On large format canvases, she hand paints Chinese characters using always the same typeface which was designed shortly after printing presses came to use in China and Japan and which “evokes the mechanization of products ‘perfectly’ made by machine”.
The cultural atrocity of Chinese character simplification that began in the 1950’s, remains by force of law in the People’s Republic of China through the present day. The Simplification Program degraded not only aesthetic properties of Chinese characters, but also hindered literacy in all but recent official texts. The Simplification Program had two aspects: a haphazard formal reduction of the number strokes in Chinese characters, and the elimination of approximately two thirds of characters from the lexicon of those allowed for publication.
For her first solo exhibition at Arratia Beer, Jia presents text-based paintings of her series, The Chinese Version. In The Chinese Version paintings, the arrangements of characters are according to formal, not semantic, criteria. Each character therefore may retain its individual meaning, but not its function as a syntactical unit of a sentence.
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.
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 debasement.
Since Jia works in a variety of mediums, it is pertinent to ask why she has chosen to render these works as paintings. One reason is that traditional Chinese characters had a dual role: like any writing, they were semantic signifiers, but unlike most other writing, they were, simultaneously, pictographic/ideographic image-signs. Because the Simplification Program annihilated their role as image-signs, the choice of the medium of painting on canvas (the traditional conveyance of a Western illusionistic image) alludes to the fact that these works re-invest Chinese characters with an image capacity, albeit one entirely contrived by the artist.
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.
In Jia’s work multi-layered entanglements of form and content point to the complexity of her topic and raise questions about language, communication, and cultural heritage that extend beyond a specific moment in Chinese history.
Recalling some basic techniques of Dadaism, which emphasize the illustrative qualities of language, Jia creates minimalist compositions of abandoned or crippled words, creating a new aesthetic apart from calligraphic norms. One could read her work as an archive of linguistic left-overs, remembering eliminated words intertwined with abstract concepts and ideas. Jia’s technique evokes a history of dystopian visions, rooted in the homogenization of language as a means of systematic cultural reformation. From Orwellian thoughtcrimes to the concrete poetry movement, Jia’s work is situated within a history of attempts to save the potentialities of linguistic expression and develop a practice of linguistic transgression.