Dec 08 2017

Obituary: Geng Jianyi (1962–2017)

by HG Masters

GENG JIANYI, a pioneering figure of the ’85 New Wave movement and co-founder of Pond Society in China, has died. Image from video produced by China Academy of Art, Hangzhou. 

A seminal figure of China’s ’85 New Wave movement and co-founder of the artists’ group Pond Society, Geng Jianyi died of cancer in Hangzhou, China, on December 5. He was 55 years old. 

Geng worked in a wide variety of media in his more than three-decade career. In the late 1980s, he achieved critical success for his deadpan depictions of laughing faces in oil paintings such as The Second Situation (1987), which was included in the controversial group show “China/Avant-Garde,” held in Beijing’s National Art Museum of China in 1989. The artist then quickly shifted into conceptual projects and collages, later working in photography, video and installations that convey an irreverent sensibility—his trademark “gray humor”—instead of focusing on any one style or subject.  

Born in Zhengzhou in 1962, Geng Jianyi studied in the oil painting department at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) from 1981 to 1985. There, he met other like-minded artists like Zhang Peili, Wu Shanzhuan, Wang Guangyi and Wang Qiang, and was part of a milieu interested in exploring the potential of “non-retinal art” in the model of Marcel Duchamp, and the ideas of European philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He and Zhang Peili, as part of a group called Youth Creation Society, organized an exhibition titled “’85 New Space,” featuring some of the earliest examples of installation art created in China. Zhang described their approach as one that “minimizes the visual and maximizes a work’s conceptual condition.”

In 1986, Geng and Zhang co-founded a short-lived artist group called the Pond Society (Chi She), which created collective works and staged them in outdoor locations. Their aims, they stated, were to “ultimately express our ideas. We attempt to have a pure experience in searching for an intuitive condition.” Geng’s participation in the gathering of artists and critics known as the 1988 Huangshan Conference, where the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition was conceived, spurred the development of his conceptual performance-project Forms and Certificates (1988). For this work, he mailed survey forms to his contemporaries and presented them with a participation certificate in a ceremony during the conference. 

Geng’s work has been included in significant  group exhibitions in China and abroad, including “China Avantgarde,” organized by the Haus der Kulturen de Welt in Berlin in 1993, and “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” which inaugurated the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2007. The Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, mounted a survey of his works in 2012. In 2016, OCAT Shanghai hosted what would be his final solo exhibition, where he modified flashlights and lanterns to project stills from his “Stubborn Images” (2016) series. For this exhibition, he was awarded “Artist of the Year Award” at the Award of Art China event on May 23, 2017, at the Palace Museum in Beijing. 

Speaking on the artist’s passing, Hong Kong curator and gallerist Johnson Tsong-zung Chang, who included Geng in the landmark 1993 exhibition “China’s New Art, Post-1989” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, said to ArtAsiaPacific: “Geng Jianyi’s self-effacing practices belie his uniqueness within the art world of our time. We cannot write a history of contemporary Chinese art without giving full credit to Geng’s contribution.” 

In 2017, his “Book” series (1990–2000) of colorfully dyed volumes was featured in “Viva Arte Viva,” the central exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale. The Solomon R. Guggenheim’s survey “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” positioned him prominently within the conceptual lineage that the exhibition traced, revealing the significant contribution his experimental practice made to China’s contemporary art scene. 

HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific

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