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Jia 셰 (b. 1979) lives and works in Berlin. She was born in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China where she studied architecture, performance and literature. In this conversation Jia reflects on her development as an artist, the problems of translating artistic practice between differing social and cultural contexts and the intended critical significance of her work, which combines aspects of contemporary western(ised) art with interpretations of traditional Chinese thought and practice.
Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking you about the background to your development as an artist. You have had a very varied training in dance, architecture and garden design as well as an involvement with independent cinema. In what ways has your varied training and experience impacted on your work as an artist?
Jia: My father is a surgeon, and my mother is a pharmacist who also works in a hospital. At least once a month, they were both called to work shifts on the same night. So, on those nights, from the time I was four I was left to stay at home alone. Because they were so busy at work, they gave me a box of chalk besides other toys. I drew on the floor with the chalk, and after that I would clean the floor. I think this was the beginning of my interest in art. At the age of six, in 1985, I started to learn Chinese ink painting, mostly by myself, though sometimes my father taught me. At twelve, my parents sent me to a weekend art school especially for students preparing for the exam to enter the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing. Since my parents were divorcing, they thought to send me away on weekends; this was much better than to have me at home while they were fighting. For almost three years, I studied Western drawing and painting. The art classes were held in the basement of CAFA, so we called it the ‘underground class’. At that time, being an artist meant being poor and living on dreams. Every year CAFA gave only thirty places in response to more than a thousand applicants. Some tried for more than ten years, but you were not allowed to apply to university after the age of twenty five, so they had to change their ID cards in order to fake their ages. You can imagine how much they loved art, and tried their best. I remember clearly some of them came from very poor villages. They had no money for breakfast, so they drank lots of hot water to keep their body warm in winter. Most of the artists of our generation still remember that ‘underground class’, and still remember that art meant more to us than it does to students nowadays.
The only reason I did not go to CAFA like many of my friends and classmates, was because of my parents’ divorce. At that time in China, the tuition fee for universities had just started. We were not that poor, but I knew I had the responsibility to take care of my mother, and I didn’t want her to spend so much on my studies. Although even my grandparents and my father were very good at painting and Chinese calligraphy, they all became physicians and kept to the traditional Chinese literati view that being an artist was not a professional career. I was good at science and technical subjects in high school, so to study architecture was the only choice open to me that would allow me to preserve some relationship to art.
I didn’t go to a good university even though I was one of the top two students from my high school. My family’s problems occupied most of my time, and I didn’t get enough time to study. To cut a long story short, the situation was grave from the start; then later domestic violence totally broke our family and hurt all of us deeply. I wanted to take the university exam again, and go to a better university for my second year, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to do it — I mention this only because it impacts on my art work. So as soon as I entered university, I tried every possibility to attend classes in other universities even though I was not enrolled. These ‘extracurricular’ classes included architecture, philosophy, and literature classes at Peking University, the film theory class at the Beijing Film Academy, and the literature class at CAFA. At the time, there were no open courses online, but I was happily running from one class to another, through all those universities.
When I was twenty, I became a vice-president of The Practice Society (shi jian she 茄숟): the first organisation dedicated to independent film in China. Later the society was shut down by the government authorities who wished to limit the freedom of making and disseminating independent films. As a general rule, the government tends to place limitations on any media not directly under its control, as you know. Now when I look back, it seems clear that even if the government had not intervened, by now the ideals of the group would have been swallowed up by the huge development of the film industry and its profit-motive; and even by the freedom of new technology and the Internet, which enables everyone to make a movie.
But that was my golden time, in my twenties. I was so lucky to be able to catch the end of the period when young people were still hungry for knowledge, and especially western knowledge after the ending of the Cultural Revolution. I was one of over twenty organisers working together; we got lots of support from all over the country. I think all of us are still very proud of what we did for the Practice Society — not simply because we gave filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, and others the first opportunity to show their movies, but because we knew we were doing the right thing to push Chinese film in a new direction. We dreamed of this, a cinema that would not just be for propaganda purposes. We acquired this passion once we got to see masterpieces on pirated DVDs.
Meanwhile, I tried every possibility to come back to art step by step, including through postgraduate study of the literature and history of traditional Chinese opera and drama at the Graduate School of the Chinese National Academy of Art from 2006 to 2008. In order to support myself, I took jobs as an editor, public relations representative, curator, etcetera. After a while, I had more freedom to choose what I liked. I had been fascinated by traditional opera and modern drama for a long time — and I learned a bit of performance from an opera actor. Besides that, I love traditional Chinese literature, especially poems and opera. I recently set up a website for Chinese poetry.1 There is still only a small amount of material on the site, but it will grow. I liked writing and I was not bad at it, so my architecture history professor, Zhang Bo 蠟꺾, asked me to co-write a book about classical Chinese gardens with him, Beijing Imperial Gardens.2 Besides studying the literature and history of traditional Chinese opera at the Graduate School of the Chinese National Academy of Art, for a while I also studied comparative literature in Peking University.
I now realise that this longstanding interest of mine in Classical Chinese culture — in its visual and literary manifestations — an interest that seems so natural to me, is not the norm for Chinese artists of my generation. I suppose this interest explains why all my works have a basis in traditional paradigms — or at least a consciousness of them — and a sense of loss at their destruction. So thirty years later, I find myself rather as I was at the age of four when I played at drawing with chalk when my parents seemed lost.
Paul Gladston: You have said that your work engages with ideas and practice initially developed in western cultural contexts as a means of reinterpreting aspects of Chinese culture. You have also stated that the tension between differing cultural outlooks in your work acts as a generalised locus for criticism of western and Chinese conditions. Could you discuss this further with reference to one of your artworks — for example, the series titled Chinese Version involving painterly re-workings of simplified Chinese characters. What are you reinterpreting in this particular case and what are the conditions that you are seeking to criticise?
Jia: I visited Berlin and I found that I liked it, so I moved there in 2009. Since I moved to Berlin, it’s the first time I have felt myself to be an individual; or rather as being so lonely. I had lots of Western friends and even worked in a German architecture studio when I lived in Beijing. But it took months to get used to life in Berlin and its diverse population. Of course the outlooks are different. I remember my friend’s watchdog, the first time we met he was scared of me and ran away because he had never seen an Asian person before. Now every time I go back to China it also takes time for me to get used to surroundings full of Chinese people.
Speaking of differing cultural outlooks, on the one hand, since moving to Berlin, I feel that I’ve been losing my Chinese language even though I have continued reading Chinese literature every day. On the other hand, English for me is still at the stage of being a simple tool, like a skeleton. Without knowing many vernacular expressions, it is more like a form instead of a rich inner emotion. The simplification of Chinese characters by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s — which included the proscription and elimination of two-thirds of Chinese characters from the official lexicon — ostensibly as an attempt to improve communication between people of different classes and levels of education across China, was the greatest destruction of the Chinese language ever. Nowadays, there are less than 10% of traditional Chinese characters left in use in the People’s Republic of China. My work The Chinese Version (ongoing from 2011) presents missing characters mixed with simplified characters in order to remind people of what we have lost, and what we continue to lose today. As an artist, I probably cannot stop the changes; but being an artist is to take responsibility to compel all of us to face the facts so that we can work together for a better result. When I take out the semantic element of the Chinese characters in The Chinese Version the form remains; the overt pattern of the writing seems to suggest that everything is in order, but inside the content is disordered — this also reflects the impact of my suffering in moving between western and Chinese cultures.
Paul Gladston: Is your work intended to have an impact on society and culture beyond the limits of the institutionalised art world and its audiences? If so, what do you think that impact might be and have you tried to measure it or theorise it in any way?
Jia: My favourite novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (di fan nei zao can 뒤럴內豆꽜) — not the one by Truman Capote — was written by a Taiwanese woman writer Zhu Tianxin (聾莖懃). It’s about different attitudes towards the political situation in Taiwan seen from the perspective of two generations of Taiwanese female writers. The older one recalls the period when they joined the democratic movement against martial law in Taiwan and still strongly believes they were right to take the responsibility of the revolution upon their own shoulders no matter the years in prison or the possibility of an even worse end; the younger seems more worldly and shrewd, knowing that to be involved in politics means to risk your life, and if you win you will yield all your victories to someone you do not know at all who becomes the president and does whatever he wants. If you lose, you lose everything. In either case, how can you trust that person, why waste your life for him? I am just between those two generations. In a sense, I agree with both of them.
I once saw an interview with this same writer:
‘Q: Your work has always had a potential as duty, unlike that of some writers, such as Nabokov, who understand the purpose of literary creation [is to] amuse and entertain only, in order to show the magic of human imagination and creativity, and not to pretend to transform society.
A: I often feel that in the position of novelist, you need to reveal the crisis … I think you must first make a statement regardless of the consequences.
Anger and resentment is the largest source of my writing … I found that many people I once respected have yielded to compromise, surrender, and stagnation. It seems difficult to understand them. So I’m afraid to be a kindly person. If one day, my anger is gone, I might be a happy person, but I could no longer be creative.’
For me that is the beauty of being a writer or artist.
Whenever a plane lands in Beijing, you see the ashy city without a trace of green; only lots of grey residential buildings — even so close to the airport — resembling computer models in rough rendering without the addition of any colours. Imagine, this unlivable environment once used to be the riverside where one would wander after school, with golden leaves swaying under a blue sky; the place where one grew up and was loved — how can you hold back your tears? I stopped reading news from the BBC or Deutsche Welle. How can you read headlines such as ‘China’s Yue Yuen Shoe Factory Workers in Major Strike’ or, ‘China in “record seizure” of illegal guns and knives’ and do nothing? But what can I do? I have been asked this question many times since I moved to Germany. I can’t be a politician, but I wish that my work could help my culture.
One hundred years ago, the Chinese reformist Liang Qichao 졺폘낚 (1873-1929) travelled to Europe and told Chinese students there,
What you are studying today is so that future generations of Chinese will not need to study such things. However, from the depth of my heart, I hope that when the next generation grows up, we will have inherited a mature academic tradition, and therefore have no need to travel so many miles, to learn things piecemeal with so much hard effort.3
But now, like me, the young and middle-aged that are able, are emigrating en masse from Mainland China. I hope one day this will change, not in the sense that Chinese must return to their homeland, but that they will return to their culture, and not let it die like other ancient civilizations. I know that what I am doing is only like a tiny star in an immense dark sky. But it still sheds a bit of light.
Paul Gladston: Your recent works are characterised by techniques and a minimal aesthetic reminiscent of those associated with conceptual art of the late 1960s and 1970s; for example, the work Bicycle Tracks, which maps your bicycle rides around Berlin. How did you arrive at those techniques and that minimal aesthetic and how do they support your critical intentions as an artist?
Jia: Three years ago, one summer night, I was with friends in their garden. A boy looked up at the stars and asked his father about astronomy. I was very sad when I saw it. I knew I had lost all the knowledge of astronomy I once had, and I have no father to ask anymore. Then it occurred to me that I had been avoiding all the subjects we were taught in China to think of as ‘boys’ subjects’, because I knew I would lose support from my father. From that moment, I decided to overcome the invisible gap between genders and any fear that comes from my childhood. With the progress of The Chinese Version series, I started to become interested in mathematics. From there, I learned computer code, and became more interested in sciences, such as biology, high tech, and new materials, etcetera. The science world leads you into another passion and aesthetic compared with the world of the humanities. Bertrand Russell mentioned that his maternal grandmother, after the age of eighty, found she had difficulty getting to sleep, so she habitually spent the hours from midnight to three in the morning reading popular science. Science and technology smoothly cover over my emotional traumas.
So using technology in works such as Bicycle Tracks (2014) comes naturally. In fact, in my view, this tendency is a continuation of interests underlying my first installation work that I made for the Shanghai Biennale in 2002, City Boxes. I made two 1 metre x 1 metre wooden boxes: one represents Beijing; the other, Shanghai. From outside, they are just raw boxes with a peephole. But inside the box for Beijing, I put seventeen models of my favourite old buildings, which had been demolished or were scheduled for demolition. Inside the Shanghai box, I began with a famous night photo of the Bund that had been shot in exaggerated perspective with those buildings at the southern end nearest to the camera lens. I then cut the photo and rearranged the buildings in reverse order contrary to their perspectival dimensions, and affixed them to layers of glass, in order to evoke the chaotic and distorted visions the city’s development imposes. I hid all this inside a box that outwardly conveys the impression of a pure, uniform surface.
The Road Series (2009) photos are the pictures I took through the windshield of a speeding car on nights of mist and rain. These works also reveal a disjunction between their outward form and the real referents of the images. Any overt beauty they might have belies their relation to the disease of Western consumerism that seems to have engulfed China. The Chinese Version is also deceptive in this way. Behind the outward form that recalls Western conceptual art of the 1960s, is the tragedy of the missing and the simplified Chinese characters, the loss of five thousand years of my country’s and my culture’s history. In my view, a goal of conceptual art was to strip the formal aspect of a work in favour of the idea. My work reinvests a formal aspect that was stripped from Chinese characters by law.
In Bicycle Tracks, without an underlying city map, the tracks lose any diagrammatic function. I use my bicycle to make a drawing of something of which I have no clear image in my mind; since my viewpoint, while riding the bicycle, places me in the drawing as I am drawing it. For me, it’s a new way of drawing combined with new technique. On the one hand, devoid of its function as a map, the drawing seems to refer only to itself, but in fact, it conceals lots of information: where I went, whom I met, the experience of the city at the speed of a bicycle, even the sort of instinctive urban analysis that comes from my architecture education, my childhood in a Beijing once filled with bicycles — all are concealed in those lines.
As I mentioned before, I have been very interested in mathematics since my work on The Chinese Version. I discovered that there is even a class about bicycle mathematics at Cornell University. I found out about the theory of the relationship between front and rear wheels: the rear wheel always tries to follow the front wheel, but they hardly ever track the same line — even though there is a fixed mathematical relation that defines the limits of their potential variations or ‘discords’. Somehow, it’s like the relationship between partners. But even if it’s been proven, we can still hardly say that theory equals reality. In fact, the representations of the tracks from the GPS recorder app is, in a sense, imaginary, since, at each moment, the line is simply the result of a mathematical average between two GPS points each of which has a known margin for error of up to six metres. We cannot say the tracks were really there; we can only say they were almost there. The tension between the reality and imaginary compounds itself in many directions from those abstract lines.
I also think the abstract strategy of much of my work comes partially from traditional Chinese literature, especially poems and lyrics, wherein the aim was to express as much as possible with the greatest economy of language. Abstract traditional Chinese ink painting influenced me too, and the way of thinking about lines and spaces from my architectural training are always present for me. Besides that, the repression of individualism by the Chinese Communist Party that brainwashed my grandparents, and, successively, the generation of my parents, still impacts strongly on me; the tension between the surface and what is beneath, struggling to emerge.
Paul Gladston: You have stated that you seek to make beautiful art as a means of addressing an atrocious reality. Could you expand on that statement?
Jia: In his Ten Lectures on Modern Chinese Fiction, Wang Der-wei, (珙돠瓜) (b.1954) considered the reason why the great twentieth-century writer Lu Xun’s (쨀祺) (1881-1936) work contains so many references to beheadings — in Lu Xun’s time, these were commonplace. Wang says that, ‘on the practical and symbolic level, the state of modern China is a decapitated country, a body severed from the head that is its national spirit. The excitement of its people resides in watching beheadings or in waiting to be beheaded’. Today, we no longer have public executions, but the condition Wang ascribes to Lu Xun’s time is perhaps even worse today, where we no longer have any values except the blind pursuit of money and consumerist fantasy at the expense of every human or spiritual value.
This is the reality that the ‘beauty’ of technological and economic development conceals. If my work seems beautiful, I hope that its outward aspect will generate a tension with its underlying themes in ways that draw the viewer to a revelation about the deceptive attraction of beauty. At the same time, I still believe in beauty as a positive value.
Paul Gladston: Are you influenced by theoretical writings — Chinese and western?
Jia: My knowledge of traditional Chinese writings on aesthetic theory comes from two standard secondary sources: A Stroll through Aesthetics (쳄欺꼍mei xue san bu) by Zong Baihua 唎겜빽 (1897-1986) and Three Books on Aesthetics (쳄欺힛蝎 mei xue san shu) by Li Zehou 쟀燈비 (b.1930). Although I have hardly ever consciously applied traditional theory in my work, its influence is undeniable. I believe for example that the perspective treatment in my Road Series photos is due to my exposure to ‘the three distances’ (힛陶 san yuan) in traditional Chinese landscape painting. ‘The three distances’ refers to the way in which the artists would use a different projection system (or perspectival scheme) for the foreground, middle ground, and background of a painting, usually concealing the transitions between these three systems behind empty volumes of clouds or mists. There are many explanations as to how and why this convention arose, but one obvious effect of it is that unlike western single-point perspective, this technique allows us to see what is behind and beyond an object in the field of view — even if it is a mountain. Since my graduation, I have not studied art theory in a systematic way, but occasionally I pick up theoretical writings — or art historical writings that include theoretical sections — that might promise some relationship to my work; but this invariably happens after the work, or the idea and work method, already is established. I am always curious to know whether such writing has a relationship to my work, but since this reading comes afterward, one can hardly say that I am influenced by such theoretical writings. I thought of this as a Chinese way of working, but I think this is the tradition in the West, too. Aristotle wrote his Poetics in response to drama that already existed; it was not prior to Greek tragedy. To say that I am not much influenced by theoretical writings obviously is not the same as saying I do not have a theory. I always have a theory, but I like to imagine that it is my own. Sometimes, I am repelled by the conclusions of theoretical writings. Relational Aesthetics, for example, I think is a horrible idea because it suggests that the work of art is ultimately is not produced by the artist at all, but by the participating spectator. I am relieved to see that the most gifted artist of that school, Pierre Huyghe, has abandoned this theory in his current work. It is the condition of my generation that we no longer even feel the need to mention our rejection of the theory of Socialist Realism in China. It is more likely that we would feel the need to reject ‘Speculative Realism’, since the latter would have us divorce the world from our conceptualisation of it. To make a relationship between the world and our conceptualisation of it is one of the great freedoms that art allows us.4
Paul Gladston: Why do you keep studios in Hangzhou and Berlin? How do you support your international practice as an artist — simply through sales of your art, or by more varied means?
Jia: In the end I did not keep my studio in Hangzhou. I had it for a while with the help of a friend, then I moved my studio to Berlin. When we talk about making a living, of course in being an artist one takes a big risk. Lots of artists can’t make a living by sales of art. So far, I’ve been lucky in being able to support myself through my work as an artist. But every activity has its hard times. I had difficult periods too, and it will happen again. But if I wanted a comfortable life, I would have become a doctor like other members of my family. The proper life is not that; it’s to follow what you love in your heart.
Paul Gladston: You would like to differentiate your work from that of other artists from China. In what ways does it differ?
Jia: If I tell you my Chinese friends are laughing at me for practicing ballet every day, could you see the difference between the others and myself? I do have some friends who are also fond of traditional Chinese culture like Chinese opera, but they have nothing to do with contemporary art. I think that, in general, most young people in the world feel ashamed to look back at their traditional culture. I don’t understand it at all. I even like folk music. No one in the contemporary art world thinks folk music is cool. I wish one day to have the money to issue a CD of my collection of Chinese folk music. During the 1950’s, the Chinese National Academy of Arts published a collection of folk music scores from the all over the country — there were over ten thousand songs in it — but most of the songs were never allowed to be sung. The books are still in the library, probably gathering dust. Most Chinese artists have an art school education, which I do not have. But I used my time studying to develop other interests. I was forced to read classical literature from the age of twelve. Then I fell in love with it. So I didn’t get any influence from Japanese pop culture like many of my generation did.
Perhaps my installation Untitled (2014) marks these kinds of differences. I began with the idea of Untitled after visiting the Venice Biennale, where I noticed that all the exhibitions tried to have cool titles to catch peoples’ attention, almost like consumer brand names. I then collected around 90,000 art exhibition titles from around the world during the past ten years, and strung them together to make them sound like a continuous narrative, or like rhapsodies; but in fact they are just nonsense. And the titles are almost all about the artists themselves. Being an artist does not mean just focusing on oneself, or to be the decoration of a new technology. I would like to keep studying. It’s an adventure for me.
Jia, The Road Series 3, No. 498, 2009. Fine art inkjet, 150 x 225.8cm. Courtesy the artist.
Jia, Aggregate Tracks, 2014. Multimedia. Courtesy the artist.
Jia, Untitled, 2012. From the series The Chinese Version. Acrylic on canvas, 300 x 190cm. Courtesy the artist.
Jia, Project rendering of the installation and performance work, Untitled, 2014. Multimedia. Courtesy the artist.
2. Beijing Imperial Gardens, Guangming Daily Press, Beijing, 2004.
3. Jia’s translation from Liang Qichao’s 즛欺裂벧 liu xue zhi hai (The Disadvantages of Foreign Study) (1900) quoted by ZHANG Yongle 覽湛있 ]. 郊諒졺훨무踏저킹쳄，攣멩즛欺暾：쏟휑裂즛欺，槨돨角灌윱꼇矜즛。 咬懃횔裂。뎃毒苟굉훙냥낀裂珂，綠唐냥坎돨欺減눈固옵묩셨넓，랍꼇矜맏纘拱쟁，肝侶쥐鉅裂욈。
4. See Steven Shaviro, ‘Speculative Realism–A Primer’ in Texte zur Kunst, No.93, March 2014 (‘Speculation’) pp.40-51.
Paul Gladston is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures and Critical Theory and director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010 he served as inaugural head of the School of International Communications and director of the Institute for Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China. His recent book length publications include Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists (2011); ‘Avant-Garde’ Art Groups in China, 1979–89 (2013); Contemporary Chinese Art: a Critical History (2014); and Yu Youhan (2015). He is principal editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art and was an academic adviser to the exhibition Art of Change: New Directions from China, which was staged at the South Bank Centre in London in 2012.