At a certain point in one’s life, they stop making new marks or registering new memories. All that remains is a fluid, ever-changing assemblage of the fragments from the past. I would call it no stagnation: it is rather a moderate manner of growing at a different pace.
Focusing exclusively on the deconstruction and re-composition of his previous work, Wei Jia stopped creating new strokes on paper. There perhaps had been too many in his creative life, a splendid one replete with Chinese calligraphy and painting in the most traditional sense over the decades. There is nothing new under the sun. The once groundbreaking idea of “Contemporary Ink”: having the same resemblance of abstract expressionism, with greater and greater brushes in vaguer and vaguer forms, can occasionally make a splash in the commercial art market, but is no longer capable of rejuvenating the archaic art form.
Perhaps people who are still trying got it all wrong. The fetishization and appropriation of traditional Asian cultures through the colonial lens never really tried to understand them. “The result of being colonized is the internalization of the need to remain invisible.” I can’t think of a more accurate description than this line by Canadian writer Lee Maracle. Contemporary Ink in a way has turned into an ongoing movement of the collective self-erasure of generations of Asian artists in the attempt of adopting the cultural symbols of their heritage to speak the language of the West. I don’t blame them, that’s the only way to make their work seen, and the only way an audience detached from those cultures would try to acknowledge them.
Since the 1990s, Wei Jia began venturing to explore the alternative possibilities of xuan paper, a material that he has been proficient with since he was 14. Xuan paper is a type of fragile, semi-translucent rice paper that is traditionally used for Chinese calligraphy and landscape paintings. Wei Jia was fascinated by the versatility of its texture: its ability to be torn and overlapped, dyed like fabric or sculpted. His first attempts to recompose and collage with xuan paper were full of contrasting juxtapositions of the culture that he is native to and the continent that he freshly relocated to.
Having spent half of his life in China and half in North America, like many immigrants, Wei Jia still embraces his roots but has encountered some difficulty resolving where to replant them on a new land. Years went by, the artist has gradually made peace with it. His recent body of work evidences the process of transformation and reconciliation: the discordant imagery of separate cultures coalesced, the work of art as a whole has reached a state of subtlety and coherence, where the nature of the material per se becomes dominant. Thin and delicate as xuan paper is, its strength can sometimes distort a whole wooden frame. For the artist, the characteristics of xuan paper portrays both his personal stories and the social histories of its origin.
Aside from the material of paper, calligraphy for Wei Jia is also more profound than the aesthetics of the strokes. All those characters talk, in an elegant ancient language that very few today would still be familiar with. A lost art. Wei Jia, among the few who can still hear their calling, has decided not to unfold the secrets behind those ancient verses and hymns.
An literary advice commonly attributed to William Faulkner reads—“In writing, you must kill all your darlings”. We can only imagine, that it must be an equally arduous metamorphosis for Wei Jia to cut his writings and paintings into pieces, only to reincarnate them into works of exquisite collage. It reminds me of Phillip Glass’s approach in his opera Akhnaten to honor the language in which the Book of the Dead was written. The majority of the lyrics was sung in fragmental Ancient Egyptian found text that probably no contemporary audience can access regardless their backgrounds. Wei Jia is doing the same. Or it could be interpreted as the obsolescent pride of an old-fashioned Chinese scholar who would rather the poetic meaning of the original text gets lost altogether than to have it lost in translation.
While it’s nothing uncommon for an artist who does not particularly enjoy explaining themselves, Wei Jia titles all his works in a modest and reserved manner with simple serial numbers like No. 21287, No. 20265, No. 19245. It’s no Morse code, the first two digits simply stands for the year of creation. With a seemingly abstract visual vocabulary, the artist was actually depicting his own impressions of mundanity: from the vivid colors of Mexico City to the flourishing begonias in his back yard. What Wei Jia keeps to himself is not only the literal meaning of the unreadable calligraphic fragments facing 8 different directions, but also the idyllic dreams and fantasies undifferentiated from the tangible reality where the artist wanders around in Prospect Park or transcribes ancient proses on folding hand fans—both of which he could immerse himself in for hours.
Wei Jia’s work was featured in: Fou Gallery, June 19–August 22, 2021 410 Jefferson Ave #1, Brooklyn, NY 11221
Chambers Fine Art, June 24–August 13, 2021 55 East 11th St, 5th Fl, New York, NY 10003
Tansy Xiao is an independent curator, artist, writer and poetry translator who focuses on the multicultural and cross-disciplinary practice of art and literature in a global context. Having lived and traveled in more than fifty countries and received her art education in hundreds of museums worldwide, Xiao founded Raincoat Society in the hope of giving the artists with multiple cultural backgrounds a voice outside the mainstream art market.