Reckoning and returning, kindness and homecoming, belonging and becoming, art and everyday life.
How do you make a village a museum? Once you’ve left home, how can you ever return?
Filmmaker Katie Mitchell became friends with artist Li Mu in 2013; they met at an artist’s residency as he prepared to embark upon an unusual project in his hometown.
Li Mu had left the village of Qiuzhuang in his teens to pursue a life of art in the city and then abroad. Twenty-three years later, he returned with a bold, maybe impossible, creative idea: to bring his most beloved modernist artworks by canonical Western artists to his tiny village.
He called it the Quizhuang Project. With the help of the people of the village, he reconstructed artworks held in the Netherlands’ Van Abbemuseum collection, trying to bring to others the profundity that Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Marina Abaramovic had shown him.
His quest was at first confronting, if not fruitless. His feelings of disconnect and alienation from his family resurfaced; the villagers did not understand why he was doing this project. In time, a government building and modernisation project ensured much of the town – and the art with it – was razed to make way for a highway. In all these ways, the Qiuzhuang Project taps many familiar points along China’s road of urbanisation, modernisation and growing division between city and countryside.
In 2014, Katie’s friend of a decade, filmmaker Sari Braithwaite, found herself documenting this project over a fortnight with composer and sound designer Munro Melano. For two weeks they stayed in Li Mu’s village in an almost finished concrete house, ate with Li Mu’s parents, and observed the project Li Mu was trying to bring to life. Braithwaite reached the end of her fortnight documenting Li Mu’s romantic mission believing that her own footage was useless.
Made in lockdown, Qiuzhuang was an opportunity to re-examine this shelved footage and look at Li Mu’s own footage recorded by his artist assistant Zhong Ming that was part of a 4 hour observational documentary by Li Mu with Na Yingyu at the conclusion of the project. Over a couple of weeks in 2020, Sari and Katie sent questions for Li Mu to respond to over email. He responded in audio recordings.
The film revisits the complex questions around Li Mu’s journey: the desire of artists to both belong and sit outside where they come from; art’s purpose or purposelessness; and the fine line that divides cultural cross-pollination and cultural colonisation. Qiuzhuang is a bittersweet ode to the borderlessness of home and art, family and community.
The Capitol at RMIT University will host a free, live, video conversation between Sari Braithwaite and curator Lauren Carroll Harris on Tues 11 Aug between 5 – 6pm. Join the conversation, and bring your questions to thecapitol.tv. The conversation will be archived on The Capitol’s website so you can watch-back later.
This work was made via remote collaboration. Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants.
About Katie Mitchell & Sari Braithwaite
Katie Mitchell is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, Divided City, chronicled the debate surrounding Confederate monuments in New Orleans and their historic removal.
Sari Braithwaite ([CENSORED], Paper Trails) makes documentary films. Her works have screened at festivals both in Australia and internationally. She was a recipient of the AFTRS Creative Fellowship and her last film [CENSORED] won the Gold Hugo award at Chicago Film Festival.