Born in 1962 of parents who were attached to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Geng Jianyi grew up in a country shaped by rigid, state-mandated structures that had, by the late 1960s to the early ‘70s, fallen a long way short of the idealistic socialist Chinese state that Mao Zedong had envisioned. Where solidary socialism was intended to create commitment to the system by way of a benevolent bureaucracy, this idea was in reality, frequently afflicted by political and class struggles where individuals were embedded in social groups and contained by an inflexibly orthodox hierarchy. It was within this particular political framework that Geng honed his craft, his fascination with the mechanisms of communication, memory and identity-formation motivated early on by the failures of the bureaucratic state. In light of this, it wouldn’t be too implausible a claim that Geng’s retrospective show at the ShangArt gallery traversing two decades of his artistic practice is as much a chronicle of China’s socio-cultural logic as it is of his oeuvre.
Geng’s early anti-authoritarian projects tended towards stressing the social responsibility of the artist; in this case, they were critiques of the prevailing dynastic legacy of Mao – a brand of socialist realism and repression that still shackled Chinese society well into the years with his successor Deng Xiaoping at the political helm. A seminal work, The Second Situation (1987) is a quadriptic that portrays black and white faces distorted with soundless, cynical laughter. It is a suggestion that laughter, a basic human response to joy has been rendered ambivalent in a society culturally conditioned to prioritise the elements of Confucian teachings emphasising stoic restraint and kinships with the community above individual passions. More importantly, The Second Situation helped pioneer the Cynical Realism movement: a widely shared sentiment of disenchantment among artists such as Fang Lijun and Liu Wei who had, during this period, produced a series of works ridiculing the socio-political malaise that afflicted China.
In another example, Two Four-steps (1991), a rough collage of paper on a thin wood backing, demonstrates a prescriptive instructional intended to dictate an individual’s manner of walking, an ironic deconstruction of Mao’s statist concept of an anonymous mass of people who act and think alike in the banality of daily life. In both works, the viewer is issued an open challenge to question easily-accepted truth that has been disseminated by sources of media. But perhaps what isn’t said rings the loudest to those who understand the unsettling subtext: that the typical party lines had so much power because the people had unknowingly granted them that much.
Faces (2000) is a series of facial portraits created by running streaks of photographic developer down the print. As a result, a partial image of a face emerges, semi-transparent in places, the blank, negative spaces in which skin is supposed to exist presents instead an unsettling, elusive narrative of fragmented identity. Another product of Geng’s experiments with light and exposure, The Window of the World (2008) is a melancholic take on two subjects – a blurred, hazy landscape framed by a window as background and various-sized capless bottles in the clearer foreground, seemingly offering arbitrary notions of the construction of reality that has severely imposed limits on the imagination.
By the time the late 1990s rolled around, the uncompromising and irreverent cynicism that had once relentlessly imbued Geng’s works had given way to a gentler, contemplative inward gaze. Having deliberately distanced himself from the exhausting pressures of the keeping up with the Chinese art world, Geng’s reclusive lifestyle on the shores of Hangzhou’s West Lake had also inadvertently directed his artistic inclination towards a quieter, more ambivalent stance on the slippage that existed between image, word and object. If a heavy investment in the social environment had led him to produce jarring diatribes such as The Second Situation that focused on exposing the unceasing propaganda machine churned out by the state, his later withdrawal and seclusion brought on a number of meditative works achieved through the medium of photography.
Perhaps what this retrospective clarifies most is that Geng continues to represent ambivalent notions of identity and its relations to the larger world while hinting at the impossibility of ever portraying these issues in their entirety. As varied as his oeuvre may be, a walk through the display of his works leaves an impression of unfinished business, which is in itself a compelling suggestion that art which constantly questions is art that has perpetual relevance.
Geng Jianyi was born in Zhenzhou, Henan in 1962. He graduated from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Oil Painting Department and lives and works in Hangzhou. Geng Jianyi: The Artist Researcher will be on show at ShangArt Singapore until February 28 2013.