A Presentation by Qiu Anxiong: Museum of Unknown

Shanghai-based artist Qiu Anxiong is one of the founding members of Museum of Unknown. The following is a transcript of his presentation at Asia Art Archive in America on December 13 2013, on the occasion of his participation in the exhibition ‘Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 11 2013 – April 6 2014).

Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Xiaofei Mo and Jane DeBevoise

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Today I am delighted to introduce Qiu Anxiong who is here on the occasion of the opening of the Ink Art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anxiong has four videos on view at that exhibition, but tonight we are going to focus less on his art practice and more on his ‘museum’ practice. Eugenie (Tsai) is here tonight, and I remember well our discussion about the definition of ‘museum’ in China in the context of a presentation about the Times Museum in Guangzhou. So I am looking forward to your reaction to Anxiong’s project, which, as you will see, is also redefining the rules.

Qiu Anxiong (QA): Thank you Jane for the introduction. To give you a little bit of background, as you might have seen at the Met, one of my works is titled the New Book of Mountains and Seas, an animation series based on the ancient Chinese mythology Classic of the Seas and Mountains. This book offers a very special perspective on how to see the world and how the world is. For me, I like to look at the relationship between people and nature using a variation of angles.

The Museum of Unknown was initiated in 2007 by me and a group of young artists. The backdrop at the time was the art market rocketing in China. As a result, most of the market attention was fixated on a very small and limited art circle, while at the same time a lot of cultural activities became invisible and very few tried to connect with other areas or disciplines. Therefore the initial proposal for Museum of Unknown was to make a platform for dialogue and collaboration across different disciplines, including the arts, sociology, science, architecture, and other things.

Currently the active members are Jin Wang (金望) (Musician), Li Xiaohua (李晓华)(artist), Liao Fei (廖斐) (artist), Wu Ding (吴鼎) (artist), Wu Xiaohang (吴晓航) (artist), Xu Sheng (许晟) (curator), Zheng Huan (郑焕) (artist), and myself.

However the structure is really flexible, as every time there’s a different project we invite different people in. There are three simple principles set forth from the very beginning. First of all, there is no physical space. Secondly there is no curator – this is perhaps a response to the phenomenon that curator seems to have become a role that symbolizes power in the current art system, particularly in China. We hope to establish a more democratic dynamic in the Museum of Unknown, so that every member can equally discuss and participate in the decision-making. The last principle is that financial considerations should not be the precondition for our activities. Our projects can be done with or without money, because what’s important is not necessarily the final outcome, but the process of communication. In fact, for the first year or two, we just had discussion. It was all very informal. We’d talk over coffee or at a bar or in a friend’s apartment, which really doesn’t require any money.

At the time we were most interested in geographic psychoanalysis, rural development, and city pathology. We found maps particularly fascinating, and sometimes we drew up drafts. On the top left is a map tracing the movement of one thing – where [are] the source materials?, where is it processed?, where is it sold, consumed, and thrown away? Underneath is a map of one person from birth to death. On the right is another draft we made, the anatomy of the city — streets are just like blood and circulation systems, buildings are like muscle, the political system like the nervous system, commerce and business like the digestive system. We wanted to make a work out of that.

Left: map from Buddhism Sutra, South Zhanbu Zhou. Right: map from The Classic of Mountains and Seas

These two old maps are very different from modern maps. The left one is a Buddhist map of the whole world; the one on the right is from The Classic of Mountains and Seas. In the center is what we can think of as a continent. Surrounding it are thousands of islands. They are maps of imagination.

For me it’s interesting how and through which method people will come to know the world. We have physical limitations as well as limitations due to our knowledge backgrounds. Many things we cannot see, and cannot hear; yet they still exist. Also I think all the creative things humans have done occur between the known and unknown, at the border of these two, where things are not completely known, where there they are at the intersection. I think it’s very interesting to think about the things in between.

I will introduce three themes that run through our already completed work. One is about the geography of spirit; another is a discussion of value in the art system; and last is the relationship between art and science.

Geography of Spirit

The concept of geography and its knowledge system provides us with a very interesting starting point and boundary. Departing from the idea of geography, however, we are not pointing at the external physical environment, but rather at the internal spiritual space. Our knowledge system, either from belief or direct sensory experience, forms an imagination or inner image of the world, from which our work starts. On the other hand, our work has a lot to do with the exchange of experiences among participants – how does one find one’s position within a defined set of knowledge, and how the communication with others can generate new possibilities. Many interesting topics emerge in our dialogues. For example, Penglai and how a fabled locale enters the construction of history; the disappearance of nostalgia; soundscape and the imaginary geography; so on and so forth.

Seat of Meditation, 2010

We had our first exhibition in 2010 in a friend’s home, called Seat of Meditation. We invited some friends, artists and people who were interested in designing an installation or a way to meditate, and we exhibited all the draft proposals as well as some small installations.

Draft by Qiu Anxiong

Left: draft by Liao Fei. Right: draft by Zheng Huan

We know meditation is a state of mind; but we can also think about it in terms of space. As you reset all your senses to zero, as close to zero as possible, actually you are expanding the space indefinitely. Seat of Meditation is basically considering the sense of space.

Social Meditation – Party, 2012

Another project is called Social Meditation – Party. As the title suggests, it has more to do with society, and part of it is also quite ironic. In 2012 Aike-Dellarco Gallery in Shanghai invited us to plan an opening party, which seemed very entertaining, but at first we were not sure what to do. Soon I realized in the West the word ‘party’ has a double meaning: in one way it’s a form of entertainment, but also it means a political group. What connects both sides of its meaning is the sense of the public – a group of people forming a public space for sharing ideas and exchanging information, be it entertainment or politics. When this word came to China it only kept the meaning of entertainment, not the meaning of the political group. It’s very interesting because I think in China there’s no real public space.

Social Meditation – Party, 2012

So for this exhibition, we transformed the gallery into a living room and invited many people to the opening. Meanwhile eight films were projected on the wall. The images were mostly very cruel and depressing. At the opening everyone was excited. We drank and talked and looked at the images, but looking at them was like looking at scenery outside a window. As a matter of fact, it had no effect whatsoever. If you went back to the space at another time and looked at the images quietly, you would realize that space had a very sad and isolated feeling – a situation which is, I think, similar to the situation of Chinese intellectuals nowadays.

Social Meditation – Drift, 2013

September this year, we developed this project further into Social Meditation – Drift. This project took place at the Yuan Museum in Beijing, a space founded by the artist Zeng Fanzhi. This time the exhibition was about the movement and migration of things and humans, for various reasons.

Social Meditation – Drift, 2013

For example, one interesting part of in the exhibition was about genetically modified seeds in China and how the American company Monsanto operates in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. We also invited Li Yifan to shoot a documentary about migration from the Three Gorges Dam. Another filmmaker Fan Lixin made a film about migrant workers and the Spring Festival travel rush. Artist Xu Tan presented his recent project called Socio-Botanic, in which he researched the plants in the Pearl River Delta, and revisited his 1996 piece called Question 1.

Xu Tan, Social Botanic, 2013

System of Value

As we talk about art, what are we talking about?, 2010

The system of value is another question that interests us a lot. We had our second project at BizArt in July 2010. For those of you who don’t know, it was the last show of BizArt, which for a long time was a very important experimental art space in Shanghai. It was called As we talk about art, what are we talking about? This title comes from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

As we talk about art, what are we talking about?, 2010

It was not really an exhibition, but something between an exhibition, a party, a studio, and a bar. We put together many different things in the space – paintings, posters, photographs, drafts, texts, furniture, plants, and decorations – some from professional artists and some from amateur artists. People could come in, look around, sit down, have some tea, talk about art or gossip, make their own work, or simply do nothing.

As we talk about art, what are we talking about?, 2010

There was no boundary between things, but it became clear that each of these objects had its own value system. They kept questioning each other all the time. Whether these were artworks or not, you had to make your own judgment. We had a lot of arguments throughout the process. Xu Sheng even wrote an essay after the exhibition to bring up more questions. It was a very bustling and chaotic experience, and we hope to keep the discussion going.

Decoration, 2011

In 2011 we did another project called Decoration at Arrow Factory, Beijing. Again it was a simple test of the value system. We borrowed some artworks from artists, and turned Arrow Factory into an art lending library. Each work had a loan contract with conditions specified by the artist. Any visitor who was interested in the work and agreed to abide by the contract could borrow the work and bring it home for one month. The conditions varied from case to case, sometimes there was a security deposit, sometimes a letter, sometimes an ID. After one month, the work would be returned to the artist.

Contract with artist Xiao Jiang

In total we lent eight pieces, and luckily all works were returned to the artists in the end. One little surprise is that someone came in and borrowed a work, and then exhibited it as his own work in another exhibition. It turns out he was an artist himself.

Decoration, 2011

In the contemporary art world, particularly in the niche of ‘high art,’ concept and idea are the dominant values, while the discussion of aesthetic quality is generally considered irrelevant and outdated. The word decorative has become a pejorative term to describe a work which is too commercial or lacking in complexity. However, with the exception of a few works that are collected by public institutions, most artworks end up in the homes of collectors, in a private space. To some extent, these artworks all become some kind of expensive decoration. I think this contradiction more or less reflects the position of art in reality. Therefore we wanted to discuss the value of decoration through this little experiment, hoping it could become an entry point to tap into the question of ownership and the public.

Coral, 2011

Finally, along these lines, in 2011 the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art was planning a group show, and originally invited us, the Museum of Unknown, to do a special project. The idea was to do something that questioned the process of exhibition making. It was called Coral, because it had a structure that developed by itself. There was to be no curator in this exhibition. We just invited some artists, who could decide to invite other artists – by analogy each participant could control his/her neighbor, but no one could control the whole exhibition.

Coral, 2011

The space we were allotted could fit about 10 to 15 artists, but we ended up with 45 artists. The museum went a bit crazy of course, but they still let us do whatever we could do in the space. The exhibition got a bit out of control, and I think it looked horrible. It had no taste, at least it was not my taste. Anyway, it was interesting. The lines on the floor indicated who invited whom, so that you could see how the relationships developed. Instead of the pyramid structure of curator being the center of communication with all artists, we wanted to create a decentralized, network-like structure that encouraged parallel communication between artists.

Art and Science 

The last area of interest I want to talk about is art and science. In this area of interest, we organized three different exhibitions at the same time in September 2011. They were called PatternEncounter, and Vortex, which are three of the six themes we had in mind. The other three themes were SymmetryDisappearance, and Geographic Psychoanalysis.

Pattern considered the relationship between art and science and was realized at the Space Station in 798 Beijing. We invited many artists to join us, and organized a symposium with scientists to discuss pattern in geometry, physics, chemistry, and biology. A lot of the works exhibited were inspired by these discussions. We also presented a selection of articles and documents from Outlook Magazine which had a special issue about pattern.

Pattern, 2011. On the wall from left to right: Circle by Liao Fei, a triptych by Wu Ding, Patterns by Lore Vanelslande, and a kinetic piece by Chen Xi; On the ground are two installations by Qiu Anxiong, A string that bends freely, and A cube intersects a plane

Pattern, 2011. Left: installation by He Yida. Right: Every Inch of Material, No.1, Liao Fei

Pattern, 2011. Ceramics by Li Wen

The second project, Encounter, took the form of a section of an exhibition at the Times Museum in Guangzhou called ‘A Museum That’s Not.’ The show was about institutional critique and artists working with the idea of ‘museum.’ We wanted to blur the boundary between art and functionality, so we turned the lobby space into a mobile library where visitors could sit and read. We also made many functional objects that people could use and interact with. There were also a lot of collaborations in this project.

Encounter, 2011

Encounter, 2011. Light boxes by Zheng Huan. Pattern on the floor is Pythagoras’ music scale

Encounter, 2011. Left: Chair by Liao Fei and Qiu Anxiong, durian shelf by Qiu Anxiong. Right: table by Wu Ding, two chairs by Zheng Huan

Vortex was presented at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in a show called ‘Super-Organism.’ The section we were in was about the notion of machine. So for this project we made some kinetic installations, which looked kind of like an open and messy field for hydrodynamic experiments.

Vortex, 2011. Left to right: wooden frame and ropes by Qiu Anxiong, triangle ladder by Qiu Anxiong, table with fans by Liao Fei, Matrix Turbulence by Zheng Huan

Vortex, 2011. Left: Matrix Turbulence by Zheng Huan. Right: Every Inch of Material by Liao Fei

Vortex, 2011. Discussion with members of Squirrel Club. Table with fans by Liao Fei

Besides organizing exhibitions, we also regularly arrange discussions about art and science. The problem is we know too many artists but we don’t know scientists! To remedy this situation, we got a lot of help from the Squirrel Club, an NGO and online platform for amateur scientists. One of the discussions was titled Structure of Things: Quasicrystal, Islamic Pattern, and the Penrose Puzzle. We invited a scholar of Islamic culture as well as scientists to introduce relevant research in the field, including the work of Wang Hao, a famous Chinese American mathematician and logician.

As you can see, many of our projects are open-ended. We want to continue to develop these discussions with different people at different times. I hope the Museum of Unknown can be a container for all these actions, something that keeps growing and breathing. Thank you very much.

Disclaimer: Watermarked images are the exclusive property of their respective owners. Asia Art Archive in America does not hold copyright on them. All other images courtesy of the artist and Museum of Unknown


Qiu Anxiong was born in 1972 in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. He graduated from the Sichuan Art Academy (China) in 1994, and Kunsthochschule of University Kassel (Germany) in 2003. His work often consists of paintings, animations, and video installations, which investigates the relationship between human and nature, as well as ancient and modern culture. Selected solo exhibitions include ‘Utopia,’ Arken Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen (2009); ‘Nostalgia,’ 4A Gallery, Sydney (2009); ‘Qiu Anxiong Exhibition,’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2007); and ‘Decoding Time – Shredding Narratives,’ Bizart Art Center, Shanghai (2002). His work has been collected by MoMA NY, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kunsthaus Zurich, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, among others. He received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award in 2006. He lives and works in Shanghai.


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