Geng Jianyi

“I used to think that a completed artwork was like the completed act of taking a piss: when it’s finished it’s finished – you don’t go carrying the contents of the chamber pot around with you. But now things are different, you can’t just take a piss whenever you like anymore and be done with it. There are special bathrooms, like museums and art galleries, that want to expose you in your most basic acts. And doesn’t everybody now accept this situation as normal? The people going in for a look are all very interested, companing who is big and who is small. How is it that I was born in this age of organisation? and how is it that I want to be proclaimed the champ? It’s really a shame.”

“I am interested in our awareness of what has happened, what is taking place, what will unfold; and our part in the process.” Geng Jianyi

Face is washed away (black)

In 1994, after eight years of extremely active creativity in the southern city of Hangzhou – an acre of heaven on earth as it is known in China – Geng Jianyi moved to Beijing, a city he believed might offer greater opportunities to develop and show his art, and to enter into a more dynamic aesthetic dialogue with artists in, and western visitors to, the capital. Geng Jianyi left Hangzhou claiming it to be a quiet place, whence people have long since traveled to find peace, to contemplate life, and to rejuvenate their spirits; not a place of intense creative activity. Ironically, in the mid- to late-1980s, this is exactly what it was, and Geng Jianyi was part of an extremely active and influential group of artists linked to Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. In the mid-1980s, as avant-garde-ism broke out all over China, there was a tremendous general awareness of what had happened, and nothing but hope for what might unfold. The artists’ part in the process was to make things take place.

Visible Face
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

Geng Jianyi entered Zhejiang Academy in 1981, graduating from the oil painting department in 1985. Group activities under the name The Pond Association began in 1986 but were over by 1987. They might have continued, but the late-1980s saw other group members depart abroad. Geng Jianyi remained in Hangzhou. The different physical paths taken by the various group members effected diverging aesthetic paths, too; aesthetic styles that were to become as influential – if not more so – than hat of The Pond Association. Through the fifteen years since he began pursuing a serious artistic career, Geng Jianyi has participated in all the major showing of Chinese art in China and abroad, although in the last several years he has sidled towards the sidelines to engage in more concentrated creative endeavor. At the same time, in the sudden rush to find the most avant-garde of the new Chinese avant-garde in the mid- to late-nineties, Geng Jianyi was often over-looked – early works were no longer available and the new ones lacked obvious Chinese characteristics, even as they became more Chinese in origin and inspiration, or an easy format which might make them saleable or facilitate presentation. Within China, few of his works were published, so few knew what he was engaged in. This must neither be taken as a negative comment upon Geng Jianyi’s work nor as an indication of falling standards; it was more that during the years of largely conceptual works – 1993-96 – his approaches were extremely diverse – too diverse according to the artist – and with the majority of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art being abroad, his work was not easy for a foreign audience to experience or appreciate.

Visible Face
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

However, in 1999, what makes Geng Jianyi special is that he has produced one of the most consistent and profound bodies of works to have come out of the avant-garde movement; in retrospect, the diversity of approaches only made for a more integral whole. Consistency does not lie in an obvious visual stamp, a “trade mark” placed on the work, as has happened in the case of some contemporary artists, rather it is found in the questing after answers to largely rhetorical questions on the human condition, yet questions that are aimed at invoking in the audience their own “awareness of what has happened, what is taking place, and (their) part in the process”. Therein lies the profoundness of Geng Jianyi’s work, for in provoking such awareness, he often uses the most discrete and humble of approaches to do so that are more in line with the revelations embedded in Buddhist fables.

Face is washed away
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

This brings us back to Hangzhou, or rather from Beijing back to Hangzhou for it took a period of nine months – an appropriate term of incubation for a new life – for Geng Jianyi to admit that the climate in Beijing was not conducive to creativity in terms of his approach to art. More important perhaps that the velocity at which life was being lived in the capital – including the art stars rapidly rocketing skyward – was at odds with a personality which thrived on the quiet, contemplative backwater of Hangzhou, and a certain inclination to the thinking man’s meditation on life: as Geng Jianyi says “Like sunflowers, artists will always orientate themselves towards the light that nourishes them”.

In nine months in Beijing, Geng Jianyi completed only one major piece entitled ‘No Matter from which Side, It’s Still Possible to See’. This piece was created for the Beijing-Berlin artists’ exchange project at Capital Normal University’s Art Museum in autumn of 1995, and illustrates much about the confusing polemic of the transparent density of relations and individual natures, and the complexity of societal structures in the capital. ‘No Matter from which Side…’ was formed of a vertical layering of glass panels with black and gray satin sandwiched in between. The opacity effected by the “silvering” of glass with satin effected a mirrored outer face on the back and the front sides of the piece, sending back a vague reflection of the viewer, framed in the panel. Thus, exactly as indicated in the title, no matter on which side the viewer stood, it was still possible to see, but nothing was terribly clear, nothing on the surface was defined absolutely; viewers thought they were seeing a reflection of the themselves, but it was impossible to be absolutely certain. Here, Geng Jianyi was exercising one of his favorite conundrums: what are those characteristics by which we recognize the world, and identify the signifiers without which we could not navigate ourselves through a day?

2001 n. 4
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

The element of blurred, questionable or anonymous identity was a theme visible in early works like tap ‘Water Factory’ (1987, an installation work in which the symmetrical arrangement of passageways leading to the central space blurred the lines between viewer and what-who-was actually on show) and ‘Summer 1985,One More Shaved Head’ (oil on canvas, 1992-93) and ‘Decorative Edges’ (oil on c canvas, 1991-92). The question continued to be posed in ‘Heads in Chiaroscuro/Interchanging of Light’ (oil on canvas, 1995-96, a series of nine large heads. comprising the overlaying of two dramatically lit silhouettes), through to the group of paintings that comprise this exhibition. The style of layering faces and bodies is almost a Cubist approach to creating a “portrait”, not of a physiognomy but of a whole personality. In early works, the color was cool and the composition a simplified arrangement of planes and form, the surface was always smooth. Through time, interest in the ability of oil paint and mixed media to lend texture and a richness of color themselves. Geng Jianyi has produced a beautiful series of paper-cuts using sheets of Origami paper – deepened the palette and the surface considerable. Process has become as important as concept. But it is not just in those works that incorporate concrete human images that point to the nature of identity – in order to have an identity, one must first be acknowledged as existing, have an awareness of the mind and body as self, in order to undertake any role in “the process” – it is found in the conceptual works too.

Conceptually, his posturing is evidenced in ‘Who is He’? (documentation work, 1994), ‘Proving the Existence of’ (1994, a documentary piece looking at existence in a populous socialist society where individuals actually became lost or displaced as people moved around following the call to the new society. But the problem is universally pertinent when we try to identify exactly what it is that proves we exist. House deeds? Voting registers? National security/Insurance numbers? Or is it membership and credit cards? Perhaps it is only in statements of presence and sightings by people we encounter along the road of life, as Geng Jianyi demonstrated in his unrealized project ‘Visible Landscape’ (1995, an installation, in which viewers were to be faced with an array of imposing, minimalist monoliths much like the carved stone tablets of traditional Chinese tomb and clan temple architecture. Eyes would immediately be drawn to a small cube of lit-up glass placed at head height. Instinct would be to draw near for a close look, to see what secret lay in this small transparent casket. As the viewer studies the illuminated image of the slide framed therein, it would slowly dawned upon them that what they were seeing – an image of footprints in powder – was simultaneously being recreated by their own feet in the pigment/powder that would be scattered on the floor before the panel. Thus the viewer would become a participant in a work delicately altered with each successive tread, each new pair of feet and ‘This Person’ (action/documentary piece, 1997, based on the Chinese penchant for fortune telling). Obvious pieces like ‘Identity Cards’ (b/w photographic work, 1998) need no explanation. In each and every one of these works there is an overlaying of identities, and audi8ence awareness is tested in terms of what cords are struck with their own perceptions of “truth”, and the blending of realities Geng Jianyi presents to them.

2001 n.1
Mixed Media on Photographic Paper

In the earlier canvases, where figures were portrayed engaged in the most mundane of activities, there exists a series of large wood panel works presented as explanations on “how to put on a jacket”, “how to take off a jumper”, “how to clap hands”, and his most well-known work about how to smile, ‘The Second State’ (oil on canvas, 1986-87). These pieces amongst others (up to 1993) became categorized as Political Pop, which may well have been true if one looked only at the initial impact of the images, but with hindsight it is possible to read these works as components of a bigger picture; first, and perhaps more obvious explorations of what are now far more mature musings. It is fair to say that his was the original malaise and cynicism.

And so we come to Geng Jinyi’s most recent series of paintings. His output has never been high for there is much reworking, and even discarding, of his compositions along the way. Work on the present series began in 1996. The result is twelve paintings with which we must believe the artist is satisfied, which therefore deserve close contemplation. Initially, they may appear to contain a great deal of similarity and yet each contains its own district mood. The several separate images superimposed on one another effect a more rounded impression of the subject.

Capturing the vaporous aura that is a state of mind as much as it is an evocation of motion of a “maobi” across rice paper in classical Chinese ink painting, against an impostor and textured background like weathered daubing on a much painted wall. Furthermore, these works stand as the most simple rendering of all that is proposed in Geng Jianyi’s paintings to date. Identity, anonymity, and sense of “how to”, and a rich and painterly surface. And as it was in the beginning, his paintings derive not from an emotive response to the world, but from a thought process that seeks to analyze before it responds; responding is for the audience alone.

Geng Jianyi is one of a broadening handful of artists that are of tremendous significance to the course of contemporary art since the mid-1980s for they were exploring, and continue to explore, specific avenues along which individual work is a reference to, and the result of, their own personal experience. Their work has a value and an impact that goes far beyond the surface. As is evident in all Geng Jianyi’s works, the concern is for looking, looking closely at something small, a fragment, a detail of what is in essence quite ordinary, and through it, becoming aware of ourselves, our existence and the potential of this awareness to shape what is taking place.