Acclaimed painter Ji Yunfei discussed a selection of his work at the 2011 James H. Dempsey Jr. Guest Lecture on Friday, December 2. This talk was presented in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibition Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904–1965).
Like Fu Baoshi, Ji Yunfei borrows techniques from the ancient Chinese masters and uses traditional media to convey modern ideas. Yet unlike Fu Baoshi, who maintained diplomatic relations with the Chinese government during his lifetime, Ji is not shy in his criticisms of government programs and abuse of power.
Born in 1963, Ji Yunfei grew up during the final years of China’s Cultural Revolution. By the time he attended art school as a young man, most of the era’s censures on artists had lifted—“it was a moment of possibilities,” he explained—but the legacy of censorship lived on through his teachers, many of whom had been silenced for years during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Ji’s painting Seven Intellectuals updates the ancient Chinese theme of the seven scholars by portraying them on a collective farm. “I had my teachers in mind for this painting,” Ji said. “Here I have them working on a farm… I feel that they were not able to do what they wanted to do.”
Much of Ji Yunfei’s work focuses on the themes of displacement, migration, and ruin, which he sees as side effects of government attempts at progress. His scroll The Three Gorges Dam Migration shows the social upheaval caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, a project designed to produce power and promote trade that has also resulted in the displacement of over one million people. In the painting, a fantastical, black-snouted creature is integrated in the human crowd. Ji remarked: “You see a strange animal appear once in a while—I was using metaphorical language to suggest threatening forces at work. I drew my inspiration from my observation of the event, and also from folklore and legend.”
Another of Ji’s paintings, Below the 143 Meter Watermark, puts a spin on the traditional Chinese monumental landscape by depicting a mountain scene crowded with modern buildings. “We cannot look at nature as the classical artists and poets did—as a place to draw a lesson,” Ji commented. “We must see it as our own ethical failing—a reflection of us.”
Paola Morsiani, Cleveland Museum of Art curator of contemporary art, followed Ji Yunfei’s presentation with a brief discussion of three other Chinese artists of Ji’s generation: Huang Yong Ping, Zhang Huan, and Ai Weiwei. Unlike Ji, these artists made a dramatic break from Eastern artistic tradition, borrowing instead from the Western avant-garde movement in the realms of sculpture and performance art. Yet their work often embodies political criticisms similar to Ji Yunfei’s own. “I feel the avant-garde tradition from the West is very powerful, but the Eastern tradition is powerful as well,” Ji concluded. “We have our own way of criticizing power that may be more coded, but we !
understand it… Sometimes I find that a quiet voice is more powerful than shouting.”