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The mature work of the contemporary Chinese artist Geng Jianyi is characterised by persistent demurrals from any direct form of (re)presentation. Since the mid-1980s, when he first came to prominence as a leading member of the Hangzhou based art group Chi She (the Pool Association), Geng has deployed a highly diverse range of techniques, including the use of photographic transfers, assisted ready-mades, and chemical transformations, whose insistently tangential qualities consistently serve to evoke rather than to define. Indeed, in formal terms many of Geng’s works are little more than supports for the accumulated traces of remotely directed or ‘chance’ acts. Take, for example, the ‘paper installation’ Reading Manner, which consists of a concertinaed book of blank paper pages despoiled at the margins by the red-inked fingerprints of numerous invited ‘readers’.
It is, of course, possible to interpret these various demurrals from the point of view of contemporary Western theory as an extended deconstructive commentary on the inherent ‘emptiness’ of linguistic signification, and to bolster such a reading by drawing abstract parallels between the theory and practice of deconstruction and the comparably non-rationalist teachings of Chinese Taoism and Chan Buddhism (something to which Geng himself has alluded). However, this on its own would be to sell the potential significances of Geng’s work substantially short. For those familiar with the immediate circumstances surrounding Geng’s development as an artist in post-revolutionary China it is also possible to see much of his work as an elaborate tracery of public and private meanings clearly ‘grounded’ in the phenomenology of everyday experience. Consider here Geng’s repeated references to the official documentation of identity, which in the context of contemporary mainland China can be understood both as a critical take on persistent cultural/political obsessions with the uncertain relationship between individuality and social standing (‘face’—literally and metaphorically) and as a fragmentary series of pointers to Geng’s own personal histories, connections and thoughts.
Geng’s recent exhibition, ‘Excessive Transition’ at ShanghArt Gallery is in many ways an emphatic recapitulation of these signature approaches to form and content. On entering the gallery’s main exhibition space, the viewer encounters an installation comprising four distinct though interrelated elements. Running horizontally along the length of the wall facing the entrance is an extended frieze of monochrome photographic images, some of which have been drawn over or manipulated with the addition of chemicals. These images, which have been mounted in an ostensibly casual manner on an abutting row of metal plates by means of magnetic pins, are at first sight thematically disjointed. Amongst other things, the viewer registers depictions of the Chinese countryside, building sites, a traditional open-air barbershop and views from windows with open screw-top bottles set in the foreground. After prolonged viewing, however, this provisional sense of disjuncture gives way to an unfolding relay of rather more distinctive interpretative/aesthetic possibilities: not least, because of the deliberate overwriting and distressing of the images in question, pervasive feelings of meditative detachment that can be read as a critical counterpoint to the ‘excessive transition’ implicit in mainland China’s now precipitous, materially driven reconstruction. Facing this assemblage is a further, but rather more formally arranged series of large-scale black and white photographs of the ‘heads and shoulders’ of open screw top bottles; one whose evident visual punning on human portraiture suggests the blank, interrogative gaze of so many surrogate viewers. On the wall to the right of the entrance the viewer then finds an arrangement of actual refrigerator doors whose surfaces have been used to display, again by way of magnets, numerous everyday items. These include snapshot photographs, payment receipts and business cards, which would appear, rightly or wrongly, to stand in metonymic relation to Geng’s own life-world. Finally, ‘mirroring’ this accumulation of ready-mades there is on the opposing wall a series of metal sheets supporting screen-printed photographic representations of refrigerator doors also strewn with accumulated fragments of daily life, amongst which can be found snapshots of a number of contemporary Chinese artists, such as Song Tao and Zhang Ding, to whose work the format of ‘Excessive Transition’ clearly pays homage.
‘Excessive Transition’ would therefore appear to point beyond an abstract conjunction of Western deconstruction and Taoism/Buddhism towards the reprising of two specific aspects of a decidedly uncertain vernacular Chinese aesthetic: first, as the exhibition’s title indicates, the Taoist concept of return or Fan in which all extremes are understood to tend ineluctably first towards their own negation and then back to their own origins (something that arguably underscores the pervasive sense of the undecidable in all Geng’s work); and second, an emphasis within traditional Chinese culture upon the endless resonance of latent (yin) aesthetic experience as a close analogue to the illimitable depth of an otherwise obscure reality. In contrast to other high-profile contemporary Chinese artists who have assailed the international art market with readily digestible images culled from China’s recent revolutionary past, Geng continues to uphold a rather more pronounced sense of interpretative openness, and, what is more, one that can be seen to relate with far greater precision to China’s ambient cultural traditions.