Symbols dance across the canvas, forming wave patterns, rhomboids and squares. Abbreviations and iterations of traditional, simplified and imaginary versions of Chinese characters are ordered in nonsense sentences, their expressive power limited to the aesthetic. In her series ‘The Chinese Version’ (2011–ongoing), the Beijing-born artist Jia represents the programmatic mutilation of her native language in stark black and white, using hand-painted characters rendered in a typeface designed shortly after the introduction of printing presses to China in the late 19th century. Formal considerations undermine political agendas, both an appeal to cultural memory and a critique of its obliteration. Concurrent with Jia’s first solo show of the ‘The Chinese Version’ at Arratia Beer in Berlin, five works from the series are on view at the Center for Art and Media Technology, ZKM, in Karlsruhe as part of the larger programme ‘Infosphere’, contextualizing Jia’s work within discussions of communication and language in the digital age.
The ideologically motivated restructuring of language has a storied history: signs change according to function as much as to political and aesthetic dictates. Language operates in a cannibalistic, palimpsestic system: neologisms are invented using existing words and subcultures form distinct argots. Ideological interference in that system, then, strikes at the heart of cultural meaning. George Orwell recognized this when he coined the term ‘Newspeak’ in his novel 1984 (1948) to describe the totalitarian language created by the state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought and expression. In a not-dissimilar fashion, Mao Zedong’s literary reforms of the 1950s in China eradicated two-thirds of Chinese characters. In traditional Chinese, characters function both as signifiers and image-signs. The state-imposed, simplified characters still in use today lack this function, having been bureaucratically mutilated, apparently at random. Jia’s work challenges Mao’s restructuring of the language by retrieving now-obsolete signs and reinstating their ideographic function, such as in One Hundred Birds and One Hundred Fishes (both 2015). Other works negate the semantic structure of Mao’s programme by aligning characters in an aesthetic rather than a grammatical structure, rendering it meaningless.
In Jia’s works, the ideogram and its appearance are privileged over the characters themselves or their arrangement, and thus over any kind of semiotic meaning. The ‘wave works’ (Untitled, 2012) in ‘The Chinese Version’ employ the crippled signs in undulating patterns that reflect the artist’s debt to op art. However, she is not merely aiming to invoke the contingency of perception – when we become aware of the dual visual existence of the characters and the shapes they form, it also serves as a reminder that language creates illusions. The act of semantic refusal – the lack of meaning created by privileging
the formal arrangement of characters over proper sentences – was also a fundamental property of dada and of Tristan Tzara’s nonsense poetry. Although the resistance to meaning at that time also had a political agenda, Jia’s use of language, unlike dada’s, conforms to no meaningful grammatical rules. Rather than ribaldry and surrealism, when Jia uses humour, it is a wry comment on the irony of rescuing banned symbols from the past only to render them illegible or meaningless through their arrangement.
In one of her works, Untitled (2014), Jia uses a derivative of the character 非 (fei), which was traditionally used to negate the noun that followed (as in ‘un-‘ or ‘anti-‘ in English) but which has since been stripped of this use. The artist arranged fei in a series of cubic shapes that recall the classic cube/plane illusion, but that can essentially be read as a series of ‘not’s. The repetition of the negation serves to underscore the absurdity of the defunct linguistic proposition: as fei in its old use is central to pre-revolutionary texts, the severance from its former meaning is also a tool to control access to these texts, imposing a form of cultural blindness.
What elevates the works in ‘The Chinese Version’ from illustrating a political problem to a canny commentary and melancholic lament is Jia’s defiant return of the ideographic capacity to a language shorn of it, but in such a way that meaning is either lost, or only present in a metaphorical capacity. The artist invokes the characters’ absence from contemporary language by returning a purely aestheticized presence. ‘The Chinese Version’ serves as a warning that access to cultural history and identity is fragile at best.
First published in Issue 177