Installation view of JIANG ZHI’s photograph series “Love Letters” (2011–14) for his exhibition “The Sight” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy White Cube.

JIANG ZHI, Love Letters No.3, 2014, archival inkjet print, 220 × 175 cm. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

JIANG ZHI, Love Letters No.9, 2014, archival inkjet print, 220 × 175 cm. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

“Unsettled” and “The Sight”

Shi Qing and Jiang Zhi

White Cube Gallery
Hong Kong China

The White Cube gallery’s Hong Kong space is currently presenting “Inside the White Cube,” a combination of two exhibitions, “The Sight” by Jiang Zhi and “Unsettled” by Shi Qing. The two-floor gallery space brings together two aesthetically different yet conceptually related practices. Jiang and Shi, who both emerged from China’s experimental scene of the late 1990s, were part of the “Post-Sense Sensibility” movement, where art was created as a reaction to the urban and cultural environment of the time. The underground movement challenged globalization, the monopolized economy, materialistic society and the contexts in which art is made and interpreted. Both artists have since gone on to develop distinct language and frameworks within their works.

Jiang’s work is spread across two floors of the gallery and draws on ideas surrounding the temporality of objects, reality, truth and the transcendence of time. The gallery’s downstair space holds six large-scale photographs of flowers from his “Love Letters” series (2011–14). At first they appear jovial; yet upon closer look, viewers will quickly realize that the flowers are set alight with blue and orange flames. In the frozen moment within the photographs, the flowers are whole and beautiful and seemingly resistant to the flames. There is tension within the works, which capture the fleeting moment of splendor right before the flowers shrivel up and burn away. Though the blossoms have disintegrated in reality, their beauty remains immortalized in the photographs.

These images by Jiang, whose wife suddenly passed away in 2010 at the age of 37, appear to reflect a deep emotional meaning concerning eternal beauty and love. The orchids used in some of the photos seem to emphasize a conceptual connection to his wife, whose name contains the word “Lan,” which means “orchid” in Chinese. In early death, she has become immortalized in her young, beautiful image—just like the flowers in the photos. Furthermore, throughout history, fire has been seen as a symbol of passionate love and burning desire. In Jiang’s photographs, it is as though the flames swallowing up the flowers are a metaphor for his all-encompassing love for his late wife.

Jiang’s other works include videos, which are displayed on the second floor of the exhibition and mainly focus on the visual passage of time, but without narrative structure. They challenge the human tendency to look for clues when faced with the unknown, and encourage the viewer to take a step back and question the reality that is portrayed within the videos.

Installaion view of SHI QING’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air (2012), as part of “Unsettled” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy White Cube. 

Shi Qing’s work, also on the second floor, is showcased in an unconventional presentation. After turning the corner from a darkened corridor exhibiting two of Jiang’s films (The Gift 1 and 2, both 2013) and a singular oil painting by Shi, viewers unexpectedly encounter the latter artist’s untitled room installation from 2015, which is filled with potted plants. Here, the smell of greenery subtly permeates the air. Objects such as Styrofoam shapes, metal, wood and cardboard boxes are scattered throughout the foliage. Names of various art movements and groups—such as “De Stijl,” “Inkhuk” and “Unovis”—are spelled out in cardboard cut-out letters and laid out across the room. These words refer to the suprematist and utopian ideas that the respective art movements practiced, are described by Shi as “dead words,” because they are no longer used or followed. The use of these words in his work aren’t meant as imitations of old ideologies, but as a way to compare them to that of our society today and to look at art through a broader historical context. As experimentation increasingly becomes Shi’s primary means of production, he treats each exhibition as a new, site-specific project. For Shi, doing so allows him to avoid having his work dictated by any political or aesthetic influences, or the contemporary, globalized art system—which the artist continues to critique in his practice.

View of SHI QING’s untitled room installation at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy White Cube. 

All That is Solid Melts Into Air (2012) is another piece by Shi, which is made of various metal and plastic zip-ties and wooden parts sitting on a blue platform within a jungle of plants. The name of this work is based on the title of an academic text written in 1982 by American philosopher Marshall Berman, which, in turn, was taken from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848), the historical political pamphlet that discusses the destructive nature of modernization and capitalism. In the case of Shi’s installation, the title emphasizes his own criticism of modernization, especially that of the art market, as well as art production and consumption. Art becomes alienated in an industrialized civilization when consumerism takes over.

Both Jiang and Shi, who were part of the same art movement in 1990s China, have since developed and grown into their own as artists. With practices that focus on critical and reflective concepts, their works successfully come together in the combined shows at White Cube gallery. Jiang’s sentimental approach highlights the ability of love to remain everlasting, despite the fleeting nature of time and reality. Shi’s vision reflects spatial and sociological issues facing the creation of art, as well as the growing modern, urban landscapes that we live in.

“Inside the White Cube: Jiang Zhi and Shi Qing” is on view at White Cube, Hong Kong, until March 7, 2015.