Li Zhenhua | Jiang Zhi: A Rather Unclear State

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By Li Zhenhua

Translated by Jeff Crosby

I have several reasons for writing about Jiang Zhi, one is that my research for Chinese Media Art Since 1989; as a video and multimedia artist, Jiang Zhi is one of the subjects of my research. Another reason is that Jiang Zhi’s expressions have never contained that characteristic Chinese artifice; from his earliest video artwork Fly, Fly to his 2007 series of installations I Am Your Poetry, Jiang Zhi’s perspective has always been indifferent to the contemporary art mainstream, remaining squarely focused on the inner perceptions of the artist as an individual. One of my favourite artworks at the 2007 NONO exhibition at Long March Space was Jiang Zhi’s, because aside from its poeticism, it lacked any clear Chinese characteristics or the specificity of “contemporary art”.


Jiang Zhi in Contemporary Art of China

In contemporary art of China there are two perspectives of the contemporary, the international and the Chinese. These two perspectives intersect, stack and run in parallel; the mainstream styles, contexts and attitudes are existing in both perspectives.

Since 1992, Jiang Zhi’s works have never been totally in step with the trends in contemporary art of China, in that they have not strictly explored the public nature of art in a contemporary context, and they have not been dedicated to the issues of globalization. For instance, the novel he began writing in 1996, or the video Mu Mu in Seoul and photography/installation I Am Very Boring that were exhibited in 2002 at the Fantasia exhibition curated by Pi Li, had the clear characteristics of an urban fairy tale. The Straw Man series, which was exhibited at the 2003 Venice Biennale, was a series he did in the late 1990s; the idea of this new race which “sucks everything” and the absurd fantastical nature of the images came to form a strange utopia. We can also see signs of this in Jiang Zhi’s writings. The artist has asserted that the years 1996 to 1999 were a period of active writing, a golden period for writings comprising the dispersal of subjective thought.

The mainstream form of contemporary art is concerning about the outside world, but Jiang Zhi has always focused on the interpretation of the interiority; you need to be in a tranquil, literary state of mind to take in those installations that aren’t so indulgent in poeticism, like M+1, W-1, exhibited at the 2005 Nanjing Triennial, with the two symmetric “female bodies” that had been actively or passively altered, or the “human skin” floating above the 2007 NONO exhibition with outstretched wings, sensitive and brutal, the light leaking through its transparent surface. When it comes to the selection of personal intervention methods, Jiang Zhi has always maintained a state of self-preservation, as seen with the person wearing the Bin Laden mask in I Know Where Bin Laden Is, Please Give Me Fifty Cents, using an international standard symbol of terror and the actions of the artist to conceal the farce behind the mask.

Looking at the various events in the development of contemporary art of China, such as the Stars Art Group in the 1970s, the ’85 New Wave, the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition of ’89, Cynical Realism in the 1990s, video installations, the Post-89 Phenomenon, the Post-Sensibility Phenomenon and the new media art after 2000, we see that Jiang Zhi’s art has always defied classification. In terms of type, Jiang Zhi more or less emerged from the same womb as the video art and Post-Sensibility Phenomenon in the 1990s. The difference is that Jiang Zhi’s works have always maintained an internal urban narrative and poeticized fantastical traits. The scenes that flicker under the flame in his photographic work Things Will Become Simpler Once They Happened presents a magical visual space, fixing the character’s sense of loneliness in the city and visualizing enchanting moments. In his Light series, the instant stages, the beautiful and strange urban settings and the blurred faces exposed by the strong light create the sense of double unfamiliarity that characterizes Jiang Zhi.

The artist’s self-statements provide us with another interpretive space. Of course we have our suspicions about the existence of an “other’s perspective”, about whether or not a different narrative method can enter in from a subjective perspective description. Is a single description capable of sufficient accuracy, or are three or more perspectives able to completely explain the issue?

If we approach from a sociological angle such as social patterns, then we will touch on the mainstream movements of society, such as China’s economic decadence of the mid-90s, the Asian financial crisis and the millennium. For any artist, aesthetic narrations are all mere hypothesis, as those artistic phenomena that we all experienced, such as Post-89, Post-Sensibility, new media, etc., Jiang Zhi’s individual state had a direct or indirect connection to all of these processes. Even his temporal and geographic trajectory from Hunan to Hangzhou to Beijing to Shenzhen and back to Beijing tells of a living fable situated in movement and changes.

Jiang Zhi has several phases that have been ignored. Among them, the Mu Mu photography series, his essays and novels, his documentaries and films all have a long-time conceptual construction and continuity, respectively representing Jiang Zhi’s works over the past 15 years.


Mu Mu (1997-2006)

I asked Jiang Zhi if he still needed to continue this series.

Jiang equivocated: Mu Mu may continue at a time when it is possible. A project that has continued for ten years, a puppet that follows the artist everywhere, a perspective imbued with inner feminine qualities, about love or about solitude, the continuation of Mu Mu has a mutual bond of illumination with the artist’s inner world.

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 whether such an impression came from the fact that she was an old soul with a crack.

  • Qiu Zhijie, Let’s Take a Look at the Man Jiang Zhi, 1997

“When Mu Mu encounters Lop Nur, that is, when Jiang Zhi encounters Lop Nur, the two cannot step away unscathed.”

—  Luo La, When Mu Mu Encounters Lop Nur Lake, 2001

“Consciously or unconsciously, Mu Mu’s movements always intersect with social news from the daily newspaper. In late 2002, when the Shenzhen Lottery jackpot reached 21 million RMB, Mu Mu entered into the lottery craze just like all of the city’s residents, which was covered by a Shenzhen weekly magazine.”

  • Wa Wa, Women of Half Person Half Puppet, 2003

By the time she reached Lop Nur in 2000, Mu Mu was still a continuation of that poetic state, but by then she had already experienced the sting of life. Mu Mu was no longer that sweet little angel; she was now a dark shadow.”

  • Jiang Zhi, The Paranoid Mu Mu in Shenzhen, 2003

The puppet Mu Mu always maintained the same innocence, simplicity and anxiety. She went to many places, travelling to Seoul in 2001, to Finland in 2006, and in 2003, Mu Mu emerged as a half person, half puppet of full human proportions. Her looks unchanged, she still liked appearing among the trees, still enjoyed staring out at the sea, still enjoyed leaping through the cities and the fields, moving like a flash.

This was more or less directed at Mu Mu’s being, her situation and sentiments as seen through the direction of Jiang Zhi’s narrative. One-way narrative methods and perspectives affect the views of the viewer. With the added public participatory aspect in 2003, it appears we can begin to see the emergence of some sort of connection between the Mu Mu series and the later Rainbow series. When Mu Mu became a “person,” a change began to take place in the original illusion, a shift from a toy “object” to a living idol. The artist provided an interesting thread, with Mu Mu finally having her own body as if through a process of refinement, but Mu Mu’s expressions did not take on a look of joy as a result.

Will Mu Mu really become a person? Does Mu Mu refuse to grow up?

I would prefer to believe that Mu Mu is an artist’s visual fairy tale, one which should resist reflecting on contemporary art or an overly material world. Just like the world of Peter Pan or The Little Prince, Mu Mu is Peter Pan’s spirit of adventure; she is the Little Prince wandering around with questions.


Text / Love Fairy Tales

Some of Jiang Zhi’s fairy tales have been lost. Many such fairy tales were directed towards adolescence. Most of these texts were created in the artist’s early writing phase between 1996 and 1997, when he was roughly 25 years old. Those writings contained pessimistic sentiments reminiscent of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Most of Jiang Zhi’s works, such as Fly, Fly, the Mu Mu series and I am Your Poetry were fairy tales that touched on love.

As before, we see a male perspective examining or imitating the thoughts of a woman. Jiang Zhi’s works have always had a kind of twin existence. Often it is hard to tell whether it is the work of a male or female artist; Jiang Zhi’s poetics has completely blurred this boundary. Spiritually, it is a return to the age of virginity or Freud’s infancy stage. In Jiang Zhi’s 1998 story The Autocracy of Jade Maiden Snow Daughter, aka the Lover, the bathtub, lovemaking and electroshock therapy are all marked by this inability to distinguish between genders. In a scene where an erect sexual organ is used to spray water around the shower, the voice can be either that of the bather or that of “Snow Daughter” peeping on the bather. The allusion to the sexual organ is also unrelated to gender.

“As a result, half out of curiosity and half out of fear of being left out (of the men’s games), she bravely laid down in the grass, sticking her butt out towards the sky, using a shining column of water to cripple the penis’s advantage in the fountain game.”

  • Jiang Zhi, Water That Can Dance, 1998

As with the surging movements in the external environment or the tightly shut thighs in You Cannot See My Rage, when we are visually led to a view of the lower body, the work contains no excessive nudity, instead providing a poetic scene. The girl extending her long, white legs upwards in a fit of paranoia is an especially striking scene. I’m hard pressed to find a similar male perspective. I have difficulty finding any similarities in Western feminine perspectives such as the works of Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin. Jiang Zhi’s artworks lead us into another realm, a multi-gender space that can only be created in text, like Death on the Nile, the male detective story written by a woman, or Camellia Girl, a woman’s love story written by a man.

“I see this process over and over; the act of this animal cleaning with its tongue gives me a special feeling. It is not about the tongue’s gentleness towards the skin, its responsibility towards the fur, or the strange associations connected to the act of kissing oneself or this mysteriously narcissistic nature; it is cleanliness itself, that natural, open and unique method of cleanliness. The filth disappears from the exterior, transferred to the interior.”

  • Jiang Zhi, The Man at Home Who Dreams of the Outside, 1998


Video Phase

Jiang Zhi’s video works are difficult to classify. His style has clearly been influenced by documentary film and especially the culture of the grass roots. Jiang Zhi’s works give voice to the underclass. His perspective is not a top down macroscopic view but a level, microscopic one which sets out from the resourcefulness and viewpoints of those bottom rungs, which forms the unique narrative methods, expressive forms and story structures of his works. His works have always been narrative; series such as Moment and I Know Where Bin Laden is, Please Give Me 50 Cents combine clear descriptions and reflections with mature technique.

Of course, much of this emerges through borrowed forces, those crowds on the scene, those intentionally arranged plots and the scenes with improvising performers. His works do not contain obscure concepts or affected acting. From Fly, Fly to Meat 100 and Onward! Onward! Onward! we can see the small characters explaining their vain hopes regarding space, gender and power.

I remember an author talking about the issue of realness for characters in novels, basically how to a character realizes its real value of life and how to find the characteristics and outline of a character within the little details. Jiang Zhi’s video works convey true emotion in just such little details.


Meat 100

A room. Dark and silent. A dim light. A shadow, that is Van Gogh. Many photos can be seen pasted on the four sides of walls even under such a light. These are the photos of his works. There are two goldfish bowls on the table that is put at the corner. One with water and 6 red goldfish lingering inside from one end to the other. The other one is solid, but it is so transparent that it makes people feel like there is water inside. And the same amount of red goldfish has been congealed inside. They seem to be sad about being unable to swing their tails. Besides, there is a complete skeleton of goldfish beside the two goldfish bowls, which seems to be a part of Van Gogh’s Series of Goldfish works. Beside this table stands another table, and there are two cube-shaped glass water vats that are bigger than the goldfish bowls, sealed, with a piece of even and square pork with skin, which is soaked in the potion. This piece of pork is cut from a living pig.

  • Jiang Zhi, The Perishable, 1996

Jiang Zhi’s video work Meat 100 is derived from a dirty joke about how a person’s desires are released onto a piece of pork. It’s a bit of reminiscence on adolescence, a salute to adolescents, that young body and unfortunate piece of meat on the screen.

Perhaps it is because of inertial logic methods in thinking; some ideas can stand in either text or image, any space for imagination, like those ordinary yet bizarre scenes from the novels of Edgar Allan Poe. The space provided by images comprises facts presented before our eyes, but the facts are often not something we can face directly, so when we watch this film, we experience complex feelings of nausea, boredom and voyeurism. When these two types of perceptions come together, we may perceive different emotional traps created by different mediums. Are we being blocked by common knowledge?


Onward! Onward! Onward! 2006

I’ve always felt that the images of leaders serve as a kind of public image, the shared sprinting of tens of millions of people. I like that profound sense of loneliness seen on the running leaders in Jiang Zhi’s work. It is a different kind of voice than the running mainstream of Chinese modern history; it’s the knowledge of destiny. This opens new possibilities for understanding history. This is the power of art; just as it is coming to form the visual icons of ideology, it is also disintegrating such icons.”

  • Qiu Zhijie, Jiang Zhi’s “Onward! Onward! Onward!”: The Altarpiece of Progress, 2006

In this work I did not find a corresponding plot from a novel. Perhaps the creator’s abstract understanding of these three leader’s images brought about this lack of detailed description and loss of the urban mentality. I am sceptical about this work because it is not within the context of Jiang Zhi’s previous works, and therefore stands out a bit. The pop expression of the leaders’ images is one symbol of China that I have always detested. I have not involved detailed analyses in the issues of the contemporary Chinese spirit present in this work as Qiu Zhijie did. Instead, I chose to place it within a less profound relationship for analysis, but I have had a hard time finding a corresponding response.



These works lie outside of Jiang Zhi’s more understood series. I especially enjoy Jiang Zhi’s poetic qualities and the crazed character of his writing. His works give people tranquil, exquisite, transparent feelings, and the chaos in his texts, the muddling of gender, of time and space, all present an eclectic Jiang Zhi. But is Jiang Zhi an unreadable, chaotic artist? I think he is not, because his clues, his identity and his type are all clearly connected. Interestingly, it seems as if he has erected many obstacles to limit the viewer’s entry into his mind, but when these inner monologues are so clearly presented in his writings and artworks, it is like the meaning of “brushing past someone” in a Wong Kar-Wai film, there is a paradox of the “self” in the “other” and the “other” in the “self.”

Jiang Zhi cannot be discussed within the context of contemporary art of China because there are no traces of those Chinese contemporary art characteristics. Even in works such as Onward! Onward! Onward!, even though I don’t agree with Qiu Zhijie’s interpretation of the Chinese spirit “backwardness invites attack,” if the artist needed to express such a sweeping idea, then he could not do it without the images of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

I have difficulty describing Jiang Zhi’s standpoints and direction clearly, but I believe that a rather unclear state and a sense of uncertainty are precisely the fundamental questions that contemporary art and artists should face. Just as I have doubts about the situation of contemporary art of China and mainstream international art trends, I also doubt the existence and motives of the “self”.