Lot 1090
  • 1090

Jia Aili

1,200,000 - 1,600,000 HKD
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  • Jia Aili
  • Brightening World
  • oil on canvas
initialled in Pinyin and dated 2015


This work is generally in good condition. There is minor area with hairline craquelures near the lower left corner. Please note that it was not examined under ultraviolet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

All proceeds from the sale of this lot will benefit The Special Olympics. 

Art Embraces Social Cause to Build a Better Future for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Special Olympics Collaborates with Chinese Contemporary Artist Jia Aili

According to the World Health Organisation, around 3% of world’s population has intellectual disability. Through sports, health programs, education and community building, Special Olympics is addressing inactivity, injustice, intolerance and social isolation by empowering people with intellectual disabilities to lead to a more welcoming and inclusive society. Founded in 1968 by Mrs Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown from a few hundred athletes to more than 4.5 million athletes in over 170 countries. With the support of more than 1 million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics offers 32 Olympic-type sports to Special Olympics athletes and organise more than 70,000 competitions throughout the year. Special Olympics is truly an international organisation that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports every day around the world.

In the summer of 2015, inspired by the courage of Special Olympics athletes, Jia Aili created this special piece of work titled “Brightening World”, as a donation to Special Olympics for charity auction. All the funds raised through the auction will be used to further develop Special Olympics Unified Sports, Healthy Athletes programs, Athlete Leadership training and Coach training programs in East Asia to enable Special Olympics athletes to achieve their personal best and be integrated in the society as productive members. This is the first art collaboration of its kind in Special Olympics history and affirms its commitment to spread its spirit across boundaries.

A Brighter World
Jia Aili

The artist Jia Aili was born in 1979. Already, for the last half decade he has been viewed as one of the leading artists of his generation, and of the contemporary art scene in China. He works primarily as a painter but also occasionally with objects. These are usually arranged in display cases and included in an exhibition to give insight into the thought process of this very private, reclusive almost, artist. Also, the objects’ presence is to account for the elements that appear in the paintings; to contexualise their place in Jia Aili’s personal experience and within his worldview.

Contrary to the pure brightness of pigments used in Brightening World (Lot 1090), Jia Aili’s vision is often dark. Even where the palette is lighter, where the sky is blue rather than overcast, and where facial expressions carry a whimsical smile rather than numbed blankness, the general air is unsettling. In recent years, Jia Aili’s landscapes feel like a painterly parallel to familiar cinematic (Hollywood) visions of apocalypse. His world is a curious mix of hard practicality and impractical, yet all-too-human, superstition that dances around his questioning of man’s general awareness of the world in which mankind resides. Do we know what we do, he seems to ask. The power of the paintings lies in the odd juxtapositions they contain, such as the precise, meticulously drawn figures placed amidst chaotic piles of indeterminable debris. The contrasts resonate for they speak of the demons in human nature that wilfully drive wars, crises, discrimination and injustice, all of which serve to curtail man’s progress towards a meaningful form of enlightenment.

For Jia, the sparseness and alienating austerity of a post-apocalyptic world is appropriate to the world he sees today. The message gains especial prescience where the landscapes are peopled only by innocent-looking children and young adolescents. As can be seen in the attitude of the solitary being in Brightening World, there is something wholly “Hamlet” about the posturing of the figures in the paintings and, similar to a Shakespearean tragedy, the stories Jia Aili tells are timeless. These young heroes roam through Jia’s blasted landscapes guided by a higher purpose than survival alone: theirs is a hunt for meaning, which is pieced together in fragmentary fashion from the rubble of history buried in this earth. In youth, Jia finds a vehicle to convey its acts of discovery as a dance towards a deadly Pandora’s Box. Driven by curiosity and desirous of knowledge, they are almost certainly unable to handle the truths they uncover.

Brightening World is a fine example of the Hamlet in Jia Aili’s soul. Despite its seemingly colourful and motionful departure from the bleak, largely static scenes described above, its message is no less poignant. A solitary figure, that of a generic young man who we also assume signifies the artist, sits beside a tree seemingly in the aftermath of a storm. The tree appears to vibrate with the force of the wind passing through its boughs in which all manner of debris is entangled. Situated behind the figure, a series of horn-like forms suggest both the blast of the typhoon and his survival; he has come through the storm, neither defeated nor elated, but calmly stares away from us, out at the battered horizon, which is signified to us by a snaking plume of smoke rising in the distance. The figure could be sitting on the wreckage of a plane – one of Jia Aili’s favourite motifs. Indeed, his crash landing may have been the cause of the mayhem Jia depicts. Either way, our thoughts are with him, the survivor, who has defied whatever threat he encountered to be present in this painting.

Jia Aili sees himself as a “seeker of hope,”1 a phrase used as the title for a major solo exhibition in Singapore (at the Singapore Art Museum) in 2012. It was then, too, that an early version of this painting, Brightening World, made its debut; the first to introduce this unusual palette—a similar tonal range was also used for Untitled (2013-ongoing, 500 x 240cm), shown at OCAT Xi’an in 2014, and which Jia described as containing the next several decades of aesthetic problems for him to solve. In a brief few years, Jia too has weathered many storms of his own, emerging on the other side defiant, calmer, and with ever greater clarity of vision and aim. Thus hope underscores the disquiet in all the paintings and gives especial life to Brightening World.

When asked to become involved in supporting the Special Olympic programme with the donation of a painting, Jia Aili did not hesitate, but he did have a question. Might a cause like Special Olympics not need an artwork, he ventured, which projected a more hopeful message? Or, that depicted a brighter, happier, more optimistic worldview than his rather dark and pessimistic vision? We believe that what makes mankind unique, what differentiates us from animals is, on the one hand, our ability to use our hands to create—that we picked up a stone to make a tool. On the other hand, it is our ability to use language to communicate ideas and emotions—that we have self-awareness, an ego, opens us up to relationships unknown in the animal world. It often seems to be more than ever the case today that, in spite of all so-called progress and technological advance, what really makes us different from animals is our propensity for destruction, a will to violence sanctioned in the name of personal, national, economic or political supremity. Generally speaking, Jia’s paintings ask that we consider what we can look forward to if we continue to destroy what we create? They prompt us to think about what it is we value. This springs from an essential human quality for what does make us different, what unites all those who come together in support of Special Olympics, is empathy. Ultimately, that quality makes Jia Aili one of the most remarkable artists of his generation; and this donation an important, desirable and timeless work of art.

1 “Seeker of Hope” was the title Jia Aili selected for his first institutional solo exhibition at Singapore Art Museum in 2012.

by Karen Smith
Karen Smith is a curator and art critic specializing in contemporary art in China since 1979. She has written widely on the subject for numerous journals and exhibition catalogues, and is the author of numerous artist monographs. She has also authored several books on China’s contemporary art scene including the series As Seen, begun in 2012, and Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China published in 2008. She is most recently the author of the China section for Taschen’s Art Now Volume 4, in 2013.Karen joined the academic advisory board of OCAT Shenzhen in 2005, and was appointed director of OCAT Xi’an in 2012, a position she continues to hold.