Shu Qun's ready grasp of Western philosophy, evident in essays and interviews alike, leaves a deep impression on his readers, often drawing on the theories of Hegel, Nietzsche, Popper, Derrida, and others to support his interpretations of reason and the rational spirit. In "Shu Qun: A Chronology of Major Events and Brief Explanation," which the artist himself completed in 2008, he records:
"In 1964, at the age of six, I entered the kindergarten of the Baicheng Psychiatric Hospital in Jilin province. Because both of my parents were doctors at the hospital, I grew up in the family housing facility of this psychiatric institution. As a child returning home after school I often encountered the scene of newly admitted patients performing at the outpatient clinic of the hospital; the fragments of these memories have since merged with my general impressions of the psychiatric hospital as a place of severity, damage, apathy, perversion, and imprisonment, unconsciously exerting a profound influence over me" 1.
Perhaps it was this intimate contact with the irrationality of mental patients that stimulated Shu Qun's consistent philosophical consideration of and yearning for a spirit of rationality. Born in 1958, however, the artist did not begin his systematic study of Western philosophy and the accompanying search for the origin of reason until the 1980s.
The new wave of artistic thinking that took hold in mainland China during the 1980s appears today almost as an historical necessity. After the educated youth of the generation once sent to work in the countryside grasped a juncture of liberated thinking, reflecting on human nature through "scar art," the new generation born in the 1950s and 1960s tended to push Chinese art and literature toward modernism of form and thought through the observation and study of Western philosophy and modern art. The translation and publication of works on Western philosophy and art theory thus became a common practice for that historical moment, complemented appropriately by the establishment of all manner of art periodicals functioning as the avant-garde of art criticism in the wake of the slight relaxation in the atmosphere of the intellectual scene. Including "Meishu" (Art), "Zhongguo Meishu Bao" (Fine Arts in China), "Meishu Sichao" (Art Trends), "Jiangsu Huakan" (Jiangsu Pictorial), and others, these periodicals became the representative publications of the era; many of the new artistic questions, perspectives, events, collectives, and practices of the 1980s were first grasped by readers through this medium, inciting general discussion and dialogue within the art world. It is not difficult to imagine how, within this cultural environment, Shu Qun naturally began to dabble in Western philosophy. In his chronology we see clearly that his reading list of the ten years spanning 1980-1990 includes the works of major thinkers like Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, existentialism, Thomism, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Zhu Guangqian, Li Zehou, and Zong Baihua. During that period he also wrote a large number of journal entries on his own thinking, demonstrating the effects of different tendencies in his reading on his artistic projects of different periods. Shu Qun is a thoughtful artist, and the results of his analysis are patently manifest in the evolution of his personal work.
In 1979 the "Stars Art Exhibition" essentially unveiled the prologue of the "'85 New Wave" as the actions of Huang Rui, Zhong Acheng, Wang Keping, and the other initial members of the "Stars Group", who struggled for the right to freely exhibit their work, demonstrated to artists across the country that collective movement could achieve greater legitimacy and effect than individual activity, explaining also why there emerged during the course of the "'85 New Wave" so many artistic groups in all parts of the country. Of these the more influential included the "Southwestern Artist Group", represented by Mao Xuhui and Ye Yongqing; the "Pond Society" in Zhejiang, represented by Zhang Peili; and the Red Brigade in Jiangsu, represented by Ding Fang. There was also the influential "Northern Art Group", of which Shu Qun was one of the founders.
Shu Qun provided the theoretical foundation for the "Northern Art Group" throughout the '85 period, as Gao Minglu writes: "Shu Qun was indubitably one of the most significant pathfinders and leaders of the '85 New Wave Movement, but, distinct from many others, he also seemed to be an impassioned engine of the movement. ... Shu Qun has been influential not, primarily, in terms of artistic style but rather through the principles he advocated and his active role in social organization. Though he was a founder of the 'Northern Art Group', his role in the 'New Wave Movement' far surpasses the scope of a collective" 2. In his declarative text "The Spirit of the Northern Art Group," Shu Qun notes: "Our painting is not 'art'! It is only a single method for the transmission of our thinking.... We believe that the standard for determining the value of a set of paintings depends on whether or not they evince sincere principles; that is to say, whether or not they display the strength of human intellect and its highly valuable ideals.... We believe that Eastern and Western culture have already fundamentally disintegrated, and that their replacement can only be a form of new cultural strength—'The Birth of Northern Civilization'" 3. In this short essay, seen as the manifesto of the "Northern Art Group", Shu Qun raises two questions: the first is that of the standard for the judgement of the value of painting, and the second is the rise of a "Northern Civilization" (also called the "Frigid Zone Civilization"). In reality, both of these questions are intimately related to Nietzsche's concept of the superman then advanced by Shu Qun and the other artists of the "Northern Art Group"4.
Reading Nietzsche had become a popular trend in the artistic and literary circles of the era. In Shu Qun's first essay to recall that period the artist mentions that, after entering the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts and meeting another representative of the "Northern Art Group", Ren Jian, the two would often discuss philosophical questions together: "... This romantic view of human life was then further strengthened in reading Nietzsche; we saw ourselves as the 'superman' and referred to the general public as lambs"5. Shu Qun, taking the figure of the superman as an ideal of sorts, speaks clearly and explicitly on the determination of value in painting: it must display the strength of intellect and the sublime ideals of humanity. This happens to coincide exactly with the qualities of the superman, while the work of the superman should, by extension, be a form of "super-art" that exists only as a method for the transmission of thinking. As for the idea of "Northern Civilization", Shu Qun expounds upon the topic in another essay, at the conclusion of which he quotes Nietzsche in order to summarize this idea of a new civilization: "It is precisely as Nietzsche writes, 'I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive!' (Nietzsche, "Thus Spake Zarathustra") In order that human social life may become more healthy, more lofty, more ideal, and more vigorous, we aim to devote our lives to a new civilization—the establishment of 'Northern Civilization.' That the human earth may hereafter become the earth of the 'Hyperboreans' (the phrase 'Hyperborean' is drawn from Nietzsche's text 'The Antichrist', meaning the realm inhabited by the Superman), the earth of the Superman!"6. It is evident that Shu Qun's thinking on art around 1985 revolved mainly around his elucidation of the theory of the superman, developing a cosmology in the mold of Hegelian metaphysics that he combined with Nietzschean doctrine and the artist's own understanding of structuralism to form the theoretical foundation of the "rational painting" practiced by the "Northern Art Group." The products of theory are ultimately released in artistic practice: in the 1984 work entitled Absolute Principle No. 1, seen as a representative work for Shu Qun, we see three cross-forms floating inside a sphere with the structure of a net; on each cross there seems to be impressed the image of a human body. In terms of composition, too, we find the shadow of the metaphysical painter Gericault. The entirety of the picture plane exudes the calm restraint of the sublime, solemn, and rational, fully displaying the cosmology of the "absolute idea" to which Hegel adhered. Such abstract geometric bodies, bearing within them something of the church, often appear in the work of Shu Qun as a mysterious and eternal space at the ends of the universe. The artist's thinking at different moments in his trajectory is manifested faithfully and unfailingly in his work, and Absolute Principle No. 1 is an appropriate exegesis of the ideas o rational painting he raised.
After "China/Avant-Garde" the curtain closed on the consideration of modernism in mainland China. Earth-shattering changes in the political and economic systems of the 1990s caused the principles of the market economy to take root in the hearts of the people as the pursuit of wealth became the universal and correct value system and idealism was replaced by utilitarianism. These changes in the social environment also influenced the directions of Shu Qun's reading and study, altering too his views on his own circumstances. His distrust of marketization allowed him to perceive something of the emptiness that comes with the wreckage of ideals as well as the absurdity of unfamiliar social formations; as such, he began to focus on positivism and analytic philosophy, rereading the work of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Rudolf Camap, and Karl Popper. As he has said himself, Shu Qun turned from existentialism to positivism, furthering also his turn toward structuralism. The artist's practice entered a stage of transition, which he has described as a period of "the fall of the sacred." Produced between 1993 and 1994, the series Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine? (Lot 807) was created under this social and intellectual background. Examining the title, it is evident that the 1980s rhetoric of "Absolute Principle" and "Wading Towards the Opposite Shore" has become useless; the zero degree of rhetoric with which it has been replaced "is intended to direct the audience toward a dimension of thought based in intellectual archaeology" 7. The subtitle, Post-Vanguard Doctrine?, appears because the artist believed "the ideology of the avant-garde at the time was a thing of cynicism, very crude. I still think it was very individual, a form of expression that had not yet transcended the chaos of the self"8. Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine? thus continues to manifest Shu Qun's philosophical thinking of the 1990s. In terms of graphic style, the artist portrays a series of "spiritual ruins," mysterious architecture rich with a sense of the religious in a desolate and solitary palette, continuing the use of repeated solid geometric structures. Although the style and color bears a trace of the Absolute Principle series of the 1980s, the emotional state of the picture plane conveys a dejection experienced by this former work in the context of the 1990s. Shu Qun created a drawing for each work in this series, throughout the process of which he took these drawings not as rough sketches but rather as independent works in their own right9.
Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine? was exhibited in the 2006 Guangdong Museum of Art exhibition "From the Polar Regions to Tiexiqu: Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Northeast China 1985-2006," and, in the form of Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine? No. 2, in the 2007 exhibition at the same institution "Supplemental History: Contemporary Works from the Collection." The 2009 exhibition at Thousand Plateaus Art Space in Chengdu entitled "A Certain Kind of Post-Modernism" even draws its name [in Chinese] from the subtitle of the series. The series again appeared in 2009 as representative of Shu Qun's second phase of production (1990-2004) in "Image Dialectic: The Art of Shu Qun," the solo exhibition curated by Huang Zhuan for the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal of the He Xiangning Art Museum. Making a general survey of the artist's progression it is evident that, after 2005, the Symbolic Order series begins to reconstruct and borrow from the styles and compositions of Absolute Principle and Voices of Identity, making it clear that Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine? should be seen as the comprehensive and conclusive work of the artist's second period.
Although Gao Minglu maintains that Shu Qun's primary contribution is not a stylistic one, between Absolute Principle and Voices of Identity the artist has created a certain stylistic format immediately recognizable as his own: repetitive geometric solids, mysterious architectural features with religious overtones, and desolate colors have become indispensable symbols in his work. If pop art involves the appropriation of the symbols of others, a series of work from Shu Qun often touches upon a form of "self-appropriation." For the artist himself, however, these visually similar symbols convey distinct speculations of a ceaseless process of rebirth and reinvention, manifesting again the inseparability of image and text in this body of work. In the case of Voices of Identity: Post-Vanguard Doctrine?, for example, these familiar symbols are given new meaning through the artist's explanations and interpretations. According to Huang Zhuan's analysis, "The first stage is comprehensive or collective rationalism; the second stage is analytic rationalism; the third stage is individual rationalism"10.
Throughout almost three decades of artistic practice, Shu Qun's idea of reason has never strayed far from the core of perception, just as he has never abandoned the construction of elitism or a sense of the sublime. This sublime elitism, in Absolute Principle No. 1, is directed at rustic pastoralism; in Voices of Identity, at Political Pop and Cynical Realism; in Symbolic Order, at consumer society. In this way Shu Qun clearly appears to be fighting for ideas within the art world: his work has promoted and enhanced the spirit of idealism for almost 30 years, visible even today.
 Shu Qun chronology, ed. He Xiangning Art Museum OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, June 2009.
 Gao Minglu, "Friendship and Reason," ed. He Xiangning Art Museum OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, June 2009.
 "The Spirit of the Northern Art Group," Zhongguo Meishu Bao (Fine Arts in China), 1985 no. 18.
 The doctrine of the "superman" is one of the important components of Nietzsche's thinking, formed during the early stages of his mature phase and manifested largely in the representative volume Thus Spake Zarathustra. The superman he describes overcomes the self and the weak, able to fully express the self and dominate the mediocre. The superman is the benchmark of reason and morality, the creator of standards and values. The superman faces the greatest hopes and pains of humanity. The superman develops in an inopportune environment, and animosity, envy, obstinacy, doubt, cruelty, greed, and violence can only make him stronger.
 "Shu Qun: The Northern Art Group and the '85 New Wave Movement," Dangdai Yishu yu Touzi (Contemporary Art and Investment), November 2009.
 "An Explanation of the Northern Art Group," Meishu Sichao (Art Trends), January 1987, pp. 37-39. [Translator's note: "Hyperborean" is translated in the original Chinese as the "Buddhist pure land of the far north."]
 "The Problem of Philosophy in Contemporary Art: A Conversation with Shu Qun," Jinri Meishu (Art Today), January 2009, pp. 52-55.
8] "Amateur Philosophy and Amateur Art: Transcripts of a discussion between Shu Qun and Huang Zhuan," Dongfang Yishu (Oriental Art), 2009 no. 13, p. 35.
 "Amateur Philosophy and Amateur Art: Transcripts of a discussion between Shu Qun and Huang Zhuan," Dongfang Yishu (Oriental Art), 2009 no. 13, p. 36.
 "Amateur Philosophy and Amateur Art: Transcripts of a discussion between Shu Qun and Huang Zhuan," Dongfang Yishu (Oriental Art), 2009 no. 13, p. 38.
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