Good Morning, World (Lot 913) is an important work that exemplifies the aesthetic vision of Jia Aili, the most noted young Chinese artist working today. Jia was born in 1979, in the wake of the ten-year-long Cultural Revolution as China embarked on economic reform. Although Jia knows the socialist past only vaguely, its ideologies and especially his childhood memories of it remain important influences on his creative work. Good Morning, World features a sculpture of Lenin lying in a forest. Thematically similar to Jia’s other fantastical scenes, it articulates a new historical perspective for young artists as well as an attitude that differs from artists of the previous generation. It is invaluable in helping us understand Jia Aili’s work.

Jia grew up in Dandong, Liaoning in northeast China, separated from North Korea only by the Yalu River. Upon graduating from the Oil Painting Department of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2004, he remained there as an instructor until 2007, when he left Shenyang for a studio in Beijing. As is the case for many artists of his generation, Jia finds inspiration from his own life above all and explores the conditions for individual existence. In the Ruins series that made him famous early on, he reflected on the inner life of young people through imaginary scenes and post-apocalyptic ruins painted in forceful, almost explosive brushwork. Although Jia now resides in Beijing, his childhood memories of Yalu River continue to affect his work and are often thematised in it. Politics and ideologies have never interested Jia, and almost none of his paintings are explicitly political, but whether intentional or not his recollections do embody his perspective on China’s past. Good Morning, World is a precious example of this.

Here we see Lenin’s statue lying quietly in a densely layered forest next to a butterfly net. The morning sun illuminates the ground, but the scene remains silent. Perhaps the generation after the Cultural Revolution is incapable of understanding the fanaticism and idealism of the period. Though they might ambivalently yearn for it, they find this history to be mostly vague and alien. Has Lenin been forgotten by history? Or have we forgotten history? The forlorn, fluttering butterfly net symbolises young people’s alienation from the past. Jia confronts this trace of history earnestly and without judgment. Interestingly, his grandfather was a member of the Communist Party whose bookcases were filled with books on Leninism and Marxism, “those yellow-covered books were all over his cabinets. I read almost none of the words but looked at all the pictures, which were part of my life.”1 Seizing on the contours of the period, Jia, like fellow artist Chou Xiaofei represents the historical perspective of a generation of young artists. “For me, no matter how objectively history is presented, it always conceals many secrets and deserves our excavation. The implicit significances and agendas of history are what I seek.”2

Heir to the Soviet Social Realist tradition, Jia Aili received strict training in figure painting at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. “When I first started learning painting, I was influenced by figurative painters like Lucian Freud and Liu Xiaodong. Their kind of paintings has always encouraged me to use a relatively realist mode of representation. In my student days, Liu moved and touched me countless times with his delicate rendition of social reality and group
mentality.”3 Jia’s idiosyncratic paintings are infused with observations on his own existence and his own views on history. He never flaunts his virtuosic technical mastery of oil painting, but rather has always sought to create a gnawing sense of tragedy. The source of tragedy is Jia’s own depression, but it also reflects his generation’s escapism and resistance in the face of a rapidly transforming society. “People who are my age are repressed and melancholy, while I am depressed... I don’t have any concrete contradictions in front of me, but only an inchoate malaise.”4 This may even involve uncertainty about the future. “I believe that those adults who once gave us hope will never give us tomorrow’s answers … In a new century we still live ordinary lives.”5

Full of prophetic symbols, Good Morning, World is a cryptic fable. In a chaotic and fragmented world, everything is disintegrating. For the artist, painting seems to be a way of holding onto existence. “When, alone in the studio, I put my depression as paint on canvas, I do feel quite happy.”6

Jia’s paintings betray little political and social consciousness and tend towards the personal and the private. Their emotional expressions are restrained and calm, perhaps almost cruel. This is not surprising for an artist who came of age at a time of highly-developed networks but also of interpersonal alienation. 

1 Confirmed and Unconfirmed or Unsolved Mysteries: Conversations Between Jia Aili and Feng Boyi, 2010
2 Jia Aili: To Go From Within a Chaotic Reality – Conversations with Zhu Zhu, 2010
3 Refer to 1
4 "The Anonymous Melancholic: Conversations with Jia Aili," an interview with Jia Aili by Fu Xiaodong and Sun Ning, March 2006
5 Refer to 4
6 Refer to 4 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG