Jia’s paintings immediately evoke the sense of mass production‚ as though made perfectly by machines. The Beijing-born and now Berlin-based artist invites the viewer to come closer, to investigate the general tension between the two cultures. Here, Jia speaks to Ala Glasner and Julia Rosenbaum as part of their Studio Visits series, to discuss her work in detail and her eclectic educational background as well as her relationship to the People’s Republic of China and the loss of many Chinese characters.
Jia, you studied architecture and “Traditional Chinese Opera” in Beijing. How do those subjects influence your workJIA
My studies in Traditional Chinese Opera and its literary forms also inform my text-based painting series, “The Chinese Version”. Very often, when we talk about the contemporary, we automatically abandon tradition. But I try to awaken tradition in the contemporary world, in order that the value of traditional culture should not remain dormant in our lives. I think of the loss of cultural memory as a dangerous condition.
The study of architecture gave me an architect’s way of thinking: how to organize things in 4D (3D + time). Basically, it’s a way to think about space. Also, being an architect presupposes social engagement – urban planners in particular influence so much of a society’s daily life. Although I wasn’t an urban planner, I still keep the macro vision of society in mind, and I believe this helps me to be a socially engaged artist. My recent work, “Mini-Shop”, has been made in partnership with the children of the Liangshan Orphanage School in Sichuan, China. These children belong to the Yi ethnic minority and their parents have become casualties of the narcotics trade originating in the Golden Triangle opium poppy fields of nearby Myanmar.
Mini-shops are places that especially appeal to the delights of children throughout China. My “Mini-Shop” also includes art works made by the children of the orphanage. The children chose these objects that they most prize, in order that their contributions should constitute gratuitous acts of love. Visitors to the exhibition may take one of the child’s artwork of their choosing, as long as they replace it with a prized object of their own for the children (no money will be accepted).
In its conceptual aspect, “Mini-Shop” aspires to impact conventional roles in art exhibitions as the artist, the visitors, and the children are directly involved in the work. It is participatory without being “relational.” There is no conflation of subject and object, no displacement of authorship. There is however a narrative underlying the project, one that accompanies and unites many narratives of the children, and perhaps ultimately of the visitors as well.
My painting series “The Chinese Version” focuses on the destruction of traditional culture, a universal catastrophe in our globalized world. I therefore use the theme of the loss of traditional Chinese characters as a way to address an affliction that is by no means limited to China. In my work, I chose a font invented during the industrial revolution for printing presses that were imported to Japan and China. The font evokes the mechanization of products “perfectly” made by machine. There is no expressive freedom; everything conforms to a rigid order so as to be in compliance with a state standard – even against one’s will. In the end, these characters become the articulations of those who have lost their will. Some of the form remains, and the movement seems to remain, moving perpetually in its stillness, like the Chinese jar in T.S. Eliot’s poem, but opposite, and dead.
I am also a founder of Open Construction Site – where I try to have construction sites become temporary art exhibition spaces.
Is the technique or the idea more important?JIA
I don’t think any artist thinks that the technique is more important than the idea. At least I hope not! But a problem is that now too much artwork is like industrial production –whether in the paintings of “The Chinese Version” or in “Orientation I: Bicycle Tracks”, my work implies a critique of non-human techniques for making art that ultimately yield a non-human technique for viewing. So I suppose I use technology in order to criticize technology. In LA, I saw an exhibition at the Getty called “Noir-The Romance of Black in 19th Century” and with every piece you could feel the artist’s heart through their hand. But now, you cannot feel this bond because of the mass production of artwork. Maybe this is why so much of the general public are weary and detached toward contemporary art.
Do you have a larger collector base in Germany or in Beijing? Do you know most of them personally and are able to discuss your work?JIA
Uli Sigg, who is based in Switzerland but who previously lived in China, was my first collector. My collectors are not confined to Germany or Beijing, but they come from all over. I have been lucky to be exhibited in contexts that are not exclusive to Chinese contemporary art, but are simply exhibitions of contemporary art. I glad that my collectors also reflect this diversity, which, for me, is one of the most positive aspirations that art can take.
Do your collectors influence what you make? And if so, to what extent?JIA
No. Smart collectors will never influence the artists, and smart artists will never allow themselves to be influenced by the market. Collectors do give their opinions. For me, it’s interesting to know how collectors – not only collectors but also visitors in general – understand my work in different ways. In the West, there is a tradition that the more a work is conceived by the artist, the more fully-realized the work is. Although this tradition has faced numerous challenges, I think it is in the nature of art to be so, and that the most sophisticated work today is that which extends rather than diminishes the degree of the artist’s making.
Is it important for you to have a personal relationship with your collectors?JIA
I am always curious about who would wish to keep my work with them, and I think my work is a bridge to communicate between myself and the collectors. Whenever a friendship starts from art, it’s always beautiful.
What does it feel like to see your works within the context of a collectors home? Has there ever been the occasion when you did not like their method of exhibiting?JIA
So far I haven’t seen my work in a collectors home; they only put my work in the museum shows. In Chinese, we say if it’s a real treasure, no matter who owns it, he or she will take good care of it. Once my work belongs to the collectors, I believe they will take good care of the works, each in their own way.
Curated by Ala Glasner and Julia Rosenbaum, Studio Visits offers an exclusive and independent journey into the world of artist’s studios. First-hand studio tours focus on personal dialogues revealing artistic insights from the very beginnings to the end result; to help understand the artists’ creative process, inspirations and challenges.