At Point Zero:
The Chinese Video Pioneer Zhu Jia

His works can currently be seen in the exhibition “Time Present,” which is touring Asia with works from the Deutsche Bank Collection. While video artist Zhu Jia is legendary for the young Chinese art scene, the West is only beginning to discover him.
It’s more or less by accident that Zhu Jia became a pioneer of Chinese video art. In the late 1980s, while he was still studying oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he was called upon to film a friend’s wedding: “The camera was in a case that looked like a video cassette. That was very modern at the time,” he recalled in an interview in 2013. “At first, everything worked out fine, but then I forgot to turn off the camera because I was so busy, and so it just kept recording. I only realized my mistake after I got back home. But I found some of the images very interesting. They seemed to correspond to my perception, although in retrospect I can’t really say if I was able to consciously remember these moments.”

Following his eight-year-long highly rigorous course of study, Zhu Jia decided to give up his painting career to work mainly with video. Forever is the title of one of the path-breaking early works he made a few years later in 1994, at the start of China’s new economic miracle. The work uses chance as a concept. A small video camera is installed on the left wheel of a traditional three-wheel bicycle of the kind that can be found by the millions in Beijing. As the bike travels through the city streets, the video image literally spins around through the camera’s position, and the viewer is drawn into an endlessly rotating movement that turns the city and its bustling activity, lights, and crowds of people upside-down until it dissolves in a blur. Like an abstract overload of color, form, and sound, the film shows booming Beijing as an inner and outer state, a completely subjective as well as overtaxing experience.

With its allusions to tradition and to modernity, Forever refers to the radical change in culture that’s taken place in China since Zhu Jia graduated. Hopes for democratization and a relaxing of the ever-present one-party-rule that had been kindled in the 1980s following the end of the Cultural Revolution came to an abrupt halt following the repression of the student revolts on Tian’anmen Square in June of 1989. And they led to a surprising turn of events: from 1992 on the gouvernment took decisive steps toward economic liberalization and opened up the country’s economy to a globalized world market. Instead of the longed-for ideological revolution, an economic revolution took place. The boom led to a rapid rise in living standards and a moderate liberalization that included tolerance for a variety of different lifestyles and value judgments, and this proved to be enough for most Chinese. And many of the students who had taken part in the protests found lucrative jobs in the burgeoning private industry sector. Thus, the political energy was successfully channeled into consumerism.

The notion of an “inner landscape” as Zhu Jia formulates it in the hypnotic images of Forever finds its counterpart in films with static or minimalistic camera shots influenced by the work of the legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1959). In an almost obsessive manner, Zhu Jia focuses on everyday, simple things; in Purported Repetition (1997), for instance, he places a camera inside a refrigerator to record the endless repetition of the door’s opening and closing. Both in the revolving motion of Forever and the monotonous repetition of Purported Repetition, the position of the camera remains constant; it’s clearly not a matter of illusionistic optical effects, but a kind of experiment concerning the perception of reality. What might seem like a purely formal exercise to a western art viewer carries a different level of meaning in the context of the political situation in China. As curator Hou Hanru explains in his 2008 essay on Zhu Jia, his film and conceptual projects began in the early 1990s, in an era when Chinese artists and intellectuals were reading the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, which—in contrast to the dialectical materialism the party preached—postulated that there is no uniform, binding perception, and thus no objective “truth.”
In this respect, Zhu Jia’s works are not to be regarded as unequivocal statements, but as open questions. The camera’s subjective gaze, the long, repetitive, almost meditative fixation on objects, people, and urban spaces conveys a search for identity—but also the ideological and collective normative view that penetrates into life’s most intimate and private areas. This can also be seen in Did They Have Sexual Relation?, the provocative action of 1995 in which Zhu Jia penetrated the city space of Beijing. His assistant held up a sign to passers-by with the less than specific question Did They Have Sexual Relation?, upon which Zhu Jia took photographs. One can see from the upset or repellent looks that people interpreted the question personally, in terms of their own private lives, and reacted to it as though it were an accusation. Evidently, they felt caught in the act and immediately assumed their “public,” stereotypical roles: a pair of lovers, tourists, a business man with his girlfriend.

Today Zhu Jia is one of China’s most important artists. His video works have influenced a young generation that includes Cao Fei and Yang Fudong, both of whom were shown at the Venice Biennale and have enjoyed international attention. Like Zhu Jia, they are represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, and like him, their films, installations, and photographic works critically address the ambivalent realities in modern China.

Again and again, Zhu Jia scratches the surface of the image of the modern Chinese consumerist society. In 2002, in his video Never Take Off, he filmed a Boeing 747 circling endlessly on the takeoff runway. The passengers waited for the plane to take off, but nothing happened—an obvious metaphor for a stagnating political situation lacking in vision and social or economic perspective. And his 2012 film Zero portrays urban identity at point zero. Parts of the photo series of the same title can now be seen in Time Present, an exhibition with international photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection currently making a guest appearance at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and scheduled to travel on to Mumbai.

In Zero, a woman appears in various different roles and situations in a range of locations around Beijing: as a photo model posing before a beach backdrop lit by spots; on an industrial plot of land; smoking in front of projections of residential areas. One scene could be straight out of a Douglas Sirk Hollywood melodrama: the woman is wearing a 1950s dress with a white collar, standing all alone in a gray courtyard. Her arms are extended in a pose somewhere between resignation and anticipation, while bushes and trees cast dramatic shadows on the anonymous building façade—everything seems completely artificial and exaggerated. The film is augmented by intermittent monologues and fragments of dialogue: “Can you find a reason for what you did?,” “I still don’t understand,” “My life isn’t only now.” Zero speaks of a melancholy distance—both to stereotypical representations of the self and to the society it gives rise to. Zero can be interpreted as a critical commentary on the flood of images in late capitalist consumerist society, but also as a reflection on a speechlessness and tremendous alienation from the self.

Today’s situation shows how little has changed in the Communist party’s stance since the economic reforms: shortly before the 25th anniversary of the Peking massacre in June 2014, access to all of Google’s services in China was blocked for the first time. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, while the websites of human rights organizations and foreign media such as The New York Times and the Bloomberg news agency have been unavailable for some time already.

Zhu Jia responds to this ambivalent situation in his most recent work, for which he returns to classical painting, albeit with conceptual purpose: for The Face of Facebook (2013), he asked artist friends, including many prominent figures on the Chinese art scene such as Liu Xiaodong, Yan Pei-Ming, and Yang Fudong, to make a painting of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The photo they were asked to work from is the now iconic portrait photograph from the 2010 article in The New Yorker. The portrait, taken in profile, makes Zuckerberg look like a modern Caesar immortalized on a coin. The subtitle reads like a declaration of war: “The C.E.O. of Facebook wants to create, and dominate, a new kind of Internet.” In an interview, Zhu Jia said that the image reminded him of the Mao buttons on the clothes of his childhood.

The artists behind each of the 67 Zuckerberg portraits remains a secret—the paintings are shown anonymously, in the plurality of all their different artistic signatures, and exclusively as an overall work of art. With The Face of Facebook, Zhu Jia metaphorically replaces Facebook, which is unavailable in China, with his own conspiratorial network based on friendship and trust. The painting installation is a reflection both on social networks in contemporary Chinese art and the ideological war concealed behind the battle over the Internet market. Zuckerberg’s victorious pose, painted again and again in a variety of styles, also betrays something ridiculous and helpless. And this goes not only for him, but also for painting in general. Zhu Jia’s installation questions not only the rules of politics and economy, but also that of art. And, in a very direct manner, he asks what voice art can still have in the future in the face of these radical changes.