Recognizing Tradition in Modernity: Recap of Yun-Fei Ji Panel Discussion with John Yau and Robert Lee
|John Yau, Yun-Fei Ji, and Robert Lee at the panel at James Cohan Gallery|
In celebration of artist Yun-Fei Ji’s recent solo exhibition “Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions” at the James Cohan Gallery on 291 Grand Street, the Asian American Arts Centre organized a panel discussion at James Cohan on Saturday, June 9 that featured Yun-Fei Ji, art critic John Yau, and AAAC Executive Director Robert Lee.
To kick off the conversation, Yau interviewed Ji about his early life growing up in China and the development of his artistic and thematic sensibilities as Ji moved between various contexts on different continents over the course of his career. As Ji recounted his personal journey navigating childhood ghost stories, China’s political landscape, a master’s program at the University of Arkansas, and the New York City art scene, he corroborated the stark analysis posed by John Yau in the opening paragraph of his recent article in Hyperallergic: “[Ji] is a Chinese artist who isn’t just a Chinese artist, an American artist who isn’t just an American artist. When a curator at an American museum told him he couldn’t show his work because he is Chinese, he replied: ‘I am as American as Willem de Kooning.’... In the age of globalization and migration, both voluntary and forced, Ji is an artist who doesn’t quite fit comfortably into China or America.”
As AAAC intern Amy Hong noted in a previous Artspiral blog article previewing Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition and panel at James Cohan, the Arts Centre has supported Ji since the early days of his career by exhibiting his work on two separate occasions in the 1996 and ‘99—well before Ji became an internationally acclaimed artist. Reflecting on the question of identity, AAAC Director Robert Lee has emphasized that the Arts Centre considered Ji an Asian American artist back then and continues to see him in that light today. Lee maintains that Ji is an artist who “inherits the heritage of two or more major traditions, and understands the contradictions, paradoxes, and dilemmas of straddling multiple cultures as generative for renewal and social change.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, multiple generations of Chinese artists in China and the United States struggled with the issue of inhabiting an uneasy space between two cultures. Many of these artists looked upon China’s immense, rich artistic heritage as a burden; they resolved to become modern by rejecting centuries-old Chinese techniques and embracing wholly American styles of abstract expressionism, conceptual art, and minimalism. It is only within the past 20 years that a new generation of Chinese artists including Yun-Fei Ji has taken on the mantle of tradition once again, breaking new ground on ancient soil.
During the panel, Lee acknowledged these historical trends by raising the question of tradition and modernity in Ji’s work: How is it so easy for Ji to see himself as a modern artist although he uses traditional Chinese tools and methods? Rather than elucidate his internal mindset, Ji responded in a fashion that was as specular as his art: he reflected the question back at Lee, leaving the answer to the asker’s own interpretation. To Lee, then, Yun-Fei Ji’s art might be considered akin to a period film—in other words, Ji adopts a historical setting as a stage by which to address contemporary issues like gentrification and displacement.
In that vein, one audience member asked during the Q&A whether Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition had been organized as a response to the controversy and community outrage surrounding James Cohan’s exhibition of Israeli-German-American artist Omer Fast’s solo installation August eight months ago. A representative of James Cohan Gallery clarified that Ji’s exhibition had already been scheduled months in advance of Fast’s exhibition.
Although neither Yun-Fei Ji nor Robert Lee weighed in on the question at the time, it goes without saying that the panel itself—which touched on Ji’s ability to connect themes of displacement and haunting across multiple cultures and social configurations—occupied a definitive space in relation to the issues highlighted by the Chinatown community’s reaction to Fast’s installation. By making a concerted effort to welcome Ji back to Chinatown and draw in community members for the event, the Arts Centre aimed to emphasize the value of the James Cohan Gallery as a contemporary art institution that can genuinely invigorate the cultural life of the community. Artists like Yun-Fei Ji whose works can span centuries and speak to a myriad of audiences are crucial to the AAAC’s mission of cultivating Asian American art and making it accessible to the world-at-large.
– Written by AAAC intern Jeremiah Kim