Interview: Yun-Fei Ji
Interview: Yun-Fei Ji
At first glance, the artist Yun-Fei Jis works seem familiar. With their black ink lines and faded watercolor on Xian paper, they look like classical Chinese paintings. But examine them more closely, and out of the trees and shrubs step an eerie cast of characters. Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts, 2007, for example, contains a wolf licking a human face, a bird-headed creature with a human body, a woman with a forlorn countenance. This painting appears in a show of the same name, Ji’s second solo outing, at James Cohan through March 27. All the works displayed refer to the 17th-century author Pu Songlings ghost stories, with their invocation of classical Chinese painting, to critique China’s social disparities and government corruption. Carnelia Garcia spoke with Ji — who recently moved to Brooklyn — about ghosts, satire, and working with the famous Rongbaozhai print studio.
Your grandmother told you ghost stories as you were growing up. Which was your favorite?
I was told of this lake where children swam but got stuck. Their spirits have to find substitutes to get out of the lake. So I would pass by this lake when I was a child and was terribly frightened of it. One time I saw a hat floating on it, and it started to slowly move toward me. I ran away because I really thought it was a ghost! But, of course, it was just the wind blowing it.
How did you start using ghost stories in your art?
I use ghosts as metaphors because it’s an easy way to satirize human problems and issues. One story that I drew from was about this student who went to Beijing to meet the emperor to become an official, but because he was ugly, he was rejected. And because of that he killed himself. He went to the underworld and was told that he seemed to be a capable candidate to be an official, so he returned to the living world to spread his story among the ghosts who live among humans. That kind of story made me think about real issues in society.
Since you’ve returned to China to work, what issues have you observed?
I went to Guangzhou province and visited blue-jean factories. There’s a city near Shenzhen where 70 percent of blue jeans are made. I saw the workers and met with the owners to see how the government served different people on different levels. For me this was a very fruitful period in terms of ideas.
In your show you include some drawings you made after visiting Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.
I saw this natural disaster as an example of government failure. And after the financial collapse, I saw similarities — how the government failed to do its job as a watchdog. It’s very disproportionate in both cases how the people who put in all the work paid the price, and the people who benefited from all the work paid no price.
Your new artist’s book, Migrants from the Three Gorges Dam — beautifully presented in the form of a scroll — was printed at the famous Rongbaozhai studio. How was that experience? And how long did the scroll take to make?
It was really an honor to work with this prestigious studio, which makes woodblock prints it developed more than a thousand years ago. MoMA commissioned me to make an artist’s book and put me in contact with the studio. It took more than a year of collaborating to finish the book.
What is your process like?
I start my work with many small drawings in pencil. I have them all on the studio wall, hundreds of them; I live with them. I start to work on my painting when I really want to see something in paint. My medium is ink and watercolor. What draws me to it is that painting and writing are very much the same thing. Rather than paint a tree, I will write a tree or a figure. And writing with the brush is a very interesting and difficult thing.
Through Mar. 27, jamescohan.com
Ji is part of "Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art," a traveling a group show that started at the Smart Museum,Chicago, and is currently at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina Mar. 25–Jul. 25 nasher.duke.edu
He has an upcoming solo show at James Cohan Gallery, Shanghai, June–July, 2010
"Interview: Yun-Fei Ji" originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' April 2010 Table of Contents.