Jia, The Chinese Version / Infosphere, ZKM | Center for Art and Media
A Cultural atrocity might not be just the systematic destruction of cultural heritage by Isis; according to Jia ‘ s The Chinese Version, currently on view at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe as part of the exhibition Infosphere, the simplification program, which targeted the more than 3.300 years old Chinese writing system (began in the 1950s and still remains by force of law) in the People’s Republic of China is a more ambitious cultural atrocity than the one committed by Isis.
The Chinese Version is a painting series of Chinese characters arranged according to formal rather than semantic criteria, that allude to the extreme censorship imposed on Jia’s country that ‘not only restricted expression, but also, to a degree, it restricted the ability to conceive certain ideas’.
Jia was born in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China and today lives and works in Berlin.
She has studied architecture, performance and literature. Her work combines aspects of contemporary western(ized) art with interpretations of traditional Chinese thought and practice.
Jia talked about The Chinese Version, her life, work and art to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.
E.Z. Your work The Chinese Version is currently on view at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media as part of the exhibition Infosphere.
What is the nature of the relation between these two concepts, The Chinese Version and Infosphere?
What is according to you the ‘Chinese Version’ of the ‘Infosphere’?
Peter Weibel coined the term infosphere in order to draw a parallel with atmosphere, so as to suggest that data and its transmission has become as indispensable to human life as the very atmosphere we breathe. Within this general category, many artistic themes coexist, but always with the implicit recognition that they occur in a global condition that the infosphere has mediated.
One potentially positive outcome of this is that no single culture need any longer have a monopoly or even a privileged position with respect to world art discourse and production because, despite the relatively ineffectual efforts of some governments to limit and control the infosphere, most of us have access to much of this information, which includes the web, social media, SMS communications, and even new means that continue to evolve and proliferate. By the same token, this condition progressively leads to a de-ghettoization of cultural production that is conceptually or geographically outside the traditions of Western urban centers, both in its presentation and dissemination. Clearly, this does not mean globalization in the sense of some banal corporate homogenization that would negate the indigenous cultural histories and origins that continue to inform works of art. Artists from any culture are free to use such inspirations or not, but no longer must they sacrifice them in order “to enter the world.”
The Chinese Version series is an example of this. Among other things, it addresses a global affliction: the destruction of culture. But it does so using elements of the Chinese tradition and catastrophic recent history. In the Infosphere exhibition, these works are not ghettoized as “Chinese art” in a context limited to works by other Chinese artists. Instead, implicitly they are presented simply as contemporary art and appear along with works by artists from perhaps a dozen or more national origins, and some who are equally happy to dispense with any national association in their work. In addition, the works’ presentation in the exhibition operates in concert with its virtual dissemination through the valuable work of e-Flux and other internet media that inhabit the infosphere including Ex_posure.
In this sense of the conditions of the nature and possibility of their presentation, these works have everything to do with the infosphere, but it is also useful to recall that The Chinese Version works pose a negation of the Chinese Character Simplification Program imposed by government mandate in 1955, and still in effect. This degradation of written language had two aspects: first, it imposed formal modifications that destroyed our capacity to read any earlier texts; and second, it impoverished the vocabulary by eliminating approximately two-thirds of Chinese characters from the lexicon of those allowed for publication. So we could say that it was an example of an effort by means of cultural destruction, to create the very limitations the infosphere helps us to transcend.
Although the Chinese Version paintings seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with digital tech—they are paintings rendered by hand on canvas and there are reasons why this is necessary given that they treat the cultural atrocity of the destruction of Chinese characters’ pictographic aspect—but in fact the schematic formulation of the patterns they reveal would be practically impossible without digital means.
Despite that they are lo-tech material objects, they are through, of, and in the infosphere.
E.Z. You have been living in Berlin for the last five years; what do you miss the most from your country? What do you appreciate the most in Berlin?
In the beginning, I missed the Chinese language and its literature. And the local Chinese food! But especially I missed my favorite books, texts I associated with childhood memories. Their absence really makes me feel a sense of lost youth.
Now what I miss most is the Chinese way of working. China was far behind most Western countries. To catch up, the Chinese increased their speed of doing things. Sometimes I feel that the pace of Berlin can be very leisurely by comparison. Maybe this gives more time for reflection.
Many Chinese have their sideline business pursuits besides their daily jobs. You can’t deny that the sheer pressure of daily life in China makes Chinese work and study hard. I certainly do not miss the grim struggle of just trying to keep a roof over my head, or all the pressures of Chinese daily life, but I appreciate people working and studying hard because they are committed to something that is valuable for themselves and others. If we are to achieve anything that is of genuine positive value and not just for ourselves, then that takes work and lots of it.
As for Berlin, any artist feels at home there. It is a city that finally has burst free of its agonizing history in the hope of revealing its ideals to the world. In this sense, the historical condition of the city is similar to the lives of all artists who want to create something new that is greater than his or her own condition.
E.Z. In what ways has your artistic language been affected by the fact that you needed a ‘lingua franca’ to express yourself and to communicate in the new environment away from your birthplace?
If we imagine that language is like a person, contemporary Chinese is more like a vibrant, living person, and Classical Chinese is like a beautiful woman from a traditional Chinese painting. But English for me are more like the bone structure of a real person, like the skeleton—but without any of the macabre connotations of this term. This is part of the reason that I give the Chinese characters on my painting another formal aspect without semantics in order to capture an aspect of the traditional language that was taken from it, and represent the dilemma of native languages set adrift from their own history. This problem is very extreme in Chinese, which was cut from its traditions by force, but it is a problem that afflicts all living languages.
E.Z. The Chinese Version is a series of paintings of Chinese characters in the form of printed texts. Could you discuss further the issues raised by these choices?
Wittgenstein wrote that,“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Having lost the environment of the Chinese language, and with the limits of my German and English, art as a universal language allows me to recover my own expression. In this way, I first conceived my painting series based on Chinese characters: The Chinese Version.
Chinese characters have had a history as a developed writing system for no less than 3,300 years. Unlike alphabetic writing systems, Chinese characters do not represent sounds even if they have sounds associated with them. Rather, they are symbols that convey meanings. An Analysis and Explanation of Characters written by Xu Shen at the beginning of the First Century AD outlined the ways of creating Chinese characters in the earliest known stages of written Chinese. The first major criterion was pictographic. For abstract concepts not conducive to pictographic representation, early Chinese developed the indicative method. They added a symbol to a drawing in order to indicate the concept. The associative method combined two existing pictographs in order for the reader to deduce the meaning. Another combination is a pictographic component to explain the meaning, added to another that represents both an associated sound (distinct from a true phonetic) and meaning of the whole character. Still others are borrowed to represent another concept with the same pronunciation.
Gradually, Chinese characters comprising various lines, dots and hooks that derived from the ancient pictographs became ever more symbolic. This organic development continued until it was broken in 1955 when the People’s Republic imposed the so-called simplification of Chinese characters. This directive had two stated purposes: the simplification of the “structure” or the number of strokes in characters, and a reduction in the number of characters. In this way, not only the form of characters changed, but also thousands of characters simply disappeared from the Chinese lexicon.
The pretext for this directive was to increase literacy, but literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan are higher than those of the Chinese mainland despite that their administrations never adopted simplified characters, and never limited the number of characters.
From the standpoint of language, the simplification program was a much more ambitious cultural atrocity than the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. It was more extreme than censorship because it not only restricted expression, but also, to a degree, it restricted the ability to conceive certain ideas.
In my work, I have used simplified characters, but I have mixed them with “lost” characters no longer in use or prohibited by simplification. These are made to appear as though printed, but each is painted by hand with a brush rather like traditional calligraphy. In these works, the arrangement of the characters has no lexical or semantic relation. Instead, their relationship is entirely formal. At the same time, these works divest the simplified characters of the propagandistic role for which they were intended, and return to them a formal aesthetic. Another way of saying this is that one can return a formal aesthetic to simplified characters, but only by eliminating their lexical and semantic relations. Ultimately, this is also to return to Chinese characters their critical role, but entirely through formal artistic means. In addition, my work uses a font invented after the industrial revolution for printing presses that were imported to Japan and China. This font evokes the mechanization of industrial products “perfectly” made by machine. There is no expressive freedom; everything conforms to a rigid order so as to be in compliance with the state standard—regardless of the individual will. In the end, these characters become the articulations of those who have lost their will.
Languages are dynamic and develop all the time, following in step with history. But the deliberate destruction of so much of the Chinese written language is a symptom of a historical tendency that continues in so many places on the globe through the present day. In this sense, I believe that my work that uses Chinese characters and is not only “made in Germany,” but even made possible in Germany, addresses a global problem. My hope is that this work will arouse people from many nations to reflect on what we have lost of our cultures, and how much of our world cultural heritage continues to be deliberately destroyed by depraved ideologies for which the destruction of culture is merely a prelude to the destruction of our humanity, and then to the destruction of human beings.
E.Z. We live in turbulent times; what do you believe the role of art should be? Should artists take a stand against or a distance from the ugly reality?
I hope that people will conclude from my work and my statements that the social engagement of the artist and the artwork is not only a matter of duty, but of necessity. Art will always say a lot about the society from which it springs whether or not the artist intends for it to do so, and therefore the artist does well to consider this and at least try to have a role in determining it. Otherwise, the artist risks leaving to others to fill the a gap in a work that is not fully integrated. On the other hand, art cannot be propaganda without ceasing to be art because it would depend too much on something that is already there. There would be too much of it that is not determined by the artist. It becomes illustration. This is why today we tend to laugh at Socialist-Realism, and hardly anyone takes it seriously as art. Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is neither propaganda or illustration because they succeed in becoming universal indictments of all atrocities, whose formal aspects are entirely made by the artists, and with genuine emotional power. Many of us don’t even know about the conflicts that inspired them, or about the theories of their ideologies, but no one who sees them can be mistaken about what they are. This is is not to say art must rely on the formal language of the past, or that all artwork should reflect on such violent injustices. Sometimes it is about things we would barely notice if we were not inspired by artists to reflect on it.
Although there is Western tradition of Institutional Critique (by which, as most readers will know, we mean critique of art institutions), much less often is there a critique of the insularity and trivialization of existence that afflicts so much of artistic production itself. In my installation work Untitled (a combined text installation and performance work), I collected the titles of over ninety thousand exhibitions that have taken place in public institutions and private galleries of note, internationally, during the past ten years, and affixed them to the walls and ceiling of the exhibition space as though they were constituents of a single sentence, an arrangement that empties of them of their original meanings, and makes possible many alternative possible meanings by virtue of their juxtaposition. At first, the audience inevitably thinks I am reading something like a long narrative poem, but the more it goes on, the more it sounds like nonsense. One museum director liked the idea. He seemed about to agree to include it in an exhibition, but then, reading the succession of titles, his expression suddenly changed and he said: “I see you have included some of the titles of my own exhibitions here.” He then declined to exhibit it as a performance. I thought, at least it caused someone to reflect.
E.Z. Could you discuss the identity of contemporary Chinese art and its place into the global art scene?
We rarely think so much of the national origin of a Western artist unless this fact is directly linked to the theme of the work itself. And when it comes to the more interesting contemporary exhibitions, we are less and less likely to see them categorized by national origin. Imagine at Witte de With or the Moderna Museet seeing didactic surveys like “German Art,” or “American Art” instead of Art in the Age of Asymmetrical Warfare or After Babel. I am not saying that there is no place for didactic surveys, but I believe that the exhibition and reception of Chinese art are rapidly moving past its former ghettoization. Open-minded curators see beyond the national origins of artists and regard Chinese artists with respect. This respect entails both criticality and integration with the world.
E.Z. Why did you decide to become an artist?
I think artists often do not question this because the impulse to make art is as natural and as necessary as breathing. I studied Chinese ink painting from age of 6, then from ages 12-15, I studied the Western drawing and painting. The only reason I didn’t attend an art academy was because of my parents’ divorce. At that time, the tuition fee for an art academy was four times that of a normal university. So I studied architecture which, for me, is still a related field. I moved to Berlin in order to have a chance to do what I really wanted to do all along. So I was able to make art the center of my life.
E.Z. Your future plans are…
For exhibition in Düsseldorf next year, I am developing a new performance work called Wandering, which will comprise Chinese pop songs from each decade since the beginning of the incursion of Western mass culture in China. In the speed and diffusion of pop culture influences, also there is an analogy in the art world where, in order to enter the discourse of contemporary art, artists are encouraged to respect a cultural imperative of universality that is often tantamount to a Western vision.
And from The Chinese Version, I am going to derive a new series Windows, to represent the missing Chinese character by means of a traditional Chinese embroidery technique that yields a different image on front and back.
Another project related to language involves Braille, the haptic text language of the blind.
An art project outside traditional exhibition venues involves a non-profit organization I have founded called Open Construction Site (www.openstructionsite.org), which, among other things turns construction sites into temporary public art spaces. The integration of comprehensible high technology and aesthetics can yield a positive impact on the environment of everyone who lives in proximity to construction sites, which often means millions of people in urban centers, but could also mean people in tiny rural villages.
I am also working on a new online cultural journal called Corn.
ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany
GLOBALE/Infosphere, 05.09.2015 – 31.01.2016:
Jia, The Chinese Version: