And if all art were just one big joke? If the painters sacred to tradition were just pranksters, and there were as many canvases as jokes? The Occident was tempted by this: Wittgenstein dreamt of a book of philosophy that consisted solely of jokes. Painters like Leger, Dubuffet, Warhol and others delighted in jokes. And yet, nothing can compare to the work of Ji Wenyu.
The painter advances as a joker, multiplying puns, throwing fetes, and provoking unexpected liaisons (Ingres and Mickey Mouse, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Marlboro and traditional Chinese Buddhist figures). Like Watteau, Ji Wenyu is a painter of fetes.
All of this we knew already, since the first solo exhibition of Ji Wenyu's works in 1997. His new works confirm this position, yet inflect and radicalize it at the same time. They inflect it because the liaisons are less frontal, because the process of mixing culturally heterogeneous figures into the same fabric doesn't add value for Ji anymore, but serves simply as one process among others that form part of the resources of a painter. They radicalize it because the liaisons do not take place anymore when one image is placed beside another.
Historical Truth of the Liaison
The liaisons are everywhere: the Occident and Orient, flowers and insects, nature and the spectacle, men and women, materialism and communism. There is nothing else now. There are only liaisons. Take the liaison of Chinese and Western art. Ji Wenyu points out the conditions, writing: "Western cannons blew open China's closed doors." Several centuries of Western painting arrived in a few years. They arrived, mixed with other things just as new, including consumerism. So Ingres and Mickey Mouse, from a Chinese point of view, are contemporaneous. To paint Ingres dressed in the attire of Mickey Mouse is less a diversion or parody than a historical truth. For any attentive observer, this is as obvious as the presence of insects among flowers. Yet, if Ji Wenyu's new works are better than his earlier ones, this is because none of his opposites are really opposed.
It will be said that where his works were once satisfied to confront, now, they compose. The canvases gain in harmony, his well-known heads and smaller elements spread themselves out better, and are less fixed. Space is inhabited. The universe is full and closed. We are in a China where nothing is lost and where the subtle elements of every single thing communicates. Nothing is opposed and all is of use. Waste feeds the flowers which serve, in their turn, as the food of insects. Nevertheless, in this universe where all communicate, men and women do it the least easily. Never do they face each other. Instead, they need artifice, matchmakers, or games (an apple which does not fall surely makes Westerners pause a moment to reflect). All of this is as much an anthropological or social problem as it is an aesthetic one.
Francis Bacon once remarked to David Sylvester that art had not succeeded in making two figures coexist on the same fabric; that this was impossible. These are the limits of painting and what it must be measured by. Some choose abstraction to grapple with the problem, others choose conceptualism or language. Ji Wenyu has chosen to make jokes. But the problem that one faces when trying to place several figures together in a canvas is that oftentimes, they all end up mutually destroying each other. It resembles a battle between two kings in chess, which leads to a massacre and devastated lands. Still, the king has always needed a Fool to moderate the effects of a causality that threatened to overtake him: Shakespeare speaks only of this. The civilizing force of humor allows co-existence between beings and the world; jokes allow the play to remain open, lightening the effects of Time which all of us know devastate. This is the same devastation that arises for painting under the reign of images. Paintings are not completely images. The image always wants to threaten and sweep away painting. Ji Wenyu fights for painting by taking images and by creating canvases. Do the images control and decide everything? The joke is the best of all possible answers: one does not have to explain a joke and it does not need a conclusion. Therefore, the future continues, and one can hope it will be radiant.
Utopia, Wealth and Joy.
Nature is back: "Green areas and trees have been planted," he writes. "Times have changed, life has changed and things are getting better and better. The city is more and more beautiful". In his new works, all heads turn toward the garden (Central Park is now a Chinese garden), the whole world wants to get there, but there is no one there. The man with the camera is the only one who doesn't want to go. It is important for him not to budge.
Nature is back, but it is no longer the same dream: she has to be repopulated. Yet, a bower is a nice place to rest. This is not irony: it is an ideal society, where everyone has his or her own place and preoccupations: love, music, and games are everywhere for those who make and watch them. Says Ji Wenyu, "Every new year we hope for good fortune, riches and happiness. We greet and revere the God of Wealth. It seems that we are the nationality most intent on getting rich in the world"; i.e. how to get rich while still remaining Communist. Like Buddhism several centuries back, Communism has become Chinese. China is the last large country in the world that remains Communist, the only nation that has succeeded in maintaining a system based on the construction of an ideal society.
Est-ce vraiment une blague?