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At First Touch

Reflections on the Work of the Artist Geng Jianyi Author: Paul Gladston 2008

The work of Geng Jianyi attests both to a persistent desire on the part of the artist to arrive at significant forms of cultural expression and a simultaneous acceptance that absolute transparency/stability of linguistic meaning is always (and already) out of reach. As a result, while many of his contemporaries have sought to connect directly with an international audience through the re-working of highly recognizable images culled from China's recent revolutionary past in conventional painterly or sculptural form, Geng's far less predictable (and rather more self-effacing) artistic output has been characterized by an immanent vagueness of content and lack of formal completeness that would appear to play deliberately at the very margins not only of what might be thought of legitimately as 'art', but also of a readily recognizable Chinese cultural identity. This self-consciously evasive strategy can be traced back to one of Geng's earliest mature works, The Second State (1987), whose serial depiction of disingenuous laughter provided the iconic starting point for a glut of ostensibly similar works by other Chinese artists even as it marked the effective limit of Geng's own engagement with conventional forms of painterly representation. For Geng, the role of 'art' does not lie simply in its capacity to offer some sort of pictorial commentary on contemporary or historical events, but in its ability to intervene actively and obscurely in the formation of cultural discourse/identity.

Any attempt to understand the "vague and elusive" artistic enterprise upon which Geng Janyi has embarked would have little substance without a consideration of his seminal contribution - along with the artists Zhang Peili, Wang Qiang and Song Ling - to the artistic collective Chi She (the Pool Association). This group-which coalesced in Hangzhou during the mid nineteen-eighties as part of what is now widely referred to as China's "New-Wave"-was responsible for a small number of highly influential performance/installation works whose formal audacity in relation to the somewhat conservative Chinese cultural context of the time signified an insistent desire on the part of those involved to first open up and then immerse themselves in novel spaces of artistic/linguistic signification. In particular, two works made by Chi She involving the installation of large-scale paper cut-outs in public spaces–one set out opposite the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts on Nanshan Lu in Hangzhou entitled No.1-Yang Style Taichi Series (1986), and another in woodland near Hangzhou's West Lake -  point well beyond the then stultifying (aesthetic) indebtedness of official Chinese art to the rustic charms of Soviet socialist realism (as well as its North American super-realist analogues) towards the possibility of more obviously hybrid, open-ended and socially/critically interventionist forms.

In the wake of his involvement with Chi She, Geng Jianyi has produced an extended, though quantitatively measured, body of work that is notable for what is an almost anaesthetic simplicity of means. Characteristically the artist has tended to deploy techniques – including frottage, collage-montage, the reproduction and manipulation of photographic evidence, questionnaires and automatic/chance mark making-through which he has habitually sought to register traces and fragments rather than to offer direct representations. In the 'paper installation' Reading Manner (2000), for example, the viewer encounters nothing more than a concertinaed book of blank paper pages stained at the margins by the innumerable red-inked fingerprints of invited 'readers'; a testimony not to the significance of what may or may not be read but to the uncertainty of the very activity of reading.

As with many other examples of contemporary Chinese art, such works can, of course, be interpreted as having been heavily inflected by the prior activities of the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes; not least those associated with the legacy of Dada and Conceptualism. As such, it is therefore possible to read much of Geng's work through the mediating sieve of Western post-modernist theory as a self-conscious invocation of deconstructive action–the traces of a(n) (un)certain activity serving  to proliferate rather than circumscribe the possibilities of meaning. That said, it is also necessary to recognize the enmeshing throughout Geng's work of strong Western cultural influences with a self-confessed wish to revisit vernacular Chinese cultural thought and practice (in particular the paradoxes inherent to Buddhist and Taoist teaching) and, what is more, by dint of that revisiting a re-engagement with Chinese cultural influences as previously mediated by the Western avant-gardes (pertinent examples of which include the explicit embracing of Buddhist and Taoist thought and practice by Western Dada and Conceptual art). In light of this inescapable parallax, what might be defined as merely 'deconstructive' from a Western theoretical perspective can also be viewed both as part of an extended tradition of Chinese vernacular thought and action and as the locus for a complex re-contextualization and re-motivation of Western and Chinese cultural identities-one that does not so much seek to arrive at a final synthesis of those identities as an inconclusive and potentially productive interaction working across their perceived boundaries. Consequently, it is insufficient to interpret Geng's work simply in Western postmodernist terms as a critical attempt to reveal the pervasive instability of linguistic meaning. Rather, following the established codes of Chinese cultural discourse, with its ingrained sense of dualistic deferral,  it becomes necessary to see the pervasive non-rationalism of that work as a persistent-though ultimately inconclusive-striving towards some sort of provisional reciprocity (something which is, arguably, also an implicit aspect of Western deconstruction downplayed by its immersion within a still pervasive post-Enlightenment discourse of negative self-reflexivity as well as the attendant disappointments of Western post-modernity). To which extent Gang Jianyi can be understood to have engendered a series of artistic languages whereby the often becalming rigidity of the conventional Western divide between rationalism and irrationalism is eschewed in favour of a rather more pragmatically relativistic mobility between the two. And it is in relation to this shifting and problematic cultural interaction that we must arguably view Geng Jianyi's work and not its somewhat misleading positioning as part of a now purportedly internationalized postmodernism.

- Paul Gladston is a senior lecturer in cultural studies and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China

Related Artists:
GENG JIANYI 耿建翌
Related Exhibitions:
Excessive Transition

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