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Qin Ga: 'Miniature Long March'

The Long March  A Walking Visual Display is an international collaboration involving over 250 Chinese and international artists taking place along 20 sites of the historical Long March. Each site was chosen for its symbolic import; the Long March was tatooed onto Qin Ga's back transforming his body into both an artwork and a Long March object.

Lu Jie | Feature

The Long March – A Walking Visual Display is an international collaboration involving over 250 Chinese and international artists taking place along 20 sites of the historical Long March, the Chinese Red Army's 6,000 mile flailing retreat across western China from 1934-1936. Using the historical Long March as a geographic and discursive framework, the curatorial plan parallels the grand narrative of the historical Long March: its romantic ideals of turning failure into success, of taking to the road in search of utopia, of founding an alternative democratic society through engagement with the masses, leaders, and soldiers, of representing the intellectuals and the people, of holding imported theories and tactics up to the lens of reality in the local context, of generating the new and powerful praxis that led ultimately to the founding of the current Chinese state. Each site was chosen for its symbolic import; our Long March generates discourse and brings memory of history/geography/ideology together, creating new memory in historic space. We march beyond art, looking to establish a new consciousness of art in relation to history, culture, and memory.
After completing 12 of the 20 originally planned sites, the Long March team pulled back to Beijing deeming the project an incomplete completion. The decision raised the issues of 'completion', or a journey, and a continual process, challenging the restricted time frame involved with traditional exhibitions. Site 13, the Long March Space, was established to act as a base from which the Long March would continue marching indefinitely, curating, planning, and planting projects at the centre, in international space, and along the Long March route.

28 June 2002: the Long March team departed from Beijing, and, starting from Ruijin, Jiangxi Province, began the Long March – A Walking Visual Display.
Artist Qin Ga participated in the project from Beijing by remotely following the Long March team's movements. The artist first tattooed a map of China onto his back, and then tattooed each new site that the Long March team arrived at in its respective position on the map, permanently leaving behind each route and site. Through a small needle, the 25,000 li (6,000 mile) Long March was miniaturised onto Qin Ga's back. His body is both an artwork and a Long March object, combining together elements of history and collective and individual memory. When the Long March team declared a temporary stop to the project in September 2002, at Site 12 (Luding Bridge, Sichuan Province), Qin Ga's tattoo work also stopped.

1 May 2005: led by Long March Chief Curator Lu Jie, the Long March team gathered at Beijing's West Train Station to send off artist Qin Ga. Three years prior it was the Long March team that daily made its way forward on the road. Now it became artist Qin Ga's turn to travel the Long March route, starting from Luding Bridge, Sichuan Province, crossing over the snowy mountains and swampy grasslands, marching towards Yan'an. Accompanying him were Gao Feng, Gao Xiang, Li Ding, and Mei Er (a tattoo artist and three cameramen). They were to help record and tattoo onto Qin Ga's back the remaining sites left unvisited by the Long March team. Due to the difficulties in communication, it was the Long March team's turn to imagine Qin Ga on the Long March route, remotely connecting with the collective memory and our experiences these years on the road.
Today, Qin Ga is safely back in Beijing, having completed his personal Long March. Long March chief curator Lu Jie, spoke to him:

Lu Jie: Let's first talk about your participation in the Long March in 2002.
Qin Ga: Before participating in the Long March, I had continually been using the body to make works. This included the controversial use of dead bodies in my work. In 2000, most of the exhibitions I participated in were underground. In 2001, I did not participate in one exhibition. At that time, for one year after a group of us artists had been using bodies to make works, all anyone wanted to talk about was the ethics behind using bodies to make works. Afterwards, I was pretty much excluded from participation in any exhibition; I had missed out when the underground moved above ground. One part of it was that my work was seen as socially reprehensible. Another was that I myself began thinking about the problems with my artistic practice. The relationship between art and society, especially the public nature of art, is a pressing question. This was when the Long March started. It was an organised project that was directed at history and the contemporary. It provided a platform between local and international, between history and contemporary, theory and practice, as well as a way for artists to leave their circles and egoistic consumerism. One can say that it opened up the art world from the bottom up, and re-examined our understanding of art and the possibilities of artistic practice.
When I was thinking about how to participate in the Long March I was trying to consider how to put the use of the body behind the work, which is to say, it could not be so superficially direct. In 2002, I was reconsidering several things. One major issue was that the project would have many undeterminable variables that could not be controlled by the artists or the curators. You were entering an organic history and a giant public space. This massive unknown value was very interesting.
The question then became what method of documentation to use. I have a friend who makes tattoos, so I thought that this would be appropriate, but I could not decide what to tattoo onto. At first I wanted to tattoo it onto a horse, but then I felt that this type of pain should be borne by myself, and so I had it tattooed onto my back. At that time, some people were saying that I was being foolish and that the commitment was too big, just do it on a horse they said. But I felt that this would not be sincere. I decided to use my body to participate in the Long March.

Public and Revolution
Lu Jie: The form of the Long March project was attractive to many people. Although it presented movement and public spaces, the project's overall starting point was still to continue the narrative of the revolutionary Long March. Nowadays, there is quite a binary opposition and ideological opinion built up towards the revolutionary and socialist practice, and almost a complete cynicism of Utopia. Therefore, there are a lot of contradictions in our works, as well as the international and local understandings of the Long March. Many people had problems dealing with this. Did you have a problem? Some people tried to overthrow revolutionary history and the Long March narrative, some used a cynical approach, others didn't deal with it at all and just sent works to be a part, while others superficially played to this revolutionary history.

Qin Ga: I don't particularly like cynicism. The Long March framework that you set up provides numerous possibilities. What I am interested in is the relationship between body and nature. If you don't focus on history it is still there.

Lu Jie: Therefore, you don't have a problem with the grand narrative of the revolution? Is it an ambivalent relationship?

Qin Ga: Right. I think that it is there, it exists, but it's not necessary to painstakingly pursue it, to make fun of it, or to worship it. It is history. Within this, I feel that the revolution is very ambiguous. For example, in reality, for the Communist party at that time it was the Long March, for the Nationalists it was a retreat. I wasn't really concerned with these matters, they were just naturally present. It is still the body that is at the core.

Lu Jie: But there is still a relationship between the individual body and the collective body, as well as between the visible and the invisible. After so many years, there are still many people who ask me how it is possible for me not to have an opinion on the historical Long March. Are you completely neutral yourself? As a cultural worker, an artist, and a curator, how is that you cannot have a political view on Communist revolutionary history? Is it purely about the body?

Qin Ga: Actually I guess I do have a small opinion. Compared to the people living in today's market economies, the people of that time were much simpler. I don't think that it is possible for anyone to be so simple today.

Lu Jie: Is that simplicity necessarily a good thing?

Qin Ga: Not necessarily. I think that in different time periods there will be different things to believe in.

Difficulties on the Road
Lu Jie: Two years after starting the work, you headed out on the road to complete your Long March. After seeing you off at the Beijing train station, the Long March team could only remotely imagine from Beijing all the things you were experiencing on the road. Was your Long March route as difficult as everyone claims?

Qin Ga: We first went to site 12 (Luding Bridge). This site which you stopped at in 2002 was my starting point. I had wanted to crawl from one end of the bridge to the other, but I ran out of energy after 60 metres. In my mind I was thinking I can't go on, maybe I should just stand up and walk across, but then I decided that I had to finish. When I reached the other end, I didn't stand up immediately, I just squatted there. While I was crawling, there were a few soldiers who interfered and would not let me crawl. They said I was blocking the bridge. As I crawled, I lifted my head and talked to them. After hearing that it was the Long March they agreed to let me continue. When I was in the middle, they were all in a line behind me. They were afraid that I would fall down. I feel that the impact on the local community was quite large.
The nine sites of this journey took one month and covered over 3,000 miles. It was really like the Red Army in the thirties. We crossed the snowy mountains, the swampy grasslands, through Tibet, over the Himalayas, and the Kunlun Mountains, some of the harshest natural conditions along the route. When we finally arrived on the banks of the Yellow River in Sha'anxi, we had encountered nearly everything. This experience was completely different from imagining your Long March travels in my studio when you first set out in June 2002. Then, everything was based upon what we learned in the public education here about the grand story of the Red Army and the Long March.
Crossing the 5,000 metre high snowy mountains was probably the most difficult. The historical Red Army's experience during this period has become the subject of modern folklore. On our way up the mountain, it was raining and snowing. If we had stayed on the mountain for the night we wouldn't have had anything to eat, and our lighters didn't work. We got to the top of the mountain and the cameraman Li Ding couldn't go on. At that time the guide said that we had to go down immediately because Li Ding was very sick from the altitude, and that he might die if we did not immediately take him to a hospital. My mind went numb. We had finally made it to the top of the mountain, and we couldn't just go down without finishing! I told him to hold on. He was the youngest in the group, and he said that he would fight through, but for me to hurry up and tattoo. He was throwing up as he waited for me. Gao Qiang, the tattoo artist, is quite fit. He always carried the heaviest pack. But when he was tattooing, his hand wouldn't respond right.

Lu Jie: What were you thinking when you were lying in the snow getting the tattoo done? Did you think of the Red Army?

Qin Ga: My mind was just blank. It wasn't anything terribly frightening. At that time, I felt that I had put everything into this, and I was very excited.

Understanding of Body
Lu Jie: What was the response of the local people? Did they think it was art? How was 'body' performed here?

Qin Ga: The Long March had a major impact on the local people, but what they were interested in was the different method of our Long March. What impressed me the most there was the local people's understanding and attitude towards the body. When we were in Tibet, there was a lama who was moved to tears when he saw my back. It wasn't only my actions that moved him, he also projected his feelings about the Red Army onto me. This Tibetan lama is very sentimental about the Long March history. He was very moved. We sang songs together as well.

Lu Jie: Do you think that these Tibetans believe the history of the Long March because of Communist Party propaganda, or is it as the Party says, that they were serfs and were liberated. We usually speak from an international perspective where Tibet is always in opposition to the Han Chinese, but as the Communist Party says, among Tibetans there are those who are rulers and there are those who are ruled. Those ruled would of course welcome the Red Army when they came to liberate them. They didn't have to be serfs anymore.

Qin Ga: In Tibet, they all really respected my work, and they thought it had a strong relationship to the body. The natural conditions in the region are quite harsh, and the toll these conditions took on the historical Long March or my Long March journey could be seen through the body. There was also an indefinable political ideology, which was also an ideology regarding the body. Their feelings toward the Red Army have really gone beyond history and have entered the body. They have a deep respect for, as well as a fear of the body. They take the matter seriously and one cannot simply to get a tattoo, except if you believe that you have some type of exceptional intelligence. When we were climbing the snowy mountains, I didn't even know what altitude sickness was, we just bought 30 flat cakes, and got a guide. Tibetans have a very strange sense of distance. Some people said that it would take 3 hours to cross the mountain. Others said that it would take at least 10 hours. To them, the body has replaced time and space.

Regarding possibilities within the Long March

Lu Jie: In 2002 you were imagining and documenting our route every day with a tattoo and you had to record our uncontrollable movements. What was your relationship with us at that time?

Qin Ga: At that time I knew that there would definitely be variables in your travel. When you changed the plan to stop and adjust the proposal, I also stopped. The 2002 portion of the work was documenting the linkages between myself and my body. This time, as we met more and more people on the road, the process itself also became complicated. This performance work was essentially a documentation. There are of course many ways to document, but what I was documenting this time was the interaction with the people along the route.
I think that at the very beginning it was definitely a response to the Long March project that made this work possible. Without the Long March, maybe there would not have been this work. However, if there had been no Long March, there would also be a similar work - it just wouldn't have been a Long March map. I feel that I have an organic connection with the Long March. Doing the work this time was different. With the first
14 sites it was very direct; it was simply putting the image that I wanted onto my back. When people see the work, they see a beautiful map and might think it is fake or drawn. It is only capable of a very simple visual experience. I have put something very powerful onto my back. Like inserting needles into a wad of cotton instead of directly showing the needle, I think that this time there is this type of change.

Lu Jie: You didn't try and understand or analyse why the team stopped and adjusted the plan, or if this change was a good or bad thing?

Qin Ga: No. I took it to be a natural or chance happening. When I was making this work, there was a foreigner who thought that I was crazy because it might not be sanitary and I would contract some disease. I thought that if I contracted something, then it should be that way. He asked me if I would continue with the work if I got an infection, to which I said, 'Of course!' It is impossible to plan everything out and have it turn out exactly the way you want it. Of course there will be problems, but whatever problems there are, you have to confront them and deal with them. What one is faced with is not art, but live situations. For example, when we climbed a 5,000 metre mountain, I was thinking that we might fail, that we would surely fail and have to climb it all over again. We were fortunate and we managed to finish.
If you had completed everything at that time, things would be different. Now it has become something different, two things in fact, but they have interpenetrated to become one thing. The reason why I have such an interest in the Long March is that there is no ending point, it is open. Just like at that time when Mao took in all the people that he could, his basic attitude was very open. Today, this still has a lot of meaning. The Long March is able to let you focus on one issue and enlarge it, which acts as a test of your work. When you go to the countryside, there are no art circles. The initial site of the work is the most important, the most direct.

Lu Jie: And this initial site cannot be recreated without losing significant meaning regardless of how you choose to record it, to transplant it, to translate it, or to transfer it.