b. 1956 in Foshan, Guangdong Province, China; lives and works in Paris, France, and Ittlingen, Germany
Yang Jiechang’s artistic practice as a calligrapher-painter turned global social actor inverts the contemporary Chinese art world norm of using Western avant-garde forms to critique contemporary Chinese society. He accomplishes this by adopting the performative expressivity of the traditional brush and the paradoxical dialectics of pre-modern Daoist skeptics to expose the underlying social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary global reality. Starting with his censored Massacre series in which he confronts the human toll of politically-violent authoritarian government, and continuing with his Crying Landscape series which he created for the 2003 Venice Biennale, Yang has made the critique of power, wealth, violence and terror central concerns of his artistic practice. With his purely abstract Layers of Ink works, which he inaugurated for the seminal 1989 trans-national show Magiciens de la Terre, and his figurative Ascension and Tales of the Eleventh Day series, Yang deals with the contrasting themes of material and spiritual transcendence, liberation of the individual, universal love and nature. When Yang deploys seductively masterful technique in service of psychologically disturbing or even horrifying imagery, our experience approaches the sublime—a realization of the inhuman that is both monstrous and transcendent.
Already in his student days at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts where his graduation project Massacre (1982) on the devastation of the Cultural Revolution was censored, Yang Jiechang had adopted the position of provocateur. Following graduation he withdrew from art to study with Buddhist and Daoist masters. This led him to search for simplicity when he returned to painting. In 1988 he moved to Europe, where he has remained, living between Paris and a village near Heidelberg. In 1989 he participated in both the seminal Contemporary Chinese Artexhibition at the National Art Museum in Beijing and the equally paradigm-changing exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou where he created his artworks on site. Since then Yang has exhibition widely throughout Europe and Asia and was featured in both the China Avant-garde exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (1993) and in the 50th edition of the Venice Biennale (2003). In the past five years, Yang’s work has been included in numerous international exhibitions, including the Lyon Biennial (Lyon, 2009), Qui a peur des artistes? Une sélection d'oeuvres de la Fondation François Pinault (Musée de Dinard, Dinard, 2009), Hareng Saur: Ensor et Contemparain (MSK and S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium, 2010), The World Belongs to You (Palazzo Grassi, Fondation F. Pinault, Venice, 2011), Reactivation – Shanghai Biennale (Shanghai, 2012), Yuandao (Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2013) and Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2013-2014, and most recently Advance through Retreat (Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2014).
For his solo exhibition at Ink Studio in May 2014, This Is Still Landscape Painting, Yang concludes his Tales of the Eleventh Day series in which he explores the transcendence of all categories and inaugurates his latest inquiries on moral cultivation based on the paintings and sketches by a young Adolf Hitler.
In his Tales of the Eleventh Day, Yang uses the techniques of Tang dynasty Daoist and Buddhist religious mural painting to depict an imagined paradise loosely based on the setting for the Decameron, a work of fourteenth century Florentine literature by Giovanni Boccaccio. In these works, Yang depicts wild animals and naked human figures in various configurations of sexual and affectionate, cross-species coupling. Whether copulating, embracing or merely observing, it becomes clear the Yang's imagined paradise of sex and love is a non-coercive one—power dynamics and violence are completely missing. For This is Still Landscape Painting, Yang completed the final works in this series including the monumental eleven-meter, eight-panel Black and White Mustard Seed Garden (2009-2014).
In his newest series, Yang Jiechang employs the meticulous traditional Chinese brush technique of Song Dynasty court artists to copy works that Adolf Hitler painted in 1914, at age 25. In the Confucian tradition, students learn by copying their teachers brushstroke for brushstroke. In so doing, they attempt to learn not just the painting technique, but also the moral virtues of their masters. As a Daoist, however, Yang believes that only through studying evil can you understand virtue, and by examining the ugly can you find beauty. By adopting a young Hitler as his model, Yang uses artistic practice as a means to examine the nature of moral cultivation and the origins of evil. Works in the These are Still Landscapes and These are Still Flowers series are part of this new body of work.
A final dimension to Yang’s practice is his rendering of texts in response to current events in both Chinese and Roman alphabet scripts. In response to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Yang signified the shock and disbelief of the international bystander with the phrases “Oh My God” in English and “Oh Fuck” in Cantonese. Executed upside-down, Yang’s brushed lines —in both Chinese and in Roman scripts— exude a raw, expressive power based on decades of calligraphic training.
Among other places, Yang’s work can be found in the collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn; Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Stanford; Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley; The World Bank, Washington; Rockefeller Foundation, New York; Ministry of Culture, France; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong; Hong Kong University Art Museum, Hong Kong; Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou; Chengdu Museum of Art, Chengdu; Shenzhen Fine Art Institute, Shenzhen; Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka; Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art, Kyongju, Korea; Museum for Arts and Crafts, Hamburg; Annie Wong Art Foundation, Vancouver; Swatch Collection, Switzerland; François Pinault Foundation, France; Ullens Foundation, Switzerland; Yageo Art Foundation, Taiwan; and Eslite Inc., Taiwan.
Yang is the subject of the documentary film “Yang Jiechang’s Gu and Qi,” in the series The Enduring Passion of Ink, directed and produced by Britta Erickson and filmed by Richard Widmer. Yang also is the subject of the forthcoming in-depth monograph Yang Jiechang: 道可 道非 No Way All Ways, edited by Britta Erickson and with essays by Martina Köppel-Yang and Nataline Colonello, distributed internationally by D.A.P.