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Life and Its History of Ideas

A review on the ideas in Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work Author: Cui Cancan Jul,2011

I. Life, the wisdom to tackle difficulties with ease

Kitsch Art, emerging in the 1990s, used to be considered as one of the typical forces of Chinese contemporary art. In 1999, Ouh La La, Kitsch! curated by Li Xianting at Tianjin TEDA Contemporary Art Museum further highlighted the popularity and influence of kitsch art, making it to be widely recognized as the "Chinese methodology" featuring distinctive local pattern and experience. Despite the criticism to kitsch art, it did make contribution to bridge the gap between the past and the present, and turned out to be a classic case of the combination of realistic methodology and modern art. Let's put aside the current question about the rationality of kitsch art in the 1990s. As far as I'm concerned, Ji Wenyu is by all means one of the pioneers engaging in kitsch art, though he was never presented in any so-called mainstream kitsch art exhibition.

But in today's context it doesn't really matter when Ji Wenyu started his exploration in kitsch art. He has been engaged in the study and development of painting language system, and kept exploring and reflecting upon kitsch-oriented concepts since 1993. Compared to other kitsch artists, the "outsider" Ji Wenyu dug the deepest in terms of the style and concept of kitsch art. However, Ji Wenyu himself doesn't quite approve of his art being labeled as "kitsch art". As a matter of fact, his consistent exploration in the field from 1993 to 2009 distinguished him from other kitsch artists. That's mainly because of four reasons: 1. Richness in the images makes signs mean more than what they typically symbolize. Instead, it creates a more logical, diversified and complicated relationship among various signs. 2. Diversified forms and comprehensive use of painting language make the objects more than simple criticism or single attitude. By intentionally creating gaps between different forms a more profound and meaningful re-organization is fulfilled. 3. In Ji Wenyu's painting, people would hardly find traces of hypocritical purity or rootless duplicate of form. Ji's concept is based on his understanding towards life. He doesn't consider himself as elite who take a patronizing stance to observe life. In this regard, simplicity, sincerity and persistence constitute the foundation of his expression. 4. The more detailed and comprehensive information sources and on-site experience together with the expressive methodology make his work a kind of documentary, from which the reality of social development, changes in people's attitudes and mindset can be perceived. But such documentary is not a factual record. Various concepts and perspectives are integrated ingeniously. In other words, his art is from but beyond life.

The seemingly beautiful life is usually deceptive. It's like an all time black humor. Grave topics such as happiness and sadness, admiration and reflection, advance and retreat, perfection and incompletion all turn to be a joke with the passing of time. Such jokes are easily to be found in Ji's easel painting. But such jokes are not light-hearted at all. The sense of humor in his work is penetrating. His jokes tend to make viewers feel a bit embarrassed, for they are like a mirror from which people can see themselves as if they are the protagonists of the jokes. Everyday scenes and well-known logos and events effectively narrow the gap between audience and the work, making people feel a sense of intimacy. The somewhat down-to-earth slogans remind people of the promises they used to make and firmly believe in. "Sense of intimacy" lays the foundation for the most effective way for him to spread his concepts, promoting viewers to reflect upon themselves. Previously, when we comment on artists' work, we usually focus on if the artists themselves are critical and willing to reflect upon themselves as well as the society. But we tend to ignore if their work manage to inspire viewers. Especially for the general public, to what extent does the spread of knowledge rely on the interpretation of theorists? To make art appreciable to both general public and elite group used to be taken as a core concept of popular art. Ji Wenyu's work well embodies such a concept, integrating his exploration in painting language with our everyday life and experience, and managing to touch up grave topics in a seemingly light-hearted way.

II. Life, the path follows the development of history

Threads of different colors are scattered on the table. Unfinished puppets sit on it, listlessly, like frustrated but good-tempered children. The sunlight penetrates the curtain, softly. Laces are almost everywhere, making this an extremely serene and peaceful morning. Without the noise from sculpture factory and the hustle and bustle of workers, it's just like another ordinary day, cozy and teeming with sensitivity and love. Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work started from such peacefulness. Away from hilarious streets, following a bumpy road there came an abandoned industrial area. There were several old warehouses here. Taxis hardly ever came here. It was a place that could be found in any other cities. There's not many greens in this place, and wouldn't inspire much poetic sentiment. The economic crisis brought a huge blow to the industrial zone. Workers left and machines were no longer operated. After all the shock, life was just this simple. Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's studio was located in the one of the plants. They commuted everyday like others did.

The decision to choose cloth as the medium for their work also reflects their choice of lifestyle. Soft and gentle as it is, cloth can be used to cushion sharpness and hardness. In this regard, cloth can be seen as a cover, an expression of tenderness. With the stuffing of cotton or other materials, the shape of cloth can be easily altered. With the uncertainties and randomness contained in these changes, it would bring people surprises. In other words, the unpredictability endows cloth with the characteristic that it can never be controlled. Compared to sculpture, cloth possesses more possibilities. Due to its constantly changing shape, it's hard to be precisely modeled. When the language used is no longer definite, meaning behind that will also turn to be open and diversified. To Ji and Zhu, cloth is not just a choice out of passion. As Zhu is engaged in fashion design, she has a special favor for cloth. She thinks that cloth well embodies feminine characteristics: it's soft, tender and brings people a sense of warmth. Ji considers cloth more as a pending topic. Ji gained a certain reaction force from his exploration in easel painting. In this regard, he looks forward to getting new possibilities through the medium of cloth. If problem consciousness is absent, art creation will degrade into mechanic movement. It is problem consciousness that makes Ji and Zhu's installation to be teeming with experimental spirit. It is also what makes cloth the best option for them to make a breakthrough.

Freedom is a choice which could give us the opportunity to be better. Art experiments should be deemed as a free-style exploration in the mechanism of art system. The choice of art is a choice of perspective. The experience and perception gained from the perspective corresponds to individuals' pursuit for freedom. In Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's installations, the style of Ji's previous easel painting and a color of sarcasm and ridicule have been well retained. In their recent installations, their focal point is no longer on changes in life or mindset. Instead, they start to reflect on grander history, shifting their focus from individual to exploration of the order of human existence and the evolution of the history of ideas.

Reflection of the contemporary era usually accompanies the question to the existence of order and realistic methodology. The grand narrative of the history of human philosophy is reflected in a fragmented but consistent way. Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing constantly extract typical and classic scenes from reality and historical memory, and manage to visualize realistic problems via the disorderly arrangements of time and space. Intentional arrangements imbue the scene with well-designed ambivalence, a kind of absurd sense of ritual, overwhelming hustle and bustle and wild imagination for natural landscape and a fantasy world. Behind such well-designed artistic layout there lies the fear for authenticity. Someday in the past, we used to be part of such scenes. They seem familiar and yet ambiguous, easily understandable and yet making viewers feel a bit awkward.

The universality and everydayness of the scenes are important features of Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work. In their work, everyday scenes such as photo taking, meeting, sightseeing, and watching television are considered as cases with special meaning, an ironic metaphor to daily reality. It is through such extremely down-to-earth way, and trivial but daily incidents that Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing construct their grand narrative. Within their concern to reality, criticism and question are to be cast with a color of emptiness and helplessness. Probably that's what pushes the artists keep focusing on problems of the reality world, and turns their persistence to art and reality into the ultimate question into being.

Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's installation work epitomizes the development of modern philosophies and cultures. It showcases the confusion and excitement, obsession and inspiration, progress and recession of people and their history. Evidently, in a context as complicated as China, it's hard to measure and explain the tendency and accuracy of development by one theory. We live in an era that witnesses constant building and re-building, and that will easily get lost. In the past decade, the development of modernization and marketization makes the pursuit for commercial value one of top priorities. People indulge themselves in the happiness brought about by abundant material life, and seek for temporal consolation and satisfaction via collective carnival. Nevertheless, such sense of security and superiority are actually based on fragile state of mind. Material development and satisfaction dilute individual's spiritual independence. But if taking another perspective, the lack of individual independence is usually accompanied by the loss of social independence. The two depend on each other, and as they have nothing to rely on within the rapidly changing process of scientific modernization, they become two lost groups in desert.

III. Life, what we talk about when we talk about life

During the past several generations, the influence of slogans was so far-reaching that they kept covering old scars and made facts almost indefinite. In The History of The People's Republic of China, Ji Wenyu picked up several influential slogans during the 60-year history of China and placed them layer by layer on a piece of glass in a chronological way. The slogans he picked up included "All Chinese People Stand Up Together", "Brilliant Leader Chairman Hua, Crack down the Gang of Four", "Join WTO, Speed Up Development, Improve Market Economy and Make It More Internationalized" and "A Brilliant Expo, A Better World", etc. With the constant changes in slogans the evolution of time can be well perceived. However, it's not hard to find that a kind of radicalism and desperate urgency is always there. In "Climbing up the Mountains, Climbing down the Mountain" and "People Holding the flowers", dozens of puppets with the same shape and same facial expression forced everyone to be overwhelmed by a kind of collective frenzy. These two works posed the question into social unity and the loss of individuality. "Watch the Viewing" and "Chinese New Potted Landscapes" cast light on the lost paradise during the progress of urbanization and modernization. In "Insects Can't Come In", "There Are All Kinds Of Birds In The Woods" and "No One In The Garden of Eden", issues between the beautiful paradise and the mass crowds such as lies, expectation, virtual happiness, broken fables and God's jokes were all artistically visualized. "As If the Silver River Were Falling From Heaven" made sarcasm on the contemporary mindset that looked forward to pursuing a kind of poetic emptiness. "The Birth and Development of Thoughts" revealed a series of questions: ideas that inspire people's life. People looked forward to gaining new inspiration from ideas and to creating a better utopia. Nevertheless, the bright expectation brought up by ideas was lost in vain. Its fragility, incompleteness and well-intentioned deception confused people. Under the demands of anguish, ideas kept popping up. Unfortunately they were not the ultimate destination or solution.

IV. Life, a fake promise and floating ark

Although Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's work constantly deconstructs and questions daily reality, behind the theatrical scenes and humorous ridicule people can still feel their nice wishes to the future. In this regard, Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing are always obsessed with the pursuit for idealism and salvation. Nevertheless, reality is cruel. Without the constraints of spiritual awareness, people reject equity, justice, moral order and self-reflection. Brutal development and fierce competition give rise to increasing greed. In Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's installation, their reflection upon the blind and extreme development in the realm of culture and the society as a whole ridicules people's vision of a fake beautiful life and their isolated mind. When past information, knowledge and history turn to be only trivial memory, we shall not feel ourselves inferior to others. In the face of a rapidly changing future, we shall be alert to the possibility of turning greedy and arrogant.
In Thomas More's Utopia, he created an ultimately beautiful place that didn't exist. It's an ideal and yet impossible society. The vision of progress and development is always accompanied by fake promises. People are like aimless arks, getting lost in the sea of material life. The satisfaction gained from the performance of happiness leads to the lack of individual's ability to question and self reflect. That's the reality of today. Moldy seeds will never be nourished into perfect blossoms. Systematic deception and self deception only give people temporal consolation and fake happiness. That's the fundamental and grand implication in Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing's installation: the spirit of questioning with the awareness of self-reflection.

Popper and Hayek once pointed out that utopianism and totalitarianism shared some fundamental similarities: they both want people to accept unquestionable and exclusive truth. In today's context, we by all means should encourage the spirit of questioning. No one should be allowed to arbitrarily impose his own will onto others. Any unified and absolute ideas should be questioned.

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