After the darkest of nights, comes the loveliest of mornings

Seeking hope with Jia Aili

The artist posing with a gas mask

The artist posing with a gas mask

Schooled in consummate western classical painting technique, Jia Aili (賈藹)is a Chinese artist capable of weaving wonderfully sublime and transient narratives on canvas. Yet when it comes to talking about his work in an hour-long session after his opening show at the Singapore Art Museum, the 33-year-old comes across as reservedly guarded and cryptic.

His latest solo exhibition “Seeker of Hope” features laconic and desolate dreamscapes of abandoned industrial spaces, bogs and plane crashes conceived from an intermix of reality and imagination. The paintings, pregnant with western romanticism and Caravaggio-lesque drama, reflect dualities of birth and destruction, hope and despair.

When asked by an attendee how ‘real’ these depictions are, he says :” I have no power to link my paintings to reality. What is real to me and what is reality is different and separate. In fact everyone has their own perception of reality.” There always seemed to be a sense of something left unsaid or unresolved in his answers. Nothing is over explained, in fact the more he elaborates the more questions emerge. It doesn’t help when almost three quarters of Jia’s artworks exhibited are untitled. The reason being, as he good naturedly owned up (to a wave of chuckles in the room), that most of the time, he honestly has no idea what to name them. Hence, most of his works have been left open to interpretation.

Jia was born in Dandong, a city in Liaoning Province, Northeast China. It lies on the border between China and North Korea, which is marked by the Yalu River, and is the largest border city in China. It is a place with sub-zero winters that drag on for months, and it is no coincidence that a lot of Jia’s paintings depict steely cold, frigid landscapes. Born in the late 1970s, he belonged to a generation of young Chinese who escaped hardships and persecutions of the cultural revolution, and were fortunate enough to reap the benefits of Deng Xiaoping’s open door economic policies and to ride upon the wave of economic development in China that would soon follow after.

He was also born one year after the one-child policy was implemented in China, and the significance of being an only child in a Chinese family, and a son for that matter, meant the burden of his parents’ hopes often weighed down on his shoulders. Growing up under such circumstances might explain why Jia’s paintings often also feature a lone solitary figure. He attended the Luxun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang, which was steeped in artistic traditions of Soviet Realism and where intellectual exchanges often involved Russian lecturers. He was exposed to lots of Russian literature, as they were the only “approved” foreign text allowed then in a socialist regime, and these influences of Russian poets and authors came to figure quite heavily in his art, especially Lenin. Jia’s art is also based a lot on nostalgia and the sentiment of China’s rapid economic development and capitalistic advances corrupting human values and erasing traditions and memories once dear to people.

Here are a sampling of his works:

Serbonian Bog (2007), oil on canvas

The waterlily is a symbol of purity and goodness for the Chinese, but this triptych “Serbonian Bog”, it has been turned into a bog, which signifies something stagnant and sedentary. In this tripyich, the subject on the left wears a gas mask, suggesting a very toxic environment. The book is a symbol of knowledge and intellectual stimulation. Whereas the one on the right carries a television, a symbol of the mass media and technology. It is a representation of Jia’s love-hate relationshop towards technology, and how watching television passively for prolonged duations (the artist admits that he gets hooked to television programmes easily) numbs the mind and kills creativity. The gas mask features frequently in Jia’s paintings, it obscures the face, renders his subjects anonymous and represents a kind of human reliance on external sustenance.

Untitled, 2008, oil on canvas

This is Jia’s rendititon of the modern wasteland, inspired by the Tiexi district, an industrial park very near his art academy in Shenyang. The version exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum came without the mirror on the floor, which I find quite a pity because it lends a three dimensional aspect to the work. The area used to have a very strong heavy industry focus that dated back to 1934 when Japan set up factories there to manufacture wall weapons. However, ever since China started modernizing its economy after gaining entry to the World Trade Organization in the last decade, its transition to focus on IT and other soft industries have led to a lot of heavy industries in Tiexi shutting down and a lot of people retrenched. Tiexi was turned into a ghost town, a symbol of the “fallen behind” and a testimony to the double aged sword of capitalism.

Untitled (2008), Oil on paper

Untitled (2008), Oil on paper

I haven’t seen an exciting painting exhibition for a long while and this is one of my favourites in the show. Would you imagine waking up to such a landscape?

Untitled (2011), Oil on canvas

This is one of the highlights of the exhibition – the image of a masked person holding the skull of a young person as he walks past a dizzying blurry background of twisted steel.

Good Morning, World! (2010), Oil on Canvas

But this is the painting that for some logistical reasons, wasn’t able to make it for the exhibition that is perhaps worthy of a closer inspection. Titled a cheery “Good Morning, World!”, the painting, which the artist said was one of his personal favourites. The title is also coincidentally similar to an  American sitcom broadcast on CBS-TV during the 1967–1968 season revolving around the lives of a group of morning disc jockeys. It’s a greeting likely to be used in the setting of the mass media, and one wonders if there is any hidden reference to the government controlled media houses in China, which function mostly as mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party. It depicts a statue of Lenin, a political figure of great relevance to China’s strong ties with the Soviet Union, lying mysteriously in a verdant forest, his right arm outstretched in a typical communist gesture.  It is hard to tell precisely if the statue is asleep or fallen, but it brings to mind toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by U.S. coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

2003: Saddam statue topples with regime

In some sense, there seems to be a symbolism in a recumbent statue as the passing of a political regime. Could it perhaps symbolize the transition of China from communism to its modern hybridity of socialism and capitalism?

Generational and historical change is often something that China, being a country of almost 5,000 years of history, has to constantly grapple with. In Jia’s own words: “The past century has great bearings on the mindsets of Asian people. Asia has witnessed three phases of colonialism. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in the 19th century ended Chinese dominance, replacing it with a short and unsuccessful period of Japanese imperialism, and then the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 introduced a new wave of neo-Colonialism in the form of U.S. influence, into the region.”

“We once thought socialism and capitalism were two parallel paths that will never converge, but society now has developed beyond our imaginations. There are just too many contradictions,” Jia elaborates.

The setting of a lush forest may also symbolize some kind of an exploration of possibilities, or possessing a tempting allure such as that described by Robert Frost in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

 Whose woods these are I think I know,
 His house is in the village though.
 He will not see me stopping here,
 To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 My little horse must think it queer,
 To stop without a farmhouse near,
 Between the woods and frozen lake,
 The darkest evening of the year.

 He gives his harness bells a shake,
 To ask if there is some mistake.
 The only other sound's the sweep,
 Of easy wind and downy flake.

 The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
 But I have promises to keep,
 And miles to go before I sleep,
 And miles to go before I sleep.

— Robert Frost

Perhaps it is what is missing and unspoken, that speaks volumes in this exhibition?

Here are more resources on Jia Aili:

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