Published  26/06/2016

Yun-Fei Ji: ‘I’m pessimistic about China’

Yun-Fei Ji: ‘I’m pessimistic about China’

He may use scrolls and work in ink in the millennial-old tradition of Chinese landscape painting, but his themes are contemporary – the environmental destruction caused by vast infrastructure projects in his native country and the forced relocation of its inhabitants

Yun-Fei Ji. The Vendors and the Wind, 2014 (detail). Collection of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art.


Yun-Fei Ji: The Intimate Universe, at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College in Clinton, New York is the Beijing-born artist’s largest solo exhibition to date in the United States, with works from 2006 to the present. The source for his practice is the millennial-old tradition of Chinese landscape painting, using scrolls as his format and ink and paper as his medium. However, his point of view and themes are now almost entirely contemporary, his signature panoramas approximating the breadth of the cinematic.

Ji’s particular focus is the harsh realities of life in China today as traditional relationships between its people and the land have been unmoored by social, political, economic and ecological upheavals. He does his own fieldwork, travelling extensively throughout China’s rural areas, where entire villages have been demolished due to heedless industrialisation and to make way for vast, disruptive infrastructure projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. Ji reminds us that these disappearing villages once represented the nuclear Chinese community, portraying them and their inhabitants in the full motley of the human condition, clear-eyed but empathetically. He adds a supernatural element to his paintings, paralleling the superstitions and local religious beliefs that still prevail, populating his paintings with the ghosts of ancestors and animal spirits. Deftly, impressionistically, sensitively evoking a world that seems on the verge of extinction, Ji invests his paintings with a compelling urgency.

Ji (b1963) attended Beijing’s the city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with a BFA in 1982. In 1989, he earned an MFA from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and now divides his time between the United States and China. He has shown widely, with exhibitions in recent years at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan; the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst, Massachusetts; the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada; and the 2014 New Orleans Biennial Prospect.3: Notes for Now. In 2012, Ji had a solo exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and he has participated in several international biennales, including Sydney (2014) and Lyon (2011) as well as the Whitney Biennial in New York. He received the Rome Prize for Visual Arts in 2006 from the American Academy in Rome, Italy and is represented by the James Cohan Gallery.

Lilly Wei talked with the artist at his exhibition at the Wellin Museum. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Lilly Wei: Would you discuss your subject matter? I know that you have been deeply troubled by the environmental disruptions in China and the enormity of their consequences, in particular the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project.

Yun-Fei Ji: Yes, and that interest became paramount after I made a trip to the Three Gorges area in 2002 when they were building the dam. It was supposed to be for flood control, to generate needed power, and to improve navigation on the Yangtze but the government didn’t talk about how it would affect lives. The region was still being cleared out when I went – buildings in the process of demolition, debris everywhere, moving people out, resettling them.

LW: You’ve done several shows related to the project.

YFJ: Yes, and I’m still thinking about it. A travelling show called The Empty City originated at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis and went to Pierogi in Williamsburg in 2004, then to the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts) and to the Peeler Art Center (DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana). Another was The Water that Floats the Boat Can also Sink It at the James Cohan Gallery in 2006. For this show, Tracy Adler (the director of the Wellin Museum and curator of Intimate Universe) made selections from several bodies of my work.

LW: And you’ve researched the water diversion project, another daunting project of extraordinary ambition.

YFJ: There is a great need for water in Beijing and the government is attempting to bring water from the south. I made several trips to see what was happening in 2011-12, when they were increasing the height of the dam, adding 10-15 metres to it. What they needed to do was to move the water 10,000 miles (16,000km) to Beijing, supplying water to many cities along the way that also lacked it. Beijing as a city is really living on empty. Its aquifer is depleted and of the three reservoirs it depends on, one is unusable because it is so polluted by factories and cities upstream. And it is growing so rapidly that there is not enough water for everyone. It’s a huge crisis. This diversion project is an attempt to solve the shortage. To give you an idea of the difficulty and scope of it, it will cut across 500 rivers and the tunnel will run underneath the Yellow River.

LW: You are particularly interested in the relocation of local inhabitants. Will you talk about that? I know that you were relocated as a child, separated from your parents during the Cultural Revolution.

YFJ: Yes, I am very involved in this forced migration of people, many to cities to find a new life for themselves. My own life has been to keep moving, but in a different way. I came to it at first from the perspective of history. Earlier, at the Whitney Biennial, I showed paintings of the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and similar historical subjects. But China, as it became increasingly industrialised and urbanised, was changing so rapidly. I wanted to capture some of these changes and the ways they affected individual lives.

LW: When did you make the shift from historical to contemporary events?

YFJ: It was really because of the Three Gorges dam project. I had started to make images about it, but they came from my imagination. When I went there to see for myself, I was astonished and my approach changed, becoming more of a documentary. I started interviewing people, writing down their stories and trying to learn how such a thing could happen. It was mindboggling that 1.5 million people had to be resettled, many moved thousands of miles away. I visited some of these resettlements in Guangdong and talked to the people there.

LW: Had you been essentially working on historical subjects until then?

YFJ: I was very interested in recent history because what I was taught was suspect and I wanted to find out what really happened. I grew up on an army base with old revolutionaries who had fought against the Japanese and the Nationalists. Many of them were purged by Lin Biao and tortured by the Red Guards. During the Cultural Revolution, I remember seeing photographs with their figures blocked out, or murals where these old cadres were painted out.

LW: Why didn’t you believe the history you were being taught?

YFJ: The newspapers didn’t reflect what the people were saying, what the rumours were saying, and it was clear that the rumours were more accurate. At times, the newspapers might contain a bit of truth, but usually they were just all lies and propaganda. And there was a lot of censorship. Even a few years ago, when my work was in the Shanghai Biennale, it was censored.

LW: And your focus on villagers?

YFJ: I was interested in villages, but also in villagers and how they adapted when forced to move to the city. They lived on the margins but brought their country point of view with them and were very creative in finding ways to survive. I use different devices to depict this, sometimes inventing a fictional village and narrative. Some return and some find a place in the city working in construction on skyscrapers. These are the people who are building modern China.

LW: There are also quite a few ghosts populating your pictures. What do ghosts mean to you?

YFJ: I grew up in a village and in the summer, at night, people would sit outside in its old, very narrow streets and exchange ghost stories. I heard a lot of ghost stories. I started to introduce ghosts into my narratives because of Fengdu, the ghost city near the Three Gorges dam. I wondered where all those ghosts would go when everyone had been relocated, and imagined they would have to move too. I imagined how lonely it would be for them to be left behind. The ghosts might have been scholars in former days who had lost their position at court and so left for the country and, when they had a little time, they would write stories about what was happening in their lives, put them in jars and bury them. They were creating historical documents, recording facts, but interspersed with ghost stories as if it were the ghosts that were responsible for what had happened. I found it interesting to be reading historical texts filled with ghost stories, so I did the same in my paintings.

LW: Do you believe in ghosts?

YFJ: Well, as metaphor.

LW: And what are your influences?

YFJ: I often use the formats of Northern Song dynasty paintings. After the collapse of the Tang dynasty and the ensuing chaos, intellectuals retreated to the mountains believing that nature would offer a sense of balance and restore harmony. The Northern Song tradition, and the invention of the monumental landscape painting, came from that. It included the Confucian idea that harmonic cosmic principles could be translated into human society. Landscape painting was about nature and our relationship to nature, but it was also about social and political harmony and order. It included protest as well. Protest could be registered subtly. If a horse was painted to look as if it were starving, that was a protest. It was a tradition in writing. Du Fu, the great Tang poet, would write about climbing a mountain, looking into the distance, see a flock of birds flying towards the capitol, and feel refreshed, a typical theme. But the birds he saw were only thinking about themselves and their own food, a metaphor for officials who were only concerned about their own interests as they all converged on the court. Goya, Hogarth, Bosch and other western artists have also been a great influence.

LW: You are an exquisite draughtsman. Could you talk a little about your brushwork?

YFJ: I think that when you explore with calligraphic line, it is freer, there are more possibilities and many more ways of putting time and space together than in photography. And the scroll format allows you to structure time differently. You can make both jumps and cuts, for instance. One of my calligraphy teachers said it is like swinging a rope. If you don’t know how, then it doesn’t work, but if you do, it has power and force, and you can feel it.

LW: How has your work changed in the past decade?

YFJ: It’s hard for me to say. One thing might be that I now write my own stories, often triggered by something in the news, as well as using stories from literature. I think the work is more based in reality. I lived close to a market in Beijing for six years. It was like a village within a city. The housing was inexpensive and the people living there were trying to create a space, transforming it into a community. What they did was powerful, and very imaginative, very resourceful. It was new to me to see how they were struggling and trying to survive in the city. And although they were barely surviving, they still sent money home to their parents. I saw them every day on my way to my studio. I talked to them and got to know them. They formed a part of my daily life.

LW: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about China?

YFJ: A number of scientists are calling the present age the Anthropocene, the period when we as a species are having a significant – and I think often disastrous – impact on the Earth and its ecosystems. What we are doing should not be taken lightly, so I guess I’m pessimistic right now. Living in Beijing didn’t help; you can’t even breathe the air.

Yun Fei Ji: The Intimate Universe is at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, until 2 July 2016.

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