By Qiu Zhijie
Translated by Wu Chenyun
On Sunday, Jiang Zhi and I took a casual walk around Pan Jia Yuan antique and second-hand market. Beijing Pan Jia Yuan is the place where all kinds of junks and treasures gather together. Every Saturdays and Sundays, those who have gone all the way to hunt for antiques, furnitures, porcelain vases, shadow puppets, fake paintings and calligraphies would come here and fill the massive market hall. Foreigners showing an interest to buy would be charged with extremely high prices. Obviously, we belonged to the type of customers those vendors didn’t fancy. We spent half a day bargaining for something we were determined not to buy. And whenever we felt the impulse to buy something, we lacked the determination. Despite all that, each of us bought a pair of Russian telescopes in the end. The camouflage shell of the telescopes gave out a sense of military coolness and had a trademark featuring sickle and hammer which we doubted were some nostalgic symbol the Russians added particularly for Chinese market.
When I went back home, my enthusiasm for the telescope lasted no more than 30 minutes. One week later, the telescope was covered by a thick layer of dust. Two weeks later, it totally slipped my mind.
It was about one month later that Jiang Zhi gave me a call. He told me one day when he looked at the widows of the high-rise on the opposite side via his telescope, suddenly he saw a man standing behind one of those windows and looking at him via an exactly same telescope. That man also saw Jiang Zhi. Before poor Jiang Zhi fully figured out what just happened, the man disappeared. Three or four seconds later he appeared again, and Jiang Zhi noticed that he took a monocular high-power telescope and a pair of tripod with him, staring. Due to this incident, Jiang Zhi dared not to open his curtains for a whole week.
Trapped in his small apartment without daring to open the window, Jiang Zhi found his imagination started to go wild. He made calls to all his friends more frequently, making up stories of one particular friend for fun so that others started to feel paranoid. Therefore a kind of bizarre entertainment was formed among our small circle: we used exaggerated words to confuse facts, making up coincidence and adventures to mix up dreams and memories. Jiang Zhi went to Pan Jia Yuan again on the next Sunday. This time he bought a relatively new-looking Pentacon single-lens reflex 120 camera. From then on he started to work on the writing of mystery stories and photo taking at the same time. If you met him every few days, he would take out the photo album to show you some of the new ideas he’s proud of. At such moments, a sparkle of wisdom and cunning could be perceived in his eyes.
Jiang Zhi’s first work was a photography series called Straw Man. During those days, Jiang Zhi kept nagging friends like me to do some modeling work for him. He would book a certain period of your time via the phone without asking for any permission and showed up at your door with a camera kit. Wherever he went, he always took his camera kit with him, as if it was a tattoo. After all his identity as Beijing-based reporter for a magazine in Shenzhen was the whole reason for him to stay in Beijing. But this time, besides the camera kit, Jiang Zhi also brought with him a big bag stuffed with all kinds of props he’d prepared for us, including some green light to create sci-fi movie like and chip effect, fruits, books and the like. Certainly, the most important props were straws. Jiang Zhi used these things to manipulate us. He asked us to suck via the straw anything occurring to him: dolls, posters or someone’s body. In front of the camera, we performed Jiang Zhi’s daydream. This was even a new kind of human beings developed on the basis of genetic engineering technologies. They were the “pioneers who had elbowed their way to break through the previous pathetic conditions of human beings”. They could absorb anything via the straw, including organic and inorganic matters and information. Jiang Zhi even created a national anthem for this imaginary species. It reminded people of Heinrich Heine’s The Silesian Weavers: “We suck; we suck; we suck everything!” We noticed that many of our home decorations were used as Jiang Zhi’s props. It was until then that we realized he had been plotting this for a long time. Jiang Zhi’s art embodied the attempt to turn live into the system of fantasy. In a city full of noise, dust, immigrant workers and pretty ladies, Jiang Zhi was busy receiving calls, interviewing, taking taxi and having meals with friends. He was willingly manipulated by post-modernism, post-colonialism and post industrial society. But he never admitted that. He’s like a schemer with double-face, sitting behind the closed curtains in his small apartment and trying every way possible to collect and fabricate evidence to prove that it wasn’t true. Memory was made up by collective efforts, experience was artificially synthesized and then put into mass production, and the opposite of truth was also true. Skyscrapers were built to generate certain sense of weightlessness when those succeeded were climbing up and those failed were falling down. In fact, Jiang Zhi once described such weightlessness by using phenomenological method in one of his novel. In the end of that novel, the eyeballs bouncing out of the person who jumped off the building started to observe the body once they belonged to. Jiang Zhi was not as simple and innocent as the characters in his novel. He seldom experienced the sense of weightlessness or the freedom of self-observation in a realistic way, for writing and photography itself had already become a more real negation: “As long as I’m still fabricating, the reality cannot do anything about me!” Jiang Zhi is an organized person and treats his work seriously. He is not a first-sight artist who has iconic full beard and long hair. He would talk to you in a solemn way but in the meantime, think of several possible fates of you and laugh out loud for that in his mind. Born in the 70s, this young man managed to integrate surprises, irony, nostalgia, adventure and illusion together in a highly complicated and unprecedented way. He’s an interesting person, easygoing and yet not easy to understand. As a matter of fact, people like him are not dreamers but tools for imagination.
During the shooting of Straw Man, he always had to promote his fantasies to others. He felt a bit sorry about it. He was not the kind of artists who tended to force people to do something they didn’t want to. So the next time he found himself a meek object that would never say no to his fantasies. It was a small puppet with a pair of wings on its back. He found it at a small stall in Hangzhou. Jiang Zhi thought it should be a “she” and named her “Mu Mu”. From then on Mu Mu started to do things that Jiang Zhi dared not to do (i.e. flying in the sky) and to show emotions that he was too shy to reveal. And Jiang Zhi, with his camera in hand, pretended to be an indifferent observer and narrator. His narration was soft and hesitating. Sometimes the logic of narration and consistency of Mu Mu’s personality would be sacrificed. It seemed he totally forgot his identity as a reporter.
Mu Mu was about an inch high, with round hands, face, eyes and nose and a plump waist. Her major function was to carry on fairytales. If you focused on her tiny little body, you would notice that everything around her started to seem vague. Mu Mu stood on top of the high stone pillar, gazing eagerly through the babbling rivers. Mu Mu leaned out from a tree hollow, dressing in plain like a crescent moon peeped out from behind the clouds. Mu Mu sighed melancholy among the ruins of ancient buildings. Mu Mu spread spells and miracles to the world from the center of spider-web in the grass. She was gentle and easygoing, bright as sunshine. But more often a sense of sadness could be perceived in her. I’m not sure such an impression came from the fact that she was an old soul with a crack.
Photography series Mu Mu sometimes reminded me of the silent moonlit nights in the book Six Records of a Floating Life, which gave out a sense of serenity and harmony through the centuries. The world of Mu Mu became a fictitious land of peace that Jian Zhi could retreat from the earthliness. The reality was a massive maze like the Pan Jia Yuan market. People bargained, calculated, sold, bought and used telescope to examine each other. What Mu Mu represented was not one single kind of emotion but a variety of emotions. In other words, Mu Mu herself was the embodiment of romance. When faced with a chaotic era and hard facts, romance was almost a kind of smuggling of freedom and happiness. Romance was transient, constantly scolded harshly by facts and logic. Sometimes it was just like taking drugs: a fleeting sense of happiness was gained at great expense. Nevertheless, it was exactly because of these, romance seemed extremely precious. The world was never short of absurdity. But there wasn’t much real fun. Under such circumstance, Mu Mu’s innocent and even somewhat naïve insistence of romance as the essence of life was in fact sensible and illuminating. Jiang Zhi was a narrator of visual fairytale. His narration didn’t intend to convince people but to prove the possibility of freedom. Metaphorically speaking, fiction was like a tent under the sunshine, beneath which molds were growing and attempting to overturn life. Fiction was not reality, but it was our past and future.
Straw Man focused more on the future, and Mu Mu was about the past. Those were the emotional patterns that were increasingly disappearing. Such a feeling made me doubt that whether my own reality had involved too much modernization. It was romantic and yet stubborn. A sense of romantic stubbornness particularly belonging to Chinese classical literati could be perceived, which emphasized on savoring, having a world by ourselves, and reveling in the dreamy imagery.
Honestly, I was worried about Jiang Zhi. People like him who unfortunately lived in a totalitarian society were likely to be executed for being convicted of “being guiltily interesting”. Luckily, Jiang Zhi has his camera, via which he could convey his dreams to us.