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.