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Art Philosophy of the Cicadas

Throughout QiongHui Zou ’s art, cicadas are not only a medium, but a story of her experience. When this is combined with a knowledge of Chinese cultural history it creates its own kind of dialectical philosophy.

——Yujie Tong

a critic and curator in China

Cicadas Language Series,Mixed Media, 47.2''X35.4'',2014

Theory of the Jade Cicadas

To understand the art of Zou Qionghui, it is essential to appreciate the Jade Cicada,the historical lens for her creations. The cultural concept of the Jade Cicada is integrated with her creation and forms a multidimensional cultural viewpoint for her art. Talking with Zou QiongHui, her reverence for the Cicada quickly becomes evident. She believes that Jade Cicadas are sacred and their inclusion into art must be taken forth in a serious way. Through her viewpoint, I can also feel this reverence for the Cicada and the wisdom they represented throughout history. Jade has always been an important aspect of Chinese culture, especially for the upper class. These ancient gentlemen thought Jade was inherently noble and always took Jade with them wherever they went. Jade is mild and mellow, reflecting Confucian doctrine. The cultural identity of the Cicada have long been respected by the ancients.

“Records of the Historian – Qu Yuan” asserted that although Cicadas lived underground, they had not the dirt of the world. This demonstrates the lofty and immortal connotations of the Cicada, and why representations of the Cicada were so valuable to the upper class. These jade cicadas are a cultural accessory, but they also have another use. Jade Cicadas were placed in the mouth of the dead as a metaphor for the immortal body. Because of this reason, the ancient jade cicadas are known as Han. The placement of a jade cicada in the mouth of the dead means that the soul of the dead can be released from his or her body and revive in the future. The ancient jade cicada had realistic shapes, a light figure, and a simple profile. In art, the aesthetic of the cicada stays true to the physical cicada, but is also imbued with human qualities. Intellectuals used this aesthetic to connote extravagance and paradoxically, simplicity. The art of Zou Qionghui reflect the heavy sense of history and the vicissitudes of life.

During the creation of her art, she carefully contours the cicadas before placing them on the canvas. After being burned and polished many times, the bodies of the Cicada crack and wear, showing a rough and broken texture. However, the outline of the cicadas remain fresh and visible, much like the ancient cicadas of Jade.

Qionghui’s modern work comes this unique connotation in the history of the cicada, which provides a context and a medium for her work with cultural sensitivity and a great deal of introspection. The linguistic transformation from the classical Jade cicadas to the contemporary form is manifested from Zou Qionghui’s hardship, but also the ecstacy of artistic creation. For Qionghui, the process of creation is the same as her experience of life. Her philosophy has changed with her paintings and mirrors her understanding of life and death. The creation process is her method for seeking answers to these eternal questions. If the body cannot persist after death, but only the spirit can be immortal, then the spirit is the true value of life. In her art, the exploration of the relationship between the Jade Cicadas and the dead have worked to broaden the historical span of life.

In Zou Qionghui’s work “Where Are We?” the fragmentary cicadas and abstracted urban area represent the torture of life. In its current state, society is deluged by consumerism and materialism, creating zombies out of the living. The mission of Zou Qionghui’s artwork is to carry out the mission of the Jade Cicada and seek immortality through cultural reflection.

Theory of the Cicadas and Zen

Zou Qionghui’s Cicadas are a medium to express the complicated ideas of Zen Philosophy and Buddhism. Buddhist master Xuansu of the Crane Temple states that “Buddhism pursues equality both for the wise and the ignorant.” However, in today’s secular society, there are many distinctions made between the wise and the ignorant, giving them vastly different qualities of life. Since the beginning of human society, people’s innate social standing determined their place within a cruel hierarchy. However, Zou Qionghui’s art attempts to circumvent this hierarchy using the semiotic connotations of the Cicada. This is exemplified in her interactive installation, “Harmonious Rhythm of Life,” inspired by a ride on the Beijing Subway. In the installation, groups of transparent and colored virtual cicadas move at random throughout the space of the installation. Eventually, each Cicada flies away one by one. This is much like the patterns of human movement throughout the Subways of Beijing. When Qionghui takes the subway, she sees the hurried masses swarming like Cicadas, instead of the nobility and humbleness of life. The hum of this swarm of humanity results in a noise not unlike the language of the cicadas in summer trees. In this way, the people in the subway are converted into the cicadas of her artwork. These multicolored cicadas express the non-discriminatory nature of cicadas and Zen philosophy. This exhibition serves to portray the similarities between humans and cicadas.

In contrast to the urban scene of Beijing, Qionghui reminisces upon her time in rural environments. She remembers hearing the sound of the cicadas every summer and thinking their sounds were clean, pure and simple. The hum of the cicadas sounded like the rhythm of life itself. The pleasure of this sound is not only from a physiological and psychological enjoyment, but also as a viewpoint for artistic thought.

There is a popular Zen Koan that originated when a student asked his master how to have an eye for Zen. His master replied, “Do you know what color the wind is?” The objective world requires artistic subjectivity. For Zou Qionghui, the answer to this koan is obvious. It is red, of course. Her Cicadas are often red, in accordance with her philosophy. Red is the color of life, and in her art the red cicadas are often a metonymy for Zen equality. Zou Qionghui utilizes the narrative of the Cicada to illustrate a Zen philosophy of equality and nondiscrimination.

Cicadas Zen Series 006,Mixed Media, 39.4''X31.5'',2016

Theory of the Cicada’s Winter

In mid-summer, cicada larvae climb up to the willows and discard their shells, completing the ceremony from larvae to adult. Cicada shells remain on the trees as a spiritual symbol of a life lived. These shells are known as a slough, in autumn, cicadas lay eggs into the ground to begin a new life, while the adults cling to the tree even as the temperatures drop and their demise approaches. There is a Chinese poem that vividly describes the cicada’s suffering, “chilling Cicadas hug the dead wood.” And the Cicada in winter has often been used in Chinese literature to describe something transient that will soon be gone. However, even though the cicada will soon be gone, they leave behind the remnants of their life and begin a new generation. This is the immortality of the Cicada, in this nirvana. Zou Qionghui’s art reflects this, with her belief that the highest state of art reflects this immortal cycle. Through this phenomenon of the Cicada, Zou Qionghui wants to express a feeling and understanding of her own artistic life. In her installation, “logic of survival,” crystal and transparent cicada sloughs stand atop a transparent resin pyramid. As one progresses up the pyramid, a variety of different life stages are portrayed. The sight of the spire, the highest point seems to be a deadly temptation of each individual life. Everyone wants to reach the top of the pyramid, but when they reach it, death awaits. The spire also reflects the value of the individual life. From cicada to human, there is no exception. Otherwise, why else would cicadas climb up to the top of the trees for their mates and their new lives? People are always too busy just surviving to realize the value of their life. Zou Qionghui uses the slough of the cicada to express this twisted logic of survival.

Only while cicadas discard their shells can they discover life and obtain freedom. However, Zou Qionghui’s focuses upon the remainder, on what’s left, instead of this new life. The cicada shells remain long after the body of the cicada dies. Zou Qionghui’s takes advantage of this phenomenon to show true immortality, the immortality of the spirit, and uses the tragic life of the cicada to examine our beliefs about survival.

Zou Qionghui’s utilizes the Cicada as her subject matter, but her ability to comprehend the many shades of meaning implicit to the Cicada is grounded in a constant exploration. Zou Qionghui’s employs many different methods, paper-cutting, rubbing, burning, or even chemical corrosion, together express an uneven visual texture and the texture of a broken life. This is mixed-media to its limit. Zou Qionghui not only presents the numerous forms of life, but also strengthens the cicada as a spiritual symbol.

In the world Zou Qionghui has created, the philosophy and semiotics are rich and complex. She examines every aspect of the cicada, with reverence for its life, fear of its death, and has used this symbol of the cicada as a lens to examine the philosophy of our own lives. Finally, she transfers her childhood memories into artistic experience. Zou Qionghui deeply understands this truth, and maintains her artistic integrity. Instead of blindly following the temptation of following the latest trends, Qionghui spent years in a deep exploration that will ensure that her art will be as immortal as the cicada.


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