Exhibition Essay featured in the Inaugural Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai, April 2010


by Emily de Wolfe Pettit

Featured in Volume 74, No. 1, April 2010 of the Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society, China, in Shanghai


Transience of human existence, obsession with beauty, luxury of material possession and subtle references to mortality. One could be speaking of Vanitas art of 17th century Holland and the associated memento mori. Yet these are subjects found with increasing regularity in new work of artists, and particularly female artists, living in 21st century China, either through the narrative of their works and/ or the fragility of the media employed; one of the most notable exponents being the Beijing born, raised and trained artist Yang Jing.

If one is prepared to move in time and space, striking similarities between these two contexts for the resulting dialogue in their visual artistic praticises can be made and projections in determining possible future developments take shape. The background to the 17th century movement of Vanitas and its particular flourishing in Holland (or The Netherlands) was a society that had just undergone huge upheaval through the North European Reformation, ousted the Catholic overlords and embraced Protestantism housed in severe, unadorned churches, witnessing a dramatic decline and indeed prohibition of some forms of religious art. The usual sources of patronage –the Church and aristocracy – were superseded by an increasingly prosperous middle class, whose insatiability for acquiring and displaying art (even a local eatery would be adorned with delicately rendered works) led to the burgeoning of a range of genres, most notably large-scale landscapes and emblematic still lifes, such as vanitas that befitted the pious and hardworking Protestant aesthetic. Though their outlook mellowed as their security increased and their wealth grew, these Dutch burghers of the seventeenth century never accepted the full Baroque style which held sway in the south and throughout Catholic Europe.

Tracing artistic developments in China and the effects of an ongoing era of revolutions. Just as Northern Europe witnessed tremendous socio-economic and cultural upheavals through the Reformation, post-Cultural Revolution China continues to do so through burgeoning capitalism, urbanisation and massive population movements all of which arose from the well-known reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Where the 17th century Dutch school saw new artistic genres develop in a premeditated move away from dogmatic and ideologically-centred art work, in China too there is arguably a deliberate departure now from the work characterised by references to political ideology of recent Chinese art history. While restrictions on art contentious in its political stance persist, the cause for departure from Mao’s ‘legacy’ of Cynical Realism and Political Pop in the visual arts lies not so much in censorship, but in the now over-saturation of derivative references to Maoist iconography over the past decade. (Moreover, younger generations of Chinese artists do not have first-hand experience of such intervention in the production of their art, unlike their predecessors in the eighties or nineties). There is also a need for devices to navigate the profound uncertainty brought about by constant flux in contemporary China, and to survive it.

While social and political ideology and dogma have largely been the mainstay of male artists, it is female artists living and working in China today who have been most responsive in exploring the individual’s personal plight in the ever changing context of modern-day China, often through a return to the quotidian. In the work of artists such as Yang Jing and her female friends and peers, elements of Vanitas in various forms gather pace: in the series ‘A Piece of Life’, Liang Yuanwei emphasizes processes rather than outcomes, with emphasis on the rendering of textures, colours and particularly forms, to the point that the search for solidity is deliberately undermined through her sobering repetition of domestic, old-world patterns – or to a different mind’s eyes, a re examination of beauty through morbidity and the finite; Song Kun’s protagonist ‘Xi Jia’, whose personal journey addressing a kaleidoscope of human emotional experience, shows her through the delicate agency of graphite drawing on diaphanous surfaces and an array of fragile media, such as broken glass, cotton or antique baubles; and elsewhere, Yang Liu has dedicated herself to a body of work over the past two years in which the defining cornerstone is the motif of decaying books from which trees soar with the triumphant view of natural phenomenon over man-made artifice – and in which vanity lies not in the insatiable desire for earthly possessions, but in the possibility of attaining Reason.

The work to date of their contemporary Yang Jing (b. 1976), perhaps explores the thematic narrative of Vanitas most rigorously, traversing time and cultures, and moreover artistic styles, with beguiling ease. Her works are dotted with references to other periods with a morbid fascination with death – Gothic wallpaper and frames which echo Victorian England and reinforce the impression of a 17th century Dutch still-life sitting. In her 2006 work ‘My Carnival’, in homage to the 16th century French School of Fontainebleau painting, ‘Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters’, which now hangs in the Louvre, Yang Jing wished to make a direct reference to the hedonistic practices of the French aristocracy of the period, in which the definition of beauty has what would now be considered a morbid quality through the use of deathly-white face and body powder, false wigs and restrictions to natural movement through severe corsetry. Her mannequin figures are framed by subtle cues to death, decay and the passing of time: the peeling of wallpaper and miniature machines of war in ‘Flying to the Southeast’ (2005); playing cards falling through the air in ‘Seven Day Tour of Tian’anmen’ (2008); or butterflies, a Christian symbol representational of the death and re-birth life cycle, in ‘Silent Hill’ (2004). Increasingly transcient temporal and spatial existence applied to the context of contemporary China and the preservation of its culture are further recurring themes of Yang Jing’s work. In her 2004 ‘The Disappearing Pagoda’ and the series ‘Critical Point’ (2006), ‘TMCN’ (2006) and ‘Secret Fragrance’ (2008), each present a heightened sense of physicality and sources of life (and cultural) energy. The first presents the viewer with the ancient practice of acupuncture, this holistic healing treatment an allegorical fine line away from the possibility of violence; the latter two presenting traditional Chinese landscapes painted on the mannequins’ bodies, as if cultural practises are proudly embedded in the person. Yet elsewhere there is lament for the dissolution of humanity at its most essential level: in “We did nothing” (2004) the artist expresses her dismay at discrimination against physical handicap. Speaking with Yang Jing, she extols the features of her exquisitely crafted Japanese bakelite doll, the “Super Dollfie” (also a cartoon character), with human hair that she has used as her model for over the past two years and what drew her to this particular doll: the melancholia in its eyes. She continues: ‘dolls are representative of wider cultural or social mores. The dolls I played with as a child in China were lacking any ‘life-like’ qualities, their most characteristic feature being their round base, so they would never fall over’. Mannequins, in themselves lifeless, are the literal embodiment of Vanitas (its Latin definition is “emptiness”). Requiring a fantasy life to be created around them by children in play, they take on life-like qualities and do indeed ‘fall over’ in Yang Jing’s paintings. In ‘The Lucky One’ blood seeps from the dismembered legs of one such child figure, making earthly pleasures (sources of solace) in this work, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a brightly coloured stuffed toy and a bottle of Poison perfume appear complicit in a metaphorical death at a surprisingly young age. “Good Weather for Two” (2009) plays too on the loss of innocence, compounded by a loss of identity, beauty and wretchedness placed side by side.

While Yang Jing addresses the reality of a highly material and fast-paced life in her earlier works through a provocative, gaudy approach, in her new 2008 works “Fu Lu Shou”, (‘Good Fortune’, ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Longevity’), the artist tempers her messaging through more subdued, cautionary means with a notion of moral judgement now infiltrating this body of work. Here she explores the auspicious Chinese symbols that are so influential and enduring in everyday Chinese attitudes to life, fate and death through their associated emblems, all strategically placed on a stage set complete with curtains drawn and under artificially bright lights: the theatre of life, if you will. Good fortune, its character “fu” painted on a floating zeppelin and a junk boat carries the message “Yi Fan Feng Shun”, meaning “Safe Journey”, is also aligned to notions of riches and honour, symbolically captured in peony flowers. In another corner, mahjong, the traditional game of leisure, normally involving gambling, shows the highest achievable winning set. Yet there is also a moral warning to worldly excesses: here a lotus flower, traditionally symbolizing purity and a noble character in Chinese moral fables. Likewise, in the stage set of “Lu”, (prosperity), Yang Jing paints a small skull in a considered point to “remind that we should not only think about making material wealth; one can be destroyed if greedy. It is spiritual wealth that cannot be taken away in death”. Finally, in ‘Longevity’, the artist makes a striking take on the concept “Long Live Chairman Mao”: beyond symbolizing longevity, Mao here, as in the lives of many people throughout China and still today, actually achieves something closer to immortality, embodied again in his little red book. The fascination with immortality is of course not new in China: the ancient and still popular use of ginseng, traditionally thought to provide immortality, appears in this painting, as does a peach fruit, a gift older Chinese people will receive at their birthday, according to the custom of wishing longevity. In each of the three paintings, a mannequin holds each of three puppets, the gods for “Fu”, “Lu” and “Shou”. In the words of the artist: “These three paintings tell us that we always hope for the best “Fu Lu Shou” in our lives and try everything to pursue them. However, sometimes life is out of our own control and full of coincidences, difficulties and the unexpected. People all have their different fates, like drama on a stage: this makes our life colourful and the mannequins here enact the unexpected or uncontrollable power in our lives”.

It is doubtful Vanitas would have become popular if the Reformation and a strict Protestant aesthetic had not sewn the seeds for its development. Similarly, as our world is just embarking upon a new brand of re-formation, China arguably the key player in forming new systems, there is a predictable desire for artistic production that explores truly innovative integrations between Eastern and Western philosophy, epochs and artistic styles. The future audience for contemporary art in China, its young and burgeoning middle-class, will predictably hold a place for decadence in its art, at times meeting with the Cyberpunk trend of anime and film, at times a more contemplative return to essential questions of the individual’s existence. Parallel to this, artistic creation amongst Yang Jing and her peers of post-Cultural Revolution artists would arguably not be taking the course of introspective self-examination if this generation did come from a background of predominantly only children and nuclear families, removed from immediate political infiltration into the everyday. Furthermore, while this generation may have become accustomed to some material comfort at this stage in a wave of capitalism and opening up to the West, conversation with the more reflective, such as Yang Jing, reveals that beyond serving an immediate purpose of gratification, such material, ‘vanity’ possessions are of not such great comfort as would warrant the bombardment of such imagery in everyday life. Her works are celebratory, but also cautionary tales as we see an artist mature, at once unveiling a unique, inward perspective, particular to many of the brightest lights amongst her contemporaries of female artists, and drawing great richness from several cultural points of view. Likewise, the viewer is asked to draw upon more than one cultural perspective in any possible deciphering of Yang Jing’s conceptual world: indeed it is requisite to a new chapter of pluralistic work that seeks to elucidate the very purpose and direction of a fast-changing, material existence in its extreme.