Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili

Belonging to the generation known in China as post-70, which refers to people born in the decade after the year 1970, Chinese contemporary artist Jia Aili (贾蔼力) has been busy creating art since he graduated from Lu Xun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang, China, in 2007.

The Singapore Art Museum currently presents close to 50 pieces of Jia Aili’s works, including paintings mostly, paper works and video installations. “Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili” is part of the Credit Suisse “Innovation in Art” series. Seeker of Hope gives visitors first-hand opportunities to view some of Jia Aili’s works that have never been shown in any exhibition before.

Unlike many contemporary artists, who create art to reflect civil movements and question socio-political structures, Jia Aili is more keen on expressing his personal emotions and experience as an only child, a product of China’s one-child policy, in a world of rapid technological advancement and modernisation, especially when China has moved forward by leaps and bounds in the last decade.

The emerging artist has his very own thoughts about art and artwork. To him, art could be a mindset, and this intangible mindset is “materialised” through artwork, is depicted using physical forms so that it can be seen.

But the problem is, most artworks fail to prove the existence of this mindset. Therefore, Jia Aili is not reluctant to show people the process of his art creation, through means like videos, manuscripts & sketches and tools of art creation.

Some of his manuscripts & literatures as well as tools of art creation are displayed in the gallery on level 2. Such as the huge and seemingly durable glove (shown in Figure 1), he may have used it while handling paints and doing rugged work. The glove also resembles huge thick gloves worn by astronauts, which appear in many of his paintings in recent years.

Figure 1

He feels that, the process of art creation can express his state of mind. To think is an ongoing process and it is ever-changing, if a piece of artwork is to depict the existence of one’s mindset, which cannot simply end with the last brush stroke, he cannot just put a full stop to it. He is not too bothered with defining the completion of a piece of work as he hardly even thinks about completing it when he starts. Have you ever secretly wondered if a piece of his works is actually finished?

Akin to one’s ongoing thinking process and emotions, there are always elements of uncertainty and change, hence he may paint on top of an earlier drawing, he may make some changes to the work as time goes by and so on and so forth. This perhaps explains the absence of titles to most of his works, you don’t give your thinking process and moods titles, do you? He draws or sketches on small surfaces at highly spontaneous instances, so he may capture his thoughts with small and quick strokes; while he paints on large surfaces to alleviate constraints, so that he can flow with his thoughts while painting.

Hence, a viewer may find his actual paintings as enlarged versions of his manuscripts (shown in Figures 1 and 2) or his manuscripts as miniature versions of his actual paintings, depending on whether the viewer sees a manuscript before the actual painting or vice versa.

The whale-like sketches seen in Figure 2 are very likely to be a feature in one of his paintings depicting a boy stranded in the sea, I shall leave it to you to explore and identify this painting on the other wing of the gallery on level 2.

Figure 2

While viewers of Jia Aili’s works may not relate to and feel the exact emotions he felt or wanted to communicate, we cannot deny that his works exert this powerful impact on viewers that their own emotions are drawn out as a result of coming face-to-face with his works, be it pain, desperation, helplessness, loneliness, agony and last but not least, hope.

For instance, this piece of untitled work dated 2006 (Figure 3), it is an oil painting on paper. A mild interpretation may mean “what a mess”, “oh dear!”, “what happened?”, “is that person dead?”, “has a typhoon just passed by?”. A stronger and more emotional reaction could be one of sadness, tragedy, death, beyond repair and redemption, totally ruined.

Figure 3

Jia Aili’s artworks serve as containers of his torturuous emotions, which may have been passed on to viewers of his works without their knowledge. He wants viewers to feel the anguish and a sense of helpless isolation. Looking around in the gallery, one can almost instantly feel the tumultuous settings in his large-scale works, as well as the accompanying sense of hurtful sorrow. His techniques have evolved to a level whereby, it is almost inevitable for viewers to enter these “containers of torturuous emotions” .

While we start to conclude that Jia Aili is a pessimist beyond hope and he may not seek hope, this other oil painting on canvas, entitled Windless (Figure 4), could give viewers some consolation and a momentary peace of mind. The sky is blue, there is not even wind and there is no sign of disaster, but why merely momentary peace of mind?

A closer look of the faceless subject and his precarious position, as if standing on the edge of a tall building, may send some goose bumps our way. A disaster could be looming. Does the vast empty space give you a hidden sense of insecurity? Even without a clue about the height of where the subject is standing on, don’t you somehow decide that it must be a tall building? And what about the gap between the two platforms? What is your interpretation of that gap? Viewers are left swinging back and forth mentally like a trapeze.

Figure 4

Nonetheless, if he has worked on this piece for a longer period of time, it might not have turned out this way, because he paints according to his ongoing thoughts and emotions as mentioned before. A painting can be ready in as short as 45 minutes, at other times, he could take days, weeks and even months to so-called finish a piece of work. Whether a painting is really finished or not often remains unresolved.

Although he probably cannot care less about such unresolved mystery, he has his own doubt too. He wonders if drawing is still the mainstream in post-modern art, if drawing will be, or has already been, marginalised. Admitting to his inclination toward pessimism, he is a little afraid of what will happen now, after the fall of communism and the march toward the world.

However, it’s not all bleak and gloomy in his eyes, as he attempts to seek hope through his series of paintings depicting astronauts and related stories. Despite pessimism and uneasiness still lurk in his recent paintings, perhaps to him, these astronauts can be the trailblazer of a better future.

If a viewer pays a little more attention to the year of each piece of work, it is not difficult to realise that, his works of astronaut were created in the last two years. Whereas his earlier works till 2010 were somewhat poignant and a little creepy or imbued with a painful mood or set in an unsettling crisis. Even the few titled works were named using words in Mandarin like “dead end” (Serbonian Bog), “crazy scene” (The Wasteland), “storm” and “elegies”.

Chronologically, is this a sign of Jia Aili gradually sailing from painful struggles to a slightly brighter view of things? Other evidence includes the names of his earlier solo exhibitions, The Wasteland in 2007 and Hibernation in 2008, which tells how he was still unease with the increasing limelight.

On the other hand, this year potentially marks a new phase of the philosophical aspect of his art creation, as seen in the exhibition, Shedding, held earlier this year. It showcased his works from 2007 till 2010, as if to tell the world that he is shedding his “old self”.

In addition, this could also be a benchmark year after one of his works, It’s Not Only You Who Is Pale (苍白的不只是你), was sold for 6.6 million Hong Kong dollars (approximately 1.14 million Singapore dollars) (hammer price with buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auction in April. Although there were mixed reactions – some said it was overrated, some were awed and impressed by the commercial power of it – there was absolutely no doubt about the attention its creator was receiving.

Jia Aili certainly has a hopeful career prospect, but as a seeker of hope, only the man himself knows where he stands.

Apart from the works showcased in the gallery on level 2 of Singapore Art Museum, Jia Aili’s other works are exhibited at the gallery on level 1. Seeker of Hope will bid farewell to Singapore on the 23rd of September 2012.

Complementing Seeker of Hope is a parallel exhibition Lyrical Abstraction: Works by Jeremy Sharma and Yeo Shih Yun, two Singaporean artists who present large-scale works of different styles.


1. Singapore Art Museum and Credit Suisse press release

2. Jia Aili’s official website

3. Art Ba Ba

4. Art Link Art

5. Platform China


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