By Kyle Lawrence
For a young Yun Fei-Ji the cultural revolution was anything but traumatic– in fact, those tumultuous days offered him a lifetime of inspiration.
“Those of us who grew up then had a lot of unsupervised time, time to play and daydream,” says the famed landscape painter, born in 1963 and currently showcasing his work at Beijing’s UCCA gallery. “For us kids, inventing things to do filled up the time as the adults were busy with their revaluations and class struggles. We were becoming wild, delinquent, and becoming artists.”
That unfiltered imagination coursed through Yun-Fei, until he poured out free flowing paintings of scenes like the Chinese shores shorn by the Three Gorges Dam. That, artwork is currently on display at UCCA (along with other seaside prints) under the fitting title Water Work.
Yun-Fei Ji’s ‘Last Days Before The Flood,’ (courtesy of UCCA).
The gallery’s opposite end is adorned with paintings by budding painter Song Kun (born 1977 in Inner Mongolia) in an exhibit that she dubbed A Thousand Kisses Deep. The only obvious overlap between Yun-Fei’s aquatic exhibit and Song’s is her shimmering jellyfish print, rife with effeminate curves, and another painting of a gutted fish spilling out diamonds from the incision.
The rest of her exhibit features frames of half nude ladies contorted on mattresses, their high heels and fingernails as abrasive as the wave worn victims in Yun-Fei’s exhibit are smooth and eroded. The exhibits couldn’t seem more different, but below in a Q&A below both artists admit to being inspired by China’s sea changes- the revolution for Yun-Fei, and its aftermath for Song.
Yun-Fei, landscape painting was deemed an ‘old harmful thing’ during the cultural revolution. Why, and how did that impact you as an artist?
When I was growing up, landscape painting was like a ghost from the past that everyone wanted to forget… it was in the ‘historical dustbin,’ steeped in the ‘four old values.’ Useless–if you believed the official party line… (but in 2009) when I painted the ruins of the Three Gorges area and its ghosts, it fit the subject – a discarded art form for a discarded subject matter.
Song, how did your hometown’s landscapes inspire you?
I stayed in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, until I was 14 years old. One side was giant steel mills, the other had a heavy weapons processing base, the rest was huge grasslands and the snow covered Yinshan Mountains. There were a lot of people riding horses and camels on the street. At that time, the reform and opening up policies were just starting, so there was less competition and the speed was slower. Traditional values were still well-preserved, and the gap between rich and poor was not so big.
Once that gap began to grow, how did it affect you?
I saw the grassland gradually changing into city. Now one side is blue sky while the other side is heavy smoke and gas exhaust. My father worked his whole life for a state-owned enterprise. He got laid off, and his only resort has been endless alcohol. His colleagues have similar sad stories People struggle their whole lives to buy an apartment, private car and fake landscape… I myself have gone through the process because of moving from Inner Mongolia to Beijing. People are getting deeply shocked by the reform and China’s opening up.
Yun-Fei, in an interview with The Guardian you’ve said China values such progress “…and profit more than wisdom.” How do your paintings reflect that sentiment?
Only the viewer can decide this after she or he sees my work. What I was referring to was not only China, but in the West as well. This is the case–we only need to breathe to know this is true in Beijing.
Song, why do you avoid being political–why not address issues directly, in the way that Yun-Fei painted the Three Gorges?
I think art should be more independent than that. Politics, power, commerce, fashion and others should be refused. In fact, it is not negotiable. Otherwise the art is not pure.
But you don’t abandon social commentary entirely. It may not be blatant, but your paintings are so edgy, and the way they depict women and S&M must point to something more.
The biggest metaphor of all is in the jellyfish paintings. Their soft body shape, their poison, and their short life span… these features make me think jellyfish share many similarities with women and vulnerable minorities in society. The relationship between a jellyfish and its predator is just like that between these groups of people and the overall society. I have often gone to the aquarium to observe them, staying there for a long time to see their repetitive drifting in the water.
Yun-Fei, you’ve been less subtle, critiquing China’s post revolution progress both in paintings and public appearances. Have your politics interfered with your artwork?
I did speak out in China as well as in America about the ill of both places. In Shanghai a year ago I showed a group of work that satirized the corruption of the officialdom. Using Marquis de Sade’s “One Hundred Days of Sodom,” text, I modified it to the Chinese contemporary context. I made work related to the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion in response to the Iraq war and its profiteer Halliburton. At this time I was also invited to make a medal of dishonor for the British Museum as a contemporary artist’s response to the war. Since then, I lived both as an exile and an immigrant artist in America. My work is a way for me to think through the complications of that condition. Painting is a good way for me to engage the world.
Yun Fei Ji’s Water Work and Song Kun’s A Thousand Kisses Deep will both be featured until July 15 at UCCA in Beijing’s 798 Art District. For more information, visit ucca.org.cn