By Bao Dong
Jiang Zhi is an artist who developed amidst a backdrop of 1990s experimental art in China, during which the country underwent a series social transformations. This includes changes in the political atmosphere and switch in economical tendencies, and the consequent utter reform of the cultural landscape. All this is happening at a time when contemporary art in China (referred to in the 1980s as the ‘85 New Wave Art Movement’) has just begun to develop. As a result, Chinese contemporary art is confronted with two questions: first, what are the problems that have arise out of this new cultural language; and secondly, how do we present them?
Although these two questions are essentially connected, artists have always had their own emphasis. For some, the core concern has been in examining the social issues that arise out of historical transitions. From Political Pop in the early nineties to Gaudy Art in the late 1990s, they are generally not concerned with the issues of art forms. Take for instance the ‘New Generation’ artists and Cynical Realism, which basically adopted the realist language created by Fine Art academies; while Political Pop and Gaudy Art repeatedly uses ‘appropriation’ and ‘collage’, the only difference being the context. In fact, from current observation, this aspect of artistic practice is merely a once-dominant realism in Chinese art. Together with its derivative social critique and historical determinism, it possesses the classic ills common in periods of cultural transition—using old frameworks to deal with new problematics, such that the true essence of the problems remains oblivion.
Another group of artists are more concerned with issues of contemporary art making, such as the possibilities new mediums and systems of contemporary art can offer, as well as engaging with more in-depth examination of contemporary art—such as investigating, in the context of China, the fundamental differences between contemporary art and traditional art forms, official art, and academy art, not just their difference in political attitude and aesthetic interests. This trajectory has brought about widespread yet scarce experimental art activities. Artists, either on their own or in groups, consciously marginalise themselves by engaging with issues of contemporary society and culture, and experimenting with different expressions and mediums. It is under such atmosphere of ‘experimental art’ that Jiang Zhi’s artistic practice developed and which also became part of this movement.
Jiang’s development began at Zhejiang Fine Arts Academy, the centre of the ’85 New Wave Art Movement. From the initial experimental novels to subsequently involvement in the video art movement, Jiang’s experiences brought for him a conscious demand for language, a kind of motivation inspired by the pleasure that language brings, and a certain expectation for language structures. As a result, his works are poetic, leading to his preference for and emphasis in ‘making work’. On the other hand, Jiang’s journalism career from 1995 to 2005 caused him to be at the frontline of social transformations and compelled him to confront and deal with the constant assault of unprocessed new experiences.
On this level, ‘experimental art’ can no longer be a salon or academic art movement. Experimentation is forced because one cannot grasp the new problems that arise. Only through experimentation—strictly speaking, ‘experiment’ is used here only as an analogy—can new and different art forms be created such that they cannot be replicated, as with certain poetic language. In the case of Jiang, his works engage with issues of the body, gender, mass consumerism, etc., and often involves recent social events whose value is established in the way he presents the problem. Take for instance his work M+1, W-1. Here, body and gender is in direct juxtaposition—a man who implants breasts in an attempt to become a woman versus a woman who loses her breasts to cancer—thus revealing, in visual subtlety, the complexity of reality and experience. In another work about the infamous dingzihu in Chongqing (the family who stubbornly refused to move despite immense pressure from the authorities), Jiang shines a strong ray of light at the lone residence, adding theatricality to the already dramatised social event. ‘Theatrics’ becomes the metaphor for an event so infused with issues of power and legitimacy, ‘illuminating’ or constructing another layer of meaning through visual rhetoric.
Jiang Zhi has consciously positioned himself at the intersection between poetics and sociology, fervently weaving familiar mundane social experiences into his works, at the same time maintaining the tensity between daily experience and our experience of the text. Hence, he has consistently avoided unspecific personal emotions and political statements, and also shies away from feeble expressions and critiques. In this aspect, Jiang’s works are open-ended, supple, and possess a kind of poetic vigour. Even in his documentaries, a conscious filmic language permeates, holding up the theme from within.