YUN-FEI JI: Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributionsby Alan Gilbert
JAMES COHAN | APRIL 28 – JUNE 17, 2018
One version of the origins of capitalism posits that it was built on the backs of rural peasants. Or, more precisely, it was built by rural peasants after their shared land was expropriated from them through a variety of means, both violent and nonviolent, and they were forced to enter a wage-based economy. Yun-Fei Ji’s work has consistently focused on the rural populations of contemporary China and their complicated—and frequently tenuous—connection to the land. As he stated in a 2005 profile in the New York Times: “I use landscape painting to explore the utopian dreams of Chinese history, from past collectivization to new consumerism”—specifically, China’s current form of state-managed capitalism. In Three Gorges Dam Migration (2009), sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ji used traditional Chinese landscape painting techniques to create a thirty-two-foot-long horizontal scroll that imaginatively depicts in woodblock prints individuals displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project in China that uprooted more than one million people from their cities, towns, and villages.
Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions opens with a motif familiar to those who know this work: poor peasants on the move carrying sticks and personal items on their backs in The Processions (2017 – 18). These were the scenes in Three Gorges Dam Migration, as well as in a work from a few years later on display in the rear gallery at James Cohan: The Village and Its Ghosts (2014). All three pieces are executed on long, horizontal scrolls, with the figures inexorably drawn from right to left, with some lead by the hand, while others resolutely yet wearily forge ahead on their own. Viewers will inevitably read these as images of displacement, of internal exile. Ghostly figures and skeletons have frequented Ji’s work for more than a decade. Ji’s sometimes washy use of watercolor contributes to this sense of apparitional presence.
Combined with these panoramas of dislocation, Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions features small groups of people and families living in the woods. They could just as easily be homeless encampments in the United States or temporary refugee camps in the northern Mediterranean, right down to the hangers and an umbrella hanging on a makeshift clothesline or the mattress placed on the ground. Two of the highlights in the exhibition, the paired vertical works Break Camp (2017–18) and Family Bundles and Batches (2017–18), are richly detailed depictions of transient mini-villages erected on the margins of society. Bowls and drinking cups are neatly stacked on tables; chairs and baskets cluster together. Ji’s use of color in these contemporary tableaux are more vibrant than the ones in which ghosts and skeletons appear from the past, as they register a present in which at any moment everything can be taken away.
Both the form and content of Ji’s work has always toggled between the perseverance of a rural, pre-industrial past and an indifferent present. This also occurs in his more allegorical and hallucinatory works—At Midnight (2017 – 18), At Sundown (2017 – 18), with their hints of Henry Fuseli—in which madness and irrationality threaten the social order. Ji’s art has remained consistent in style and technique, but what makes Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions unique are its vignettes of dispossession, whether individual, familial, or psychological. For this show, Ji has brought his lens a little closer to contemporary social and economic conditions, ones that also resonate outside of China.
Overall, Ji draws on traditional methods and relatively direct figuration to capture these events. In The Family Belongings (2011) an older woman with a cane shields her face from the viewer out of grief or perhaps shame as she stands in front of a handcart piled high with chairs, bedding, cloth bundles, and a table. Some of the items don’t fit and are strewn around it. The handcart looks too burdened to move, so the woman is left with the few items she can carry in a woven basket on her arm. As a child of the Cultural Revolution, Ji has seen this happen before. When so much of the art world is full of shiny objects for sale to the monied elite, Ji’s work is a strong reminder of some of the people from whom all this wealth has been extracted.
ALAN GILBERT is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments and Late in the Antenna Fields, as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight. He lives in New York.