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Critical Awkwardness

Twenty Years of Images from Zhu Jia Author: Pi Li Oct,2015

In 1994, Zhu Jia impersonated an overly cautious, slightly autistic white collar middle class man browsing a furniture store showroom, likewise designed for middle class customers. Amidst a showroom display with all the price tags still fixed to their objects, the artist’s character makes no attempt to conceal his affectation or nerves. The time, the people, and the place are all a sham; the only truth is in the anxiety and unease. This was My Room (1994). A year later, in 1995, Zhu Jia went to Beijing’s Longfusi street and shot a series of photographs. The artist held up a cardboard sign on which he had written, “Did they have sex?” and took candid photographs of pairs of men and women as they walked by. In Did they have sex? (1995) every photograph feels like a reproduced scene. The text points a crude finger at the secret intimate relationships that might exist between any two people in a public place. Looking back on these two works today, we can feel the insecurity and uncertainty in the distance between Zhu Jia’s art works and the era in which they were born: the Nineties. This distance is well described in the text of My Room: “Reality creates a very awkward feeling, deep inside me.”

Zhu Jia completed these works just after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour Talks. A tide of commercialism had swept over all of China, and in art, the successors of Cynical Realism and Political Pop (which had been the New Wave of the Eighties) began to consider the international arena. Yet none of this had any relationship to Zhu Jia, who at the time was completely unknown to the public. But today, when we look back at the overall situation of Chinese society and China’s elite in the Nineties, Zhu’s works have special meaning. Though at its heart Chinese contemporary art sees itself as a continuation of the Eighties’ series of social movements, it is in fact still enmeshed in a camouflaged neo-liberal argument: namely, in an economy that emphasizes free market and advocates for connection to the global economy, there is the hope that by ushering China into this larger economy, Chinese society itself will be profoundly transformed. And the associated fantasy in art would be to use the market and commerce to free art from state propaganda, using the art market to liberate artistic expression. The Nineties in China were also a period in which marketization played an important role in art. Whether it was Political Pop, Cynical Realism or later Gaudy Art, there was an opening up towards commerce and market both in terms of artistic concept and market operations. With a wave of postmodernism accompanying all of this, artists, in the name of mainstream culture, took productions and reproductions of commercial desire and re-invented them as popular need, seeing the process of marketization, constricted by capitalism, as a counter to national mainstream ideology. In giving art to consumerism and legitimacy to “market ideology,” art completely destroyed the system of social criticism that had existed in the Eighties. This system was destroyed largely because its foundation was too weak to begin with. The ideological origins of Chinese avant-garde art are essentially from the 18th century Enlightenment, mixed with inspirations of religious reform and Kantian philosophy, emphasizing the search for the subjectivity of the individual and in turn an arrival at a kind of optimistic “modernity.” Though Nietzschean existentialism and similar modernist reflections were translated into Chinese in the Eighties, due to the closed cultural environment at the time the access point for China’s elite into these readings was only through their individualist or anti-establishment bent. There was no frame of reference by which people could understand and absorb the larger reflections on modernity and commercial society therein. This kind of inherent defect created a complete lack in Chinese art of the ability to reflect upon the flood of neoliberalism in the Nineties. Instead, there was only a dancing with it, a kind of carnival. The most profound crisis for Chinese society in the Nineties was power seeking exacerbated by the process of marketization, wealth inequality, high unemployment rates and a consequent diminishing of the humanistic spirit of the times, among other problems. Unfortunately, Chinese artists were not watchful of these deeper issues affecting Chinese society. As for why that is, neo-liberalism was still not in full-swing, nor had it come to constrain artistic practice. Though China’s avant-garde artists at the time were discussing marketization, most of the time the prevailing mood was optimism.

My Room and Did they have sex?, similar to many other works in the same period by Zhu Jia, point out two levels of Chinese society at the time: consumerism and public spaces. With regard to consumerism, much like the characters he portrays, the artist’s sense of unrest in the face of consumerist society is particularly out of place in an era dominated by optimism. In terms of public spaces, Zhu Jia always reminds us of the deeper, unchanging undercurrent running constant beneath the rapid surface changes of everyday life. It could be said that this kind of unique sensitivity and sense of anxiety is precisely what makes Zhu Jia special, and distinguishing him from the majority of his artistic, temporal peers.

Zhu Jia’s creations were born in the transition from the Eighties into the Nineties, with photography and video as media of choice. With such a commercialized and fragmentary art market on the rise, artists who choose images as their medium are inherently making a cultural statement. But even looking at the small selection of image-based practices, Zhu Jia’s works stand out. Zhu Jia experienced, but did not participate in, the New Wave art movement of the Eighties, leading to work that possesses a completely different language and logic. The New Wave art movement in the Eighties basically evolved out of Enlightenment thinking. Its cultural logic was based on attention to individuality and free expression. This kind of expression later was simplified into the Cynical Realism and Political Pop of the Nineties. Meanwhile, fringe artist groups emerging in the second half of the Eighties, like Xiamen Dada or Hangzhou’s Pond Society, took their own points of departure from the chance nature and embodied qualities of art, moving towards a focus on questions of artistic production and human alienation. This was an important beginning for Chinese conceptualism, inspired by a number of sources from Duchamp to Cage to Fluxus to media art. Though Zhu Jia ties to this context, he had an entirely different trajectory in his development, coming from different origins. Unlike Chinese video art in the early years, which usually saw images as a means of recording personal acts, Zhu Jia’s earliest several works all use video as an extension of subjective observation. This is because the source of his filmic language is not as much art history as it is film history. In several interviews, he has discussed how his high school classmate, the late film director Lu Xuechang, introduced him to Japanese director Juzo Itami. Juzo Itami’s films are always intimately related to the events of everyday life, for instance funerals, food, and disease. But in the process of showing these things, Itami throws himself into their ‘normalcy,’ taking stock of reality with his singularly keen perspective. He captures life’s inherent, simple awkwardnesses, its humor and absurdity, rather than providing narcissistic or artificial exaggeration. Itami’s films (especially Tampopo) impact Zhu Jia’s works in two ways: in terms of their orientation towards everyday life, and in terms of their use of subjective lens. Zhu Jia’s early works all latch onto extremely common everyday behavior: taking, lifting, seeing, opening, closing, walking, moving, and so on. The subjective lens does not stop at referring to the direct gaze of the characters in the film; Zhu Jia goes further, understanding the lens as a conveyor of subjective emotion, and as a conveyor of subjective behavior itself.

Under the subjective lens’ “beautiful” misguidance, Zhu Jia’s early work expands upon the idea of the camera as an appendage of the body which creates different viewpoints with its movements. For instance in Wardrobe (1992), the camera is an extension of a hand; or in Talk (1992), the camera is the character's gaze at it adjusts over what it sees, but unlike with angle changes in a regular film, we find ourselves unable to stitch together any single subject. In Shine (1995), the lens replaces a moving body competing in a basketball game. This embodied mode and its connection to the camera lens creates a unique sort of directness. If making the camera lens the equivalent of a body part was an important stylistic element to Zhu Jia’s early work, then an equally important element was the creation of a viewpoint different from that of everyday life. This is exemplified in Forever (1994), where the artist takes a fixed lens and placed it on the wheel of a tricycle, recording the landscape as the wheel revolves, or in Repeat on Purpose (1997) where he puts the camera in the refrigerator, underscoring the blind boredom in the extremely subjective act of taking food out of the fridge. In these later works, though the position of the camera is fixed, the picture becomes chaotic and uncertain. It could be said that Zhu Jia’s use of these varying means creates a moving, trembling, rotating, and sometimes even slightly aggressive filmic language. Those fixed camera positions were in extremely stark contrast to the few other video art practices that existed in China in the Nineties, and created a lens aesthetic that was very personal in nature. Though “boring, repetitive, and alienating” were main features of the time, Zhu Jia abandoned a cold, detached way of viewing and used instead a direct physicality that collided forcefully with reality.

Another function of the directness of Zhu Jia’s works lies in the sensation of boredom and anxiety they invoke. He captures monotonous, repeated actions, like the lull of the revolving wheel in Forever, or the constant removal of food from the refrigerator in Repeat on Purpose. Similarly, in Door (1996), the artist simply uses a lower-than-normal perspective to showcase the simple cyclical act of opening, leaving, and closing the door, then coming back to open it. Or there is Binding (1996), in which he presents the supremely rhythmic motion of bookbinders and binding machines, combined with a hopeless feeling of rigidity. Even in his photographic works there remains a similar feeling, such as in Windows (1996), where he uses different exposures to shoot the interior of the same hotel room and the view out the window. The hidden meaning in these works is actually quite clear; it lies in the manufacturing of a kind of visual boredom. When these images first appeared, everyone tried to search for what they were meant to reference and signify. But the images themselves are, precisely, without reference or meaning. In fact, in these works, boredom is direct embodiment. That is to say that the artist uses boredom to murder observation, depriving the viewer of the temporal element of visual experience. The meaning of the visual object here does not evolve based on the flow of time. When time and boredom in this sense are compressed into a certain timeframe, they are converted into an out-of-bounds anxiety, a feeling we experience beyond the image. For instance, in Related to Environment (1997), Zhu Jia films a goldfish struggling on a dry flat surface, or in Never Take Off (2002) he films an airplane perpetually taxiing on the runway, never taking off. In all of these works, there is a deliberately elongated pivotal moment, or critical point. In life, we go from birth to death, from taxiing to taking off: things change and move from one state and another. But Zhu Jia takes the transience of these turning points and, using images, prolongs it indefinitely. The juxtaposition of this utter lack of change with the audience’s deep-seated expectation for change produces a steady tension between audience and image, incessantly layered so as to generate a transporting anxiety. Boredom and anxiety, which we typically see as two distinctly contrasting emotions, are linked ingeniously here by Zhu Jia; extracted and purified into a temporal vortex, they reveal themselves as two sides of the same coin.

Beginning with Related to Environment, the “critical moment” becomes a frequent subject in Zhu Jia’s works, though it manifests in many different forms. In Double Landscape (2001) the shot is so still that it is almost like a freeze frame. Every single movement before the camera is subtle, nuanced, and done with great care, to the point that only at the last moment does the audience discover that this romantic scene is actually capturing the relationship between a man and a clothes mannequin, not a real woman. Every little, careful movement that has occurred up to this point has been as if to deliberately conceal this false element. Here, the “critical point” is no longer about the change in state of the camera’s subject, but rather about the change in our process of viewing as audience members: as in, the psychological shift for the viewer. Once we experience this shift, our past viewing experience becomes inaccurate and unreliable. To some extent, this sense of uncertainty is similar to the vertigo of the images in Forever. At other times, the “critical point” is embodied in the relationship between two characters. In Distance makes a distance (2004), Zhu Jia films a singer singing unaccompanied, a young man staring off into the distance, and a dancer who moves around him. The three characters are seen in the same space on the two screens in front of us, but each character’s activity moves on its own axis. In a chance moment, we almost think that the trajectories of their singing, dancing and staring will have some kind of relationship to one another, They approach each other infinitely closer, and yet never intersect. Thus our ability to define the scene we see before us is forever held in abeyance; meaning has been infinitely delayed.

In the years following 2000, while Zhu Jia’s obsession with the “critical point” grew, he also seems to indulge increasingly in indefinite delays of possible definition and persistent semantic fuzziness. With Michael with His Bride (2004) and Temperature (2004), he deals with relationships between men and dolls, and men and female models. These photographs create a clean yet ambiguous ambiance. We have no way of making clear judgments about what we see, and the things we do see are forever frozen at a critical point between normal and abnormal. In We Are Perfect (2008) the attractive man and woman on the three screens feel a bit like the beautiful sons and daughters of revolution, but the images exist somewhere between revolutionary sunbeams and pop culture sex fantasy: forcing viewers into an entanglement of attempt and failure to determine meaning. In addition, if we observe Zhu Jia’s more recent explorations, it is easy for us to feel the inexpressible erotic quality pervading throughout. The erotic nature of Zhu Jia’s works could not be filed under pornographic symbology; rather it comes from a grasp of the the tension of criticality. As we survey the works of this period, we see that the artist usually deals with images, symbols, and scenes that bear no relationship to each other; while on the one hand the sheer fineness and subtlety of the details lure our imaginations, on the other hand the close relationships between the images actually restricts our imaginations, holding us in this suspended place.

The erotic color of Zhu Jia’s works fits completely with Roland Barthes’ discussion of eroticism in Parisian striptease: “Striptease—at least Parisian striptease—is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration.” Zhu Jia’s eroticism lies in our experience of extended viewing: what happens to us when we remain teetering atop this line between fear and taboo. A sense of the “erotic” is generated from “fear,” and “fear” depends on our own expectations of “normal.” Thus in the final analysis, eroticism is not the key to Zhu Jia’s work. The key, rather, is in how we define and recognize “normal”: in daily life, in politics, and in art.

For Zhu Jia, in today’s world, normalcy is temporary. His work is not an attempt to reflect this short lived “normal,” but rather to demonstrate the fear that is ever-present when we stand on the line between the normal and the abnormal. Or, in his words: the “very awkward feeling in deep inside me” that reality creates.

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