Qian Li @ CSU Gallery

Cleveland State University’s cavernous gallery has been put to a variety of uses over the
years, giving aesthetic sanctuary to many artistic genres. But CSU assistant professor
Qian Li’s Silent Mix may be the first show there that uses the room’s sheer size to evoke
the vastness of being itself, of becoming and passing away.  

For Silent Mix the banks of gallery lights are turned off and calm, repetitive music plays
somewhere in the middle distance. A sort of twilight prevails, and the upper reaches of the
gallery are lost in deep shadow. But window-like rectangles of light provide gradual, gentle
illumination. Darkness always holds a threat and a promise, and Li uses this psychological
condition to build suspense around her digitally-based, “new media” work.

Dream-like, Qian Li’s installation seems to breathe to the sound of collaborator Eric
Eichhorn’s electronic score, interwoven with lyrics spoken by Qian herself. The show
includes large-scale prints on canvas, several videos, and, near the entrance, a work that
combines projection with sculptural elements. Transformation’s eerie tentacles flow from
the top of the gallery’s long southern wall, connecting to the back of a three-part
projection displaying constantly moving abstract imagery.  As Qian remarks, the piece
glows, “like a living creature from a surreal world.” Light pulsates through several feet of
wide, tubular constructions made from steel and translucent fabric. They seem almost to
float or swim several feet overhead.

The undersea feeling is appropriate, since water is the central image of Qian’s Taoist-
inspired works. Born and raised in China where she was educated at the Central Academy
of Fine Arts in Beijing, the artist was trained in traditional Chinese painting, adapting its
principles to more purely abstract, Minimalist-influenced works as she embraced digital
processes. Her years teaching at CSU and studying at Dartmouth, where she earned her
MFA in 2003, have added a western, or simply global, sheen to processes and a
philosophy deeply rooted in ancient idioms.  She mentions an interest in Tibetan art and
culture fueled by a long-standing interest in Buddhist thought and art.
Mainly, though, Silent Mix explores themes found in the sage Lao Tsu’s 6th century BC
treatise the Tao Te Ching. The perfection of water as a model for behavior is at the core
of that classic: “The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water…is content
with the places that all men disdain.”  Qiang Li’s prints in particular are based on ideas of
flow and the importance of absence as they recapitulate her personal artistic history.

Beginning with strokes on paper, she scans  hand-made marks with digital stills of things
like drops of water into Photoshop, finally printing them on primed canvas. The largest
completed works at CSU are about 8’/4’ and shimmer under the gallery’s spot lights,
producing the window-like effect mentioned above. Titled as if from another ancient
Chinese text, the I Ching, they evoke the mystery and power of natural phenomena and
qualities. Storm, for instance, is composed simply of a broad brownish-black horizontal
brushstroke near the top – a distant horizon across a lake, a low-lying cloud bank, or
possibly an enlargement of some microscopic object or event. Just beneath it on the left a
series of reddish blots clot, then trail at intervals down the length of the canvas. Hidden is
even more like a landscape, bounded by uneven dark swathes at top and bottom and
featuring a plant-like mark branching vertically in the space between them. The only
colors are these warm blacks and russet-reds, set against a creamy background: the
ancient, symbolic color triad celebrated by poets and artists from time immemorial. In
Descent, Air #9, and Air #31 Qian also uses a luminous gray, billowing across the surface
like clouds or waves or falling water. The transition between manipulated photos of
painting and more natural objects -- between marking and finding – is seamless.

Around the corner from Transformation facing the back wall of the gallery is a video called
Red. Eichhorn’s music and Qiang’s voice are the sound track for this piece, which like
Transformation (though less literally) pushes the manipulation of digital information into
real space. Several cameras were used to generate a montage of images that travel
around and through the twists and curves of an abstract sculpture. Smoky, translucent
scarves alternate with views of marble-like white stone, flecked with black. As the title
suggests, the color red predominates, but again the palette consists of all three primordial
hues. Red seems like an exploration of alien terrain, filmed by some low-flying craft
sweeping above a distant planet. In its sensuousness it also is reminiscent of the act of
running one’s hands over an object, enlarging and repeating the experience of touch.

Entropy is a black and white video projection in the center of the gallery and it brings the
show full circle, back to the human from macro- and microscopic tropes. A live camera
mounted at eye level on a pillar, projects images of gallery-goers who wander in front of
the screen. Faces and gestures are seen emerging in front of the light-soaked prints that
are also in its field of vision. The soft-focus work is like a charcoal drawing or an ink wash.
A time-delay between the moment a movement is made and its reproduction on the
screen is unsettling and surprisingly lovely. The disconnect re-enacts the dislocation of
aesthetic discourse and language in general, reminding us perhaps that, “The Tao that
can be told is not the true Tao.”

Nearest to the entrance another abstract video projection honors Qiang’s friend and
colleague at CSU, the late Masumi Hayashi. A few red drops against cloudy, winter grays
say as much as need be said about that artist’s tragic death last month. The work is
equally fitting as beginning or end to an exhibit about transformation, and the sheer,
uncanny strangeness of the processes and conditions of our lives. The poet Dylan
Thomas said it beautifully: “Dark is a way, and light is a place. Heaven that never was /
Nor will be ever is always true.”

[Free Times 9/27/06]