Between Object and Site: Human Body in Jiang Hai's Painting Author:Gao Ling Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
For the past two decades, Jiang Hai has focused on human bodies as the primary subject matter of his painting. He has consistently used a uniquely individualist artistic language in his painting, which is unparalleled by most artists in China.

For the past two decades, Jiang Hai has focused on human bodies as the primary subject matter of his painting. He has consistently used a uniquely individualist artistic language in his painting, which is unparalleled by most artists in China.

In Chinese art, human body has long been depressed and adorned by ethics and morality, but in the meantime has been very much expelled as a carrier of the Chinese perception of nature. In the recent century of art transformation in modern China, human body has obtained some sort of satisfactory status due to the needs of ideological struggles and national survival, but it is still in a state of darkness and is far from achieving its subjectivity. The formalist trend that appeared in the period of Reform called for romanticist depiction of aesthetically compelling bodies and personalities. But such representations of human bodies were more or less formalist oriented. Their lack of depth results in the fact that human body does not get sufficient attention in the contemporary time.

As an independent artist who emerged in the 1980s, Jiang Hai, who now lives and works in Tianjin, was one of a small number of artists in China who was consciously in search of the true meaning of painting. His early works from 1988 and 1989, with their compressed backgrounds, are examples of his strong interest in human faces and distorted bodies. This is part of the bigger trend of the 85 New Wave art movement in which younger generation of artists began to focus on human subjectivity. But what is special about Jiang Hai is that he continues to focus on the issue of subjectivity ever since then. His contribution is seen in the large number of unforgettable images he described of the struggles of human bodies as physical objects and as spiritual carriers in all kinds of social situations. In his constant pursuit of body, Jiang Hai developed his unique visual language.

Most of Jiang Hai’s early works are preoccupied by human bodies. But he did not pay special attention to the facial expressions and details of the figures, as seen in his 1988 Faces series. Rather, he focuses on human heads as forms. His strong brushstrokes are entangled like ropes, which expresses the situation of human bodies as bound objects that have no distinct features. These tied-up bodies with no expressions provide us with clues to his later creations that use physical bodies as carriers of sentiments and sensations that speak of themselves through visual embodiment. Thus, what is expressed is not faces with expressions, but rather heads as part of bodies. Although head is the top part of body and is the beholder of thought and soul, it is also part of the body with all senses of life. As one can see, human bodies are emphasized in most of Jiang’s paintings as inseparable parts against complicated or simple background. Often they appear to be crouched together, outlined with dark lines, with their physical details covered up by complex colors and brushwork.

In his works of the 1990s and the new century, Jiang Hai focuses more on the physicality of bodies. The physicality of human bodies is what connects man and animal, and also what the existence of humanity depends on. The use of bright fleshy colors and textures indicates that the artist tries to search deep into the very physicality of human bodies. As carrier of the physicality of body, whether in the form of flesh or bone, it has many things in common with animal, which lies in the existence of animality. The hybridization of human and animal bodies are seen in his On the Edge of Vision series from 2006 and 2007 and his Blood-Flesh, Meat Boiled in Water and Bone-Flesh from the 2008 series Forms of Objects, in which bodies and bones are fully visualized. The upstanding bones with bloody flesh are seen with exotic plants. Pain of death and strength of life coexist in conflict. This is not simply a depiction of animals. As Gilles Louis René Deleuze speaks of Francis Bacon’s painting, “Meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility; it is a ‘fact’, a state where the painter identifies with the objects of his horror and his compassion. The painter is certainly a butcher, but he goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church, with the meat as the crucified victim.”[①] Meat is not just the meat of animal, nor is bone that of the beast. They are all the physical bodies of human beings seen in the eyes of the artist, who expresses his feelings through his depictions of them.

Ever since the early period of his career, Jiang Hai takes human figures, or more precisely human bodies, as his subjects. However, this does not mean that he limits himself in an enclosed self-referential realm in which he has no concerns with social environment. In his 1995 Urban Structures series, he juxtaposes human bodies with motorcycles and automobiles that are symbolic of urban development and transformation. Human bodies are fragmented by the artist as a butcher who cuts and separates them and mixes them with auto parts that are scattered all over in the paintings. This is an expression of the human bodies that are alienated in today’s society. The images of meat-in-plate he has from different phases are descriptions of food and color mixed with bodies on palette. The artist seems to be asking “Who is the butcher if I am the meat?”

Consciousness of human body in realized in Jiang Hai’s painting through exchanges and hybridization between man and animal, through fragmentation of human bodies and artificial objects. His representational method is not illustrative or narrative, nor is it purely abstract. Rather, it is a visual representation that is almost tangible. He emphasizes deformation and texture, which is different from figurative painting that appeals to the viewer’s eye through narrative description. It is also different from abstract painting that speaks to mentality through abstraction. Jiang’s painting directly touches sensitive human nerves that are part of fleshy lives. It is a visual form that speaks to tangible senses. Jiang’s painting may be easily categorized as expressionist art, which is often identified with sentiment and sensation. But such expressionism should not be absolutely distinguished from figurative art or abstract art as the latter also express emotions and feelings. Jiang Hai’s painting, however, focuses more on the physicality of human bodies, whose emphasis is on sense of tangibility. In other words, Jiang’s painting, as compared with academecist or classical depiction of body as object or abstract expression of body as mental image, is a visualization of human nerve system as part of physical life and a synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity. His imagery focuses on the sense of tangible human physicality rather than objective or abstract images of human bodies.

To emphasize the physicality and animality of human body, Jiang Hai boldly deforms the flesh and bone in proportion and structure. The abdomens and limbs are arranged in a visually incredible way in each painting in order to meet specific meaning of each painting. Such arrangements are done not simply to represent the flexibility and plasticity of human body with limbs, but to display a sort of power necessary for each painting, a power formed by depressing environment onto vulnerable physical bodies. In his 2006 Pictorial Menu of Meat Food and Close Habits series, distorted bodies fill up the bodies of animals and insects. Man and animal have close habits simply because the former has qualities of animality, which is further stressed by the environment of contemporary society. Man’s body is depressed simply because man’s excessive conquest of other animals and nature. Jiang’s expression of such depression is a therapy that aims at waking up and saving the consciousness of life inside the damaged body.

In most of his paintings over the past twenty years, except some earlier ones, Jiang Hai uses simple and flat background to emphasize and contrast with the tangibility of the images in the foreground. Enclosed in a background that has no characteristics of specific space or environment, images of bodies in the foreground appear all the more distinctive and helpless as well. This is a site elaborately designed by the artist. The bodies in the foreground – whether they are integrated into animals or insects in a way exploding in all directions – are always fixed like food in a plate that could but be cut and devoured. In consistence with the spatial structure are the thick colors that are as bright as blood. The physical colors of the bodies are described with palette knives along with hard brushes that sweep over the canvases, which makes the physical bodies appear to be under the suffering of butchery.

Jiang Hai’s painting is undoubtedly remarked by its visual effects. It is not, however, a simple representation of real social life as reflected on the artist’s retina, or a collection of pure abstract signs from private thinking. Rather, it is an effort to visualize man’s reaction to the surrounding chaotic world through the very physicality of body. It is a way for people to experience this physicality in today’s consumerist reality for the purpose of releasing the heterogeneous pressures on the body as well as on the world. Jiang’s painting, therefore, is a liberation of body, a wakening of bodily senses, and a successful penetration of body through the conflicts between object and site.

May 19-30, 2010

[①] Gilles Louis René Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Chinese translation by Dong Qiang, Guagnxi Normal University Press, 2007, p. 30.

[Editor] Elemy Liu