To many people in the Chinese art world, Geng Jianyi is a bit of a mystery. He is best known for a painting of two identical laughing faces he made in 1987 (The Second State), which has often been compared with the work of Fang Lijun from a couple of years later. The general feeling is that Fang’s use of repetition was an expression of political discontent; Geng didn’t pursue this direction and, as a result, has been less successful.
To a close circle of art students who studied with Geng at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, he is an undervalued conceptual artist and a dedicated professor who initiated an arts programme titled ‘Studio of Basics’, which placed an emphasis on helping students develop an awareness and appreciation of the foundations of art-making. In 1986, Geng co-founded the artist group Pond, with fellow artists including Zhang Peili. They experimented with a series of site-specific interventions in public areas in Hangzhou. For instance, they put up large paper cut-outs of a diagram of tai chi movements on the wall of a small street they often passed on the way to school (Work No. 1, ‘Yang Style Tai Chi Series’, 1986). The work was a response to two common tendencies amongst Chinese artists at the time: exaggerating the philosophical nature of art making, and stressing the social and critical responsibility of artists. In the eyes of the Pond group, both opinions risked instrumentalizing artistic practice. Instead, they tried to experiment with daily life and the limits of what could be considered art; the site where Work No. 1 took place, for instance, was also where people practiced tai chi every morning. Geng co-curated two postcard exhibitions, inviting artists to contribute proposals to two themes: Agreed to the Date 26 Nov. 1994 as a Reason (1994) and 45 Degrees as a Reason (1995). The titles are symptomatic of Geng’s practice, in that they offer some sort of a rule, or a seemingly arbitrary standard, as the basic structure within which an artist can assert his or her subjectivity.
Most of Geng’s work is, however, absent from most histories of contemporary art practice in China. Most of these accounts focus either on works with literal references to social and political events or on those that can be seen as testimony to a progression of aesthetic developments and stylistic innovation. Due to their uncompromising simplicity, Geng’s works are hard to categorize or even describe for many Chinese art critics and historians.
This solo exhibition of Geng’s practice from 1985 to 2008 was a rare chance to experience the breadth of his work. The show was a good example of an artist confronting his own practice head-on, with a considerable amount of honesty and clarity. The fact that the exhibition had no curator and the catalogue didn’t include a single piece of writing about Geng’s practice was apt: there was no self-indulgence or vanity in his attempt at self-reflection.
In the first gallery, on the right-hand side, Geng presented photographs of shadows on water (Water Shadow, 2000–01), traces of water (Trace of Water, 2000), photographs of opened bottles in front of windows (The Window’s World, 2008) and scratches (Evidence of Attrition, 2001). There were also two sequences of photographs documenting the lives of a man and a woman, from birth to middle-age, by showing the photographs used on their identity cards, bus tickets, work permits and so on (Definitely Her, 1998/2012).
In the room on the left, Geng placed The Second State among various works from the 1990s, such as The First Series of Eight Steps and The Second Series of Eight Steps (both 1991). In both of the latter works, eight paper cut-outs of a male head are accompanied by eight written instructions as to how to laugh out loud and then return your face to a normal expression. The instructions were given in the form of a musical score. It was a strong statement: by placing his iconic work among lesser-known pieces that represent an escape from the ideological frenzy of the 1980s and early ’90s in China, the artist effectively highlighted the relevance of The Second State within his own thinking.
When asked about the logic behind the organization of the exhibition, Geng responded: ‘It was mainly driven by a matter of convenience, what’s available and what’s not […] The works that needed to be shipped through customs were not considered, neither were those that would not fit the physical conditions of the exhibition space.’ The title of the show, ‘Wu Zhi’, translates as ‘ignorance’ but was deliberately left un-translated; it allowed for an openness for interpretation, an attitude that shaped the entire exhibition and cast light on more than 20 years of Geng’s thinking, rather than trying to pack everything into one box.