Jiang Hai's Painting and Our Period of the 1990s
Source:Artintern.net Author:Bao Dong Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
Jiang Hai is an artist who deserves much discussion, a discussion that should be undertaken in the context of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s. He is an artist who provides us with clues to understanding the intellectual history of that time period. And his painting functions as a door to this understanding.

Jiang Hai is an artist who deserves much discussion, a discussion that should be undertaken in the context of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s. He is an artist who provides us with clues to understanding the intellectual history of that time period. And his painting functions as a door to this understanding.

In many general discussions of contemporary Chinese art of the 1990s, it is often the case that a description of the social and historical conditions – the political turmoil in the late 1980s and economical reform in the early 1990s followed by materialist and psychological changes – would precede analysis of artists and their artworks. Such an approach has its logical reasons, of course, as artistic practice is inseparable from social, political and economical conditions. Especially when it is generally believed that contemporary Chinese art has not yet formed a self-sufficient logic of its own history, a discussion of artistic practice in relation to the social, political and economical background seems to be the only way for understanding contemporary art. This approach, which we can call a sociological narrative, has the risk of easily being abused and developed into one of vernacularized sociology, one that tends to blindly and incomprehensibly match art with its social background. In my opinion, this practice is not very different from that which regards art simply as a tool of politics because both consider art as in the status of lack of subjectivity.

The key issue here is how art practice should be used as a clue to understanding historical background, not vice versa. Art is integrated into our understanding of history. It is not a product of history. On the contrary, history is to some extent a work of art. In other words, the method based on social reflection theory and historical determinism must be abandoned.

Indeed, Jiang Hai’s painting did not go through any sudden changes, not those that people usually know as the turn from the 1980s to the 1990s. His Face shown at the 1989 China Avant-garde Exhibition, though not yet mature in style, is a piece that displays the basic framework of his later artistic style, specifically in his emphasis on the physicality of color and material, his use of expressionist elements and, most importantly, images of human bodies. Changes, however, did occur in Jiang Hai’s work from 1989 to 1992. His Ball-like Objects series, for example, have traces of the cultural reflection movement typical of the 1980s, which is seen in the collaged newspapers in many of the works that have headlines reminiscent of the time such as “Death of the River”, “the Party Must Stress Propaganda”, and “Cadres’ Privileges in Food Supplies”, etc. Jiang intertwined these newspaper headlines with deformed human faces, which indicates a critical significance in the social context of the time. In his 1992 Bumps series, however, the non-pictorial elements have been eliminated, and the critical element has become an internal part of the work, with particular emphasis on the subjectivity of painting itself. It should be pointed out that such a change is not the result of external political changes, but rather that of the artist’s maturity, or purification. Jiang Hai’s change could have been triggered by the debate on “the purification of artistic language” that began in the late 1980s. To some extent, the changes in contemporary Chinese art from the 1980s to the 1990s were very much influenced by the emerging consciousness of artistic subjectivity. Discussions of such topics as “the dismissal of New Wave Art”, “clarifying the humanist fever” and “purifying artistic language” contributed much to the self-reflective attitude toward the ’85 New Wave Art movement. These self-reflections laid down the foundation for contemporary Chinese art that we have seen since the 1990s.

There is no doubt that Jiang Hai belonged to the group of self-reflectors, although he was not at the center of the art discourse of the time. His rethinking of the ’85 Art Movement was undertaken more inside his artistic creation. This is seen in his Bumps series, in which distorted faces and hands are assembled together by intertwined shapes and lines, and colors and textures. These elements appeared previously in Jiang’s earlier paintings, but were very much reinforced in this series. Unlike artists of the New Generation and Cynical Realism of the early 1990s who emerged in the transition from the 1980s realism to the 1990s cynicism, Jiang Hai and his likes did not give up their efforts in constructing a deeper level of criticism, which is rooted in the logical development of their painting. It is worth mentioning that Jiang Hai’s Bumps series has something in common with Chen Yufei’s paintings, which is apparent in their “bumpy” rendition of human bodies. These images are not only representations of visual deformation, distortion and depression, but also expressions of psychological confusion, indignation and repression. For Jiang Hai, this was a most introspective period and an analytical one as well. After a period of relative solitariness, however, Jiang started around the mid-1990s working on his paintings of a more or less synthetic style.

First, Jiang adopted a more complicated structure in his painting, both visually and conceptually. On the visual level, he strengthens the tension of color and the contrast between brushstrokes. He intensifies the sense of conflict between masses in space, which creates rich visual effects in his paintings. On the conceptual level, Jiang Hai places human beings in social sites, which gives the bodies an on-site sense. Thus, the bodies are no longer lonely bodies of flesh, but ones that are integrated into the whole world. For Jiang Hai, the world in his pictorial narration is the world of the present, one that was formed in the mid-1990s and one that is mechanical, consumerist and full of desires. In this very world, man has been nearly utterly materialized.

As is seen in Jiang Hai’s painting, human beings have no longer faces but only bodies that are overlapped and squeezed onto each other like the denizens of hell described by Dante. These bodies are part of the world of machines, ruins, food supplies and trash, and part of the modern world often called “inferio-topia” that China encounters since the 1990s.

The most important issue for the fields of literature, social sciences and thought in China of the 1990s was how to deal with a changing society after the market-economy reform. And the most remarkable event was the “great debate on humanist spirit” among intellectuals from 1993 to 1995. The most discussed issue of this debate was the rethinking of modernization, which involved suspicions of GDPism and concerns about one-sided development of the market economy. The emergence of the Liberalism and New Leftism in the late 1990s was to some extent a continuation of the above debate, but it also resulted in a split among the intellectuals. The popularity of post-modernism in the late 1990s and of theories of modernity in the early 21st century was predicted by the debate on humanist spirit, and was thus a further extension of the same debate on an academic level.

The situation in contemporary Chinese art is somewhat different because contemporary art is from its beginning an imported and transplanted cultural practice, and it was not and is still not even integrated into the circulation of Chinese social and cultural system. The critical and theoretical attention in contemporary Chinese art of the 1990s was more on issues of internationalization and cultural identity as well as import and acceptance of post-colonialism. If art critics and theorists are still operating on the level of academic idealism, some artists in today’s reality, by contrast, have achieved international recognition and become samples of contemporary Chinese art to the West. And as export-turned-import “products”, they have also become celebrities chased down on local Chinese capital market and in media industry.

Regretfully, however, it was under such circumstance that such historical issues as “how to deal with modern social transition in China” was very much neglected in the field of Chinese contemporary art. Or at least they were in a subordinate position as compared to the greater concern about issues of international identity. For this very reason, Chinese contemporary art, with a much weakened foundation for self-reflection, could find no support from inside itself. The symptom of this is in the sense of self-as-other and its indifference to the true reality, which might count for the very origins of the indifferent realism of such “Chinese cards” as Political Pop and New Generation. Of course, not all artists fall into this category. I actually believe that the silent majority of the artists still regard their experiences in reality and self-reflection as resources for their creative impulses. I think this is particularly true for artists like Jiang Hai.

A critical spirit has always been in Jiang Hai’s painting, which echoes cultural trends from the cultural self-reflection of the 1980s to the existentialist criticism of the 1990s. Jiang never lost his ability of self-reflection, and his criticism is getting even stronger. Jiang’s criticism, however, is not realized by simple slogans or standpoint, but rather through his painting, with images, colors and lines, where his critical theme is visualized by his description of the soulless world as “evil”. The picture of the 1990s as a whole, as a matter of fact, was formed in a variety of critical cultural practices including rock-n-roll, novel, film as well as painting, which provided us with the very sense of a particular time period.

When I was viewing Jiang Hai’s painting for the first time, I could not identify any images probably because I got too close to the picture surfaces. I only saw thick and even greasy colors that were arranged with bloody tonality with sharply applied brushwork. Only when I stepped back from the pictures I recognized some implicit images of human bodies, torsos and limbs, which are piled up against a background that is abstract like a dark hell. They appear to be struggling and floating in subsidence, or subsiding in struggle. I don’t remember precisely which painting I was viewing, but my feeling was close to what was expressed in a poem I wrote back then:

  One, lonely one, soft and weak,

  Lost in despair and immersed in pessimism.

  He likes humidity as such,

  Her dark red color,

  And the sense of safety pressed down in both hands.

  He pressed once,

  And he is sucked in.

  Both hands trapped in gloves,

  And his life trapped in the life of neighbors.

  ---- Bao Dong, Mixed Up

When I re-view Jiang Hai’s painting, I feel that atmosphere of the 1990s still lingers around there. But I feel like it was from the past world, with the past decade of China has receded into the past. As the recent two decades of China’s nearly vicious development become topics for dining table gossips, it is still an unsolved and messy issue how to reflect on our period of the 1990s and how to rethink about facing our current reality.

May 26, 2010

[Editor] Elemy Liu