Yun-Fei Ji was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution, a fact that fuels his exploration of Chinese contemporary history and directs his critical eye on issues of modernization. The title of the exhibition, Water That Floats the Boat Can Also Sink It, is a Chinese proverb that for Ji reflects the dark-side of development. The conflicting forces of water as provider and destroyer have been an essential theme for the artist. The Three Gorges Dam and the devastation it has caused throughout the Yangtze Valley, including the displacement of over 1.5 million people from their ancestral homes, have been subject matter for Ji’s allegorical paintings for a number of years. In this body of new works, the dam becomes the backdrop as Ji explores the cultural and psychological effects of the flooding on the rapidly changing fabric of Chinese life.
At first glance, the works appear to be traditional Chinese scroll paintings, but on a closer inspection, we are confronted with the less-serene depictions of homelessness and disaster. Yun-Fei Ji populates his richly textured landscapes with vignettes of village life in deep distress. We observe supernatural encounters with ghosts haunting the once densely populated valley, fleeing peasants scurrying through the demolished villages with their belongings on their back, and corrupt party officials flaunting their machismo while trying to find their role in the new China. Real life and fictional narrative collide, creating a dizzying array of historic and futuristic encounters.
Monumental in scale, Ji’s new paintings are his largest to date. The tallest vertical painting, Below the 143 Meter Watermark, is 118 inches high and has a stacked perspective that is densely filled with multiple layers of imagery. Water Rising is a long horizontal scroll diptych with the left panel measuring 204 inches and the right panel 114 inches. This diptych is hung on two perpendicular walls with the panels meeting in the corner of the gallery. The figures in the left panel of this cinematic drama are running toward the figures in the right panel as if they are due to collide with each other—they are fleeing with nowhere to go.