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Have you ever had any sexual relationship with Zhu Jia?

Author: Hou Hanru 2008-05-09

Zhu Jia is a unique but active artist in the Chinese contemporary art scene since the end of 1980s. His photography and video works emerged in the moment when China was seeing itself entering a sensitive period of transition after the idealism of social transformation at the end of 1980s, marked by events like the China Avant/Garde exhibition in Beijing's National Art Museum of China and Tian'an Men student movement in 1989, preceding the change of the global political climate with the fall the Berlin Wall. A whole generation of Chinese, having lived through the historical trauma, were facing and participating in an interestingly contradictory shift in the history of the country in the following decade: the diminution of possibilities of utopian and ideological revolution while almost everyone has turned to embrace the new opening towards the outside world on another front: rapid economic opening and growth as well as integration into the globalised world economy system. This has been spectacularly represented by the unprecedented scale of urbanisation and booming of a new consumer society. Intellectuals and artists have had to face a totally new challenge: how to confront and critically participate in the unknown social change when the commonly identified goals and values of cultural and artistic endeavours are rapidly fading away. How can one still be independent and critical facing the unprecedented opportunities for material and social success? The trajectory of Chinese contemporary art for the last decade, from semi-underground activities to obtaining a kind of position of "official art" and hailed as the new symbol of success in the global market, has shown a qualitative change in the very nature of the artists' work. It becomes a real ethical challenge to everyone. Zhu Jia, actively involved with this reality shift and taking the advantage of the introduction of new media prompted by the economic boom, has developed his highly personal and insightful artistic visions and position and produced some of the most remarkable works in the recent Chinese art scene.

As one of the first Chinese artists incorporating photography and video in their work as the main media, Zhu Jia has developed an outstanding personal language – minimalist but intense, oscillating between dazzling movements and silent static-ness – to confront, testify and intervene the constantly agitating and mutating reality. In his work, there are two distinct but organically related and complementary systems of recording and presenting images that manifest the very particular relationship between the beholder and the world.  

His video works "Forever" (1994), "Continuous Landscape" (1999 – 2000) and "Passage" (2001) articulate on the dynamic visions in endless movements and multi-angle perspectives that video is capable to provide us to approach the ever-changing urban reality. Facing these infinitely moving images of the city, the viewer is immediately immerged by the spectacle of light, colour and sound of the urban world. "Forever" records the street views in Beijing with a camera attached to a tricycle wheel for 28 minutes. In front the images, the viewer is immediately sucked into the spinning movement of the street views and turned into a part of the swirling waves. On the other hand, "Continuous Landscape" and "Passage" make us lost in multi-dimensional, fragmental and puzzling labyrinths of traffics and crowds of the metropolis.  This way of image capture in permanent movements and changing angles reveals a particular and effective strategy to negotiate an active position in the process of confronting the mutating reality, especially the one of today's Chinese city: to watch is not only to witness but also to live with it, to participate in it, and, ultimately, to question it. This is not only a distant and intellectual activity, but also a bodily experience: one has to jump into the flux of real life and navigate through it. The breathing sounds in "Forever" and "Shine" (1997) – a black and white video showing details of the moving body of a basketball player – are the most powerful reminders of this real life experience.

On the other hand, to question the real meaning and impacts of the changing reality also requires a contrasting way of approaching it: fascination with the exciting but eternally ephemeral and floating exterior world needs a compensation from the opposite side, a kind of cool, distant and "objective" contemplation of the interior world. The making of the self, or an identity, of an urban person, living permanently with the contradictory feeling of being at once an enlightened and a blasé, inevitably engages such an endless negotiation. Zhu Jia has hence developed another key aspect of his language: obsessive gazes at the "internal or introspective landscape". Influenced by the Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, he uses quasi motionless images to focus on details of human figures, everyday objects and banal landscapes and expose their "objective" state of existence: in "Conversation" (1992), a man is speaking to the camera as if he was the artist's friend and talking to the artist, or the cameraman himself while the camera was shaking around as if the cameraman himself was in constant movement. But no sounds are heard. The man was talking to the void. In "Purported Repetition" (1997), the camera was set inside a refrigerator and endlessly shooting the opening and shutting of the door. One is forced to watch this most meaningless view in the most obsessive and even hysteric manner. Is the viewer gazing at the objects? Or he is gazed at by the camera? The most radical piece in this mise-en-scene of dramatisation of banality and the mutual gazing between the viewer and the camera is no doubt the video installation "Related to Environment" (1997) in which a life size image of a gold fish was projected on the floor jumping around without water. The viewer is standing next to it and closely watching it. Gazing coolly the seemingly banal image of the fish struggling silently but helplessly between life and death, the viewer is suddenly pushed to confront with his own self-consciousness of the fragility of the perception of real life: Am I watching a real fish or its image? Is it reality or fiction? What's reality itself? Can we trust our eyes? How should we react to this? And, ultimately, a Lacanian/Zizekian question of gaze as the key of identity inquiry is raised: are we gazing at the other? Or simply ourselves? … One is now pushed to the very limit of one's perceptive capacity. The real is so excessively demonstrated that it appears totally unbelievable while the fictional nature of a video image is now turned virtually tangible and (re)materialised. Is the world a reality or simply an image, or a phenomenon? We are now becoming more and more aware that our existences are totally relying on such an inseparable but unsolvable, hence sceptic, interaction between our gazes and their objects, between our perception and the material: all distinctions between phenomenon and essence, between real and truth, etc. All our received wisdoms are now completely put in question. From now on, we all have to live in a kind of permanent and anxious scepticism vis-à-vis reality while suspicion itself becomes an inevitable condition of existence. We are obsessed by and addicted to such a game of inquiry without results. It's here that Zhu Jia's more recent work "Never Take Off" (2002), showing an endlessly uncertain and unsuccessful take-off of an airplane, turns out to be the most pungently accurate exposure of the condition of our lives: the gravity of doubt is invincible…

In fact, it's crucial to see that Zhu Jia's work emerged in a very particular context. He started with his conceptual and multimedia projects at the very moment when the Chinese philosophic and artistic communities began introducing and embracing Phenomenology in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a decisive moment, after the dramatic events of the late 1980s in political and social lives of the country, when the utopian, Avant-Garde legacy of the first period of opening and reform was re-examined and more rational and analytic approaches were introduced to be an effective and convincing tool to confront and even win over the official "material dialectics" and its ideological Truth. Learning from Edmund Husserl and his followers, people now become aware of the notion of truth is no longer reliable as a hegemonic and unique "verity" promoted by the official ideology. This ideology is increasingly being challenged and deconstructed by the reconsideration of the relationship between perception/phenomenon and essence, between "intentionality" and its object, between questioning of the real and the "metaphysical truth".

This has a profound political implication in the specific context of China for the last two decades: suspicions towards how the real is constructed and presented by the propaganda and social coding controlled by the hegemonic power system in the time of "national and international booms" – urban expansion and euphoric celebration. Questioning the truth is always the last thing to be welcome…

Zhu Jia work, inviting the viewer to witness reality via both moving capture and still gaze, raises some fundamental question about the real and the truth: the spectacular but superficial phenomenon of China's modernisation and booming is not only a phenomenon or fragile mask. Instead, it exposes the very essence of Chinese society itself: this is a reality with only superficial and spectacular dynamism and growth without much depth, intellectual contents, spirituality, etc. however, it reveals a totally new situation based on pragmatism that is the very new official ideology itself. The picture of reality is now a kind of horizontal organisation of the everyday events and shallow but "efficient" cultural and political discourses while almost everything is rapidly reduced to become a commodity. Even social relations, cultural values and political systems are now being structured along this one dimensional logic. We are officially entering the age of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man!

In fact, Zhu Jia is not only an insistent witness to this "new" reality. He also actively intervenes in its public space. One of the most remarkable project of such an intervention is "Have They Had Sexual Relationship?". It's a series of black and white snap shots. And the shooting process resembles a street performance. He asked an assistant to hold a panel with the abovementioned sentence in front of arbitrarily chosen couples on the street and took photos. Then, they appear to be a kind of evidence of crime investigation. He uses the powerful function of photography as a way to impose "truth" on casually grasped fragments of reality to tackle a highly sensitive issue of sexuality in a society without much space for individual freedom and intimacy. In this context, the sentence attached to their images seems to be a kind of affirmation, or even accusation, rather than a question in spite of the question mark at the end. However, the connections between the people arbitrarily related together as couples are so uncertain and unreliable that they become quasi comic. However, this is a purported imitation of the methods frequently resorted to by the authority to impose its version of reality, or the official truth, in both everyday life and political and cultural discourses. This is a kind of prejudging affirmation or accusation that one has hardly the right to argue against. By appropriating this strategy, Zhu Jia once again puts scepticism of the imposed truth at the very centre of the pubic gaze.

Obviously, Zhu Jia's project can be seen as an indirect predecessor of the now internationally known "There's A Strong Wind in Beijing"(1999), a fantastic documentary film by the younger director Ju Anqi, that managed to incite people to comment on all kinds of contradictions and political, social and personal troubles under the pretext of climate conditions. In his latest projects, Zhu Jia emphasizes even further his social concerns in intervening into the field of social justice. For the Second Guangzhou Triennial (2005) and other exhibitions such as "World Factory" (San Francisco Art Institute, 2006, The 10Th Istanbul Biennial, 2007), he created an on-going installation titled "Chrysalis Exuviations – the Heart-Burnt Carrot". It's a replica of a typical temporary dormitory for migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta, the most intense zone of China's export-oriented industries. The precariously constructed hut is filled up with found everyday objects and video, photos with found footages and images of the migrant workers. It functions as a live witness to the difficult conditions of those who survive between the fabrication lines and exiled households. It's them who are producing the economic miracle of China today that those who are in powerful positions are so self-indulgently boasting. In this context, a simple, objective but straightforward exposure of the details of a social fact, as Zhu Jia does in this work, can provoke the most challenging effect of doubting, a kind of unbearable lightness of being…

Testifying with scepticism is the best weapon of resistance in the face of any official truth… It sheds real light on the real and provides the best target for social voyeurs, or, actually, critics. Hence, it's the most sexy thing to do.

Now, the question is: have you ever had any sexual relationship with Zhu Jia?

May 9, 2008, San Francisco

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