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The work of Chinese artist Jia, a trained architect who has also studied Chinese literature and calligraphy, comprises painting as well as photography and performance. In her painting series The Chinese Version, Jia juxtaposes industrial typography with painterly skill, meaning with appearance, and a memory of literature’s flamboyance with formalistic visuality. On large-scale canvases she paints Chinese characters using always the same sans-serif typeface which was designed shortly after printing presses came to use in China and Japan and which “evokes the mechanization of products ‘perfectly’ made by machine” Jia, The Stillness as a Chinese Jar, 2013, available online at the artist’s website. She puts her mostly black types on white ground, invoking the paper they are usually printed upon, but as she carries them out laboriously by hand she translates the industrial types into painted figures. Unlike their printed pendants, the symbols in her paintings form horizontal or vertical lines, often establishing grids or patterns, without following a syntactic structure or even a semantic logic. Rather, Jia assembles the characters according to their visual characteristics, letting their inner formal structure, the density and arrangement of their strokes, or the similarities between their overall shapes determine the way they are spread across the canvas.

Not only to a Western audience will many of the symbols in Jia’s paintings remain illegible. Chinese viewers, or else: readers, might also experience gaps in understanding as quite a number of the characters are not in common use today. During the 1950s, in the run-up to China’s Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong issued a Character Simplification Program the changes of which are in effect – and legally enforced – until today. Two-thirds of the characters that had evolved over centuries were banned from official use while the remaining types were simplified, the number of their strokes reduced, allegedly to enhance the country’s literacy rate. Many traditional characters had been composed of several distinct parts that combined iconographic or ideographic elements with sound-related and etymological information. As many of these structural components were reduced to only a few strokes, their icono-/ideographic nature was lost and the etymological relations between them were often obscured. The amount and complexity of characters in use being significantly reduced, a rich tradition of Chinese literature and philosophy was lost to many, possibly quite in accordance with the goals of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.Cf. Drew Hammond, The Chinese Version, in: TEXT-Revue, 12, 2014, pp. 30-38

Opposing the restriction of expression and thought she understands to be the ongoing effect of the Character Simplification ProgramIn a statement on The Chinese Version on her website the artist writes that the Simplification Program “not only restricted expression, but also, to a degree, it restricted the ability to conceive certain ideas”., Jia in her paintings uses both, officially sanctioned types and extinguished traditional characters. To emphasize the partly icono-/ideographic nature of the Chinese script and to juxtapose its former abundance with its present functionality she frequently plays on the impression of similarity and affiliation between characters. One group of paintings uses simple figures of just a few geometrically aligned strokes that in their abstract seriality make think of grids and diagrams as are associated with Western Conceptual Art. Whether it is a symbol that to Western eyes looks like a Latin letter T and its bottom up counterpart or a group of dashes lining up to form a spiral – what seems to be mere variations of the same figure is in fact one widely used Chinese character placed side by side with a completely unrelated, only long forgotten, symbol. At other times, characters appear to emerge from one another – as a whole and its fragments or as doubles and multiplications of the same. Suggesting a possibly structural connection between characters of similar appearance, Jia raises questions of semantic and etymological relations and thus of the historicity of language.

The implied concurrence of visual and semantic similarity is taken even further in two triptychs that use the Chinese characters of the numbers one, two, and three – consisting simply of one, two, or three horizontal strokes. One work alternates the symbols in a steady rhythm of 1-2-3-2-1, the other moves them closer together, dissolving the strokes into a diffuse texture. In the central panels of both triptychs characters of the same density are placed below each other, creating a static verticality, while in the wings they shift inwards, causing diagonal movements toward the center. Visual and semantic levels here are interlocked. The Chinese numeric symbols are ideographic, depicting the count they signify. Formally as well as semantically, they grow one out of the other as the three mathematically and visually can be split into ones. Yet expanded is this idea by the form of the triptych that is at once one and three pictures.

The triptychs’ change between verticality in the center and movement in the wings points to another aspect of the series: Jia frequently uses the variation of densely and more lightly drawn characters to create optical effects; and she includes the space that surrounds the painting into the logic of the characters’ arrangement and the effects arising from it. Only when stepping back from the canvas one fully perceives the hidden patterns and figures and only with the viewers’ movement the figures are set in motion. Straight lines begin to drop or to curve, groups of characters swell into waves making the canvas seem to bulge and curl. To achieve such effects Jia makes use of very small formal variations. She arranges sequences of characters that gradually grow from having just a few simple strokes into more and more dense and complex symbols. She repeats and reverses the sequences, shifts them slightly from one line to the next, or contrasts only two characters to produce trompe l’oeil figures.

The optical illusions of bulging canvases and hidden images, and their counting on the viewers’ movement, might initially call to mind 1960s Op Art that, to emphasize visual perception, experimented with ways to irritate the eye, using flickering lines, inversions, and afterimages. Many Op Art works – from Victor Vasarely’s zebras to Marina Apollonio’s spinning discs – use the contrast of black-and-white to enhance their optical effects. This is true also for most of Jia’s paintings but in her case already results from painting typographical symbols while Op Art uses mostly geometrical shapes. Accordingly, Jia’s Chinese Version shares most with those art works in the context of Op Art – or more generally: Concrete Art – that cover the canvas with a grid of small distinct shapes, linear and at times vaguely resembling typographic figures. Italian artist Edoardo Landi, e.g., drew in his 1960s series Struttura Visuale thin-lined crosses that made the white gaps glow between them. Also François Morellet, co-founder of the Parisian Groupe de recherche d’art visuel (GRAV), had an “affinity to ornamental, canvas-covering textures”Sonja Klee, Humor und Ironie in der Konkreten Kunst von François Morellet, Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2012, p. 46 (translation by the author), creating modular and repetitive patterns and grids of short lines such as his Trames de tirets 0-90°. Travelling to Brazil in the 1950s, he had become acquainted with the work of Swiss designer and artist Max Bill, father figure of Concrete Art, whose appearance at the São Paulo Biennial in 1951 had influenced a young generation of Latin-American artists. Like Josef Albers, whose black-and-white spacial perspectives were to influence Op Art, Max Bill was a teacher at Bauhaus before he co-founded the Ulm School of Design where he developed his principles of Concrete Art.

Jia, as is mandatory for all architecture students in China, extensively studied Bauhaus graphics, design, and architecture. Nonetheless, Concrete Art, which resists symbolism or being based (like abstraction) on observed reality but aims at designing a surface out of its own formal and geometric rulesCf. Max Bill, “konkrete kunst” (introduction), in: exh. cat. zürcher konkrete kunst, Stuttgart 1949., might at first seem a bold comparison to Jia’s work. After all, her The Chinese Version arranges characters of script, which by definition represent reality, and even emphasizes their icono-/ideographic nature, i.e. their being evolved from reality rather than from abstract thought. However, highlighting the formal similarities her work shares with the patterns and grids in the spirit of Concretism illustrates that Jia’s emphasis on the ideographic nature of the Chinese script is countered by a strong interest in the design of the surface. As she strips the symbols of their syntactic function, reducing them to structural components of her compositions, geometric principles seem in fact to outweigh semantics without, however, ultimately superseding it. Rather, Jia holds up a tension between abstract and ideographic form, between mathematical rules and symbolic representation.

This leads to yet another branch of Concretism: Eugen Gomringer, who was Max Bill’s assistant at the Ulm School of Design, expanded the ideas of Concrete Art to develop a concept of Concrete Poetry. Valuing the signifier over the signified, the poem was to be a presentation of language rather than a representation of reality. Thus, not unlike in Jia’s paintings, the word as the smallest independent unit of meaning (and only sometimes the syllable or letter) turned into a pictorial object and compositional element. Syntax, rhyme, and meter were abandoned; instead, the poem became a spacial arrangement of text that uses the words’ visual appearance on the page as a means of expression. Concrete Poetry as well as Jia’s Chinese Version attenuate linearity and use repetitions and small irritations of otherwise steady sequences to make the beholder conscious of the reading process. Syntax loses its determinative power, giving way to the visual characteristics of the logograms. Much as Concrete Poetry resists representation and emphasizes the materiality of the signs and the page, semantics have never been entirely obliterated but here, too, the entanglement of semantic and visual levels remains essential.

Remarkably enough, Gomringer in his preface to an anthology of Concrete Poetry not only credits Mallarmé but also refers to 19th century sinologist Ernest Fenollosa whose essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry valued the ideographic nature of the Chinese script and already spoke of “concrete poetry”Cf. Eugen Gomringer’s introduction to konkrete poesie, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1972. Working as a professor and culture official in Japan, Fenollosa strived to foster the exchange between Western and Eastern cultural traditions. His essay had a great influence on American poet Ezra Pound and the poetry movement of Imagism associated with him as well as on subsequent movements that sought a direct, sensuous connection between form and content. “With Fenollosa, a sensuous-tangible energy that in the West had long been forgotten was recovered in the language of poetry.”Udo Kultermann, Wo es weder Westen noch Osten gibt. Ernest Fenollosas Bedeutung für die Kulturentwicklung der Moderne, in: Merkur, 12, 1993, pp. 1101-1104, citation: p. 1104. (translation by the author)

Fenollosa’s overly strong emphasis of the Chinese script’s ideographic nature has long been criticized by sinologists. Nevertheless, the connection between Chinese script and Western concrete poetry was made and has since produced numerous cooperations that would certainly have pleased Fenollosa. One of them, a double exhibition in the 1990s, introduced German speaking concrete poets to an audience in Japan while their Japanese colleagues presented their work in Hamburg. In the accompanying catalogue the Japanese artists repeatedly stress the influence calligraphy had on their work, an art form that traditionally uses the style of writing, deviations from the conventional stroke order as well as the text’s composition on the paper to support the poem’s structure, mood, and content (which, incidentally, has been greatly impaired by the Chinese Character Simplification Program)Hammond 2014, op. cit. (note 2). As Jia has likewise studied calligraphy, it may not be surprising to find in the catalogue works by Japanese concrete poets that resemble her approach and even one that arranges, formally quite similar to Chinese Version, characters in a grid across the page.

Random as these finds may be, they cast light on one point: While Jia’s painting series clearly draws on her own cultural tradition, she also touches on ideas that have shaped Western art and literature over the past century such as the attempts to integrate art and life and dissolve the boundaries between the arts. This makes it, far beyond being a comment on Chinese language, its history and officially enforced simplification, meaningful also for a Western audience.

Interview: EX_POSURE Magazine by Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi

A Cultural atrocity might not be just the systematic destruction of cultural heritage by Isis; according to Jia ‘ s The Chinese Version, currently on view at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe as part of the exhibition Infosphere, the simplification program, which targeted the more than 3.300 years old Chinese writing system (began in the 1950s and still remains by force of law) in the People’s Republic of China is a more ambitious cultural atrocity than the one committed by Isis.

e-flux | Jia. The Chinese Version Part of the GLOBALE exhibition Infosphere

Curated by Peter Weibel with Daria Mille and Giulia Bini. The cultural atrocity of Chinese character simplification that began in the 1950s and remains, by force of law, in the People’s Republic of China through the present day, has not only degraded the aesthetic properties of the Chinese written character: the program has also gravely hindered literacy in all but recent official texts by means of a haphazard formal reduction of the number of  strokes, eliminating two-thirds of the characters from the lexicon of those allowed for publication.


TEXT | Notes on Jia’s Painting Series: The Chinese Version | by Drew Hammond

There are no limits to the interior dialogue of the soul with itself. With this thesis, I would oppose the suspicion that language is an ideology.
Gadamer, Truth and Method

In her own written statement on The Chinese Version paintings, Jia (b. Beijing, 1979) leaves no doubt that the series arises from her outrage over an enduring act of cultural degradation.

From the standpoint of language, the [Chinese character] simplification program was a much more ambitious cultural atrocity than the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas … it was more extreme than censorship because it not only restricted expression, but also, to a degree, it restricted the ability to conceive certain ideas.1

In this regard, it is useful to recall that ideological destruction of culture recurs in history in accordance with patterns that foreshadow even more terrible events. In the case of the Chinese Character Simplification Program of 1955-1957—whose linguistic modifications remain in effect in China with the force of law—not only did it pave the way for the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most likely it was a necessary precondition for it. As such, it was both a first phase and a vehicle for an even more general destruction of Chinese culture, the most extreme since the famous anti-Confucian “Burn books, bury scholars” edict of the First Qin Emperor in the third century B.C.

As atrocities against humanity continue with such frequency, we often hesitate to respond to atrocities against culture, even though it is through culture that we define our humanity. And programmatic killing, presupposes that murderers relinquish genuine culture in order to realize themselves in action.

If barbaric regimes did not view culture as a threat to their aims, it is hardly credible that they would be at such pains to destroy it, or to replace it with an ape of culture whose function is rather to de-cultivate: “The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you,” proclaimed Goebbels during the book burning on May 10, 1933, at Berlin’s Platz am Opernhaus2, a site where besides the Opera, the Catholic cathedral and the Humboldt University conjoined, and which was to evoke the fulfillment of Heine’s famous remark that those who burn books would also burn men.3

By 1937, the party was sufficiently confident in the success of its own domination of the popular imagination that it staged two simultaneous exhibitions in the new Haus der Deutschen Kunst (since 1946, Haus der Kunst) in Munich—one of its own approved art, The Great German Art Exhibition (Die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung) and the other whose title conveys the reception demanded of the viewing public: Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst).4 Hitler, who had been twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and who by this time had embarked on a Gesamtkunstwerk infinitely more ambitious and obscene, gave the laudation at the inauguration of the new institution, with a remark of an irony to which he himself surely was blind:

“But with the opening of this exhibition, the end of German art foolishness and the end of the destruction of its culture will have begun.”

Written in 1945, Isaiah Berlin’s eyewitness appraisal of Soviet culture policy almost could lead us to imagine that Stalin was in competition to outdo his National Socialist rival in the ferocity of his attack on culture:

“The great purges and trials of the years 1937 and 1938 altered the literary and artistic scene beyond all recognition. The number of writers and artists exiled or exterminated during this time…”5

We need not have an artist’s talent for invention in order to imagine how such lines continue. As many among the living still recall, the war on culture6 that was inherent in the Soviet official policy persisted in a less virulent form for the decades that the regime continued, and, to a degree, it continues to this day, albeit with comparative restraint, and under a different flag. 7

This is not to say that postwar militancy against culture became less violent as the examples of the previous generation in the industrialized countries rippled across the developing world. The institution of “Year Zero” by the Khmer Rouge upon their seizure of power in Cambodia, in April, 1975, began as a campaign to eradicate the all prior cultural development in favor of a new “Revolutionary Culture”, and began with the execution of artists and intellectuals. The Taliban, whose name means students, announced itself to the world at large by dynamiting Sixth century masterpieces of monumental sculpture in March 2001. 8 Boko Haram encodes its war on Western education in the very name of the organization, but there are many organizations with different names whose programs are nevertheless similar, and who follow in the footsteps of scores of regimes that have ruled Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Mid-East for generations, often in conscious imitation of Western paradigms. 9

The point of this cursory survey, which at best may serve as a general reminder of facts already familiar, is not to offer a historical catalogue of the forces of cultural destruction, but to draw a distinction between the means of conventional government acts against culture and the means chosen by Mao Zedong—and by extension, those of—as many Chinese call it—“the current dynasty.” Before doing so, it is useful to remark that, despite the broad geographical, ethnic, and historical range of the aforementioned programs against culture, they tend to follow a similar course:

  1. The regime identifies cultural elements and institutions that it regards as inconsistent with its aims. This presupposes the establishment of a bureaucracy for the political evaluation of cultural production. Any aesthetic evaluation is subordinated to the political.
  2. The regime proscribes such works—this follows government monopolization of the means of cultural dissemination—and enforces its proscription by means of its police apparatus.
  3. Depending on an ensemble of conditions that find their industrial analogy in the field of cost-benefit analysis, the regime may take the additional steps of arresting, torturing, imprisoning, and / or murdering the authors and disseminators of alternative cultural production, even if their work predated the new regime, and even if their activities have ceased.

Now to the distinction implied by Jia’s statement: only one leader conceived and implemented an anti-culture program so ambitious that he not only proscribed unofficial cultural production and persecuted its authors—which he also did on a grand scale10but he also succeeded in imposing severe limitations on the very capacity of language to express ideas inimical to his political program. By extension, to the degree that our thoughts only may be fully formed insofar as we can express them in language, he also limited the ability of his people to precisely formulate certain thoughts. 11 This leader who so distinguished himself in this regard from his senior contemporaries in Germany and the Soviet Union, was none other than Mao Zedong. 12 And the means he invented in order to achieve this goal was the Chinese Character Simplification Program, a mandate enforced by policy that remains in effect in the People’s Republic to this day.

Formal Character Simplification and the Limitation of Vocabulary

Chinese characters retain such a specific visual aspect that, strictly speaking, it is not necessary to be literate in Chinese for the reader to have a sense of the formal aspects of the changes the program has wrought—even if the formal changes were only the first phase of a broader plan. In treating the formal aspect, my somewhat arbitrary examples that follow perhaps are as useful as any for this purpose—clearly, traditional versions are to the left; simplified, to the right.

ye (industry)
long (dragon)
rang (to allow)
jiang (to talk)

Leaving aside the matter of how these characters might appear were they to be written with a brush by an artistic calligrapher, prima facie it would seem that the first simplified character above ye 业 —no matter how aesthetically banal the simplified version might be by comparison to its source—at least would have the utilitarian advantage of being easier to read, write, and memorize merely for the fact of it having fewer strokes.

But the fact is that here the simplified form of ye was made simply by isolating the upper component of the character, a component that may other characters share e.g. 對 dui; 噗 pu 撲 (which has the simplified form扑) pu 蹼, and others; so in fact, the opposite argument is at least as valid: that the simplified version can sometimes render the character even more susceptible to a confusion of associations than the traditional version—except by rigorous memorization of the sort that may even be easier with traditional forms. This is because traditional characters retain constituents common to many characters in a related category, much as the characters for the specific names of birds comprise among their constituents the character for bird (鳥 niao), a character that has many strokes, but which instantly is recognizable as a unified whole. 13

Much potential confusion arises from the fact that those who devised the formal simplifications did so by resorting only to formal criteria, without any regard for conflicts of associated meanings in the character constituents they chose. The third example above is a case in point. For the simplified character 讲 rang (to allow), the simplifiers effectively preserved the left part of the traditional character 講, the word radical 言—which itself comprises the roughly square pictogram for mouth, and which often connotes an association with speech. Here, they simply amalgamated its strokes, rather like a version quickly scribbled in cursive—this part of it is uncontroversial. But for the constituent on the right hand side of the character, they eliminated the lower portion, and took an existing character that resembles but does not duplicate the upper portion of the combination. But since they only chose the upper portion on formal grounds without regard for its existing stand-alone meaning (including its history as a pictographic etymon) they end up using the character 井 (jing) which every Chinese school child knows means well (in the sense of a drinking well), even though this meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the any semantic association of the resulting simplified version of rang 讲 (to allow).

A comprehensive analysis of the faults, inefficiencies, and downright obfuscations implicit in character simplification’s formal aspect—one that is beyond the scope of our present intention—would further substantiate that the stated goal of the program, to improve literacy, is so remote from any credible appraisal of the program’s effects that, unless we insist that Mao was simple-minded, which no rational person could believe, the program must have had some other goal. The fallacy that formal simplification makes for a higher literacy rate is confirmed as such by the fact that literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan (where traditional characters remain standard) are marginally higher. 14

Whatever the program’s stated raison d’être, its transparent effect was to destroy the ability of those who were learning to read under the new system, to comprehend any texts except those approved by the Chinese government’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) 新闻出版总署 (xin wen chu ban zong shu), and its corresponding Party organization, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) 中共中央宣传部 (zhong gong zhong yang xuan chuan bu). As these “reforms” took hold, it is perhaps no coincidence that Mao was able to launch the Cultural Revolution ten years later, when those who had been raised under the new writing system already had grown to late adolescence and early adulthood, and had been schooled with a language appropriate for their entry into the ranks of the Red Guards.

Their exclusion from the immense literary culture of China prior to the advent of the Simplification Program, was reinforced by another of its mandates much more disturbing in its ambition. Besides the formal simplification of Chinese characters, the program eliminated from use approximately two thirds of Chinese characters from legally sanctioned publications. In this way, two thirds of Chinese characters effectively disappeared from the lexicon of published discourse.15

Besides limitations on expression and thought, the formal simplification of characters and the mandated elimination of the majority of them, had a further calamitous effect on the art of Chinese calligraphy—arguably, the only truly indigenous Chinese art form.16

The distinctive aesthetic potential of Chinese calligraphy derives from the nature of the Chinese character itself, a uniqueness that resides, in large measure, in that traditional characters are, for the most part, pictographic and / or ideographic, and comprise their own etymologies. Poets, for example, often wrote their works in a calligraphic style that formally could imitate the thematic content or mood of each poem; and the overall compositional layout on the paper also could have corresponding resonances in the structure of the text.

This is not merely a matter that a poem of mourning could be written with a thick, heavy stroke, and a poem about dancing the sword mime with a thin stroke in a rapid cursive style that conveyed the speed of the dance. Artists often expressed the aesthetics of this integration between the formal, semantic, and structural elements of a text by means of the stroke order of characters that also determine transitions from one character to the next. One measure of virtuosity was the degree to which a calligrapher intentionally violated conventional stroke order so as to heighten expressive abstraction through the degree of cursiveness, and the deftness of transition. Artists also employed intentional inconsistencies of scale from one character to the next, in the service of overall composition, evoking a “push-pull” sense of oscillating orthogonal perspective and, ideally, they achieved the synthesis of form and semantic content aforementioned.

These and other aesthetic criteria that continued to evolve at least since since the Chinese invention of paper in A.D. 105 abruptly stopped with character simplification, which simultaneously curtailed the richness of vocabulary that accompanied and nourished the form. It is possible, of course, to execute a calligraphic work with simplified characters—Mao’s own calligraphy is replicated in stone inscriptions throughout China. But divorced from its artistic specificity, the inevitable result of such calligraphy is a pale reflection of the medium’s potential, often to the point of travesty. Imposed simplification also entails a concurrent loss of the culture of mastery and development of the aesthetics of the calligraphic medium.

A principal reason for this is that unlike alphabets or syllabaries, it is appropriate to assign to Chinese characters three principal attributes, of which the first is one they do share with words written in alphabets or syllabaries:

  1. Chinese characters are semantic signifiers. In this respect, they serve a function analogous to written or printed words in any language, as units of meaning that can form grammatical syntactic sequences— despite that they do not represent sounds even though they have sounds associated with them.
  2. Unlike letters or characters of syllabaries, [traditional] Chinese characters are also image-signs, with varying degrees of pictographic or ideographic content that visually conveys meaning that comprises their own etymology. In the sense that they can, at times, visually convey multiple meanings, they may also be symbols.
  3. Chinese characters in their traditional forms retain the potential for a high degree of sophistication and specificity of expressiveness in their capacity to reflect signification in a text in the manner of their rendering [see above]. 17

The arrangements of characters in the paintings of The Chinese Version18 occur entirely on the basis of formal criteria—not semantic criteria. Each character therefore may retain its individual meaning, but not as a syntagm in sequential relation to other syntactic or grammatical units that could form a phrase or sentence. This artistic strategy simultaneously achieves several aims.

First, it invests the characters with a formal aspect to “replace” that which was mutilated by the state’s program of formal character simplification imposed for propagandistic ends. The paintings evince this new formal aspect in a way that is not based on traditional calligraphy, but which is entirely contrived by the artist through juxtaposition and de-semanticization of the characters’ syntactic relations. Ironically, the artist achieves this while appearing to imitate the outward aspect of printed characters, thereby implicitly turning the pretext of simplification for the sake of efficiency against itself. Despite their printed appearance, the artist laboriously paints the works by hand, thereby evoking a tension between their outward aspect and the manner of their execution that is consistent with their overall conceptual program.

Second, the artist’s arrangements juxtapose simplified characters with the “lost” characters from among the two-thirds of characters excluded by official general publication guidelines. By their very presence in these paintings, these characters constitute further repudiation of a policy of cultural degradation.

Third, these arrangements reconfigure the semantic potential of the characters degraded. As mentioned earlier, the artist’s deliberate criterion for the arrangement of the characters is not semantic in the conventional sense, but formal and without semantic relation:

These works divest the simplified characters of the propagandistic role for which they were intended, and return to them a formal aesthetic. Another way of saying this is that one can return a formal aesthetic to simplified characters, but only by eliminating their lexical and semantic relations. Ultimately, this is also to return to Chinese characters their critical role, but entirely through formal artistic means.19

As the artist’s text implies, to say that these formal arrangements are without internal semantic relations is not to say that they are without meaning. As ensembles, the arrangements in their formal aspects generate collective arrays that simultaneously operate as image-signs (e.g. as dynamic patterns of waves or other movements along x or y axes); or, in their conceptual aspect, as symbols of opposition to imposed linguistic and cultural degradation in the service of ideology.

In this sense, they posit a semantic shift from conventional grammar to a meta-grammar that simultaneously comprises image and language. 20 And yet, unlike Western text-based Conceptual Art of the sixties, which, in general, stripped art of an historically “decreed” formal aspect in favor of the idea, The Chinese Version restores to a historical textual medium a formal aspect that had been stripped by decree.21

Just as literacy in Chinese is not strictly necessary in order to perceive the implications of these works, neither is their critique of state-mandated cultural degradation necessarily limited to a Chinese condition.

In Michael Dummett’s analytical study, Frege, Philosophy of Language, a text that helped introduce the artist to contemporary Western ideas, 22 the author reveals how Frege, in Der Gedanke: Eine logische Untersuchung, distinguishes between a picture and a sentence or a thought:

A picture may be called true insofar as it corresponds closely with what it is intended to represent. Truth of a picture is, therefore, relational: we can judge whether a picture is or is not a true one only if we know the other term of the relation, namely, the object represented. By contrast, the truth of a (complete) sentence, or of the thought it expresses, is not relational… the sentence is simply true or false without qualification. 23

Through artistic means, The Chinese Version paintings render sentences relational. The truth is in the picture.


  1. In Chinese epistemology, the idea that to fix a linguistic term for something is a precondition for understanding, and, by extension, the understanding of its appropriate role in society, has a long tradition that dates to Confucius’s own comments on “the Rectification of Names” (正名zheng ming) in Analects 論語 Lun yu Book 3, Chapter 3. Since the great Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi (朱熹) (1130-1200) incorporated the Analects into the canon of texts for the Imperial Examinations, this view pervaded Chinese thought through the 20th century. In the West, this “language first” criterion is a staple of 20th century analytic philosophy enunciated in Frege and Wittgenstein and substantiated by Dummett e.g. “We have seen that it was both natural and correct for Frege, in extending the distinction between sense and reference [Sinn and Bedeutung] from names and expressions of other kinds, to take truth-values to be the referents of sentences.” Michael Dummett, Frege, Philosophy of Language Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p.644. In continental philosophy, Gadamer is perhaps the most authoritative exponent of the view that understanding presupposes mediation through language. See Hans Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen, Mohr, 1960. English version: Weinsheimer and Marshall, tr. Truth and Method, Continuum, London, 2004. “Supplement II: To What Extent Does Language Preform Thought?” p.545 []
  2. Since 1947, Bebelplatz. []
  3. “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” Heinrich Heine, Almansor (Jazzybee Verlag, Altenmünster, 2012) []
  4. In order to mark its 75th anniversary in 2012, Haus der Kunst opened what Okwui Enwezor has called “a reflexive exhibition” precisely to explore this aspect of the history of the institution. Enwezor: “I am of the opinion—as my predecessors Christoph Vitali and Chris Dercon were—that we absolutely have to not only show this material, we also have to properly contextualize it, we have to work towards defetishizing it, we have to work towards demystifying it.” (See Haus der Kunst marks 75th Anniversary) []
  5. Isaiah Berlin, “The Arts in Russia Under Stalin” New York Review of Books, October 19, 2000 []
  6. I.e. any culture that was alien to the Socialist-Realist orthodoxy that produced works of the sort that so disappointed Engels, the enthusiastic fan of Balzac. (See Marx Engels Correspondence 1888 “Engels to Margaret Harkness in London,” Early April) []
  7. Since Vladimir Putin’s first election victory in April 2000, besides the persecution of Pussy Riot and its associated art collective, Voina—a campaign that has received international attention— museum directors Yuri Samodurov and Ludmila Vasilovskaia were arrested and charged in 2003 for organizing an art exhibition at the Sakharov Museum; they were convicted in 2005. Together with another colleague, Andrei Yerofeev, Samodurov was convicted once again in 2010 for organizing an art exhibition. The arrest of Pussy Riot members in 2012 that would result in their imprisonment was the culmination of a long campaign of suppression of their associated group, Voina, against which at least a dozen criminal indictments have been filed. See Amnesty International, Freedom Under Threat in Russia []
  8. This was in fact the fourth time that hostile elements had attempted to destroy the sculptures since the thirteenth century. []
  9. The lesson of Adorno and Horkheimer who coined the term “The Culture Industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment first published in 1944, reveals that Western liberal democracies that replaced the most appalling tyrants, and which generally refer to themselves as “free societies” are not immune to conditions inimical to culture because, according to the authors, it is inherent in capitalist societies to subsume artistic production and dissemination with a domination that their legislative freedoms belie. Despite these liabilities, such a condition is altogether different from the organized programs of cultural destruction of totalitarian regimes, and therefore, while lamentable, does not merit comparison with them on equal terms. []
  10. The immense literature on this subject in Chinese and Western languages is listed online under the Oxford Bibliographies heading Revolutionary Literature Under Mao.
    As good a brief summary as any is in Richard King’s introduction which characterizes the period as follows: “The effect of mercurial and often vindictive policy changes on writers and artists could be devastating: the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s last decade (1966–1976) saw the persecution of many of the nation’s leading cultural figures; virtually no writer or artist had an uninterrupted career.” Contemporary art as we currently understand the term, did not exist in China during this time. Art was limited to official Socialist-Realism of a sort that would be familiar to those who follow current artistic production in the DPRK. []
  11. Op cit [note 1] []
  12. There are a variety of reasons why the language reforms instituted by Atatürk (1881-1938) in Turkey are not properly analogous to those of Mao in China. Atatürk began by replacing one alphabet with another. The Perso-Arabic alphabet that had long been in use in the Ottoman Empire was neither an indigenous development, nor well-suited to rendering the sounds of Turkic languages. The Ottoman Empire had a long tradition of non-Muslim subjects who wrote Ottoman Turkish in their own scripts, whether Armenian, Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Atatürks reforms did not reduce the lexicon of publishable words; in many respects, it expanded it. []
  13. Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978), the great Swedish scholar of Chinese historical linguistics called these word families, a rough translation of the Chinese term 同源詞 (tong yuan ci) (also translated as cognates). []
  14. Many lists of data show a Hong Kong average of 93.5% —96.9% for males—which places Hong Kong two points below the current mainland average, but the sources of these figures are drawn from census data of 2002 vs. more current data from the People’s Republic, and therefore are not comparable. Even taking into account this incongruity, the Hong Kong data is skewed downward because of a comparatively larger percentage of foreign residents who are not literate in Chinese. In Taiwan, where traditional characters are the norm, combined literacy rates exceed 98.2%, and for males the rate exceeds 99.6% Source: “International Comparison of Education Statistical Indicators – 2012 Edition“, Ministry of Education, 2012. pp. 17. []
  15. The poverty of the officially permitted vocabulary of this period is a condition from which even the comparatively “liberal” current status quo has yet adequately to recover. Endymion Wilkinson, whose Chinese History: A Manual (Harvard University Asia Center, 2000) had become a standard even before its substantial enlargement for the 2012 edition, traces the history of Chinese dictionaries of potential use to scholars. He notes that the Kangxi Dictionary kangxi zidian 康熙字典 of 1716 contained 47,035 characters of which approximately 20,000 were variants. (The zhonghua da cidian 中華大字典 of 1915 had even more characters.) Subtracting graphic variants from the total, yields approximately 27,000 characters. Notably, the revision of this work that was released in the early fifties, prior to the Simplification Program, (The New Chinese Character Dictionary (xinhua zidian 新華字典) was so severely restricted that its 1965 revision actually was printed but not allowed to be released. In 1970, Zhou Enlai saved it from oblivion as successive revisions censored politically sensitive terms. But even so, the practical availability of a comprehensive dictionary was, for the general student population, close to non-existent as many living scholars well recall. Even if it were available, it would have been of little use, since official publishing guidelines restricted character use to a vocabulary of less than one third of Chinese characters, a linguistic restriction that was unprecedented in modern times in its ambition not only to suppress the content of published discourse, but the very language in which content might be expressed. This was implemented by the List of Chinese Character Forms for General Printing of 1964 (with 6196 characters), and the List of Generally Used Characters in Modern Chinese (7000 characters) published as late as 1988 and still in force. (See John Jing-hua Yin, Fundamentals of Chinese Characters, Yale University Press, 2006. p.6) []
  16. Clearly, other traditions practice calligraphy, but, as the patient reader is bound to see, the distinctive properties of Chinese characters as pictographic and ideographic elements allow for aesthetic potentials that simply are not possible in languages written with alphabets or syllabaries. []
  17. Consistent with its propagandistic aim, character simplification and vocabulary limitation advance (1), severely compromise (2), and effectively does away with (3). The Chinese Version series, on the other hand does away with (1), uses (2) in order to generate an aesthetic tension, and transforms (3). []
  18. This title for the series has a double meaning that is meant to refer both to The Chinese version [of cultural destruction specific to government mandated formal character simplification and limitation of vocabulary] and The Chinese version [of counteracting such acts through artistic means]. []
  19. Op cit [1] Artist’s Statement. []
  20. Given the intrinsically pictographic and ideographic properties of Chinese characters and their peculiar recent history, and the exclusion of semantic relations in order to effect the images in the artist’s arrangements of them, their theoretical aspect has little in common with Futurist typography or Western concrete poetry. What is more, in the The Chinese Version the typographical arrangement of words is not eccentric, but almost always respects the vertical and horizontal arrangement of standard text. []
  21. The most authoritative treatment of the Conceptual Art of this period remains Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” October, Vol.55 (Winter, 1990), pp.105-143. At the outset of his essay, Buchloh characterizes Conceptual Art of the period (i.e. that of artists Seth Siegelaub, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, et al) as “the most rigorous elimination of visuality and traditional definitions of representation.” (p.107) []
  22. Learned in conversation with the artist, winter, 2013. []
  23. Michael Dummett, Frege, Philosophy of Language, Harper & Row, New York, 1973, p. 442 []
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EYELINE | Track Changes — Jia in Conversation with Paul Gladston | by Paul Gladston

Jia (b. 1979) is an artist who 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 interview she reflects on her development as an artist, the problems of translating artistic practice between differing cultural contexts and the intended critical significance of her work, which combines aspects of contemporary western(ized) art with interpretations of traditional Chinese thought and practice.

Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking you to say something 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 25, 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 实践社): the first organization 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 organizers 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 between 2006 and 2008. In order to support myself, I took jobs as an editor, public relations representative, curator, etc. 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 (Chinese Poems and Lyrics). 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 张勃 asked me to write a book about classical Chinese gardens with him, Beijing Imperial Gardens Beijing Imperial Gardens (Beijing: Guangming Daily Press, 2004). 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 realize 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.

PG: You have stated 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 generalized 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 The Chinese Version involving painterly reworkings of simplified Chinese characters. What are you reinterpreting in this particular case and what are the conditions that you are seeking to criticize?

J: 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 took 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.

PG: Is your work intended to have an impact on society and culture beyond the limits of the institutionalized art world and its audiences? If so, what do you think that impact might be and have you tried to measure it or theorize it in any way?

J: My favourite novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (di fan nei zao can 第凡內早餐)—not the one by Truman Capote—was written by a Taiwanese woman writer Zhu Tianxin (朱天心). 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 which may be of some writers understand there are differences, such as Nabokov made, the purpose of literary creation 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’s 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 梁启超 (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.

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. Jia Notes translation from Liang Qichao’s 留学之害 liu xue zhi hai (The Disadvantages of Foreign Study) (1900) quoted by ZHANG Yongle 章永乐 ]. 昔者梁任公游历欧美,正告留学生云:今日之留学,为的是未来不需留学。 吾心深然之。但愿下辈人成长之时,已有成熟的学术传统可供继承,而不需负笈万里,受这零碎之苦。

PG: Your recent works are characterized 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?

J: 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, etc. 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 3 a.m. 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 which 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 17 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 flat 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 partially comes 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.

PG: You have stated that you seek to make beautiful art as a means of addressing an atrocious reality. Could you expand on that statement?

J: In his Ten Lectures on Modern Chinese Fiction, Wang Der-wei, (王德威) (b.1954) considered the reason why the great twentieth-century writer Lu Xun’s (鲁迅) (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.

PG: Are you influenced by theoretical writings – Chinese and western?

J: My knowledge of traditional Chinese writings on aesthetic theory comes from two standard secondary sources: A Stroll through Aesthetics (美学散步 mei xue san bu) by ZONG Baihua 宗白华 (1897-1986) and Three Books on Aesthetics (美学三书 mei xue san shu) by LI Zehou 李泽厚 (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” (三远 san yuan) in traditional Chinese landscape, in which the artists would use a different projection system (or perspectival scheme) for the foreground, middle ground, and background of the 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 conceptualization of it, despite that to make a relation between the world and our conceptualization of it is one of the great freedoms that art allows us. My basic understanding of this subject comes from Steven Shaviro’s article, “Speculative Realism—A Primer” in Texte zur Kunst, March 2014 (“Speculation”) pp.40-51]

PG: 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?

J: 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 to 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.

PG: You would like to differentiate your work from that of other artists from China. In what ways does it differ from the work of other Chinese artists?

J: 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 people 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.

Paul Gladston is associate professor of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham and principal editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.

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The Road Series | The Road to Accumulation and the Road to Loss | by Drew Hammond

Until the trip that is the point for departure for The Road Series, the artist had lived her entire life in Beijing, where, after the selection of her first installation for the Shanghai Biennale while she was an architecture student, she began to work for Ai Weiwei. 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.

 The Road Series

FIG 1. Guo Xi 郭熙,Early Spring 早春 (c.1070). Like Classical Chinese painting in general, the work foreshortens the image by means of an incremental reduction of the orthogonal angle of deviation from the horizontal; in this case, from 45º for the rock mass of the foreground of the central tree, to 30º for the middle ground mass behind that same tree, to 25º for the background mass in the upper frame.

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.


View “The Road Series”