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Last Days of Village Wen

Tensions and contradictions abound in the work of contemporary artist Ji Yun-Fei
Anita Chung, Former Curator of Chinese Art
December 21, 2015

Last Days of Village Wen, (detail) 2011. Ji Yun-Fei (Chinese, born 1963). Ink and color on paper; 37.8 x 953.2 cm. The Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 2012.99

The concept of showcasing contemporary art in relation to its inherited cultural tradition has sparked many interesting exhibitions in recent years. Not merely a fashionable juxtaposition of past and present, this kind of curatorial experimentation serves to effectively articulate the complex and multifaceted relationships between traditional and contemporary works. In the case of Chinese painting, the relationship between past and present often goes beyond the technical aspects of using brush and ink for individual expression. It involves a broader sphere, which requires a deeper understanding of the artist’s place within the contexts of history and culture. The art of Ji Yun-Fei provides a fascinating case study.

Ji’s artistic conceptions, though prompted by contemporary events and experiences, find echoes in traditional elements borrowed from history, myths, and collective memories. Whether commenting on current events with traditional Chinese art language or using the past as a satire of the present, he is interested in how tensions and contradictions heighten our ability to observe and understand. Last Days of Village Wen, acquired by the museum in 2012, looks at the contemporary issues of environmental degradation and human migration. Using the traditional scroll format, Ji takes us to a fictional village that faces problems of water shortage, home evacuation, and migration. He inscribes the title Wen cun ji shi (Documentary of Village Wen), exploring the ambiguity between fiction and reality.


The scroll begins with a seemingly tranquil environment, like a retreat borrowed from a traditional Chinese painting. But the residents of Village Wen are not free of the cares of the world. They slowly pack their belongings, waiting for their move. Sitting amidst a disorderly array of material possessions, they have no expectations of fulfillment—an ironic twist to the traditional ideal of contemplating in nature to escape the dusty world. Whereas the fisherman-hermit in a typical Yuan literati painting symbolizes leisure and humble seclusion, the depressing scene of Village Wen points to the loss of this natural retreat as a promise of peaceful life. The old idea of harmony with nature is no longer upheld.

According to the artist’s colophon, the villagers face a water crisis, including drought and pollution. The few who did not want to look for jobs in cities had decided to raise fish in addition to growing crops. But it has not rained for months at Village Wen. The drought has dried up the riverbed and the crops are stunted. After a downpour, the polluted river flows again. No one anticipates that all the fish that have been raised for years will suddenly die overnight.

The second scroll offers a more dramatic development of this story. Out of their lands, the migrants struggle to eke out a meager existence. They are swept away by a vortex of violent winds and float in voids. Peddlers snap up a cartload of tools for sale but are evacuated by a city cadre. Animals and monstrous beasts drift along; ghosts and skeletons return; threats and hazards abound.

This work compels us to meditate on the human condition in the face of environmental degradation and displacement. The story addresses China’s water crisis and the highly controversial South-North Water Diversion Project, an ambitious hydro-engineering project involving a network of canals and tunnels designed to transfer water from the Yangzi River in the south to the arid north. Ecological impact aside, this project incurs massive human migration under the “residents resettlement scheme.”

Village Wen is also a contemporary story of migration. Most fascinating is the artist’s attempt to emphasize the uncertainties and disorientation that result from the migration process. To communicate this story Ji reverts to past experimentations, borrowing the grotesque images he invented for earlier works, especially his history paintings, to reiterate the sober human experiences repeated throughout history. Deformed humans, wandering ghosts and skeletons, hybrid creatures, and mutated species—Ji has devised a rich repertoire of bizarre and fantastic images with which he creates hallucinatory and thrilling dramas as critiques of human brutalities and moral decrepitude in modern China.

Inspired by the ghostlore of ancient writers and folk stories transmitted orally in villages during his childhood, Ji fully explores the ghost’s critical and creative potentials for satire. The subtle use of satirical metaphors was a common expressive strategy in classical Chinese literature and painting. The late 13th- to early 14th-century masterwork The Lantern Night Excursion of Zhong Kui by Yan Hui in the museum collection is an example.


The Lantern Night Excursion of Zhong Kui (detail) late 1200s–early 1300s. Yan Hui (Chinese, c. 1250–c. 1300). Handscroll; ink and slight color on silk; 25.7 x 904.4 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1961.206

Ji’s concerns have always centered around the impact of China’s grand social programs on the lives of everyday people and the environment. Earlier, he created series of works on the Three Gorges Dam, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward. Public Grain, for example, addresses human exploitation of Mother Earth under the Communist directive of producing “more, faster, better, and cheaper” during the Great Leap Forward. Ji’s human figures often appear despairing and lost in their environments. They are based on his life sketches and modeled after a subgenre of Chinese figure painting devoted to impoverished street characters and beggars.

As we explore the multitude of roles that tradition plays in the contemporary art in this exhibition, we also notice the various ways that ancient and contemporary artists deal with the ever-changing world around them. Most revealing of all are the contrasts in their outlooks on life, which highlight modern society’s increasing detachment from ancient notions of harmonious relationships between people and nature. 



Public Grain 2004. Ji Yun-Fei. Color etching and aquatint; 92.5 x 72.6 cm. Gift of Judith and James A. Saks 2005.257


Cleveland Art, January/February 2016