A prominent figure in China’s ’85 New Wave movement, Geng Jianyi passed away on 5 December 2017 at age 55.

In December 2017, Geng Jianyi passed away after a battle with cancer in Hangzhou, China. Art Radar reviews the artist’s three decade-long career in a tribute artist profile.

Geng Jianyi 耿建翌 'The Second State', 1987, 130 x 196cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Shanghart.

Geng Jianyi 耿建翌 ‘The Second State’, 1987, 130 x 196cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy ShanghART.

Geng Jianyi: an ’85 New Wave pioneer

The artist was best known for his larger-than-life oil portraits of laughing faces, which he completed in the 1980s. Geng Jianyi was a seminal figure in China’s ’85 New Wave, a nationwide movement that emerged from post-Cultural Revolution China, which championed avant-garde techniques, churned out manifestos and staged exhibitions. Geng Jianyi’s conceptual pieces were included in now-landmark exhibitions such as the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show at the National Art Museum of China, and most recently in the Solomon R. Guggenheim‘s 2017- 2018 show “Art and China After 1989: Theatre of the World”.

In 2008, the current director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, Paul Gladston, wrote:

[…] Geng’s far less predictable (and rather more self-effacing) artistic output has been characterized by an immanent vagueness of content and lack of formal completeness that would appear to play deliberately at the very margins not only of what might be thought of legitimately as ‘art’, but also of a readily recognizable Chinese cultural identity.

Elaborating on Geng’s work, Gladston continued to write that “This self-consciously evasive strategy can be traced back to one of Geng’s earliest mature works, The Second State (1987)”. Describing it as a “serial depiction of disingenuous laughter”, Gladston noted that the work “provided the iconic starting point for a glut of ostensibly similar works by other Chinese artists”.

The work in question is a oil on canvas painting measuring 130 by 196 centimetres, depicting two blown-up, side-by-side faces twisted in hysterical laughter. ShanghART Gallery describes the work as “appearing like masks”, and an “awkwardness towards the social reality at that time”; indeed, Geng’s faces border between laughter and grimace. The artist had began these portraits of laughing faces in 1986, the same year that he co-founded the short-lived artist collective Pond Society.

Geng Jianyi, 'Two People Under a Light', 1985. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Geng Jianyi, ‘Two People Under a Light’, 1985. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Geng Jianyi and Hangzhou’s avant-garde Pond Society

Geng Jianyi’s legacy is firmly bound up with the ’85 New Wave art movement in China. After Mao Zedong’s sustained purge of the intelligentsia and educated classes, the years 1985 and 1986 were a hotbed of cultural activity. The Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture cites 79 self-organised avant-garde art groups emerging in these years, with a total of 149 exhibitions organised by them. Not excluded from this artistic milieu, Geng Jianyi’s Pond Society centred around Hangzhou.

Established with Zhang Peili and Song Ling, the collective staged audacious public interventions that addressed their audience. Their first collective activity, Work No. 1, Yang Taiji Series, comprised large newspaper cut-out figures pasted on the wall of the China Academy of Fine Arts. Exploring social concerns and attitudes towards modern life through a conceptual, sometimes even tongue-in-cheek approach, the group professed their aim as an “attempt to have a pure experience in searching for an intuitive condition”.

Geng’s involvement with the Pond Society had highlighted his own rebelliousness to traditional art contexts; removing art from the straitened and narrow contexts of art academies, museums and other institutions, the Pond Society took their installations and performative works to a wider audience beyond the four walls. In the wake of the Pond Society, the experimental nature of Geng’s works did not end; apart from The Second State, Geng went on to produce works such as Tap Water Factory (1987), Forms and Certificates (1988) and Building No. 5 (1990).

Each of these works often made their viewers participants in the work of art itself, breaking down the conventional roles and relationships that constituted the making and viewing of a work of art. Writing in 1988 that Chinese art “neglected” the “relation between audience and work, viewing and being viewed”, and that “this is not simply about the meaning of a work or the audience’s response to it but the relationship between the two”, Geng’s art contributed to a new approach in Chinese contemporary art that emerged in this seminal decade.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Geng Jianyi, installation view at “The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Experimentation and political expression

For much of the experimentation and cultural advances that China made during the period, the turn of the decade brought one of the greatest challenges yet. On 4 June 1989, the Tiananmen Square incident saw its culmination, creating one of the most historic moments in modern Chinese history. Karen Smith, in her book on the Chinese Avant-Garde, notes that Geng Jianyi and a friend “vented their spleen”. Executing a scene of the Tiananmen Square incident from a newspaper in violent shades of red, the artists hung the work over Hangzhou’s busiest street, immediately prompting its investigation and removal.

Yet, the 1990s also marked a decade where Geng produced one of his most important body of works. Taking the common, everyday identity photo, Geng began to create some of the most though-provoking works of the decade, evoking questions of identity in these portrait-like pictures. Proof of Existence and Identity Cards became works that sought to answer what it meant to exist in a modern society, marking out the passage of a person’s life through the numerous ID photos that he would take over the course of a lifespan. By the late 1990s he had also turned his attention to photography, experimenting with darkroom techniques on portraits, often drawing on photographs himself. The works blend painting and photography together, adding to his extensive oeuvre that had, by then, already encompassed multiple media and formats.

Click here to watch a video interview with Geng Jianyi for the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 on YouTube

Towards the end of his life Geng Jianyi took on the role of mentor and teacher. Apart from accepting an academic position, Geng also organised exhibitions that foresaw the next generation of avant-garde artists. Although his life was increasingly marred by ill-health, his own work began to be included in international exhibitions that weighed the significance of the 1980s for contemporary Chinese art. “85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” was the inaugural exhibition for the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, in 2007. The same year saw him included in “The Real Thing: Contemporary art from China” at Tate Liverpool. Most recently, his series “Books with no words” was included in the 57th Venice Biennale, “Viva Arte Viva”. His inclusion in the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s survey followed soon after.

His final solo exhibition was hosted by OCAT Shanghai in 2016. Entitled “Stubborn Image”, the maze-like exhibition left visitors in darkness, broken only by projections of Geng’s abstract videos and still images. Geng was a recipient of a Lifetime Contribution Award at the 2012 Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, acknowledging the profound contribution he has had on the development of Chinese contemporary art.

Junni Chen


Related topics: Chinese artists, news, identity art, historical art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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