“I WAS BORN AT THE END OF THE 20TH CENTURY, WHERE MOST ETHNIC GROUPS IN HUMAN SOCIETY BEGAN TO STEP OUT OF THE WORLD OF ALL-INCLUSIVE RELIGIOUS FRAMEWORKS... WITH THE EXPLOSION OF INFORMATION THAT IS NOW AVAILABLE TO US, OUR PERCEPTION HAS BECOME BOTH FLAT AND RICH.”
Jia Aili’s paintings are suffused with a profound and immense sense of isolation, as if seeking to capture a psychological state rather than a physical location. As one of the leading figures of a generation of post-80s Chinese artists, Jia Aili has made a name for himself in the international contemporary art world by creating paintings that defy expectations and definitions. His work is hard to place – it is at once figurative yet abstract, drawing upon imagery that feels intimately familiar yet is difficult to identify, images that are haunting in their non-specificity. In doing so, he represents a generation of Chinese artists who are no longer as interested in creating work that examines politics or society in a direct way – he instead seeks to express a mood defined by existential ennui, speaking to a generation that so often feels lost and displaced in the modern age.
Wasteland depicts a nude figure wearing a Soviet-era gas mask, carrying a large oblong object. He walks amidst a fractured landscape of jagged lines and spiraling shards – shadows and planes suggest a sense of distance, yet we are given no recognizable markers or points of reference to cling to. This work was painted the year after Jia graduated from the oil painting department of Lu Xun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang in 2006, and it was included in Jia’s first solo exhibition of the same name, curated by Karen Smith and held at the Platform China Contemporary Art Institute in Beijing. It is an important early example of Jia’s masked figure – who has become a recurring presence in his work - and it is also an exceptional example of Jia’s expressive painterly abilities.
Jia Aili frequently speaks about the significance of individual versus global context in his work. His hometown of Dandong is located in the heartland of Northeast Asia, beside the Yalu river and on the main land route connecting mainland China, Europe and Asia, an area that links Northeast China with the Korean Peninsula and the ports for Japan's sea lanes. Because of this key geographical situation, the city witnessed several artillery bombardments during the 1894 Sino-Japanese War and the Korean War, before experiencing a subsequent postwar economic rebirth. Born the year the one-child policy was introduced and a member of China’s post-Mao generation, Jia witnessed perhaps one of the most profound and rapid periods of change ever experienced in China. He has described himself as “too innocent to nurture the navigational skills required to ride out the storm of change”. He recalled in an interview, “On TV I watched the tanks driving onto the Red Square in 1990. It was shown on only one channel. The soldiers were behind the tank. I remember it clearly. I watched it as a spectator at the time. Many years later we came to realize what a big event it was something enormous collapsed. We were too young to take it seriously but this did affect us a lot.”
In a recent interview with Artnet, Jia has responded to the idea of universal themes in his work that transcend cultural, geographical, or ideological differences. He states, “I was born at the end of the 20th century, where most ethnic groups in human society began to step out of the world of all-inclusive religious frameworks. In the modern world, for an individual, the physical body became highly compatible with society, but the spirit gradually lost its sense of belonging. With the explosion of information that is now available to us, our perception has become both flat and rich.” Jia Aili makes the point that the richness in information variety is balanced by the flatness of access to the same images and content –the entire world now has more in common than it ever has had in the history of humankind. As a result, a painting has the ability to move people of all cultural backgrounds in a similar manner, speaking to a global audience rather than a regionally specific one.
To most people all over the word, an image of a naked figure wearing a gas mask will draw strong emotional reactions, regardless of culture or ideology. The image of the gas mask is at once protective yet ominous – a symbol of safety but also of threatening violence and cruelty. The mask eternally hides the figure’s face and transforms him into a mute ‘everyman’, an ambiguous figure that could represent either the artist or ourselves. Jagged painted lines likewise communicate the emotions of the painter in an abstract manner. There is a sense of rawness in this work – erratic drips and splashes indicate that Jia painted with an intense energy and allowed chance to play a role in the appearance of the final work. As such, Jia Aili chooses to avoid many of the overtly political or cultural themes addressed by his predecessors – Chinese contemporary artists who specialized in portraying the social reality of the individual. Instead, Jia Aili focuses his attention on exploring the reality of the modern mental state, accessed via dream-like imagery that is surreal and non-specific, yet conjures up strong emotional associations. In this regard, Jia’s work references Surrealist artist such as Dali, Magritte and De Chirico, who painted dreamlike scenes designed to trigger subconscious associations in the viewer.
In Chinese, the title of the work combines the words for landscape “??” with the homonym ‘’?”, meaning insane, crazy, or mad. The title of the work is therefore a pun that translates into “Mad Scene”, suggesting that the painting represents an internal, psychological landscape rather than a physical locale. As Karen Smith, the Executive Director of OCAT Xi’an writes, “The “locations” he arrives in are frequently undefined and pervaded by an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. But, vague though they are, they speak in a direct manner that compels us to listen because they speak of life’s eternal dilemmas and fears.” Jia Aili’s use of imaginary landscapes to visualize a state of madness presents us with a visual image of the artist’s own mind, but it also expresses a state of being in a way that each viewer can internalize for themselves.
Deeply existential, Jia’s works express his internal moods and perspective on modern society, drawing us deep into his personal psyche and imagination. Jia’s paintings are more concerned with the human condition than they are with China, or even any one specific era – his paintings exist in a separate space that taps into the most vulnerable aspects of our shared consciousness. Jia Aili’s paintings are rooted in reality, containing recognizable figures or objects often painted from life or using found images, but the settings themselves are opaque and untraceable. In Wasteland, a mysterious figure leads viewers into the abstract space that he inhabits, offering more questions than answers but nevertheless guiding us inexorably towards a state of greater awareness and self-understanding.