A Work by Jiang Zhi

A Work
Jiang Zhi


A few months ago, a curator invited me to participate in an exhibition titled, “Four Seasons”. After he left, I turned on my computer as I wanted to jot down some ideas on my blog to awaken some of my sentiments on seasons. It is almost embarrassing to say this, but since there is AC and heating in this world, and the fridge is stocked with various fruits and vegetable from any season (our conception on the season in the past), my feelings on seasons were tamed. Moreover, as a result of global warming, there are signs of seasonal inversions between the north and the south.

I typed in one sentence, “It is spring nonetheless. The dry soil in our yard began to bud with green.” I immediately noticed the somewhat sentimental wording. The problem was not my literary youthful “nostalgic sentiment” for “spring”, but on “our yard.” It is risky and I may be suspected of being a show off. To claim to have one’s own yard in this city may be cursed by skeptical web surfers. If one writes “my yard” twenty years ago, it would not have been inappropriate, especially for someone (like me) who grew up in the countryside and picked hot peppers to play with. In contrast, it would have shown my love for the land. Yet, this patch of ground I have now is compensation from the real estate developer for our discounted amount of sunlight on the ground floor.

Nevertheless, I rephrased it. “It’s spring nonetheless. The dry soil in the park began to bud with green.” Although, what does the park have to do with me? It has been years since I last visited a park. My relationship with the park is definitely not comparable to that of gardeners. Their relationship with the park is unusually close, either a closely intense relationship, or a tensely close relationship. Either way you put it, the meaning is the same.

It’s better to return to an appropriate position to write a sentence on “spring”. Time flew, the sun is about to fall behind the building in front of me. I usually use the arrival of this light to determine if it’s two o’clock in the afternoon. So I hurried up to complete “an expression.” I thought for a while and wrote, “It’s spring nonetheless. Our motherland began to bud with green.” A bit dumb, I crossed it out. Then I wrote, “It’s spring nonetheless. In Asia – China in Asia – Northern China in Asia – Beijing in Northern China in Asia – Chaoyang District in Beijing in Northern China in Asia – Wangjing neighborhood – a residential area – dry soil at a corner, began to bud in green.” Not bad, even though it’s imperfect, but it barely meets my aspiration for a unique perspective in my artistic practice -a perspective of satellite mapping.

Having completed my thought procedure on seasons, I began to draw out a plan…


A month has passed, I still can’t come up with any plans for “four seasons,” so I called up the curator to complain. He said it is not necessary “at all” for the work to be related to the four seasons. He was afraid that I was still confused, so he gave me this example, “I got a spicy hotpot, either you cook fatty lamb, duck tongue, sliced potatoes, or rat-mouth, Collybia mushroom, it will still be a spicy hotpot.” I suddenly felt enlightened.

Momentarily, I felt I had forty plans configured in my mind.

A day passed, I suddenly warped back to worrying about the irrelevance of my plans to the theme of the exhibition.


On the exhibition of “Four Seasons,” there is a work: a white sheet of paper measuring the height of an average person with untrimmed edges. From the looks of it, we know it’s not a product of industrial processing, but was entirely handmade. It is pressed between two sheets of glass. The title of the work is printed on the label next to it: Winter Coat. That’s right, this is my work. The material of the work and a brief explanation are also printed on the label. The general content printed explains the configuration of this sheet of paper, an inspiration of a poor man’s winter coat he wore four seasons out of the year. Through the procedure of soaking, pulping, bleaching, screen filtering, etc., it became this sheet of white paper.

Other texts of explanation would be difficult to reiterate here, because it’s a special edition that I rendered on the computer with special software. This software compiled over three-thousand essays and writings of art critique. By only typing in a few key words and length, it can find the matching academic essay. Moreover, this software can also perform searches online and analyze the ranking and influence of certain critics internationally, and it renews the ranking of the essays accordingly. It’s “intelligent” software. It has an adjustable “level of understanding” from low, medium to high. I often make it challenging. Being too literal would affect the result and ultimately damages the interest of the audience that expects a certain level of intelligence from the artwork.

The key words I have entered are: question, society, city, comprehensive, globe, time, artist, generation, -ization, post, sense, solemn, in other words, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, jello, perpetual, existence, new, -ness, type, mini-skirt, colonizing, technique, industry, agriculture, information, furthermore, consumption, obviously, very, discuss, history, in terms of, transform, indigenous, world, politics, peel off, real, in contrast, unfold, era. I entered these terms, and I requested over 200 words in length for the essay. These key terms yielded great results, and I have been using them over the last two years (with the exception of ’60s, since it was not used often and was quickly eliminated).


I looked pensively at this sheet of blank paper encased in two sheets of glass and white wooden frame of exquisite workmanship.

At least it respects physical principles. One’s self-respect when sitting on a luxurious toilet with gold inlaid is different than sitting on a low quality ceramic toilet bowl.

Looking dignified, neat, without any pleats, I was bombarded with waves of vanity.

The days of nailing works on the wall have long passed. I even felt the heroic passion of 1949. This work will soon be exhibited in a museum in New York, The gallery that represents my work had carefully specified to the museum the required condition of lighting, temperature and humidity for this work. I must admit, the treatment it receives is off the top.


I need to explain the ins and outs of this work to the audience and the journalists. First of all, the former state of being of this sheet of blank paper was a winter coat made of cotton that was worn over a decade. The owner of this coat is someone I knew from childhood who is now over seventy years old. He held me in his arms when I was a small child. He enjoyed throwing me in the air and catching me. Soon, he felt that his skills had improved, and he tried to catch me with one hand. Luckily, he caught one of my legs as I fell, otherwise I would have been done. He never had another chance to hold me thereafter. He never left that village, married, or had children. He has been wearing this very same coat for over a decade. He led a fashionable and environmentally friendly “life of simplicity.”

Once the proposal for this work was made, and before I began to search for this winter coat, I never imagined that this old man who almost caused my death would be part of my artwork. I hardly remember him. He is insignificant to my life. I realize such indifference is also happening between myself and others.

He, Liu Qingshan, was surprised by my visit from far away. I had left the village when I was four years old, yet he still kept all memories of me from that time intact. I invited him out for a drink and asked him to tell me the story of the winter coat. Surprisingly, he told me that it was a gift from Boddhisattva. Ten years ago, a farmer in the village sensed his “promiscuous” conduct with his wife and burnt down Liu’s house where he lived for decades. Amazingly, the winter coat was not damaged at all (I guess he was wearing it at the time). Now, he lives in a building he constructed for over a decade. He collects logs, pieces of brick, bamboo, mineral water bottles, soft drink cans, grass, etc., everyday in the village and piles them against a tree. This house is now becoming a double-decker, with works still in progress.

I brought four sets of clothes for him, one for each season. He agreed to give me the winter coat he wore for over a decade in exchange. He became excited once he had a few drinks and spoke to me of his loneliness – no one wanted to have anything to do with him. He was wronged; he has always been the first to be accused of if the villagers had lost anything; he was worried that the village committee would sell the land where his house was built to the owner of a chemical factory; his wish was to see Chairman Mao in Tian’anmen Square…I didn’t have to know every detail of his story, I only needed to fill the gaps of information necessary for my artwork in order to satisfy those journalists. Therefore, once his words over-flowed I became distracted. I believe most artists would feel the same way. They, migrant workers, the handicapped, the unemployed, beggars, whose property only occupy a few square meters of an exhibition space, are in fact all categorized as materials for art works.

If his pain does not speak to you and his joy can’t be shared, then effective communication does not last, thus communication with an agenda would not be a pretentious act. Honestly, I think it’s rather normal. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a student name Mi Nana a few months ago. We talked earnestly in a bar for a few hours and both felt we could continue this conversation for hundreds of days. However, in the next morning when we put on our socks in the hotel room, there was nothing more to be said. That evening, I also told her about one of my work proposals. I wanted to make art with a monkey, hiring it as my assistant. It can make some paintings for me. Mi Nana asked with humor, “How many years would you carry this on for?”

I said, “A few months, one year at the most.”

She said, “Then what?”

I said I would return the monkey to its owner. Her round watery eyes stared at me, “Don’t you think that’s cruel?”

“Why?” I asked.

She said, “What if it has feelings for you?”

Then I began to think seriously. I can’t appear senseless in front of this beautiful girl. Beauty is persuasive, and the more beautiful one is, the more persuasive one can be. This is especially true for a “healthy man.” We are mere physical beings. And physical beings constitute our mentality of the spirit and mores. In this hormone-driven evening, I followed her belief of animal protection.


Soon a sheet of blank paper was made. I thought of doing something on it, because I didn’t intend it to be so minimal. What should I draw on it? I recalled that Liu Qingshan once had said his life dream was to go to Tian’anmen. That would be too “Chinese,” too “symbolic,” and too suspicious of “post-colonialism.” It would ruin this work.

Perhaps there is still a woman on his mind? An unforgettable woman. I flew over immediately to meet with him. Thus, I increased the cost of this work. He was surprised to see me and said with excitement that he will leave me his building. I handed him the Tian’anmen postcard I had brought for him, he looked at it for a long time without saying anything. I invited him for a drink in town. He told me since he began wearing the new clothes I gave him, the villagers treated him differently. They would nod at him, a widow in her fifties even threw him a flirtatious look. He said it wasn’t because of his new attire, but the villagers thought he had connections in Beijing. I followed his words and redirected the “communication” to women. Surprisingly, he seemed to enjoy discussing it. He said his first lover was the woman tractor driver on the Chinese currency – that one yuan helped him to masturbate seven to eight times a day. He said he had always been very poor, no girl wanted to marry him, only his hand could give him a sex life. At the time, he wanted that tractor to drive over his body. I told him, in fact, that woman tractor driver is close in age to him and now lives in Harbin with her children and grandchildren. He showed slight embarrassment. He explained that people were conservative at the time, their imaginations were limited. That round face was the image that flashed most in his mind, and sometimes he thought of her breasts, but never of her pubic hair…I began to envision my sheet of blank paper with a woman tractor driver configured in pubic hair.

I teased him, “What have you have done to the RMB, no wonder the RMB does not like you. Have you liked any real women?” He said there was someone when he was younger, working as the chef in the village’s school canteen. There was a female teacher who was very beautiful. He would give her double the usual amount of food. The girl also understood his heart and would smile at him timidly. Later, this girl was reassigned to work in the county school. Before she left, she gave him a photograph of herself as a souvenir. I anxiously asked him, “Do you still have that photograph?”

He took me to his tree house. This tiny “tree house” measures less than 4 square meters and is approximately 5 meters tall. Like a museum, it houses various odd objects. He fished out a shell of the size of a small basin from a wicker basket hanging on a branch. This photograph was worn and faded, it was difficult to see her face other than her long pigtails, the thin layer of film on her face was completely gone. He said it was the only thing he rescued from a fire ten years ago. I asked him, “What does she really look like?” He looked at me baffled, pointing at the photo, “Isn’t it clear here? Can’t you see she has round eyes, long eyelashes, her nose, look, how straight, here, her mouth, the tips tilt up. She usually looks this way…”

I was speechless for a long time and felt truly moved by it.

In the end, I borrowed this photograph from him and promised I would return it within a week.


Once I arrived in Beijing, I immediately took this photograph to digitize it. I also asked a coroner to digitally restore her face according to this fuzzy photograph. On the second day, I received a call from the old man’s family, and learnt the news of Liu Qingshan’s passing.

I suddenly warped into a state of emptiness. All has passed for this person. Life is a calendar with an end, and many interesting lines drawn. Yet, without the reference of memory, it’s eventually meaningless. His misery and luck, big or small, heartbeats in the canteen, and thousands of lonesome erections, his palace under the tree…are all, in fact, fictional. From the first blank page to the last, the content in everyone’s calendar, thick or thin, are all individual fictions.

Therefore, this work is this white sheet of paper. I seem to feel that this life is in it, and this is the emptiness I truly feel.

April 2008, Beijing