Qiu Anxiong, Minguo Landscape, 2007, black and white animation film
Minguo Landscape (2007) is a beautiful animated film by Chinese contemporary artist, Qiu Anxiong, alluding to China’s journey of transition from more than 2000 years of imperial rule to becoming a Republic. In this transition that sought to bring about stability and progress, the founding was nevertheless fraught with many difficulties, including being dominated by warlords, internal conflicts as well as foreign powers. Strife continued until the late 1920s to 1930s, where banking and currency systems were reformed, accessibility improved with the building of railways and highways, as well as improvements to public health resources and facilities and changes made to augment industrial and agricultural production.
Set against contemporary realities where today’s China continues to change, relentlessly pursue modernisation and progress economically and materially, Qiu Anxiong’s work, Minguo Landscape (2007) offers images of nostalgia, progress and loss over the passage of time in China’s landscapes—from imperial rule to Republic, followed by being invaded by Japan to life after that. Underlying this narrative belies a hint of apocalyptic pessimism of these changes, complemented and reflected in the medium of black Chinese ink, which bleeds and weeps in various instances in the film. In Qiu’s words, he expresses,
“In my memory, the Republic of China is black and white pictures, full of misery and war. Also, wine and roses, gifted scholars and beautiful ladies. History is made of stories written in our daydreams. Only the handwriting is real, not the stories themselves. The curvature of time will scatter the history we know into pieces that shine like crystal glass; pretty but untrue. The blossom of the Republic of China is buried under a mundane wave … As we stand at the end of the world today, we see the flourishing and the ruins. Trying to look for the pure landscape of the past, we can think only of how time passes.”
Qiu’s animation work processes requires him to paint each of his images onto a small canvas, where the paint can easily be wiped off partially or completely. This then allows the next image to be painted over the existing images. These images are then photographed and post-edited on computer using video editing software. In some sense, Qiu’s style and medium of Chinese calligraphy painting, his process of painting and wiping the images, followed by painting over poetically echo and emulate the very traditions, nostalgia and changes of China he records in his narrative—creating, erasing, replacing, (re)creating and recording.
This movement of history and how landscape is constantly (re)made in Qiu’s work is not merely recorded through his drawings, but accompanied by the music as well. At the beginning of Minguo Landscape, one is greeted by a man’s soulful singing. As the narrative proceeds, a new epoch seems to find a corresponding sound style. In the subsequent changes that happen across time, power changes and shifting ideologies, the soundscape grows to encompass more layers and contemporary styles of music and singing, even including trumpets that emulate the buzzing of bees.
As the organic and vast natural world constantly changes to give way and transform into a modern urban environment, the music similarly takes turn to emphasise on the different styles. Yet as one style takes on dominance, viewers can still hear the traces and contrapuntal tunes of the other styles, as if alluding to how in the passage of time forward, echoes of the past are entwined with the present, and that time does not quite belong wholly to one style/epoch. In the end, the presence and absences of these layers of music end up creating something new, yet familiar. The accompanying soundscape seems to sing of emotions of one facing changes—moving forward into the new, yet pining or looking for something of the old and once familiar all at once.
Perhaps all these underscore Qiu’s sentiments towards changes and the intimate yet complex relationships between notions of old and new—they are not quite antithetical to each other, nor do they demand or signify an erasure of their counterpart. Rather to Qiu, ‘the new and old extend each other, enhance each other and, in the end, constitute each other. The objects of the world are produced and extinguished in the continual flux of time. New things gestate in the belly of the old.’
In our own contemporary Singapore, the parallels of change and development, accompanied by losses and erasures are felt through the rapid transformations in our landscapes. Countless communities, (ancestral and biological) homes and land have disappeared to give way to the new. Nagging behind these changes lie questions and yearnings of what used to be there, and what was lost. Yet, where nostalgia has surfaced over the recent few years, there is little collective sense of fear, cautious optimism or discussion of the costs of this progress on various stratospheres of society.
At the end of the day, who can we count on to record the sights and sounds of these losses for us? Who would create and sing songs that tell of our tenuous desires towards modernisation and loss? Who would also hear of these songs? After all, the shiny side of progress on the coin would continue to beckon and enamour us, while the underside of the coin bearing losses would most probably be erased and written over rapidly.
Chieng Wei Shieng