"I used to think that a completed artwork was like the completed act of taking a piss: when it's finished it's finished - you don't go carrying the contents of the chamber pot around with you. But now things are different, you can't just take a piss whenever you like anymore and be done with it. There are special bathrooms like museums and art galleries that want to expose you in your most basic acts. And doesn't everyone now accept this situation as normal? The people going in for a look are all very interested, comparing who is big and who is small. How is it that I was born in this age of organization? And how is it that I want to be proclaimed the champ? It's really a shame."
Looking at the essays and articles written about Hangzhou-based artist, Geng Jianyi, few, if any, mention this quote from the artist. Hardly surprising since it is a blunt declaration of the artist's disdain for art criticism. His attitude reflects a phenomenon that British art critic, Julian Stallabrass labels in his book, High Art Lite, as "the decline and fall of art criticism". He goes onto say, "The result is that critics are rarely critical and there is a small and impoverished market for the criticism that is". Artists are increasingly reluctant to have their work analyzed. Fewer and fewer are giving interviews. They simply wish their audience to draw their own conclusions from the art works rather than having their initial opinions swayed by essays and articles.
It is a mark of the multi-faceted nature of Geng Jianyi that he is simultaneously capable of making such a bold "in your face" statement while having created some of the most poetic and sensitive Chinese art over the last decade. Indeed, Geng's work is so diverse that it is not obvious that only one artist is responsible for its creation. While an easily recognizable style is lacking, a common thread of interest runs through his oeuvre: that of the human condition and issues of individual identity. Geng Jianyi imbues fragments or details that others may find mundane or 'everyday' with significance. Through humble and discreet methods of working, he provokes self-awareness in his audience and the potential of this awareness to shape what takes place around us.
A series of photographic works simply titled Water on exhibition at ShanghART this December are certainly among the most subtle and sublime work he has made yet. Advancing those explorations of late Victorian photographer/scientists, Geng Jianyi experiments with ways of directly capturing images from natural forms and phenomena. Geng's photographic works are more than representations; they are the result of something very real, of real time and real place. Creating images without the device of a lens allows Geng to convey both immediacy and timelessness.
They are constructed by submerging light sensitive paper in water without the conventional use of a camera lens. The images are photograms made directly onto photo emulsion and processed in a studio. This process dissolves the separation between the spheres of studio and landscape. The result is stunning. Slightly blurred semi-organic abstractions create hypnotic and sublime patterns. There is much beauty to be found in the apparent simplicity of these quiet images. Through the appropriation of a simple phenomenon from nature, our gaze is directed to something so everyday that typically one would fail to notice its inherent beauty.
A strong relationship to nature is evident particularly as there is not the usual separation that one feels of being outside of nature but longing to be a part of it. Immersion is an idea about becoming a part of it. When you're looking at the prints, you're looking upwards out of the water, because light is falling through the water and printing onto the paper. It reflects a desire for that kind of closeness, a closeness that we don't have. Classically, looking through a lens, one is looking from a distanced, separated vantage point. The central metaphor for the work is immersion, with water being a representation both of the unconscious and of the body.
Leila Aitken, November 2001