April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
---Excerpt from The Waste Land by Thomas Stearns Eliot
Nameless Day 2 is from Jia Aili's time at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, and has as its background his home in Dandong beside the Yalv River. It pays tribute to British poet TS Eliot's master opus The Waste Land. With an epic perspective, the artist depicts a turbid but real world: the protagonist, wearing a gas mask, sits on a lonely, vast expanse of wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see, with a silent, hidden sea raging, converging with a grey but transparent sky at the horizon, and with a space shuttle blasting up into space in the far distance. The bleak deserted beach objectively represents the Yalv River and an era marked by a crisis of faith. Culture, tradition, religion, all are as gravel on the beach as each becomes a mere shard of debris, a refraction of the modern spirit of emptiness and confusion. Placid waves lap at the beach, seemingly devouring all in the wilderness of this world. The distant air flow, like lightning across the sky seems to be the thunderclap's warning of the thunderbolt. The barren horizon is the sky's boundary line, which forms the starting point for life. The protagonist in the painting is not any specific individual, but the you or the I 'face' in the crowd, confronting a barren external environment, an inner world of empty wilderness, a lone survivor in a world of self alone, eager to acquire nectar for the soul, redemption and rebirth, and seeking spiritual break-out and release from the morass of mundane life.
The Sublime ambience presents itself in the parallel composition. He takes different intervals of time and patches of space and fuses these to create a silent but highly explosive scene, recasting humans in an environmental and spiritual wasteland, together with their yearning for hope and desire for salvation. Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant considered "the sublime" to include both aspects of the aesthetic experience, such as a penchant for the negative, and the 'sublime' experience and reason that relates to superior habits. Jia Aili once related, 'I can feel the coercive force of our history as it slowly undergoes its menopause; will a twilight calm or a happy new birth ensue'? In a romantic tone, the artist exists in a state of actual consumerism, with the pathos of the limitations of the human condition presented to the viewer through a narrative and counter-narrative method: the reality of the chaotic pursuit of self, the memory of finding pure faith and truth, the sense of comfort in future anticipation. It echoes the remarkable scene from the painting of Caspar David Friedrich in which a lone monk stands on the shore, confronting the sea in all of its infinite vastness (Fig. 1).
Jia Aili is fully sensitive to this changing social envir onment, as well as its geographical and historical peculiarity. His hometown of Dandong is located in the heartland of Northeast Asia, on the main land route connecting mainland China, Europe and Asia, but also linking Northeast China with the Korean Peninsula and the ports for Japan's sea lanes. Because of this key geographical situation, it has always been a military fortress. From the 1894 Sino-Japanese War to the Korean War, this town along the Yalu River has experienced several artillery bombardments and subsequent postwar rebirths. As the first generation born after reform and opening, Jia Aili's childhood and teenage years witnessed military, political, and economic changes during the 1980s and 1990s, e.g. the post-Cold War dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Korean Peninsula question, economic reform and opening of China and its reconstruction period. Jia Aili attended the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang Rail West District which, after the founding of New China, was originally a rail and heavy industry hub for the Northeast, but industrial restructuring in the 1990s caused most of these industries to close or be closed, leaving a large number of factories derelict, with an even larger number of workers bereft of years of stable work and their attendant pride, all of whom were left to consequently experience anxiety and confusion, teetering on the brink of outright unrest.
In terms of personal artistic vocabulary, Jia Aili has his own specific standards, including his procedure for painting lines, the study of various technologies as a medium process in oil painting, and his quest to achieve ultimate perfection. Jia Aili's superb understanding and application of classical painting techniques also find their place in this work: his classical landscape painting in an open canvas layout also approximates the method of the golden ratio style, with the canvas divided into two levels in a manner reminiscent of Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello's work The Hunt in the Forest (Fig. 2). Irrespective of the angle from which the viewer directs their gaze upon the desolate beach, their vision converges at a point in the distance, losing its focus at the vanishing point. Jia Aili uses a transparent painting technique, with thin colour-on-colour application for an extreme pursuit of shifting transparency in light and depth, shadow, shape, and space. The techniques thus employed cause viewers facing this large work to naturally be drawn from the foreground into the picture, along the deserted beach and out into the distance, their thoughts coalescing on the horizon, seeking the nebulous solace therein, a common feeling of emptiness springing from the heart, of savouring 'our spiritual deficiency'.
Jia Aili references the ancient Chinese Taoist 'drawing of talismanic figures' concept for inspiration in the course of his brushwork. The purpose of such Taoist talismanic figures is' to draw a magic spell, do it just a bit well; trying to go too far wastes ink and cinnabar' [A spell becomes the sincere expression of the person casting it with a heartfelt voice, while simplicity in drawing ensures all spells work; too great an elaboration vitiates this intent]. Extending this concept to the brushwork process, Jia Aili seeks accuracy in painting, while his artistic conception of distance and bears the unique experience of a dense history find their emotional coalescence in his brush tip. Kant explained that 'The Sublime' is not the experience of an external thing in itself, but rather, in confronting an uncontrollable environment, especially under circumstances such as those relating to natural disasters and extrasensory capabilities due to individual rationality psychological feelings. This approach and the philosophy underlying Chinese traditions and the uncanny present combine with contemporary art and, in the trend toward convergent globalization, this expression assumes the form of a repeating historical testament: from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation, up until the present era, humans experience the same dilemma, in much the same way as the silent film Ulysses' Gaze uses various long shots and panoramic shots to span the gap between real and unreal history so that, through the silent screen medium, the viewer is able to appreciate the complex historical reality of individual segments.
Unlike his predecessors-Chinese contemporary artists who specialise in portraying the social reality of the individual-Jia Aili focusses his attention on exploring the reality of the individual mental state, as well as incorporating the spirit of self-analysis and speculation. Jia Aili's grounded classical painting skills and sensitivity to contemporary conceptual art coalesce together to form his unique painting language. The calm objectivism of his descriptive techniques make these appear virtually surreal in method-the Apocalypse consummated on canvas. He not only performs for his audience a wondrous play, but viewers may also draw comfort and instruction from his revelations-where the free spirit in the wasteland leads viewers into this real, but illusory space, to the spirit of revelation: Pursuit gradually becomes blurred in the memory of true faith and discovery of true self amid real loss, with consolation deriving from a sense of future anticipation.