Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – On Kang Jianfei
Kang Jianfei is a print artist and painter based at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. This essay by Tony Chang was written for a 2008 exhibition at Amelie Gallery. Visit their website for more information about Kang Jianfei
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms,
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
-Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens
Kang Jianfei was born in Tianjin in 1973, and his life has always revolved around the academy. Since completing undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the China Central Academy of Fine Art, he has remained there as a member of the faculty. This once rambunctious student who was a constant headache to his teachers has now become the esteemed Instructor Kang.
The art academy, a hotbed of elitism, provided Kang with stability and social respect, allowing him to escape from the struggle for survival that most Chinese artists have experienced. Kang has the sociable personality of a typical Tianjinner. He is loyal and affable but also sensitive and introspective. In China’s relation-oriented society, the academic and social status of intellectuals has been manipulated by the surrounding social ecosystem. Perhaps in the rigidly hierarchical academic system he has paid the price of suppressing his personal spirit, so in his work he began to focus on self-consciousness among intellectuals and issues of social morality in China.
Woodcutting, Kang Jianfei’s field of study, has deep roots in the Chinese literati tradition. This craft, which was invented in China, was widely used in spreading Buddhism as well as in common illustrated novels. Woodcutting continued the Chinese ink painting tradition, as the cuts and marks are quite similar to Chinese painting techniques. The use of spacing with the imprints is not unlike the “five shades from a single ink” that is so important to ink painting. In terms of image composition, Kang Jianfei intentionally leaves empty spaces and carefully prunes the image in a quest for a well-crafted piece with attributes of the sublime. The resulting images appear ancient and a bit naïve. To understand Kang’s unique world, we must seek out the Chinese cultural codes and historical threads that find continuation within his art. These make up the foundation of his contemporary spirit and linguistic concepts of painting.
Kang Jianfei’s art is realized in the medium of woodcut prints, but they are not restrained by the concepts of woodcutting (such as carefully aligned prints, etc). He follows a diversionary strategy, using the inherent language of woodcuts to explore the individual consciousness. The roughly ten years of Kang Jianfei’s artistic practice can be basically split into several periods, where his maturation of ideas followed his conceptual explorations, a process that runs through his grasp and alteration of the language of painting.
Signs of Talent and the Expansion of Plurality, the Inherent Language of Woodcutting: Repeated Arrangement Series, 1997
A rather traditional notion of woodcutting is that its inherent plurality amounts to reproducibility. A deeper level of this opens up the aesthetic awareness of plurality. Xu Bing has said. “I emphasize the plurality in the aesthetic sense as it pertains to painting.” For this reason, Xu “makes full use of the effects that can be created by the printed marks and plurality of woodcutting, using repeated prints, varying depths of print, dislocation and reversal to give the overall work a strong, rhythmic visual effect.” In Kang Jianfei’s works, on the other hand, the plurality is an inseparable component of the theme, expressing the idea that the individual in collective Chinese society exists wholly within relationships to others; society is like a complex web, wherein each person’s adaptation to and control of the web determines success or failure in life. For Kang Jianfei, plurality contains consciousness, and its aesthetic significance becomes merely consequential. This is similar to Andy Warhol’s dissolution of the concepts of original works with his silkscreen prints; the repeated images themselves have their own significance.
Cold Observer: Banquet, 2000
Upon completing his postgraduate studies, Instructor Kang took his place at the podium for the first time, beginning to learn how to behave within the academy’s system and to grasp the philosophy of social conduct. When this brash and disorganized youth came into contact with a harsh environment, perhaps he had a strong sense of being out of place. Banquet was completed during his spare time over a period of seven months. The work is very large, and the etching methods vary widely around the piece, showing a heated passion towards the language of woodcutting. The piece did not emphasize a sense of tragedy; instead, it depicted things from the perspective of a cold observer: black birds stacked together, looking like they might be asleep (instead of the tragic feel of dead birds); the image bursts forth in a profusion of feathers and abstract lines. The power of this work is internal and tranquil. Behind the long creative process and the intricate language, perhaps we can see an inexperienced and inhibited Instructor Kang, escaping from reality through arduous work.
Introspection on Free Will: Power Series, 2004
In this series the artist directly placed people onto the paper to consider the predicament of their existence. In the boundless sea, the individual spirit, controlled by the will of a massive hand (symbolizing power, collective consciousness or the social system), loses subjectivity; Kang then prints the same block again, minus the massive hand, emphasizing the implications of an alienated spirit: the massive hand has become intangible, but the spirit, accustomed to slavery, has already lost its free will. At this time, Kang Jianfei’s painting language is no longer limited to realistic portrayal, and we begin to see the marks of a free-spirited and directly expressive style.
Flying in Maturity: Birdman Series, 2006
Ideas associated with birds and flying constantly emerge in Chinese names, and Kang often signs his works as Kang Fei (fei meaning ‘to fly’). In the Birdman Series, Kang Jianfei’s ruminations on the state of existence take the form of birds.
Birds are a rich source of meaning in Chinese classical and folk culture. The practice of raising birds has a long history in China. Myna birds and parrots are locked in exquisite cages where they observe people, learn speech and provide endless amusement. Mandarin ducks, magpies and phoenixes are rich with symbolic meaning for everyday life. Imaginings about birds among Chinese intellectuals began with Chuang Tzu’s Wanderings. There, the massive bird that “mounts a giant wind and soars ninety thousand li” evokes an arrogant and aloof self image among Chinese literati. The painting of birds and flora as an art form emerged in China back in the Six Dynasties period (222-589), as with Gu Kaizhi’s Sparrow. This love of birds and flowers was continued on through the Five Kingdoms (Xu Xi, Huang Quan), Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (Shi Tao, Bada Shanren and Yangzhou Baguai), and more recent artists such as Wu Changshuo and Ji Baishi, as well as contemporary artists such as Ye Yongqing and Hong Lei all have a passion for birds, which they use for emotional release and expression. Among classical artists, Bada Shanren played the most transformative role; his birds often gazed up into the sky and shunned the world, an expression of the gulf that separated the remaining Ming dynasty adherents and the society around them. Most of the bird forms are hunched over as they gaze into the sky, alert and suspicious; some stand on one leg and look as if they’ve lost their balance; some of them are perched on branches, looking clumsy and lacking the will to soar.
Under Bada Shanren’s brush, the high-flying bird of Wanderings stood on one leg, making for a spiritual diagram of Chinese literati as they gradually lost direction; in terms of painting language, from the intricate brushwork, heavy colors and honorable bearing of the early bird and flower paintings (such as those by Huang Quan) to the abstract freehand signs of Bada Shanren, the bird was gradually stripped of its beautiful and soothing qualities and became a symbol of the literati elite; the free and nimble bird landed in the quotidian, shattered reality.
Kang Fei’s Birdman Series follows along the lines of the bird’s spiritual descent from the traditional literati form. He expands it from the self consciousness of intellectuals to introspection on human existence in Chinese society. The half bird, half man images are strange, rich in facial expression, and reflect myriad social phenomena: some of these birds hold their heads high and look off into the distance, some lower their heads and mutter, some of them struggle in the hand, some are speaking at the podium… “In these prints, the individual is always in a weak, controlled and distorted condition, but at the same time they appear unaware of this control and distortion, and seem content with their lot.” (Pi Li, Art Critic). The bird and flower paintings of ancient times reflected the literati’s disillusionment with officialdom, while Kang Jianfei’s birdmen wander around foraging in a worldly manmade landscape, stuck in the pitiful cage of social relations.
An Allegorical Game of Chess: Works from 2008
Since 2008, Kang Jianfei has shifted from his focus on the state of the individual during the birdman period towards the observation of group pathology and current social problems. He began by creating individual images on roughly one hundred different blocks. They include images symbolic of social status, such as a chair, as well as a deer’s head, a panda-like beast baring its rear and a birdman with fists clenched and wings spread. Each form is like a chess piece in the game of life. They all have a strong desire to live and are ready to make trouble. Kang Jianfei has reached a level of freedom that resembles that found in a game of chess: he arranges and prints the images according to the needs of the picture, and the various states of life flow out freely. Some of these images form towers to the sky (perhaps alluding to a ladder of increasing social status), some depict lascivious women with bird beaks sprouting out of their heads (perhaps an allusion to women who have to scheme their way through a male society?)… This series is like a set of pictorial riddles that reflect the absurdity of contemporary existence and the perversion of the power structure.
Each image in the work is independent, but also creates connections with the other images around it, forming a narrative space for free imagination where the viewer can search for allegories about life. These works are reminiscent of the ancient zodiac prints – a type of carved figurative animal seal, which depicted scenes of ancient hunters, fighting beasts, music and dance, and chariots embarking. Here we can also see Kang’s conceptual appropriation of the plurality of printmaking: each arrangement is a single print, but the components (independent images) are used repeatedly. When the independent images emerge in different scenes, their narrative significance becomes complicated.
Bada Shanren also broke with convention in his career, bringing wholly unrelated animals together: a deer and a bird watching each other, a fish in the water and a quail on land getting along together; Bada’s eagles, if not looking up at the sky or looking down on prey, might be inexplicably gazing at a crab… Some of these paintings did actually have an indicative purpose, mocking the people and events of the time, but most of them were allusions to the artist’s state of mind. Unlike Bada Shanren’s indignation, Kang Jianfei’s surreal juxtapositions have a postmodern slapstick aspect, which mocks the bizarreness, abnormality and perversion that has resulted from the fracturing and loss of balance in China’s social order. The moral standards in our lives have been challenged, and a new order has yet to emerge; chaos and disorder have become the staples of our lives. Now it is paradise for those who are selfish, deceptive and devilishly ambitious. Insecurity and a go-with-the-flow attitude have led every individual to construct a social relations system around them, but such a system is inevitably temporary and weak, and has an irrational and absurd side. Kang Jianfei uses humorous, reserved criticism to battle with the corruption of the collective subconscious.
The Unique Significance of Kang Jianfei’s Art
In contemporary Chinese art, traditional ink painting is in decline; oil painting cannot escape the limitations of this imported artistic language, and can only try to attract attention with Chinese style images. As a contemporary medium rooted in Chinese tradition, woodcutting has a kind of indirectness that embodies the character of the Chinese aesthetic and spirit, containing rich conceptual potential. Kang Jianfei’s art uses this to lead us into a secret garden. Here, classical and contemporary branches and flowers mingle together to create mysterious and rich fruits.
The indirectness of woodcutting refers to the fact that the final image is transferred onto the paper from the wood block, and the creator’s intentions are concealed behind it. In Chinese thought, direct declarations of emotion and thinly veiled expressions are considered lowbrow, while roundabout and distant expressions are regarded on a higher level. An interesting cultural phenomenon is Chinese shadow puppetry, where ancient episodes are brought back to life with dim lighting through a tarp; another example is Chinese seal carving – Chinese literati could roam endlessly through the small square area of a seal inscription, expressing their aspirations in life. Influenced by Chinese cultural concepts, the above tools of expression or mediums have become metaphysical carriers of the spiritual world. Kang Jianfei’s woodcut artworks are reserved, and their power is all internal; for him, woodcut printmaking is like striking by proxy; he has surpassed the stereotypes of carving methods and the print aesthetic, conceptually raising woodcut to the level of Chinese culture itself. No longer is this medium limited to a mere tool of expression or artistic language. It now points into the depths of the Chinese cultural consciousness.
His oil paintings are intertwined with his path of liberation that has at its core conceptual printmaking. The former keeps watch over a more gloomy and meditative wasteland, showing a spiritual world on a heavier, even melancholy level, presenting a pure idealist’s deep desire for salvation in this desolate era; when compared to the lighthearted playfulness of his woodcuts, we can see the eccentric variations of the artist Kang Jianfei as the mantle bearer of Chinese classical literati.
As a contemporary artist, Kang Jianfei’s unique significance is that he has not wasted his talents on superficial social issues. Instead he has focused all of his efforts on the hidden and inveterate illness that lies within Chinese social mores. Kafka turned a man into a cockroach to decry the alienation of man, while Kang Jianfei, “changing the subject,” has made use of a controlled form of mockery, wittily maintaining his aloofness. His images carry the rich expressions of the Chinese literati tradition, and his painting language radiates with sharp ideas and concepts.