“Who Is He?” the first retrospective of Geng Jianyi’s work since his death in 2017 at age fifty-five, surveyed nearly four decades of the artist’s practice, bringing together a generous selection of some ninety works in a wide range of media. Without taking a strictly chronological or thematic approach, curators Karen Smith and Yang Zhengzhong illuminated the recurring concerns in Geng’s Conceptual oeuvre as they emerge across time and in a variety of materials.
One of Geng’s lasting preoccupations was the impossibility of communication, as exemplified by Tap Water Factory, 1987/2022, an interactive installation never realized in his lifetime and finally produced for this exhibition. Frustrated by the schism arising every time he tried to communicate with the audience through his work, Geng attempted to cancel the distance between the viewer and the viewed by inviting the audience to walk into the work and be part of it. The structure comprises two pathways symmetrically arranged, with a series of rectangular holes (or “windows”) enclosed by gilded frames lined up at eye level along the walls. Viewers peeping through the holes automatically become living portraits for whomever might be looking at them from the other side. Tap Water Factory is less effective at blurring the boundary between the subject and object than, say, Dan Graham’s glass pavilions, for as viewers walk in and walk by, they may never stop at the holes long enough for the watcher/watched relationship to be fully engaged. “The experiment was not a great success,” Geng admitted in an interview published in 2018. But this failure is precisely what reveals the risk inherent in any act of communication: There is no guarantee that the message will get properly delivered. Geng knew this in his heart, and perhaps that’s why his voice remained low-key in the sometimes grandiose chorus of the 1985 New Wave movement. Even so, some of his early paintings, such as Two People Under a Light and Haircut No. 3: ’85 Another Shaved Head of Summer, both 1985, were regarded as emblems of the movement’s call for genuine self-expression and rebellion against the ossified style of socialist realism.
The same is true of Forms and Certificates, 1988, one of Geng’s best-known participatory works, for which he mailed mock official forms with requests for personal data to artists and critics and provided those who completed the paperwork a participation certificate. The work is often seen as a critique of government bureaucracy and a satire of the system that was and still is controlling individual lives in China. But a closer reading discloses a more ambivalent position. For instance, the front of the certificate bears a quip about eating better food (VEGETABLES ARE NOT AS TASTY AS MEAT) while its verso carries a guarantee of status (YOU’LL BE REGISTERED IN THE ART HISTORY AS HALF AN ARTIST FOR YOUR COOPERATION HELPED COMPLETING THE WORK). Such lines offer a sharp commentary on the heroic version of “artistic individuality” euphorically exalted by Geng’s peers: Art was not only a way to fight for individual freedom; it also seemed to offer a path to better food, better life, and a place in history. Humorous, yes, but never nihilistic or cynical. (As an aside, note that all the respondents, mostly key figures in the epochal 1989 “China/Avant-Garde Exhibition,” were male.)
This awareness of the contingent nature of communication and the untenability of an idealized conception of the individual had no doubt contributed to Geng’s uniquely relaxed way of looking at the world and acting in it. In this respect, the activities that ensued—his various darkroom experiments beginning in the 1990s and the resulting chemigrams that look like beautiful combinations of abstract painting and calligraphy, the folding screen he planned to make by dripping washi paper pulp onto rope grids during a 2016 visit to Japan, and his numerous projects as an exhibition organizer and art teacher—are all iterations of the same Conceptual long march that, with no predetermined goal, led to all kinds of unexpected aesthetic and social connections.
— Du Keke