Jiang Zhi’s Faulty Display
Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise.
At the outset of 2010,theforty-one-year-old Beijing-based artistJiang Zhi did something drastic. He began painting. For someonewho isconsidered not only a pioneerof new mediaart in China, but one of its foremost representativesand,moreover, perceived as a true nonconformist to market demands,this slip into a traditional—read bourgeois—medium aroused great murmuring among critics, especially as the paintings appeared to beabstract!
In ourtwenty-first century contemporaneity, when the commitment to one particular medium or style was undermined long ago bylicense to unbridled pluralism, not to mention an epidemic of Internet-fueled attention deficit disorder, and when financial sustainability as an artist, especially one approachinghis mid-career, is not only trendy but a necessity, any accusations of betrayal against Jiang Zhi seems somewhatinflated. But, then again, everyone expects something different of Jiang Zhi.
[P]reviously known definitions of “Jiang Zhi” or “the Jiang Zhi style” are dissolving. In other words, the artist seems intent on disappointing our expectations. Impolitely, perhaps, Jiang has jettisoned our accustomed discourse and opinions about his artistic practice and its meaning . . . The answers these paintings reveal are to questions that we have not asked.”2
Indeed, these new paintings mask unsolicitedquestions, but what in fact was or wasn’t being asked of Jiang Zhi? Having begun his creative career in Shenzhen as a cultural journalist, Jiang Zhi became involved in the legendary Post-Sensibility, Alien Bodies and Delusion exhibition of 1999thatlaunched him onto the Beijing art circuit. The Post-Sensibility Show, curated by Wu Meichun and Qiu Zhijie,was not only significant for bringing new media experimentation, conceptual photography, and gruesome (some works were made from stillborn fetus’, human body parts, skin grafts, and animal bones) installation work to the forefront of contemporary Chinese art, it also outright rejected market speculation and the illustrative painting that defined much of the 1990s. This rebellious show, held in the fallout shelter of artist Sun Yuan’s apartment building, not only created a precedent for young Chinese artists at the outset of the new millennium, it also framed the disciples of this new expressionism, Jiang Zhi included, in a box from which it was hard to escape. Surely this spunky renegade would not show up one day with abstract paintings!
Thankfully, Jiang Zhi’s development as an artist was a genuinely personal pursuit that resisted conforming to anyone’s idea of evolution. He was also someone for whom writing played a profound role in helping to chart his artistic quest. Whether in elliptical poetry, introspective philosophy, or the titles for his work, Jiang Zhi’s texts record the meanderings of a tenacious mind as it grappled with the self and its creations. This discursive writing becameespecially importantin the context ofthis perplexing new body of abstract work. Over the course of a few months Jiang Zhi composed three texts that helped to illuminate his thinking behind the new series.
“Object in Drawer,” 1997 Jiang’s work included in Post Sensibility- Pieces of personal belongings and damaged human body parts installed in three opened drawers.
Life is a course of losing.
Time rushes away memories, cutting bodies apart.
The pain of losing time projects itself on objects.
Memories attach on personal belongings, giving them
Individual lives and feelings.3
When Jiang Zhi first introduced his abstract paintings in 2011, the terrain of the Chinese art world had changed dramatically from the wild Post Sensibility days. The market had ballooned to the point of bursting, and then, with a giant hiss, retracted; the Post Sensibility crowd was no longer considered vanguard but, in fact, part of the artistic canon, and Jiang Zhi’s socially conscious focus had shifted to more esoteric terrain. Jiang began to take the computer as a point of departure to probe the phenomenological aspects of what an “image” actually is.
I didn’t process or draw the images on the computer, nor are the images drawn from reality. . . . They are mostly randomly generated, but are they really “images”? That is what I’m interested in- the conditions which form an “image” (they’re actually human psychological conditions) . . . the moment of becoming an image . . . images which never form, or have not yet developed . . .5
While Jiang Zhi’s paintings convey no recognizable imagery per se, the artist maintains that they are “representational.” In order to understand just what these paintings represented andwhy it led him down the rabbit hole searching for the psychologicalroots of how an image is produced, it is important to backtrack briefly and consider the works themselves. In Jiang Zhi’s own words, this is how they came to be:
This group of work is derived from images of “system errors” from my computer screen. When I drag the conversation bubble on my computer screen, it leaves a trace of jagged lines, which is eventually obliterated by the continual overlapping of this line.
These traces become images and are shaped to form “a vision of the world.” They seem to come from an internal and abstract world that is created instantaneously and can be changed and renewed any time, but it is (more) vulnerable, accidental, variable, and transitory.6
Simply put, Jiang Zhi’s painted images originated from his computer screen when the operating system fell short of memory and, unable to render an intelligible display, left a pattern trailing behind the mouse’s every move. For some, the whimsicalresults created from doodling with this “faulty display” would suffice as fodder for a slick new body of paintings, but for Jiang Zhi it presented a critical departure point.
For many new media artists, realistic imagery forms the core of their practice. Photo and video technology, as well as the ever-expanding archive of Web-based imagery helps to dictate this. Jiang Zhi’s work up to this point was defined by its recognizable iconography—photographic, singular, and mostly figurative compositions that relayed a certain psychologically charged narrative. Now faced with not only an abstract image, but also what seemed to be itself, a convoluted abstraction, Jiang Zhi began to probeeven further the question of what an ‘image’ is. Painting was merely a convenient way to manifest his inquiry.
In Chinese painting, representation has never been the goal. I think that because it is the painting’s “heart” and “spirit” that are seen as most critical. When we talk about spiritual brushstrokes, it means the birth of a painting in between the ink lines, an allusion but not a representation. In traditional painting the objective is to capture the spirit of the subject, not its exact likeness.7
The question of subject was certainly vital for Jiang Zhi, as was the relevance of traditional approaches to representation; furthermore, the works outwardly evoked the legacy of hard-edge abstraction, but discourses solely related to the discipline of painting were not in Jiang Zhi’s interest.
These are not abstract paintings. First, these paintings are based on actual images of what the computer screen shows. Second, an unconscious computer cannot distinguish and judge what is real or abstract.
Yet, are they realistic paintings? If so, what is real, and where is reality?8
Jiang Zhi’s inquiry is not dissimilar to those posed in his earlier bodies of work, and can even be considered one of the main concepts that he has wrestled with throughout his practice, namely, the question of subjectivism.
This group of paintings is a continuation of my exhibition Attitude, which focused on emotions and their bodily reactions such as laughing, crying, shyness, anger, fear and trembling. As our bodies produce such natural responses, we believe that such feelings are from the “true self” and thereby confirm such “true self” which in fact hides the real “I” from beneath. We then build up a bridge of reality from the so-called “true self” and view those objects or events which generate emotions and reactions as real and so believe that such objects, events, and even the world are real, but none of this is an objective truth.
Observing emotions has led me to the observation of the origin of our emotions as well as its object.
Therefore, I want to deny what I said previously. The paintings do not derive from the computer.9
Jiang Zhi’s elliptical prose points back to the subjective nature of reality; the paintings are not derived from the computer, but make manifest what our subjectivity filters from this experience. For Jiang Zhi the process of experiencing “sensation” and perceiving “imagery” originate in similar territory.
Jiang Zhi continues to meditate on these unintelligible images, not only from a metaphysical but also from a neurological perspective; that is, what correlation can be drawn between so-called concrete information that a computer yields and human cognition?
For example, we cannot directly see a cup in front of us. Science tells us that the image is reflected into our eyes, translated into an electrical signal and transmitted to the optical cortex in our brains. It is only after another process of translation in the brain that we get an image out again. The brain tells us “I see this cup, it’s like this . . .” (What is interesting is that we haven’t seen it directly; it is the brain that tells us we’ve “seen” it.) But what is this process like? What is it before it is translated into an image, as an electrical signal? What kind of decoding software can translate that signal into this image? Any decoding software has its own specific properties, different from other decoding approaches. So what are the properties of the decoders installed in the human system (or in one individual’s system)?10
Here, it is interesting to consider the titles of Jiang Zhi’s paintings that combine, even equate, terminology for human emotions with computer functionality. Content Control—Sorrow, Add cc—EcstasyNo.2 and CroppedImmortalityNo. 1allude to incongruous commands, as well as a sense of thwarted expectations, or lack of control over our own destiny. Perhaps this control has been forfeited to the multiple computing devices upon which we rely everyday, and onto which we project immeasurable expectations? In the computer, such as in life, expectation sets one up for disillusionment. While man and machine are still vastly different, certainly Jiang Zhi’s own personal disillusionment and emotional stress cannot be ruled out as contributing factors for his obsessive probing into the so-called objective or external world.
In another text he describes this external world—the object of our emotions and visual information—as a second-hand realization, something that we obtain indirectly, so that the discernment of reality is relegated to a subjective feature of our consciousness. Once again, for Jiang the logic of the computer is analogous to human cognition, and when this logic fails, it raises some fundamental questions about the nature of reality itself.
The external world we can never see directly. If we can never truly experience the external world, does it really exist? What we can attain is only our own world. We each stare at our computer screens and what we see, perhaps, is only a reflection of an illusion of our own representation. What our computer screen shows is what we so-call “our world.”
The images on our computer screen, the display mechanism properly set up by the engineers, mimic our visual processes. At the start, what we see is just “data” (that’s the most we can say—I don’t know what comes before data). The graphics card and other systems working together form a display function. This is a properly calibrated translation device.
When a fault develops with this device, it causes a “broken image” to appear, so when my mouse drags a dialog box, it smears across the screen. But this “image” is not formed through a natural process. It has no definable origin . . .
Those “broken images” that appear on a monitor were never originally meant to be images. The computer at this juncture has no intention and no ability to make images. They are meaningless lines (even calling them “lines” is an exaggeration. They’re actually abnormalities, patches of pixels reproducing themselves over and over as if they’re afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). When we drag that dialogue box around and around, the regular abnormalities seem to be performing some kind of communicative dance.11
The imagery that luminesces from Jiang Zhi’s computer seems to have been made without instruction, logic, or ordain, as if there is a ghost in the machine. Perhaps the association between man and mechanism is the most to be gained from these bold, colourful canvases? Alas, a new-media pursuit after all.
Jiang Zhi’s meditation on the computer screen as a source of both artistic inspiration and answers to the meaning of life resonates profoundly in an age of widespread Internet addiction. We are now living in an age where computing devices not only are essential tools of survival but also producers of new subjectivities. The story of the Korean couple that let their three-month-old baby starve to death for the sake of raising a virtual daughter online spells out exactly how warped things have become. (Oddly enough, the online game that the couple was addicted to allowed them to help their virtual daughter develop emotions and memory.)12
As institutions all over the world brace themselves for social ills affected by people spending too much time in alternate, computer-fixed, realities, Jiang Zhi’s ontological inquiry, as well as his paintings, continue to dazzle.
It’s a strange collaboration between man and machine: the computer display is at base just a form of transcription—into this process a faulty transcription intrudes—faulty image—to a second translation into my brain—an image which is accepted—which I then translate into a traditional picture using paints and canvas . . .
In this process, the boundaries between the correct and the faulty, the abstract and the concrete are lost.
Are they images? We don’t know yet.
Because the character of these images is so unstable I use the method of traditional oil painting to make them concrete. Oil paintings are officially “images”.
It is like putting a dream on trial. 13
Author Unknown, Śūraṃgama-sūtra, is a Mahayana sutra and one of the main texts used in the Chan school of Buddhism, (c. 700).
2 Wu Zhongsheng, “Jiang Zhi: A Thought Arises,” trans. Jiajing Liu, Leap Magazine, February 2012, 184–85.
3 Jiang Zhi, Artist Statement for Objects in Drawer Statement, September 9, 1997, Posted on http://www.jiangzhi.net/?p=426.
4 Jiang Zhi, artist statement, November 28, 2011, unpublished.
6 Jiang Zhi, “Faulty Display,” in Jiang Zhi: A Thought Arises (Shanghai: Shanghai Gallery of Art, 2011), 9.
Jiang Zhi, artist statement, November 28, 2011, unpublished.
Jiang Zhi, “Faulty Display.”
Jiang Zhi, “Decoding,” November 30, 2011, unpublished.
“S Korea child ‘starves as parents raise virtual baby’,” BBC News, March 5, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8551122.stm
Jiang Zhi, “Decoding.”