Geng Jianyi was born in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, in 1962. He graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Oil Painting Department in 1985, settling in Hangzhou where he lived and worked through to 2017.
Geng Jianyi’s career began at the '85 New Wave, in an era marked new thinking about art and artistic expression that was unfolding across China, in which a number of artists in Hangzhou, especially those around Zhang Peili, played very important role. They were all keen to find new ways to express the enormous changes taking place around them, and in their own lives, through art that related to daily life as they saw and experienced it. Habits of looking observing and asking questions were practices that Geng Jianyi generally pursued throughout his career – as is exemplified in the title of a work like Who Is He?. Simple questions, which required no definitive answer, were a tool that Geng Jianyi used to help viewers see something of the life taking place around them; common aspects of daily life that fade into the background as they become habit, or that are no longer observed because society is habituated to them. Drawn into an artwork, these questions reorient the gaze, prompting new perspectives on how we engage with life, how we act in relation to others or, simply, how we do things. This is most obvious in Do Your Correct Self 2005, and Offset 2007, but also extends to an awareness of actions in daily life, and the choices people make. This he began first in 1995 with the project of specifically looking at what artists throw away (Needs of Negative Reality) to the choices that ordinary people make in choosing flooring materials for their home.
The early 2000's, Geng Jianyi was involved in organising a number of exhibitions, but he never saw himself as a curator. His primary interest was to bring artists together to explore a particular issue, idea or a particular form of expression. This practice also dates back to 1986 with his involvement in the Pond Society, Hangzhou, and to 1994-95 with the two projects done for “XX As A Reason”. Later projects like “Mei Shi” and “Chu Shi” invited students as well as artists to make the exhibition event together.
Similarly, in 2008, Geng Jianyi created "Sneeze" work group and, in 2010, ImageLab, which developed experimental art projects such as "lunar eclipse" and "classroom". An important aspect of these projects is how Geng Jianyi took the role of collaborator on equal footing with all other participants. At the same time Geng Jianyi expanded his exploration of art and society with other collaborators, he continued experimental work with materials. This aspect of his interest in revealed in a series of works from 2015 that he named “Untitled”; and in what is the beginnings of a new train of thought in series of paper works begun in Japan in 2016.
Beyond his variegated work with the visual and conceptual language of art, Geng Jianyi was also a great writer. Not in terms of art theory, but using text as a personal expression of his attitude towards artistic expression, and the problems within it that he identified. Articles published from the late 1980s to the early 1990s show his clear thinking about topics related to his own practice. He continued to write, mainly for private purposes in personal notebooks, and for an MSN account (early form of social media), which he used to publish short stories using a very literary yet simple easy approach to language and storytelling. These illustrate his observations of the world and issues that he explored in art. (Many of these subsequently reappeared in the exhibition project “East to the Bridge” 2015.)
In his later life, Geng Jianyi devoted a great deal of energy to his teaching role at China Academy of Fine Arts. His approach was a distinctive as his style of art, born of the idea that art can be learned but cannot be taught. This guided him in helping his students to understand their own ideas could find expression as art.
As an outstanding pioneering artist of Chinese contemporary art, artist Geng Jianyi was awarded the CCAA Outstanding Achievement Award at the 2012 China Contemporary Art Awards. In 2016, he was recognized by AAC Art China Annual Influence Award “Artist of the Year”.
Selected exhibition includes Who Is He? A Geng Jianyi Retrospective, Power Station of Art, Shanghai; UCCA, Beijing (2022-2023); M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation, M+ Museum, Hong Kong (2021-2023); Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.A. (2017); La Biennale di Venezia, Italy (1993; 2017); Geng Jianyi: Stubborn Image, OCAT, Shanghai (2016); Geng Jianyi: East to the Bridge, OCAT, Shenzhen (2015); Gwangju Biennale, Korea (2014); Wu Zhi, Geng Jianyi Works 1985-2008, Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai (2012); Excessive Transition, Geng Jianyi, ShanghART, Beijing (2008); '85 New Wave, The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, UCCA, Beijing (2007); The Real Thing, Contemporary Art from China, Tate Liverpool, U.K. (2007); The First Guangzhou Trienniale, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou (2002); Another Long March, Chinese Conceptual Art in the 1990', Chasse Kazerne, Fundament Foundation, Breda, The Netherlands (1997); China Avant-garde (Touring exhibition) Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Hildesheim Art Gallery, Germany; Kunsthall Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Brandts Klaederfabrik, Odense, Denmark; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, U.K. (1993); China / Avant-Garde Art Exhibition, National Art Museum of China, Beijing (1989).