I think the world’s established system of signification exhausts Xie Qi. A “rose” is not just a prickly plant; it must also be the flower of love. “Eighteen years” is not just a number indicating age; it refers to youth and to looking ahead: a young face beaming with quiet excitement. What is signified is constantly expanding, solidifying, depositing layer upon layer of meaning onto each word like a murky substance. The system forcibly takes each person with it, constructing a unified cognition and imagination, while individualized and specialized sensitivities wither and fade.
Of all the lines, colors, and images—all of the signifiers that bear similarities to words—there is not a single one left that is not attached to this murky sediment. Artists use signs to refer to something, and instead become the referents themselves. An artist wants to tame the object of his labor, but often risks being enslaved by it. He struggles, twists, turns, and battles with each symbol, trying different words and phrasings in a fraught attempt to make his author’s mark. A person is defined by his style; the individual must show through the work. But the ever-growing system of signification nags and strands the artist from the outset: it points out and returns back to him every single one of his painstaking attempts. A crude name, Jing Hao’s cracked brush techniques, Rembrandt’s light: once established, each signifier is incorporated into the system. The artist has no choice but to create with pre-established signs. There is nothing more than pinching the brush flat or pressing it round, adding black or increasing light, blurring the background, revealing in slight glimmers the crevices of life inexpressible through words, using slight deviations from the expected, all to bring out those things that already belong to the world of our perception.
This process is tiresome. It promises freedom, but often it does more to restrict freedom. He who has not experienced this exhaustion first-hand is not an artist. Perhaps he is a teacher, a politician or a businessman, but he is not an artist.
As the artist’s weariness grows heavier, he fortunately discovers that layers of meaning are not in fact inherent in the symbol itself. In its very substance, the symbol is a chance juncture of “image” and “meaning.” Conventional usage, though it does become law over time, can be broken down and peeled away. Layers of signification accumulate like a thick mucous resistant to change, but one can still try one’s best to eradicate them—it is in fact possible to restore symbols to their freedom. For instance, a “banknote” can actually be just a painting: a print that superimposes foreground, middle ground, and background with dramatic sensibility. When an artist paints a banknote, he is actually sketching the likeness of yet another painting.
In third-person abstraction we use the pronoun “he,” but the person I specifically refer to here is a she. Fortunately the question of “he” or “she” here is unimportant. In my opinion, Xie Qi’s paintings do not need to be specified as “female” for us to be able to interpret them.
Money, banknotes. The Chinese yuan. The Swiss franc.
When a friend of the artist’s saw these paintings, he had difficulty accepting them, but he couldn’t explain why. All he could ask, frankly, was “Why are you painting money?”
“Why can’t I paint money?,” Xie Qi replied.
This nearly empty exchange left a deep impression on me.
What sign out there has more significance attached to it than “money”? As with “soul,” “labor,” “sex,” or “love,” it describes something fundamental to human existence. Purely material symbols themselves are in dialectical opposition to the spiritual. They correspond with will, desire, dreams, evil. “Money” is more definite and specific than other concepts. Its image is represented in the immediate present by a bill, which amasses its own host of political and geographical significations. Ideology and custom permeate its presence, culture and language are engraved onto its very surface. Is the banknote, stuffed airtight with signification, overripe with imagery, connoting something too straightforward to play the role of artistic subject matter? It is straightforward to the point of vulgarity, whether it is used ironically or symbolically. Was this the concern of the question asker?
The respondent’s thoughts seemed to float on another level, not deigning to engage in battle. To her, “painting banknotes,” “painting landscapes,” “painting human figures,” “painting a painting:” what’s the difference? —breaking banknotes free from signification is possible.
She says the classical art she saw in museums she visited during her trip to Italy are directly related to these paintings. Her desire to paint especially full canvases was sparked during that trip. “It both honors painting and dishonors painting.” It honors it through the imitation of the technique, through its homage to the mysterious and glorious light of classical paintings: the mesmerizing superficial beauty, the nobility of holy angels and solemn epics. It dishonors it through misappropriation. These techniques have all been misappropriated before, but now the subject of misappropriation is money. She even mentions da Vinci in her references, a surprising connection.
“People and landscapes are both subjects that I like. Banknotes bring these two subjects together from a special angle. The subject matter has not changed; it’s all an extension of the same breath.”
The magic of these works lies in how the viewer sees a regular painting on first glance, but falls suddenly into hyperspace on second glance. The landscapes of Guilin or the Three Gorges of the Yangtze are truncated and enshrouded in brilliant light and confounding mist. Glimmers of brightness shine through meticulous hairline lineaments like a configuration of capillaries, enabling respiration and circulation. Traces of flow magically transform into bodily fluids. Faint, warm rust-like colors emerge through slate-grey tones, “multi-colored” and almost garish—in line with the garish theme—like swaths of red silt on cool-colored skin. Mixing landscapes with the human body, connecting man to the universe: all of it is in the command of the creator’s strong personal style. This is Xie Qi’s sex appeal. There is no difference in this sense between her images of Mao and her portraits of a charming transvestite queen (the series she created prior to this one with Fan Qihui as her model).
The objects we are in contact with every day and with which we are most familiar have never seemed so strange before. A kind of vision plays a role here that helps us understand her draw to da Vinci. She has always considered painting from the classical perspective. Painting promises the freedom of having always more to unearth, even today. Artists born to paint have a tacit understanding of this truth. For them, painting will never lose its magic. They don't need to turn to other media. Conceptual grasp has not made Xie Qi drop the category, because even with a thorny subject like banknotes, she still can continue the discussion she wants to and express herself purely, in the context of pure painting. Her paintbrush chips away at the rigidly frozen rules of signification. As with Adam following God’s decree to name all things, that joy of the first naming is how the game begins. But renaming—breaking out of pre-existing signs—is even more difficult because it is about destruction and rebuilding. Xie Qi makes her own rules, using colors in her own way—especially her many shades of green—to make forms gradually disappear under thick layers of paint, before, with a little distance, emerging again on the painting surface. This sign-free freedom does not just produce an emotional response in us. It gives us a clearer view of the precise rationale to every inch of the painting surface.
Freedom, which I believe to be the same thing as painting, is the “career” to which Xie Qi is most happy to devote herself. In the moment of freedom, she can become her own God.
The purple and yellow image of Mao and the painting of the Potala Palace on the Fifty Yuan note were both completed at a friend’s studio. Xie Qi rode a bus for over an hour to arrive at there. It is a room filled with plants and home to three cats. She painted slowly. If you went to look at the canvas frequently, almost no change could be detected from day to day. But if you came back after a period of time, Mao’s face would seem to grow a bit older, his expression showing a bit more pain. The slowness of the process implied the plight of the artist. The hardest parts: deciding when to stop, deciding if it needs more or less, deciding when the painting is finished, deciding what the next step is. The question of figurative versus abstract was perhaps an easier decision to make; relatively speaking the conditions were more clear-cut. In rendering defined subjects with a uniquely chaotic approach, she is able to raise more questions about painting itself, about perception and psychology.
For other pieces, she worked at her own apartment, which doubles as a studio. On a day without smog, through the living room’s west-facing nineteenth floor windows, the setting sun is clear behind the mountains and over the subway stations and city buildings. The interior is grey: not much furniture, a few quirky touches and trinkets. Xie Qi does not need too much space, nor does she have an extravagant set up for her work. The studio has a rare tidiness to it. The task of renaming established signs sets her in the direction of impossibility, and the solitude of the artist verifies the difficulty of the task. All on her own, she can feel each component part of the process. She has remarked that one time, during a nap, she woke up and felt as if the arm pressing down on her body was not hers. But whose was it? It was very heavy. She could not lift it up.
Cats silently haunt the room, making the studio seem even more silent. At one point Xie Qi had a stable job at an art college. Later on, feeling bound by duty, she resigned. Was there a conflict between this work and her painting? Perhaps for her there was, if art is to be based on absolute independence.
She is sensitive to the meaning in metonymy and dissociation. Not only in painting but also in thought and feeling—in every aspect of her existence—she has the courage to break away from established definitions. This is what puts her at a certain distance from everything. Only when you understand this distance can you understand the coldness and the warmth that coexist in her.
Artists are descendants of a most ancient human tribe. The blood and spirit of this tribe are passed down in secret clues over the generations. In any era, members of this old family are a rare breed. Fortunately or unfortunately, Xie Qi is one of them.