In comparison to the buzzing southern metropolis of Shenzhen where his exhibition is located, Jia Aili’s northeastern hometown of Dandong, a little city on the Sino-North Korean border, has long been referred to as a historical city. Dandong and Shenzhen, at opposite ends of the country, are two cities with completely different fates, fates that correspond to the difference between China before and after Reform and Opening. Of course for Jia, who was not born until 1979, Dandong was only a starting point: one moment full of the urgency and anticipation of facing the unknown, a sentiment echoed by the exhibition title, “Good Morning, World!” It goes without saying that the exclamation smacks of the literary tone of wide-eyed romantic youth. Indeed, it corresponds with the actual age of the artist and curator, as well as the pre-determined nature of the exhibition—one of the stated goals of the “OCAT Youth Plan.”
Upon entering the exhibition, the curator’s force of control and creative vision are impressed upon the viewer. More than once before, Jia Aili has unleashed his inherently wild ambitions onto the exhibition space, but this time he has, for obvious reasons, been subjected to external constraints. It is this move of curatorial mitigation that draws the audience’s line of vision away from their admiration of Jia’s often ostentatious presentation style, and brings the pedigree of the artist’s works into focus. The exhibition entrance is adorned with a painting bearing the image of Lenin. This work, which shares the name of the exhibition, depicts a giant statue of Lenin lying recumbent in a dense forest. Jia’s famous white lines both lightly trace the contours of the forest and simultaneously articulate the outline of what looks a lot like a dragonfly net in the center of the frame. The most thought-provoking text to appear in the painting is, unexpectedly, entirely in English, a line that reads “Good morning, world.” From this initial gesture on, the exhibition exposes the curators’ conscious process of construction, as well as the depth and variation of Jia’s oeuvre. The curators have, in other words, attempted to tidy up and sort out what it is that the works express. However, inevitably, the effort to create something logically sound, or at least to achieve some kind of internal justification of form, quickly turns into a rather thorny undertaking.
As a response to this problem, the installation of a newsreel about Jia Aili at the end of the exhibition was indeed a good idea—save for the fact that the introduction of supplemental media images may be adding narrative pressure to readings of his paintings. At the start, the film places its own narration within a greater overall context. As the film offers individual memories of Jia’s upbringing and artistic circumstances, it also incorporates him into a certain historical complex. Yet most of the time, what he himself expresses in his work is not so much a profound history: most often it is something only seemingly profound, constructed in the name of “history.” This is exactly the function of Jia’s symbolism. Without a doubt, if we approach it from this perspective, “Good Morning, World” is no longer just an exhibition full of symbols. We gaze at his renderings of Lenin, Yuri Gagarin, rockets after launch, Dong Fang Hong I (China’s first man-made satellite), naked people in old-fashioned gas masks, Young Pioneers, and desolate landscapes all riddled with those white lines, looking for something. But it is only after we allow these symbols to take on a poetic sentiment—whether or not this sentiment is encapsulated in the exhibition layout itself—that the narrative’s true intention comes alive, not in the sense that Jia is here to tell the world everything that happened last night, but rather in the sense that he is here to reveal his own aesthetic attitude, an originality springing forth from the multitude of perspectives. Sun Dongdong