During his brief visit to New York for his first one-person exhibit at James Cohan Gallery, “Water that Floats the Boat Can Also Sink It: New Work by Yun-Fei Ji”, which will be on view till December 22, the artist came to visit Rail’s art editor John Yau to talk about his new body of work.
John Yau (Rail): Did you make all the work in your show at James Cohan Gallery during your stay in England?
Yun-Fei Ji: Most of the work actually got started while I was in Rome on my Prix de Rome fellowship last year. Then with the last piece, Water Rising, which is a long horizontal piece that has two panels that meet in the corner, it was started in Rome and got finished in London. In fact, the first two attempts didn’t quite work out, but I managed to pull through in the last one. The reason for this was simply in the early conception of Water Rising, the group of displaced people who are carrying their belongings was initially on the left of the bottom area. So I moved them to the right in the first panel and likewise in the second, from right to left, and they eventually meet and disappear into the wall.
Rail: Because it is a corner piece that almost mirrors itself in terms of how the images are read.
Ji: Right. In the early version, I painted just people as silhouettes against an empty background, and I was hoping, by describing what they carry with them, it would say something about each of the characters. So I did a lot of sketches, which were based on my archives of digital photos that I took of the people in their villages from my trips to China over the years. In the second version, I felt I was being too heavy-handed, but in the last I was finally able to make it in a way that sometimes the people would disappear into the landscape, while other times you see the littered landscape of the area where they were taking and putting things in their baskets; what they couldn’t take with them they had to leave there, by the side of the road, and the scavengers would come and collect the abandoned things, in order to reuse or sell them. The torn-down houses enhance the whole scene, which adds to the feeling of desperation.
Rail: You are talking about a massive relocation that involves a few million people.
Ji: Anywhere from 1.5 to 1.9 million people from an area with about a 500-kilometer radius, there are about a thousand villages and about three fairly large and old cities. You know the villages and cities on the Yangtze River, where there is a long history: it used to go through Sichuan province and the only route to get there is by taking a boat upstream for hundreds of miles; it’s a very mountainous area. The Yangtze River is one of the longest rivers in the world. It starts from the Tibetan plateau, melting ice coming down to Sichuan province and Chongqing, one of the three largest cities in China, and then comes downstream into the Three Gorges area bordering the Sichuan and Hubei provinces in the west, the central part of China, where it has a thousand twists and turns and the riverbed becomes very narrow. That was why, a hundred years ago, people were already thinking of building a dam there. Mao in fact was thinking of having hydroelectric power developed in that area and the government is still working on it right now.
Rail: And that’s going to be finished in 2009?
Ji: 2009, yeah. But the water now has risen to 175 meters, and the first time I visited this area they were in the process of dismantling the cities.
Rail: When did you first go there?
Ji: 2001 or 2002.
Rail: And when did the project itself start?
Ji: The physical construction began in 1990.
Rail: Did they build cities for the people to move to?
Ji: Yes, there are immigrant cities that are higher up in the mountains. So, if you have a city resident card and you move to “the cities,” you get compensated according to the size of the apartment or house you previously owned. They would give you a certain amount of money, which allows you to relocate and buy an apartment in the immigrant cities. Or if you are from the village, you will be relocated all across China, which could be a thousand miles away.
Rail: So the villagers had to suffer more than the townspeople. This whole project would break up the villagers’ traditional family system.
Ji: Yes, for generations. You know, villagers had to dig up their ancestors’ graves and take their bones with them; it’s quite sad.
Rail: Ghosts in China are very different than ghosts in America or in the West. You said that they coexist with the living in a very real way.
Ji: Yeah, when I was growing up in a village with my grandmother, because there was no television, no radio, and no films, she would tell me all kinds of ghost stories and legends that are basically parts of the oral tradition, storytelling, which is still very much alive among many people in China, particularly if they live in a village. For example, the legend of Lui Jai Ji Yi has a different folk spirit, but given so much humanity, she is free to speak her mind. That’s why ghosts are the most popular vehicles for substituting what people can express in such a tightly controlled society where you, the living, can’t say it.
Rail: And in a way you are implying that the Three Gorges Dam Project is disturbing all the ghosts or bodies that have inhabited that region.
Ji: But it’s also the idea of modernity, which kind of wipes everything out. So ghosts and other local legends are slowly disappearing as a result.
Rail: That is a big issue with China; everything has to be changed in such a hurry so they can catch up with modernity. I mean the Three Gorges wasn’t a pilgrimage site, but primarily for enlightenment.
Ji: Every child in China who reads a story about coming down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges knows about all the legends and can recite all those poems; but this is the area they are going to change. Archeologically, it was quickly organized by the government to dig up and keep as many things as possible before the flood. They even built a museum for it, but there are so many remnants, it was just impossible to recover everything in such a short period of time. It’s a very unfortunate situation.
Rail: Increasingly, that’s what we hear about, how China doesn’t know what to do with the past.
Ji: As a child growing up in China, you would learn the modern history of China. It began with the Opium Wars, which initiated our long struggle against the West and colonialism; it was very brutal, humiliating, and eventually led to unfair treaties where Hong Kong was leased to England for a hundred years.
Rail: So it’s a history of overcoming humiliation?
Ji: Yeah. Because you are living under the imposed rule of western powers, you kind of have to internalize all of that in order to catch up and be modern. Otherwise you’ll be cut into pieces. Most people seem to think that our long and invested tradition in Taoist or Confucius ideas led to this horrible state of affairs. That’s why, when Mao came to power, he said we needed to have modernization, we needed to have the state, and that all these countries in the West were trying to threaten us. The people rallied behind him until the Cultural Revolution disillusioned them. Everyone realized that we needed a change in everything, including the government.
Rail: Do you think that living through the Cultural Revolution as a child had a profound effect on you and your family?
Ji: Undoubtedly yes, though my family was luckier than others. At the same time, maybe some of this message, Mao’s idea of rebellion, or of disregarding authority, helped get people to think for themselves.
Rail: So the Cultural Revolution also had a reverse effect, and got people to distrust the government. I know that many people, at least two generations, couldn’t and didn’t go to school for years. Is that what happened to you?
Ji: We were running wild for about eight or nine years. It was terrible.
Rail: Ha Jin, the writer, told me a story about how, when he was stationed in Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, they would get armed with sticks and cross the border and fight Russian soldiers for fun. All the soldiers in his group were teenagers around 15 or 16, I believe. And this was the way they passed their time.
Ji: By the time Mao died in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping came to power, we were exhausted from the political struggle and endless meetings. People just got fed up with the subsequent corruptions. It was a very disturbing time.
Rail: Your family was taken apart right?
Ji: Yeah, and my mother was kind of in trouble for a while.
Rail: But at this same time, you went to the Academy where you were trained under the program of Socialist Realism via the Soviet Union. It must have been strange to see artists who had been rehabilitated, allowed to paint for the first time probably in years, who are your teachers, who are afraid to paint anything other than what they are supposed to paint.
Ji: They were products of the 1930s, they had a lot of progressive ideas, they developed their own language, but when the Cultural Revolution started they were all sent away to the factories and the farms so they were deprived of their own work as artists. So when they came back they were in their fifties and they were our teachers in school. Some of them were able to make new work, because when Deng Xiaoping came to power, he hadn’t yet drawn a line and said, “There is the boundary.”
Rail: So everything was possible for a while, but when Xiaoping drew the boundaries of what you are suppose to do in 1982 – 83, with reference to the anti-spiritual pollution, what happened then?
Ji: That was sort of a wake up call to all of us. Once again, we became disillusioned just like before.
Rail: But there was a brief moment in the late ’70s where Chinese painting seemed to be starting to develop into a new direction. And then in the early ’80s it all got shut down again. Were you still in school then?
Ji: I actually graduated and then quickly went to teach in Beijing.
Rail: Is that where you learn about classical Chinese painting?
Ji: Yeah, I had some colleagues who were doing calligraphy, and also because of my early visits to old Buddhist sites while I was still in school. I went to Tibet, and we did a lot of copying of those beautiful Tangka paintings, which depict hundreds of years of Buddhist art from the period of the mid-16th century. So it was a combination of both that finally led me to study and pay more attention to classical Chinese painting.
Rail: So you went on a trip to Tibet, what was that like and how old were you?
Ji: I was 18. I went with a friend and two of our teachers. One of them was in Tibet for 20 years. He was sent there to be rehabilitated, so while we were there, he had a lot of Tibetan artisans visit him and we were drinking together a lot. They took us to visit Jokang, the third largest temple in Tibet.
Rail: So even, say, in China, during this moment of the melting of the ice, there is this other culture within the very structured society of artists and that culture is a little bit outside the mainstream. I mean there is obvious communication because this teacher has been rehabilitated, but he has Tibetan students, so then something else happens, information gets passed around below the surface.
Ji: Yeah that’s true. My teacher did a lot of beautiful charcoal drawings of Tibetans, I remember when I was a kid I would copy them. Otherwise most other things were very stylized propaganda work in which you had to follow the proper hierarchy. So I was happy to study with him. Also, the drawings are part of what they did. It was the result of the time they spent with Tibetan farmers. The drawings were more fresh and more interesting than the paintings, which they’d spent months working on in the studio, because they had to represent history in a certain way.
Rail: Because they had to idealize everything.
Ji: The first and most important story is of the Communist Party member, the leader had to be in the center with his supporting casts surrounding him, then the farmer and so on. Everyone was assigned a place within the painting, and it all depended on your status within or outside the Communist Party.
Rail: A hierarchy where the intellectual is at the bottom (laughs). And you are aware of all those codes and symbolic structures in Chinese classical painting which also exist in socialist-realism, and you were saying earlier that when you were in Rome you were interested in the hierarchy of Christian iconography for the same reason: Christ in the center and all other beings surrounding him. One of the ways you seem to look at art is to see that there’s a symbolic structure that is used as a scaffold to hold the information. For example in the big vertical piece, Below the 143 Meter Watermark, you pointed out that people are going only so high up on the mountain, as if the mountain is really the symbol of the government.
Ji: Of course, the farmers are the people with no voice at all. Even though in the Chinese system, there is such thing as petition, where, if they were abused, they can go to high government officials to petition. But that process can take years for the officials even to look at the case. And most of them are too poor to go through that agony. Some have and ended up losing everything. Thinking about their struggle with the government’s hierarchy and corruption, I went back to study the great paintings of the Sung period, where the institution of landscape painting was actually established. And according to their values, the main mountain represented the central sovereign power and the supporting mountains bow down to it depending on the ranking systems. So the reference does have some connotations of a hierarchical basis.
Rail: So in your own way, you are taking some of those structures and redoing them with a certain subtext that undermines them. At the same time, you reconstruct the space to address a new pictorial requirement, which is up against the surface of the picture plane, while allowing some depth to exist. As a result, the viewer feels this contradiction just as much as the people in the painting: they can’t go up the mountain; it’s like they are stuck where they are. Yet again, like scroll painting, you’re moving through and with the landscape.
Ji: Yes, that’s how I do my work as well. When I travel, I paint. I move from one little section to the next. The large sheets of paper are folded and refolded, and I work on small parts.
Rail: But in your head you must have some sense of how it will go together.
Ji: Very roughly, and it’s a long process. I spend weeks and weeks on a piece, and sometimes it would take one bad part, which may lead me to discard the whole thing. Other times I have to stay with it in order to bring some unexpected clarity to the piece. Even though I kind of work back and forth. But it’s impossible to simultaneously work in all these areas, so what I tend to do is work on one section, almost finish it, and then move on to another section.
Rail: In this new body of work, it seems to me that the scale has changed dramatically. These are the biggest paintings you have done so far, right?
Ji: Yeah, for this show I had the idea of really using the physical scale in relation to the body. For instance, when you look at a mountain, you’re looking from the bottom up. And sometimes the reverse happens. Ultimately your vision is unclear about what you’re looking at.
Rail: That’s true.
Ji: You can see similarly in the corner piece where we have the people walking from two directions, I deliberately painted them low, eye-level, so you can’t really look at all the details. In other words, you are aware that you are looking at one section of the painting while other things are moving at the same time. You kind of see one panel on the left wall, people moving from one direction, while you are looking at a group of people moving to another direction, on the right panel. Again, it’s all happening kind of simultaneously.
Rail: So you wanted simultaneity in that piece, in a sense that it’s much larger than you can even see or experience.
Ji: Yes. I imagine that there would be two people looking at one section at a time, usually from right to left on one side, and one side from left to right. And since they’re all opened up and coming together on the corner wall, I felt that they should have a physical locality and the height that I intended.
Rail: But as far as the narrative aspect is concerned, your work doesn’t quite follow that tradition exactly. It is a narrative of desperation in a way. I mean there are ghosts in the form of people taking their whole lives with them. A certain internal migration, perhaps?
Ji: An internal migration and an abandonment of all these things. Another part that is important to me, which has never happened before, is this sort of industrial scale of moving people that has been orchestrated by the government.
Rail: Yeah, one and a half million people. That’s a huge number.
Ji: And the landscape is vast.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about your drawing?
Ji: For me, drawing is a way to get a hold of the detail that was important. Especially with this project, since these are fairly big pieces it’s necessary that they can defer to the drawings. And I don’t mind that. I sort of wanted to be a little bit more removed from the whole process.
Rail: You wanted to be more objective and less overtly satirical. Whereas, in the earlier work, there is a kind of grotesqueness to some of these figures, these new ones seem less so. Anyway, you said at one point that you were influenced by the German expressionists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. In what way do you relate to their work?
Ji: I like their work in a formal sense, the way they construct the figure with a certain Expressionistic pathos and contempt for their social and political conditions. Though in my work, the figures are portrayed more or less in despair and lost in their environment, which in this case, the surrounding landscape that connects to a long history in traditional Chinese painting as well as its culture. So there’s a sense of affection I have for them. If I want to describe a learned person in this very rustic landscape, there would always be some bamboos near him to indicate that he was the learned figure. It’s kind of hidden, but here and there you can see a fisherman, or a poet.
Rail: You had spoken about the tradition of the poet in relationship to the emperor, the poet being the one who can speak or write to authority.
Ji: From early on, the poet had an official post—he goes through the countryside and collects folk songs from the people; these songs reflected the true feelings of the people, like their complaints. The emperor had to do something to fix it, to correct his behavior and policy. So by the Hung dynasty I like that the poet had such power; but if he criticized the emperor too much, then the emperor got upset and sent him away to some remote province. So he became very angry, the poet.
Rail: So that’s the tradition you see yourself in some way. Do you think that the Misty poets, like Bei Dao, had to be indirect before they came to the West? You know the poets of post-culture revolution, that first generation?
Ji: Yeah, very much like that.
Rail: Yeah, the Zigzag poets of the more recent tradition. The ones who stayed in China, the most recent generation, seem to be trying to find ways of being critical of the government and their society, but they have to do it in very roundabout ways. The whole thing with China, (we’ve talked about this,) is that everything has to be read between the lines.
Rail: There is a whole tradition of the commentators on the paintings, the commentators on the poets who develop or write on the painting that’s not equal to the painting. So when you say you’re trying to be more descriptive, you’re trying to be less directive. You’re not telling us how to read this.
Ji: No, not at all. It’s more about looking than anything else.