ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe

Jia, Untitled, 2012. Excerpt from The Chinese Version. Acrylic on canvas, 200 × 200 cm.

September 21, 2015

Jia. The Chinese Version
Part of the GLOBALE exhibition Infosphere

September 5, 2015−January 31, 2016 

ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
Lorenzstrasse 19
76135 Karlsruhe


Curated by Peter Weibel with Daria Mille and Giulia Bini

The cultural atrocity of Chinese character simplification that began in the 1950s and remains, by force of law, in the People’s Republic of China through the present day, has not only degraded the aesthetic properties of the Chinese written character: the program has also gravely hindered literacy in all but recent official texts by means of a haphazard formal reduction of the number of  strokes, eliminating two-thirds of the characters from the lexicon of those allowed for publication. 

In Jia‘s (b.1979) The Chinese Version, currently on view at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe as part of the exhibition Infosphere, characters are arranged according to formal rather than semantic criteria. Each character may therefore retain its individual meaning, but not its function as a sequential syntagm. 

This strategy invests the characters with a formal aspect to “replace” that which was mutilated by the state’s program of formal character simplification imposed for propagandistic ends. The artist achieves this while appearing to imitate the outward aspect of printed characters, thereby implicitly turning against itself the pretext of character simplification for the sake of efficiency. Despite their printed appearance, the artist paints the works by hand. 

Chinese characters traditionally had a dual role as both semantic signifiers and image-signs. But the simplification program’s formal changes ended their role as image-signs, which had evolved over millennia. Given the destruction of their inherent image-sign capacity, the artist’s choice to present each work as a painting (traditionally the medium of illusionistic likeness) alludes to her aspiration to re-invest Chinese written characters with an image capacity. 

These works juxtapose simplified characters with the “lost” characters excluded by official general publication guidelines. By their very presence in the paintings, these “illegal” characters constitute further repudiation of a policy of cultural degradation.

To say that these formal arrangements are without internal semantic relations is not to say that they are without meaning. As ensembles, they generate collective arrays that simultaneously operate as image-signs (e.g. as dynamic patterns of waves or other movements) or, in their conceptual aspect, as symbols of opposition to an imposed debasement of language and culture, in the service of ideology. 

Just as literacy in Chinese is not strictly necessary in order to perceive the implications of these works, neither is their critique of state-mandated cultural degradation limited to a Chinese condition.  

An exhibition catalogue for The Chinese Version is published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König with texts by Oona Lochner, Drew Hammond, and Paul Gladston. 

Jia at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
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September 21, 2015

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