Mei Xian Qiu: Qilin
Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles
March 1 - April 19, 2014
By: MEGAN ABRAHAMS, MAY 2014
In the contemporary vein of photography that explores fictional vistas, in lieu of documenting reality, Mei Xian Qiu has constructed a haunting two-dimensional dystopia within glass borders, evolving from the theme Qilin. A benevolent Chinese mythical creature, the Qilin symbolizes hybridism and duality. It is said to appear at rare intervals as a harbinger of change and good luck. The name is a combination of the two characters qi (male), and lin, (female); and themes derived from or inspired by the Qilin are woven throughout this striking body of work.
The images are the outcome of the artist’s inquiry into her own identity. She grew up a third-generation member of the persecuted Chinese minority in Java, Indonesia. After her family immigrated to the US, Qiu returned to China several times in a futile search for clues about her own background. Resolute, she adapted a collection of cultural archetypes as the foundation for constructing a version of a world in which to root and validate her own identity. In the course of constructing this concept of self, she realized a unique artistic vision replete with unexpected and surprising influences acquired on a circuitous journey. Qiu’s staged images present a fantasy worldview, both disturbing and alluring. Featuring role-playing actors and set in artfully altered derivative landscapes, her compositions are manipulated with devices like light boxes and hyper-pigmentation.
Unique among the limited edition prints included in this series, Here is the Deepest Secret that Nobody Knows (2013), glows from within. The image is mounted in a light box, which exaggerates an already vivid palette with the added artifice of a lavender-rose hue. In this image a reclining female figure dressed in a pink satin cheong-sam with an incongruous military jacket thrown over her shoulders dominates the foreground. Dead flowers and branches surround her. The image is lush with vegetation and greenery, but also permeated with decay. As in much of Qiu’s work, a grim sense of irony prevails.
Most of Qiu’s compositions are set outdoors in manipulated landscapes; one exception is The Bird Cage (2012). The setting is an interior, the black background distorting any sense of perspective. The subject is a woman’s head and torso, her head inside an ornate flower-strewn bird cage, a yellow bird perched on top. We see only the hand and tattooed arm of the figure holding the cage over her head. The woman’s face is carefully made-up, her hair coiffed. Adorned in jewelry -- a rose quartz necklace, pearls, and dangling earrings -- she looks up at her captor, as if merely questioning rather than resisting her predicament. The theme of duality surfaces in The Lovers (2012), which portrays two entwined female figures reclining in front of a distant tree-lined horizon. The background is tinted with a rosy sunset; yellow and pink flowers dominate the foreground. The female in front wears a pink corset. She gazes off in the distance, while her lover looks at her. Despite the infusion of warm rose hues, there is a cold and even stark quality to the landscape upon which the figures are superimposed.
In a more recent work, The Nymph of the River Luo; Spring (2014), the duality concept is further explored. In this image, two female figures (both nymphs) embrace on a bench amid a profusion of Disney-pink blossoms connoting spring. The figures are bound together with a pink ribbon. Flowers and ribbons festoon the foreground, birds perch on the branches above. The scene is full of life, but devoid of joy, laden with a mysterious, invisible air of dread. There is a painterly quality to Qiu’s photographs; they are much more than two-dimensional compositions of harmony and light. They are striking, layered, complex, and jarring. In Cherry Blossoms (2012), an elegantly attired female figure, a spray of cherry blossoms in the foreground, stands in front of four hanging animal carcasses, as if in a butcher shop or meat locker. She confronts us, nonplussed, as if this scene were nothing out of the ordinary.
Qiu alternates between the intense saturated colors of her manipulated settings, to austere compositions, verging on grey tones. The Nymph of the River Luo, Winter, (2014), is the last of four parts, one for each season. The setting is a snowy white landscape with mountains in the background. A male figure, only head and torso visible, lies in the foreground. In this cold landscape, the figure is dressed merely in a white tank top and a military cap. He gazes outward, appearing hopeless, as if this were an ending. The Nymph of the River Luo; Autumn, (2014), also portrays a nude male figure. He is draped with cloth, alone in a forest setting; in the foreground is a still life with grapes and flowers. A toppled Buddha’s head suggests a deposed deity or ruler. The scene is intensely decorative, and vaguely Rococo.
This exhibit is an offshoot of Qiu’s previous series, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom -- her portrayal of a futuristic Chinese takeover of the United States. In that series the artist used props, costumes and paraphernalia from a Beijing photography studio specializing in staging photo sessions for tourists seeking to re-enact propaganda imagery from the cultural revolution. Some of the images from the earlier series are included in the Qilin exhibition, such as Hollywoodland, (2010). Here, a young soldier in back view, his fist raised in salute, stands on a precipice overlooking the Hollywood sign. The figure is superimposed on the landscape; the word is Hollywood stencil-cut out of the print, mounted on plexiglass, so the letters are filled in by the white of the wall behind. The sky and hills are tinged with rose, as at sunset or dawn. A conqueror, the boy surveys his conquest.
Artfully staged, and orchestrated with calculated intent, on the surface, Qiu’s images are resplendent with color and light. Beneath that layer the throughline of Qiu’s narrative discourse is both intentionally disturbing and consistently engaging. It is this contrast of visionary beauty and troubling subject matter combined that endows her work with such profound and indelible impact. While the concept of the Qilin as a symbol of change may be imbued in these images, instead of foretelling good luck or fortune they seem to portend doom. In Qilin, Qiu conveys an underlying sense of conflict steeped in a tea of fatalism. It seems as if her subjects -- and perhaps she herself -- are resigned to accept the strange world they find themselves inhabiting. After living in Indonesia, Europe, and the US, and in the course of her travels to China, Qiu has embarked on a metaphorical journey as well, to seek a sense of her own truth, arriving at this vibrant, perplexing frontier of her own invention.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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