Chinese Contemporary Art Specialist

Fabien Fryns Fine Art
Chinese Contemporary Art Expert

JIA AILI – CAC Malaga Presents the Most Important European Exhibition To Date

Mar 17, 2017 - Jun 18, 2017
art exhibition - jia aili – cac malaga presents the most important european exhibition to date

On 17 March the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga will open Jia Aili, a show curated by Fernando Francés featuring twenty eight paintings. The painter Jia Aili is one of China’s most remarkable rising stars, and his works reflect the dramatic changes that have transpired in contemporary Chinese society. The artist juxtaposes contemporary features with a traditional figurative style. His works, filled with apocalyptic landscapes rendered in a palette of blacks, greys and blues, inspire a deep sense of awe and overwhelming admiration for the sublime. Individuals drowning in solitude and wandering aimlessly among different technological wonders invite spectators to reflect on the role played by human beings on this planet.

17 March–18 June 2017

“For me painting is the best way of expressing what I feel; I think art has existed since the dawn of humanity. I’m interested in painting because it lets me express my own thoughts and experiences and the art around me,” explains Jia Aili (b. 1979, Dandong, Liaoning, China). The artist invites us to meditate on the reality of life in China in recent years. He predominantly uses large-format canvases, as he believes there is no better way to show reality than in a colossal mirror.

For Fernando Francés, director of the CAC Málaga, in Aili’s work “hope endures despite the widespread pessimism and social stagnation brought on by new technologies, a situation in which many individuals feel completely isolated and alone despite their ability to connect with the entire world at unimaginable speeds. Jia Aili creates large-format works that succeed in making spectators empathise completely with the beauty they convey. His compositions border on the sublime, understood as something more than merely beautiful and equivalent to a beauty of such power and magnitude that there is really no suitable way to express it. They produce a feeling of surprise and uncanny disturbance that reveals a violent collision between a force striving to manifest its presence and a form that can barely contain it. In Jia Aili’s work we contemplate the infinite, which cannot be tangibly represented in any way other than through art, through the exaltedness of the sublime.”

Jia Aili was born in 1979 and graduated from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2006. His hometown of Dandong, in the province of Liaoning, is located in northeast China across the border from North Korea. In the years between the First Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1894, and the Korean War, this region near the River Yalu was bombed on more than one occasion. Jia Aili is keenly aware of both historical events and recent changes in his society. As part of the first generation born after the Chinese government introduced its one-child policy, he grew up alone while major changes were happening in China’s economy and political system. Jia Aili focuses on exploring the psychological state of his contemporaries.

The work of Jia Aili explores realism, a very common theme in Chinese art, and combines scenes of everyday life with apocalyptic settings. He creates images of what is happening now, altering the element of time in his pieces. Sometimes his paintings are clearly dated, but others show different moments that are both contradictory and ambiguous. The artist uses perspective as a nexus between his early works and his most recent creations. His first pieces were dominated by realism, but his latest work focuses more on narrative elements. In fact, he constantly strives to go further and deeper, not only in his personal artistic style but also in the way he applies realism to his works.

The artist draws on history, culture, science and technology, disease and war. He uses metaphorical images, fragments and symbols of the post-industrial era, referencing different times and places and portraying people with gas masks, wastelands, industrial ruins, rocket launches and massive industrial machinery, all in one work. He often overlaps enormous panels to create his compositions, like the three that comprise Hermit from the Planet (2015–2016) (#1). White lightning bolts rain down from heavy black clouds in an ominously dark sky and strike the ground, creating round craters. Several solitary figures are seated but say nothing to each other. The landscape of angular black, blue and white lines is broken by a red spiral which draws all attention to that point: that thing, once an object, has now been distorted by Jia Aili in time and space. The colour red appears everywhere in China: on the flag of the People’s Republic of China—a solid red rectangle with five yellow five-pointed stars that symbolise the unity of the revolutionary people under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party—at parties and celebrations, on shop signs, advertising panels, etc. Red represents the special predilection of the Chinese as well as some of their important values and sentiments such as good luck, happiness, enthusiasm, passion, justice and revolution. They even believe that the colour red can ward off evil and bring prosperity.

We find the same spiral in Untitled (2015) (#2), a pendant piece to Untitled (2012) (#3) which depicts the same theme although it differs in size. In both works, a male figure in a sailor’s uniform gazes at his hands, as if asking himself “Why?” These two paintings portray the event that occurred on 16 October 1964, when China detonated its first atomic bomb in the desert at Lop Nur. That test was a scientific milestone in the country’s weapons development programme, pursued in a pervasive climate of distrust and uncertainty about atomic power and the devastating consequences of a potential nuclear war as illustrated during World War II when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Untitled (2015) (#2) we see a moon in the upper left part of the picture and two embracing figures from which fire seems to emanate. These two works attest to Jia Aili’s passion for the work of Goya and Caravaggio. The massive size of the figure, which completely dominates the scene, is reminiscent of the 1812 work The Colossus, attributed to Goya. However, the character’s black face is inspired by Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601–1602). Jia Aili was struck by how Caravaggio managed to darken the faces of his characters without obscuring their features. These two sailors appear together in Untitled (2014-2015) (#4) where they are joined by other recurring characters in the artist’s oeuvre.

The same man in nautical attire also appears in S-The 38th Parallel (2015) (#5), this time with a gas mask and his back turned to the scene. The most dominant element is a large tree from which blaring trumpets hang. The 38th parallel is a latitude north of the equator associated with the dividing line between North and South Korea. This parallel was first proposed as an internal boundary for Korea in 1902. At the time Russia was trying to keep Korea under its control, while the British had recognised Japan’s special interests in Korea. Attempting to avert open conflict, Japan offered Russia a compromise, proposing that they divide Korea into two spheres of influence along the 38th parallel. No official agreement was reached, and eventually Japan seized control of all Korea. When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II in 1945, the parallel was established as the boundary between the areas of Soviet (north) and American occupation (south).

In Untitled (2015-2016) (#6) and Anti-violence Dream of the Football Police (2014–2015) (#7), Jia Aili depicts two very different landscapes with similar elements; their common denominator is an overweight Chinese policeman who resembles an inflated balloon. In the much more abstract Untitled (2015-2016) (#6), earth and sky are linked by a large lightning bolt. This work is painted in predominantly dark colours and the landscape seems fractured due to the white brushstrokes. In Anti-violence Dream of the Football Police (2014–2015) (#7), Jia Aili uses warmer colours but makes no attempt to mitigate the harshness of the scene. Another lightning bolt strikes, but here the target is one of Jia Aili’s most familiar characters, a male figure in a white shirt and blue trousers whose head is on fire. The artist has dedicated several individual works to this character: in The Young Aeolus-Thor (2015) (#8), we find white lines radiating from both his head and body that represent the main iconographic attribute of the Nordic god Thor, the lightning bolt, and the deafening thunder that accompanies it; in Juvenile (2013) (#9) the same figure shoots blue rays from his eyes; and in Divine State (2011–2012) (#10) flames spring from his head.

Another large-format work, The Memory of North Willow Grass Island (2012–2014) (#11), contains several scenes in a single composition. In one we see figures with flaming heads; in another the “Young Aeolus-Thor” receives a bolt from heaven and redirects it to several characters that look like astronauts, two far in the distance and another two that seem to be doubles or duplicates cowering in circular pits. In the centre of the composition, before the sphere, three children appear to be playing. This trio first appeared as a significant element in Untitled (2011) (#12), where the girl in the middle is clearly identified as the main character. Her head is encased in a bubble resembling a glass helmet. Half smiling, she seems to be showing one playmate the mushroom she holds in her hand, while the third appears intent on adding the mushroom to her collection stored in a glass jar.

Aili leaves his characteristic dark settings and themes behind in Untitled (2012–2013) (#13) and Untitled (2014) (#14) to experiment with new palettes, flooding his landscapes with yellow, green, orange and purple hues.

In Untitled (2013) (#15) he chose to depict Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was launched into orbit aboard the Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961. His historic 108-minute flight, orbiting once around the earth, made Gagarin the first human to enter outer space and an international hero. This achievement at the height of the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union was greatly admired by the Chinese, who eventually replicated the feat. The launch of the first Chinese manned spacecraft was a symbolic, inspiring event for Jia Aili’s generation, as it marked the birth of a new capitalist nation and confirmed China’s rise to the position of global state and superpower.

Another set of pendant pieces, both Untitled (2013) (#16) (#17), show two human figures wearing white boiler suits and masks, the individuals responsible for assessing the damage caused by China’s first atomic bomb test. In Untitled (2015–2016) (#18), which resembles a Polaroid photograph, two people are helping a third to get dressed. The “liquidators” are the front line, the first to respond in the event of catastrophe. The true cost of the Chernobyl disaster in terms of environmental damage and human lives can never be calculated. However, we do know that the cloud did not grow to apocalyptic proportions thanks to the selfless efforts of those liquidators, mostly volunteers, who performed the life-threatening task of sealing off the faulty reactor with a concrete mass in order to control the radiation.

Technological progress is a prominent theme in Aili’s work. At times he shows humanity surrendering to it, as in Untitled (2007–2008) (#19), where we see a bowing figure, Untitled (2009) (#20), which depicts scientists working on the Dong Fang Hong 1 or DFH-1 (the first Chinese space satellite, an exclusively propagandistic device launched by a CZ-1 rocket on 24 April 1970 with a transmitter that broadcast the song “The East Is Red”), and We Come from the Century (2008–2011) (#21), the largest work in the exhibition. Five overlapping panels give this piece its impressive dimensions: fifteen metres long by six high. In it we find several references to Soviet Russia, like the gigantic sickle and hammer on the ground (the symbols on the Communist Russian flag) and the toppled sculpture of Lenin (an element which also appears in an earlier work). Several aircraft seem to have crashed in this apocalyptic landscape, where astronauts mingle with ordinary human figures in unnatural poses or blurred double images, like the girl in the pink dress in the centre of the composition. This chaotic world is the result of humanity’s own actions. The artist is a fervent admirer of Renaissance pictorial techniques. For example, he uses the method of layered glazes developed by Renaissance masters in his intense effort to capture changes in light as a transparent element, as well as depth, shadows, form and space, striving to represent contemporary art theory with the calm objectivism of those descriptive techniques.

Jia Aili’s abstract, fragmented landscapes, often interrupted by objects that seem to be adrift, are actually a clear reflection on himself rather than on today’s society. There is also a clear synergy between his work and that of the Romantics, especially Caspar David Friedrich. In his most chaotic compositions, with obvious similarities to Cubism, the artist attempts to use and adapt these concepts to contemporary reality. He breaks down refrigerators, mirrors and televisions until only a few fragments remain, as we see in The Wasteland (2007) (#22) (#23), Untitled (2008) (#24) and Untitled (2011) (#25). In all three works, a naked, partially trapped human figure wearing a gas mask struggles to move across yet another apocalyptic landscape.

Jia Aili lives and works in Beijing, China. A graduate of the Oil Painting Department at the Lux Xun Academy of Fine Arts, he has held solo shows at several art centres, including Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy; Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Singapore; Platform China, Hong Kong, China; and DoART, Beijing, China. He has also participated in group exhibitions at, among other venues, the Busan Museum of Art, Busan, South Korea; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan, PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, Ukraine; National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea; Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, China; Haunch of Venison, London, UK; Collateral Events at the 54th International Art Exhibition, Venice, Italy; and Arario Gallery, New York, USA.

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