Who Is He? Retrospective of Geng Jianyi's Works
Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 1F and 5F
GENG Jianyi 耿建翌
Curator: Karen Smith & Yang Zhenzhong
Special Consultant: Zhang Peili
From November 10, 2022, to February 12 2023, Power Station of Art will host the exhibition “Who is He?”, a retrospective exhibition of the work of Chinese artist Geng Jianyi, one of the most influential artists of his generation. The exhibition is curated by Karen Smith and Yang Zhenzhong.
Geng Jianyi became widely known first in 1985 as he graduated from the oil painting department of China National Academy in Hangzhou. In particular, his graduation painting Two People Under a Light challenged the idea that narrative meaning was the ultimate goal of an artist’s intent, or was the sole purpose of artistic expression. Building on this concept, through the course of the coming three decades, Geng Jianyi engaged in a diverse range of activities aimed at exploring what the real purpose of art could be. Numerous of these activities took simple acts of daily life as the content and form of artworks that Geng Jianyi hoped would make the audience think about the different ways in which art can be understood. To illustrate this further, he worked with multiple media and techniques, re-imagining painting, print-making, video and photography, performative and conceptual practices in distinctly innovative ways.
The title of the exhibition, “Who is He?”, is the title of an important conceptual work that Geng Jianyi produced in 1994. “Who is he?” was the question instinctively asked when a visitor called at Geng Jianyi’s home in his absence. To uncover the identity of the mysterious “he”, Geng Jianyi turned to his neighbours to learn what they had observed of the stranger. The resulting artwork comprises the drawings and written descriptions they provided. In terms of this exhibition and its title, the curators take the question “who is he?” as a means of describing “who is Geng Jianyi”, as reflected through the distinctive character of Geng Jianyi’s artistic practice.
Surveying the breadth of Geng Jianyi’s career from the mid-1980s through to 2016, “Who is He?” includes many of the iconic works upon which his acclaim rests. The exhibition selection further includes some of Geng Jianyi’s lesser known works. These begin from early paintings from the 1980s, moving to conceptual works like You Decide (100 Incense Coils: A Discussion With Song Haidong), 1991; No Matter From Which Side it’s Still Possible to See, 1995; The Needs of Negative Reality (What is Thrown Away) (OMI/New York) 1995; On the Floor, 1997. On public display for the first time are two works that bracket Geng Jianyi’s career. One is Tap Water Factory (1987/2022), presented as a special project in PSA’s main hall.The other is a series of an experimental forms made using paper pulp in Japan in 2016, one of the last projects completed before he passed away.
Tap Water Factory, a large-scale, maze-like interactive installation, into which visitors enter and become instant participants in the act of seeing and being seen, was the first of several works conceived by Geng Jianyi to erase the “distance” he saw as existing between audiences and artworks. Describing his concept for Tap Water Factory, Geng Jianyi said “Everyone has a dual role as both audience and an integral part of the work. The visitors’ experience means that at least 50% of the ‘distance’ is already removed.” Although Tap Water Factory has not been presented in its physical form during his lifetime, the concept is crucial to Geng Jianyi's artistic thinking.
Apart from artistic practice, Geng Jianyi devoted a great deal of energy to his teaching role and was involved in organising a number of exhibitions. His approach was as 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.
Throughout his career, Geng Jianyi worked with an extraordinary range of collaborators and participants – artists, friends, students, neighbours, and everyday people. “Who is He?” marks this phenomenon with a special commemorative project. In honour of the artist’s own proclivity for using documents and forms in his artworks, the curators created a “Form” project to be completed by anyone who worked together with Geng Jianyi. Their replies offer a set of rich, personal descriptions of who he is.
Installation view of 1F
Installation view of 5F
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