Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester
18 January - 2 March 2013
Review by Carol Huston
Ma Qiusha’s debut solo exhibition in the UK presents several of her key works to date, from 2007 to 2012. The Beijing-based artist (b.1982) describes her practice as ‘weaving a net based on my life trace in order to certify my sense of presence under particular and instant contexts’. Interested in the ‘sharpness of things’ as her predominant subject matter, the artist often uses herself and found objects in her work. Working across media, from video to performance to watercolour, Ma Qiusha’s minimalist offerings reflect upon her personal history and life in contemporary Beijing.
The exhibition begins with a collection of her late grandfather’s beard clippings, in ‘Two Years Younger Than Me’ (2011). Mounted on a narrow beam, the row of dated medicine bottles hold the shavings which he idiosyncratically collected during the last years of his life. Whilst the items could easily be considered as found objects, Ma Qiusha is against this interpretation. Instead, she envisions the shavings as having a more complex, mystical connotation: ‘For me, my grandfather’s beard shavings are not personal objects, not even to be regarded as objects’, she explained. ‘It’s something about a mysterious or divine sign in mind. After his passing, it becomes a bridge between both of us to communicate as being a singleton under inter-generation’. Positioned next to the clippings is a short narrative discussing the memory of her grandfather.
The artist’s notion of the ‘sharpness of things’ is carried throughout the exhibition, particularly as translated through the symbol of the blade. The motif recurs through her work; the inclusion of a razor, a pair of ice skates, and even the prickly beard shavings point towards this obsession. In her two short films, ‘All My Sharpness Comes From Your Hardness’ (2011) and ‘From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili’ (2007), the artist’s fascination with sharp objects is used to represent her relationship with her family as well as the city itself. In the first film, Ma Qiusha places a small razor blade her in mouth whilst reflecting upon her childhood experiences. In the latter, the viewer is presented with a narrow angle of ice skates cutting against the hard surface of a street in Beijing.
As Yoko Ono once said, ‘The mirror becomes a razor once it’s broken’, an surely this quote feeds into Ma Qiusha’s symbolism of the blade. The artist embraces sharpness through a self-reflexive dialogue with the memory of her past experiences. Although the insertion of a razor into her mouth seems tame in comparison to past works by other female performance artists such as Marina Abramovic, Gina Pane and Kira O’Reilly, Ma Qiusha’s suggestion of mutilation hints at the pain endured during her childhood as well as the pain of discussing it. Through this potentially violent act, the artist demonstrates extreme self-control as well as ownership over her own physicality.
A particularly striking work in the exhibition is ‘Fog no. 6’ (2012), a large, framed watercolour on paper taken from an on-going series. A diagonal white line scratched into the surface creates a visual tear across the lower section of the painted black paper. This mark echoes the cut a blade would make, linking it to the visual suggestions in Ma Qiusha’s videos. At first glance ‘Fog no. 6’ recalls minimalism at its height, but upon closer inspection reveals an intricate pattern weaved into the canvas’ surface. As in the other works displayed, the painting reveals the underlying psychological pain of the artist, if somewhat suppressed.