Classicism Documents Chinaās Controversial Modernization
by Mel Watkin
The gates of central Chinaās
Three Gorges Dam closed on June 1, 2003, completing a major
phase in one of the largest construction projects ever
undertaken. As it gradually transforms three hundred and fifty
miles of the Yangtze River into a narrow lake between now and
2009, it will inundate numerous cities, displace an estimated
1.4 million people and cost a projected twenty-five billion
dollars. Proponents of this complex, highly disputed enterprise
cheer employment opportunities, economic development, an end to
seasonal flooding and the institution of basic services such as
reliable electricity, good highways and clean sources of water.
Opponents mourn the displacement of people, the reduction of
arable land and the loss of scenic beauty, as well as the
relocation or loss of sacred temples, artworks and archeological
sites. Displaced residents along the Yangtze already maintain
that promised jobs, free land and relocation money have not been
forthcoming and that serious environmental problems are being
The Monkās Retreat, from the series ćThe Old One Hundred
Names,ä 2002, ink and mineral pigment on mulberry paper, 37
x 139 inches (courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp).
How can an artist address such
a momentous undertaking? Chinese born New York artist Yun-Fei Ji
wisely approaches this situation indirectly. His recent work
creates intriguing memorials by combining classical Chinese
painting methods and imagery with depictions of real people and
scenes from his recent travels to the ancient city of Badong on
the Yangtze River. (Both Badong and the nearby Three Gorges,
often the subjects of classical painting and poetry, will be
flooded by the dam project.) By embedding people from Badong in
scenes of classical beauty, Ji acknowledges the historic value
of the area and gives his work a timeless quality. Rather than a
documentary approach, Ji creates compelling images through which
we can begin to grasp the ungraspable. His paintings freeze lost
moments in a forced migration that is almost too devastating to
Over the past five years, as
the dam has gone from idea to reality, the impact of the project
has forced itself into Jiās consciousness more and more often.
His concerns first emerged visually in a work on paper entitled
The Three Gorges Project (2000). This piece compelled him
to travel to the area on his next visit home to China÷a journey
that, in turn, prompted him to begin a series called ćThe Old
One Hundred Namesä when he returned to New York.
The Three Gorges Project
and ćThe Old One Hundred Namesä series both employ Jiās
longstanding technique of using the mulberry paper, mineral
pigments and dense, stacked perspective of the Chinese classical
tradition. Narrative also is central to Jiās work, and he has
often focused his astute gaze on modern Chinese history by
placing well-known figures such as Madam Mao and Richard Nixon
beside monstrous beings, ghosts or mythical creatures. These
threatening, unearthly entities contribute to Jiās dense moral
symbolism, which derives from the classical Chinese artistic
convention of assigning iconographic meaning to every flower,
plant and tree÷much like seventeenth century Vanitas painting.
By juxtaposing these political figures and mythical beasts with
common people going about their everyday routines, Ji suggests
that the daily struggle for survival continues despite
bureaucratic high jinks.
ćThe Old One Hundred Namesä
series focuses on common people, to acknowledge those whose
land, livelihood, family life and culture are being destroyed.
For example, the left panel of the diptych Monkās Retreat
(2002) shows a torrent of water assaulting the verdant fissures
of a gorge. A house and water tower succumb to the waterās
pressure as drowned pigs and other beasts tumble by. The right
panel depicts more contemporary images, including an overturned
car and a thermos bottle cart (a ubiquitous image in China where
all drinking water must be boiled). A group of ghost men,
created using negative space, have been left behind to drown.
The Move of Badong, 2002, ink and mineral pigment on rice
paper, 124 x 96 cm (courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp).
The Move of Badong
(2001), one of the first works Ji created after his travels,
similarly foregrounds common people÷in this case, their
relocation÷with the exception of two bureaucrats with fish
heads. Jiās change of emphasis, from satire and fantasy to the
everyday, grew out of his understanding that progress in China
has come at great cost to the common people, the Wongs and Lis
of his land (i.e.: Chinaās version of the Smiths and Joneses and
the impetus behind the series title ćThe Old One Hundred
In the lower left corner of
The Move of Badong, a day worker with a huge bundle of wood
surveys his half-deserted city, seeing misty clouds and a
beautiful stacked landscape, but also seeing a tractor
overflowing with the possessions of people being relocated. He
sees partially demolished homes and flattened ancient ruins, but
also a city where daily life continues in a surreal, yet
The Flood of Badong, 2003, ink and mineral pigment on rice
paper, 131.5 x 95.5 cm (courtesy of Zeno X Gallery,
The Flood of Badong
(2003), Jiās most recent painting and latest addition to the
ćOne Hundred Namesä project, is similar in composition and
tonality to The Move of Badong and, as in the earlier
Monkās Retreat, uses water as a powerful narrative force.
Rather than illustrating the slow flooding that will take place,
Ji depicts Badongās devastation emotionally by unleashing a
cascade of water onto the town and its inhabitants, leaving
piles of bodies and tearing at trees and rocks that brace
themselves against the onslaught. In the center left of the
piece a group of people stand, frozen in fear, seconds before
the full force of the water hits them.
If Ji suggests in ćThe Old One
Hundred Namesä that modernization is needed, he also shows that
it has come at a terrible cost and that, for a few short-term
gains, his country has sustained permanent, avoidable losses.
Yun-Fei Jiās solo exhibition
ćOne Hundred Flowersä will be at Williamsburgās Pierogi from
November 14 to December 15, 2003 before traveling to the Saint
Louis Museum of Contemporary Art in January 2004.
is Director of the Photography
Project at Public Policy Research Center at the University of
Missouri, Saint Louis. A practicing artist, she will have a solo
show in Saint Louisā Bonsack Gallery in December 2003.