Yun-Fei Ji was born in Beijing in 1963, the son of an army doctor and his wife. When he was ten, his mother sent him to study with an army officer who drew illustrations for combat-training manuals. In addition to encouraging her son’s artistic talents, Ji’s mother might have also thought that studying art with an army officer would keep her son out of trouble. The Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, was still going strong. Largely made up of students, adolescents, and children, few of whom went to school, the Red Guard was determined to purge China of the four olds—old culture, old ideology, old customs, and old habits. It was time of fear and mob rule.
Started by Mao Zedong, who distrusted intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to transform China into a utopian paradise run by and for workers. From 1966 to 1976, when the Cultural Revolution ended, China teetered on the brink of chaos. Artists, musicians, intellectuals, and many others were sent to the countryside to be re-educated. Even Ji’s mother, who was married to an army doctor and presumably safe, could not escape the wrath of the Red Guard and spent several years being politically “re-educated” in a labor camp. Her fate was better than that of countless others.
Thus, Yun-Fei Ji belongs to the first generation to attend school in a decade. He studied oil painting in the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Art. Cowed by their memories of the Cultural Revolution, and the humiliations and denouncements many of them had to endure, his teachers were understandably timid. For the most part, they worked in the state-sanctioned style of Socialist Realism. After graduating, he taught for two years at the School of Arts and Crafts in Beijing. During his spare time, he studied calligraphy with two artists. In 1986, he won a Fulbright to the University of Arkansas. He graduated with an MFA three years later, and, in 1990, he moved to New York.
Given the avowed goals of the Cultural Revolution, Ji’s decision to study calligraphy was a radical act that required him to be rigorously focused. He was not making an avant-garde gesture, but electing to become a lifelong student of classical Chinese art, one of the many things the Cultural Revolution tried to eradicate. Calligraphy is the foundation one needs to know in order to paint in the classical style. It is an essential part of what the Red Guard called the “four olds.” Painting the landscape in the manner of the masters demands that one learn a wide range of stylized brushstrokes, all of which have names. No matter how masterful one becomes, one is always still a student.
If you feel confused about both Ji’s biography and postwar Chinese history, you are hardly alone. For both the individual and the entire country, the Cultural Revolution was a period of retribution, fear, dislocation, and rupture. Contradictions are rampant. The level of chaos that was deliberately encouraged by key figures in the Chinese government makes the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror seem like a walk through a very crowded nursery school, extremely noisy but otherwise not that bad. The Reign of Terror was one hundred days, while the Cultural Revolution lasted ten years. It was a harbinger of what would happen in Cambodia, its state sanctioned genocide.
At the same time, while one is understandably tempted to make connections between the artist’s biography and his art, Ji’s art far exceeds his very compelling life story—and this is just one of its many strengths—in ways that are worth pondering. He is a chronicler with a novelist’s eye for rich, reverberating detail. To his credit, he seems not to have regarded his autobiographical self as fitting subject matter. His work isn’t about the “I,” but about trying to see with one’s eyes open, about trying neither to blink nor to avert attention from the contradictions and confusions that constitute both China’s reality and that of the world. Thus, for what I believe are ethical reasons, Ji has not privileged the self above the community, however fractured and displaced both might be. He does not see himself as a victim, but as a student passionately committed to understanding the world he inherited.
Beyond the fact that it resists categorization, Ji’s work is unlike anything else being done. And yet, its uniqueness has nothing to do with the avant-garde, its well documented, heavily theorized history of extreme gestures and use of untraditional materials. If anything, his art is concomitant with his attempt to deal with the effects of both rapid, irrevocable change and tradition’s glacial pace, particularly as they are manifested in contemporary China. Are the changes China is currently undergoing proof of historical progress or evidence of the Taoist belief that reality is unremitting flux? Can one reconcile these divergent views? How does one gain perspective without becoming judgmental and dismissive?
That Ji has chosen not to work within the well-trod realm of the avant-garde is worth bearing in mind. Rather than rejecting history and tradition or, within the familiar trajectory of the postwar avant-garde, making variations on recognizable gestures, Ji both recovers and transforms a tradition thought to be, at best, moribund, something for museums and connoisseurs. What makes his recovery of traditional Chinese ink painting all the more remarkable is the degree to which he has transformed it into something utterly new. Thus, his complex, multi-layered paintings are full of contradictions, ruptures, and elisions, but they are neither ironic nor parodic, both of which have become proverbial avant-garde gestures. Ji’s art is avant-garde precisely because nothing about it resembles or echoes anything defined as avant-garde.
Ji’s materials are ink, mineral pigments, brushes, and mulberry paper. He paints on horizontal or vertical sheets, which he often pins to the wall. In both their format and subject matter, they allude to classical Chinese landscapes; particularly scroll paintings and Song landscapes. Ji has looked closely at the extant work of a number of classical masters, and can talk eloquently about their work.
Empty City is the collective of Ji’s ongoing project. So far he has exhibited eight works, each of which is subtitled (east wind, calling the dead). The title refers to the most obvious effect of building a massive dam in China’s Three Gorges district. To be completed in 2009, the dam will flood approximately 350 miles of the Yangtze River, and be a source of electricity for a large part of China. However, in order to complete this project, more than a million people will be displaced, and many historical and archaeological sites will be lost. Along with wiping out many towns and cities along the river, and burying numerous historical sites, the dam permanently alters a landscape whose natural beauty has been the subject of innumerable paintings and poems. The Three Gorges district is a cultural area that is home to many of China’s minorities. It is a place where Taoism developed, and where the poet Qu Yuan, who is considered one of the originators of Chinese poetry, lived and died. By altering the landscape, China deliberately erases its past. That is how desperate it wants to be part of the future.
In contrast to both Chinese and western landscapes, Empty City—calling the dead (2003) is impossible to take in all at once. By fracturing the panoramic sweep of the painting’s format into multiple perspectives, Ji refuses to reassure us. It’s as if this long, scroll-like format is a section of a film that we are meant to scrutinize, frame by frame. At the same time, in contrast to most films, we don’t exist outside the landscape, but feel as if we are swaying on its edge, slightly dizzy and confused. Replete with numerous self-contained scenes and vignettes, each of which bears close looking, this packed painting challenges the viewer on countless levels, as well as refuses to provide any solution, any easy way out. There are no bad guys to point at or blame, no good guys leading anyone to the Promised Land. There are only characters trapped within a complex, multi-layered narrative whose many authors are never quite specified.
By implicating our presence, Ji makes us into characters in this narrative, which is at once creepily comic, visually jarring, and lushly operatic. What is disturbing about Ji’s narrative isn’t that it is open-ended. It is that it suggests that everyone from the unseen world leaders to the skeletons and ghosts is adhering to a script that may or not have already been written. What we are provoked to consider is whether or not our roles defined by historical forces, personal pathology, or free will. Are we part of the supporting cast or do we think of ourselves as headliners? And, if we are part of the supporting cast, who or what are we supporting?
The details in Ji’s paintings come from an immense amount of research, photographs he has taken, drawings he has made, memories, folk art, poetry, and popular literature. Things are imaginatively superimposed and juxtaposed. The boats in the shape of a duck are something he saw in the Forbidden City, far from the Yangtze River. They appear alongside the scavengers who inhabit the empty cities, looking for anything that can be salvaged and sold. There are the ghosts and the dead who are trying to either leave or stay. There are entire families moving their most precious possessions. There are abandoned cars, megaphones, a sign from a karaoke club, baskets and doors, and the ordinary stuff of life. There is a cruise ship complete with a swimming pool carrying Europeans and Americans downriver, ahead of the change. And there are soldiers with their faces painted like the characters one sees in Chinese opera, that amazing amalgam of acrobatics, dance, music, and song. In postwar China, the government decides which operas are acceptable.
The mulberry paper Ji works on is crinkled and creased, as if it has been carried on a voyage down the Yangtze River. The inks are washed out, with areas of subtly differentiated tonalities and brushstrokes interrupted by clearly delineated areas of color. There are abstract drips, mottled areas, and precise evocations of rocks formations, swirling eddies, flora and fauna. Ji has neither affixed a seal to the painting nor signed it, both of which would be signs that the work is finished and approved of by the artist. It’s as if it is a travel sketch, a record of a journey. By leaving it “unfinished,” the artist reminds us that history doesn’t end when he stops, that more changes and disruptions are inevitable.
In Empty City—calling the dead, a girl in faded red looks at an empty basket and what appears to be either an empty infant’s bed or coffin. A ghost-like soldier stands nearby, but, because of the spacing and absence of color (he is made of lines), he clearly exists in another world. Even when the figures are engaged with each other, the feeling of separateness and isolation is pervasive. B y juxtaposing the living, the dead, ghosts, and figures from the opera, Ji offers us a vision of reality as a stage on which everyone from the past, present, and future is in attendance. It seems that no one gets to leave this world, even as they are being relocated.
At the same time, in contrast to the stage, it is unclear who these figures are. They are characters that we can’t quite name. Right in the middle of east wind, for example, a soldier with a pig’s head calls through a megaphone. He is standing on a sign from a karaoke club. Is he a real soldier? Has a pig become a soldier? (Remember, in China, pigs are highly prized for their meat). Is he singing karaoke? Perhaps he is a figure from a folk tale? Or is he all this and more?
Almost everyone in east wind is moving or facing from the upper right to the lower left. Is this because of the wind? Or are they moving from the future to the past, which is how we read it through western eyes? Perhaps the pig soldier is a movie director, ordering everyone to move to his or her assigned places. Perhaps he is warning us of what is already on its way. Or perhaps he is telling those who have departed this world that more are about to arrive and take up room.
We look at Ji’s work. Then we begin looking and looking. And everywhere we look, we see a world that is evoked with immense tenderness and inconsolable mourning. If enough of us are both persistent and lucky, these works just might survive as long as their classical predecessors.
Yun-Fei Ji: The Empty City, organized by the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, was on view at Pierogi from April 23 to May 24, 2004 and will travel to the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Fall 2004. Yun-Fei Ji: The East Wind is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia until August 1, 2004.