Until the trip that is the point for departure for The Road Series, the artist had lived her entire life in Beijing, where, while she was an architecture student, her first installation was selected for the Shanghai Biennale. These years coincided with the culmination of the period of the birth of Contemporary Chinese Art— a period that had begun when the artist was still in primary school—and it includes the birth of conceptual art in its distinctly Chinese incarnation. In view of these facts, it is useful to ask, “In what sense is The Road Series Chinese?”
Chinese Origins of the Work’s Formal Aspect
At the outset, The Road Series is traditionally Chinese in its formal aspect that derives from technical features of traditional Chinese painting. This is most immediately apparent in its extreme foreshortening of perspective. It is a truism that, ordinarily, photography presupposes single-point perspective—in several variants depending on the angle of view—because a photo usually captures precisely the vision of reality that the invention of single-point perspective strove to imitate. By means of an extreme foreshortening that derives not only from the apparatus of a long lens, but also from the exterior mist conditions that diffuse light and mask depth of field, The Road Series generates an artificial perspective contrived by the artist.
Such artificial perspectives or projection systems are a standard feature of traditional Chinese painting, which, most often, develops three distinct progressively foreshortened perspective fields, one each for the foreground, middle ground, and background. Classical Chinese painters effect transitions from one perspective field to another, by means of a successive decrease in the degree of the angle formed by the juncture of the horizontal and the orthogonal lines of the image projection. Then, typically, they conceal the boundaries that define each field by “hiding” the transitions behind amorphous masses, usually clouds or volumes of mist, a means Jia also employs in The Road Series by selecting times when such weather conditions prevail, in order to make the work.
Since this treatment of perspective also has a basis in traditional Chinese metaphysics whether Buddhist, Taoist, or Neo-Confucian, traditionally the criterion for the technique of representation is not faithfulness to reality—banal and irrelevant for the Chinese artist of the past—but the manner in which reality can become a vehicle for the representation of an idea, often a metaphysical idea.
In this sense, as we shall see later in more detail, The Road Series is consistent with a precedent in Traditional Chinese Art that asserts the primacy of depiction not as a representation of reality per se, but as a representation of an idea, i.e. a representation of a self-conscious reflection on reality.
Chinese Origins of the Work’s Conceptual Attributes
Besides revealing Chinese characteristics in its formal aspect, The Road Series also is Chinese in its conceptual attributes, since two distinguishing traits of contemporary Chinese art are its social engagement and the assertion of representation that its social engagement presupposes. Contemporary Chinese Art consciously rejects the Western Modernist tradition of the fully autonomous work of art that would aspire to represent only itself, or the manner of its own execution.
In this sense, it is appropriate to say that The Road Series, despite its degrees of overt formal abstraction, is not a work that would conduce to Modernist autonomy. The Road Series would not posit a progressive flight from the referent, no matter how incrementally unrecognizable its overt referents become. As the title suggests, the series derives from journeys in a car. This feature is not merely a pretext for allusion to narrative, which it disregards. Instead, the work distinguishes the automobile as a dynamic metonym, both of China’s obsessive materialist aspiration and the way this obsession becomes a prism through which one views the world.
Today, few Chinese would ever doubt that the automobile is a sign of material success in a society that prizes such things as only one formerly deprived of them is apt to appreciate. What is more, this journey takes place in the relatively prosperous West, a symbol of aspiration for many Chinese who strive for such prosperity—whether or not their idea of it is largely an illusion.
As the artist presents this vision of the West in an extremely foreshortened perspective aided by mist, with deliberate focal distortion, through the movement of the car—under such conditions, this vision of the supposed cradle of material well being becomes a nearly unrecognizable abstraction, indistinguishable from other places. At the same time that this abstraction effaces the identifiability and particularity of the scene, it also begins to seem overtly pretty in a way that might well distract the viewer from its negation of literal depiction.
By summoning prevailing assumptions that have gained nearly universal currency in China, a voracious idealization of consumerism that, arguably, derives from the West’s “colonization” of China’s values in the ideological vacuum following a generalized loss of faith in another form of Western materialism, Marxism-Leninism, The Road Series implies that it is consumerism that has blurred our vision and replaced it with a prettified abstraction that feeds on desire.
In this sense, the work also reads as an externalization of tendencies implicit in the Japanese otaku “Superflat” school of Murakami. The Japanese term, otaku (おたく), the honorific form of taku (house), refers to those who despair of reality in the world at large, and enclose themselves at home with their computer screens, where they live in virtual worlds of anime, manga—often in their variants of puerile sexual fantasy. Murakami’s own sincere statements about the inane flat images of his artworks evocative of computer images, leave no doubt that his work arises from despair at the heart of the nihilist consumerist obsessions that dominate his own society.
Among its various implications, The Road Series implies that the prevalent anodyne condition of consumerist illusion would thwart even an effort to engage the external world. As hopeless as it may be to retreat to one’s house in order to indulge a desire for escape to the false shelter of fetishized virtual worlds, in the manner of the Japanese otaku cultists, the Road Series implies that such an escape now is beside the point, because the condition from which otaku culture would flee is even more general and extreme than the one Murakami imagines. The Road Series implies that our vision of the external world already has become so flattened and blurred by an artificial, hypnotized consumerist retina, that we are no longer capable of an authentic vision of anything, and that, colored by such distortion, our illusion of the external world is as falsely seductive as internet juvenilia.
The Western Idea of Photography as Art Space
Invariably, artists who choose photography, properly—albeit implicitly— acknowledge a reason for doing so that transcends the mere presence of the medium. Equally implicit is the recognition that in order for a work in the photographic medium to be art, either formally or conceptually, it must overcome the intrinsic limitation of photography as, in Beuys’s phrase, “relying too much on what is already there.” According to this view, mere selection and definition of a subject, together with adjustment of the apparatus, all too often fails to generate an image sufficiently contrived by the artist to be a fully constituted work of art distinct from illustration.
In Beijing, artists had such a horror of the parallel world of state-sponsored artistic production—including photography—that official art provided a useful school in precisely what not to do. It was therefore commonplace for artists implicitly to absorb such ideas about the limitations and strengths of various media, whether or not the system allowed any specific theoretical training outside a narrow scope.
Often, such ideas derived from newly available Western paradigms. Given Ai Weiwei’s well-known adulation of Duchamp, Jia’s architectural training, and the new general access to the internet in Beijing during her university years, it was natural that Jia also should learn of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s seminal Anonyme Skulpturen of 1970, which used photography to employ industrial structures as macro readymades, much in the way that Duchamp had used transportable objects for his own readymades.
As it was perhaps for artists outside China who were also interested in Duchamp, it was the consensus among the members of Jia’s circle— including the Beijing three-artist collective known as UNMASK, the sculptor and installation artist, Liang Shuo, the video and CGI artist duo, 8gg, and others—that Duchamp’s readymades had to do with function and situation: by removing a functional object to a place for viewing art, the artist annulled the object’s original function and reassigned to it a purely aesthetic “functionless” status. And from the Becher’s, Jia got the idea that photography had the potential to generate a fictional space that would serve as an equivalent of the readymade’s situation, the space for viewing art that made possible the transmutation of functional object to readymade. Duchamp “created” his readymades by removing them to a space for viewing art—a gallery, a museum, an exhibition hall. By means of photography, the Bechers took “immovable” functional structures, and removed them to a fictional space devoid of expression, that dispelled their function and compelled a vision of their formal aspect.
But for this younger generation of Beijing artists whose parents and mentors were of the generation of the Bechers’ students, Ruff, Höfer, Struth, and Gursky; these latter, through a diversity of means and with astute variations on their teachers’ initial discovery, already had explored many of the ways that the fictional space of photography could reveal a segregated vision of the formal aspect of things. Why not then instead use this photographic space to generate a vision distinct from a segregation of reality’s formal aspect? After all, since the Bechers had demonstrated that one could use the fictional space of photography to separate an object from its original function, why not also use the photographic space to separate an object from its from original form? In other words, why not use the raw material of reality to make explicit the fictitious potential of the photographic space?
In The Road Series, such a vision is distinct from a representation of reality. Instead, it is a representation of an idea whose visual correlation with reality might only be peripheral and, in the case of The Road Series, often only minimally discernible. In this sense, the underlying strategy of the work evokes, among other things, a much later Duchamp, the period of The Large Glass and Étant Donnés—works that in their formal aspect make overt use of constituents of reality, while eschewing the full autonomy of modernist abstraction on the one hand, and pure mimetic representation on the other. They achieve this by representing not reality per se, but an idea, or a related system of ideas. In this broad conceptual sense, Duchamp’s late work resembles traditional Chinese painting in the way the latter’s artificially contrived projection systems represent Chinese metaphysical ideas rather than pose a “retinal” imitation of physical reality.
With the very medium that most “relies on what is already there,” The Road Series creates overtly pretty visions of things that are not already there at all, but which belie our distraction from a real awareness—not merely awareness of potentially hazardous weather, but of the more profoundly dangerous epistemic blindness of consumerist fantasy.
The Chinese Road
The artist readily points out that the idea of travel has different associations in China, where until the relatively recent policy of “reform and opening up” initiated by Deng Xiaoping and instituted by the National People’s Congress in the year of the artist’s birth in 1979, the government restricted internal travel by Chinese citizens.
With the new policy, an immense population of peasants left their rural villages in order to seek work in cities that began to undergo rapid economic development, and which demanded a greater pool of cheap labor. This social upheaval represented a relative decline in the sort of village kinship and traditional moral imperatives that had dominated Chinese culture for millennia.
The fact of moving or travelling therefore in one sense represents greater personal freedom, but it also entails a psychologically violent rupture with a sense of the self that in Chinese tradition was invariably bound to one’s native place. According to the artist, this sense is at the root of the Chinese four-character expression, 背井离乡 (bei jing li xiang), to turn one’s back on the well and leave the [native] village—in effect, to forsake the source of one’s life and identity. “Although one may have the illusion of having chosen to be in the car,” says the artist, “conditions have compelled the choice.”
Surely the sense of involuntary self-delusion in the images arises not only from the mirage of consumption as ideal, but also is the result of an underlying sense of loss—loss of home, of authenticity, of identity. Once you turn your back on the well, what possibly can lie ahead? Only the road.