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Interview with Paper Dialogues Artist Qiao Xiaoguang

0315

Written January 24, 2022

by Leslie Anne Anderson

The body of the dragon resembles the double-stranded helix of human DNA, linking this symbol to the civilization from which it was born. On the opposite side are the distinct forms of flora and fauna, symbols of traditional China’s agrarian society projected into the surrounding gallery space to create an immersive experience for the visitor. In the exhibition Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories, the piece Fish and Dragon Change is displayed in conversation with Danish-Norwegian artist Bit Vejle’s works that explore the significance of the dragon in the Nordic region. Vejle’s Seven Dragon Eggs contain references to the culture of the Nordic countries across the past, present, and future. Within the exhibition, there is an interpretive video in which Vejle unpacks her complex compositions, and more information can be found in a recent interview conducted with the artist for the exhibition’s opening at the National Nordic Museum. Similarly, I interviewed Qiao to share more about the artist’s decades-long work in papercutting generally and his collaboration with Vejle in Paper Dialogues specifically, through his own words.

*LAA: Leslie Anne Anderson, Director of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programs, National Nordic Museum, Seattle

*QX: Qiao Xiaoguang, Artist and Professor, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing

Responses translated by Dr. Li Wang and edited by the National Nordic Museum's staff.

LAA: What led you to select papercutting as your preferred medium?

QX: I discovered folk papercutting more than 30 years ago, after graduating from college. In college, I studied Chinese painting, but I did not understand folk art. After I was introduced to papercutting, I began working in this medium because I felt that it more clearly expresses my feelings and creative vision. Papercutting is very simple and direct in terms of communicating a narrative, and this opened my artistic mind.

LAA: How does your work respond to the tradition of papercutting in China? What are your sources of inspiration?

QX: I have persisted in papercutting for so many years thanks to the study and research of the rural folk papercutting tradition. This tradition is not in books, but in life. Therefore, my sources of inspiration are both life and fieldwork. “Life” is not only the life of the individual artist, but the social life of fieldwork, where “history” means living in the present. Life itself is a book and a source of inspiration.

LAA: What are the key lessons that you teach your students about papercutting and their work in other media?

QX: I give a papercutting class at the Central Academy of Fine Arts [in Beijing]. There are two main types of courses: the first one is a practical course in the art of papercutting, in which the skills of papercutting are mastered and can be created through practice and the study of papercutting traditions. The second type of course is the study of field research and basic theory, which is to increase the cultural understanding of papercutting and to master the method of researching papercutting, which can be done independently.

LAA: You and Bit Vejle employ different papercutting techniques. However, the artistic conversation between your works is strong and rich. In your opinion, what did you learn from each other through the collaborative process?

QX: It was great to work with Bit as a cross-cultural dialogue. We selected the same theme—the dragon (in Chinese, it is “Long”)—to depict. The dragon’s meaning as a symbol differs depending on the culture that views it. So, the dialogue takes on a new mode of communication and mutual appreciation.

The dragons of both East and West have a very far-reaching history. Our dialogue about [two] dragons should not be examined in the original historical context of each, but in the global context of the current era. This dialogue has offered us new insights, especially in our understanding of [the medium of] papercutting itself. I did not expect that such a simple visual language as papercutting would be so loved and welcomed by everyone.

In the display of the artwork, I accepted Bit's technique of casting shadows with the hanging papercuts, but I produce a new projection effect combining light and papercuts. Individual artists' experiences and intellectual backgrounds offer new insights to both sides engaged in the artistic dialogue.

Our exhibition has been well-received in different countries, and people have enjoyed practicing the art of papercutting. The cultural affinity for papercutting makes us appreciate its cosmopolitan nature, and of course, papercutting is indeed a global artform. The origins of papercutting are traced to China, the country with the oldest history and the longest cultural heritage of papercutting in the world. However, papercutting is not only associated with the culture of a particular country, as many countries around the world also have a tradition of papercutting. Papercutting as a type of art is a worldwide phenomenon. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen was a talented pioneer in the art of papercutting, telling stories for children while making paper cutouts, and many fairy tales were inspired by it. [Artists in] the United States also practice the art of papercutting, and there are Mexican paper cutouts used in festivals and rituals. There are museums that display modern paper cutouts in the United States, as well as a papercutting art association.

LAA: Time and transformation are themes explored in the conception and format of Vejle’s Seven Dragon Eggs and in your piece Fish and Dragon Change. How did you address these themes in the works on display?

QX: My dialogue with Bit in papercutting is, first, about the understanding of dragons in different cultural backgrounds. Our creations both represent historicity and time, or more specifically the current reality of life. On the other hand, the artists' cultural backgrounds are different, and so is the artistic narrative. Bit borrows the ancient cultural narrative of the Viking era in Northern Europe, telling history through the symbolic seven eggs, but she incorporates more cultural details of today. I chose the Chinese idiom from the Song Dynasty: "the change from fish to Long," which I used to express the changing existence of Chinese people throughout time. China is now in a time of "changing from fish to Long" in its transformation from an ancient agrarian civilization to a modern industrial civilization. My papercutting creations are a metaphor for our [current] time. But, instead of using the details of real life, I use the [storytelling device of] "two sides of one paper" to symbolize the changes of a single era with the papercutting pattern itself. I created a new Long, the body of which [resembles] the DNA double helix structure of human genes, as a metaphor for the enduring Long in human memory. I use the seven colors of the rainbow for the colors of the Long, symbolizing an era of change, an era of flight.

LAA: What effect do you hope that this exhibition has on the public as it travels to museums around the world?

QX: We hope to raise awareness and expand understanding of papercutting—a medium of art that deserves to be appreciated, as well as to learn about dragons and stories from different civilizations through papercutting.

LAA: What are you working on currently?

QX: In February 2021, I held the exhibition The City of Hidden Fish at RENDEZ-VOUS GALLERY, SKP 4F, Beijing, which exhibited my newly created papercuts. I also conducted a survey of papercutting in the Silk Road region in the western part of China and discovered that papercutting has been passed down for thousands of years along the Silk Road. [The practice of papercutting] has been neglected in the study of the cultural heritage of the Silk Road for nearly one hundred years.

Archaeological discoveries of papercuts dating from 1000 to 1500 years ago have been made in three regions: in Turpan in Xinjiang, Dunhuang in Gansu, and Longxian in Shaanxi. The amazing thing is that more than one thousand years later, the tradition of papercutting is still being passed down in these regions of the Silk Road, and papercutting is still being [performed] by the people of these regions, which is an amazing Chinese story.

We are preparing to publish a two-volume book on the art of papercutting throughout the world, which includes European, American, and Asian volumes. This work has been underway for more than three years, and my international and domestic students and I have been working as volunteers to find information about papercutting in different countries of the world in seven languages. We have discovered more than twenty countries with papercutting art traditions. We have discovered a global practice of papercutting.