year-old son.

"I know four years sounds like such a long time, particularly at a time when artists are expected to produce a lot of work. But I like taking time over each of my artworks. I believe art cannot be rushed," says Qiu.

While he has been experimenting with black and white, and pencil on paper, he sees himself using more colour in the future.

"As an artist, I feel it is important to experiment with forms and mediums. Much as I like using pencils, I am currently working on a new series of work with gouache over calligraphy paper," he says.

"It is also compelling me to use more colour, so things might change by the time you see my next show."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 17, 2013

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