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Chinese Artist Zhu Jia on “The Face of Facebook”

Author: YVONNE WANG 2013-10-10

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Parallel to the Singapore Biennale 2013, ShanghART Singapore will present a solo exhibition of Beijing-based artist Zhu Jia from October 23rd to December 9th 2013. The exhibition will feature his 2011 project “The Face of Facebook”, alongside his earlier works in photography and video.

As one of China’s most influential video artists, Zhu uses poignant wit and humour in his work to reflect on the vast political, economic and social changes sweeping across China. His latest creation “The Face of Facebook”, is not an archetypal work by the artist, but a combination of various contributions from his personal network. Amongst them are some of the biggest names in China’s contemporary art circle including Liu Xiaodong, Wang Guangyi, Yan Peiming, Zhang Xiaogang and video artist such as Yang Fudong, as well as young artist,  Sun Xun.

With Facebook blocked by the ‘Great Firewall of China’, Zhu’s work is an interpreted replacement of his account on the social networking site. By inviting friends from his personal and professional network to take part in the project and donate high value artworks of their own, Zhu explores the notion of friendship and delves into the question of power, politics and the art market.

Ahead of the show’s opening, Zhu Jia took time off from his busy schedule to speak to The Muse about his artistic practice, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Chinese art scene.

1.  Can you explain how you were inspired to create Face of Facebook and what the message is behind the project?

Most of my works are not derived from “inspiration” per say, instead they are carried out based on my work sequence. I list my thoughts and interests in a certain order, and arrange time and materials accordingly.

I think objectively about how an artist’s individual experience and personal achievement are realised. From large-scale art museums down to individual artists, this art ecosystem has many layers, and every layer is related to so-called ‘demand’. How are claims to these demands allocated? Who has the power to make the decision on allocation? How do you challenge it? Therefore it delves into the questions of power, politics, rules of the ‘game’, market etc.

2. Why did you choose the side portrait of Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, as the starting point for this project?

It was sort of coincidental. I was in Los Angeles and just received a copy of  the New Yorker. This side portrait of Mark Zuckerberg was just next to the title of an article “The Face of Facebook”. I didn’t read the whole article but just thought that the title and the side portrait were done ingeniously. The style of this portrait photograph reminded me of the Mao Badges on my childhood clothes. Mark is well known worldwide for building his internet empire. He led his team to create a new way of socialising which not only changed our lifestyle but brought about conflicting political and economic interests.

3. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned in China. In your opinion, how do bans like this affect Chinese culture, media consumption and the country’s younger generation?

I don’t wish to comment on this question in words. You may be able to find the answer from my work instead. As for the effect or impact on the younger generation, the ban has made the situation more complicated. Because of the ban, there is a lack of information and more importantly, it has affected the younger generation’s understanding of the meaning of ‘belief’ – What do you believe? Who do you believe? Do you still believe?

4.  In addition to showcasing Face of Facebook, your solo show at ShanghArt Singapore will also include your earlier video and photography work. Can you talk about how your work has evolved over the past three decades? Do you associate your art with a specific movement?

Correction, just 20 plus years, I am not that old!

This question seems too broad to be tackled in a short interview. You can find detailed answers in reviews and articles about me on ShanghART Gallery’s website (hyperlink this to website), but let me give you a metaphor to understand my art practice. I am like a plumber who is building a canal. The first step is to find the ‘source of water’, which is the fundamentals; the second step is to find a ‘location’, which is the creative language and method; and finally to decide on the ‘destination’ of where the water leads to, which is my objective. The process of artistic production can be seen as similar to the process of digging a trench. Sometimes you don’t dig deep enough, or don’t get the right direction, but you keep making adjustments until you get it right. This answers your question on how my works evolve through the years.

As for your other question, you can say I am one of those relatively independent artists who works on their own without deliberately participating in certain movements. Also I have never paid much attention to whether some of my works are associated with any momentous events in art.

5. Since the late 90s, you’ve worked almost exclusively in photography and video. As someone who abandoned painting in favour of photography and video, what do feel can be accomplished with the medium of photography and video that cannot be accomplished with painting?

I did not intend to emphasise on the role of the medium, but at that moment expressing through the lens really did inspire and induce more questions, which also expanded my subject matter. This was what interested me the most. I graduated from China Central Academy of Fine Arts where I majored in oil painting after being trained rigourously for 8 years in classical painting. I don’t think it was a waste of time, for in the 8 years what I mastered was the ability to express. Expression is not about what you do with hands, but with your mind. Therefore, there is never an imperativemedium, but the most suitable medium to each artist.

6. In your opinion, what is it about contemporary Chinese art that makes it uniquely “Chinese”?

There are two aspects about such ‘uniqueness’. The first one is ‘the only one’, which means irreplaceable and has made extraordinary contributions in its own field. For instance, the Chinese Kung Fu. The other layer would mean ‘distinctive feature’. It’s known that in the last 8 years the art market in China has created a historical miracle, you can make a sale with anything. That might be called uniquely ‘Chinese’. However, is such uniqueness meaningful? Most of the artworks from Chinese contemporary artists have not been evaluated or criticised against an international academic backdrop, and it is rather an indigenous phenomena, which can be seen as uniquely ‘Chinese’ as well.

7.  What are the most important changes happening in the Chinese art scene that you find most interesting?

There are two important points. The whole of the 90’s (especially the latter part of it) seemed promising. Chinese artist’s were showcased in Venice Biennale in 1993 for the first time, followed by “Another Long March – Chinese Conceptual and Installation Art in the Nineties” in the Netherlands in 1997. These introduced Chinese conceptual art to an international audience in the most solemn way and had a profound impact on the development of the domestic art scene. However since 2005, the art scene has under gone some transformation due to large investments into the domestic art market. It made an incredible impact on the organic art ecology including unprecedented prosperity in the industry. Auction houses, commercial galleries etc. have flooded the whole scene. It looks very exciting, but those who know better would probably feel frustrated.

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Related Exhibitions:
Zhu Jia: The Face of Facebook


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