The Shock of the New: Interview with Jin Jiangbo

Intrigued by the potential for free cocktails and drawn to the purple skyline on familiar, yet dream-like landscapes, Kiwese wandered into the opening of the group exhibition, Signals at Starkwhite Gallery on K Rd back in August.

The latter, the work of Shanghai-based artist Jin Jiangbo 金江波, who has been interpreting the visual language of New Zealand over the past five years and creating a dialogue with both the mountainous beauty of the South Island and the dilapidated factories of Taranaki.

It is 6pm at Little Algiers on K Rd. The cat-from-upstairs nimbly roams around the coffee machine. Jin Jiangbo takes a seat at the table and pours a freshly brewed pot of tea. He seems very much at home here in Auckland – the Shanghai of New Zealand – where he has been flitting back and forth for art and family since first coming to New Zealand in 2009.

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Originally from the fishing island of Yihuan, Zhejiang, Jin Jiangbo grew up near the ocean and holds fond memories of his childhood. “Being in New Zealand reminds me a lot of where I grew up. I think people that live near the ocean have a different temperament to those from who live inland,” he says.

“Where I’m from, the people are called “tǎo yú rén 讨鱼人,” people who make a living from fish, or “tǎo hǎi rén 讨海人,” people who beg the ocean for food. People from Yihuan have a very bold and determined way about them. In ancient times, if you went out fishing, there was no telling if you’d make it back. This affects the character of the local people.”

The personal connection to the ocean is one reason Jin Jiangbo came to New Zealand, as well as the World Famous Outside of New Zealand landscapes. “I’ve been to a lot of scenic places here and have been amazed by its natural beauty, the diversity of geology and landforms; the rich variation,” he muses of his road trips in the North and South Islands, where he captured them through more lenses than one. The mountainous topographies, low-lying mist and rain cloud formations felt familiar to his visions of classical Chinese landscapes.

Unpredictable, 2011, pigment ink on photo rag. Image from Eyecontact.
‘Unpredictable,’ 2011, pigment ink on photo rag. From ‘Dialogue in Nature’ series. Image from Eyecontact.

The resulting Dialogue in Nature (2011) series was exhibited at Starkwhite. “New Zealand was a kind of déjà vu. In my eyes, the scenery possessed the same kind of aesthetic spirit as the mountains and waterfalls of Song Dynasty landscapes.”

Instead of black ink and rice paper, he used analog photography to capture snapshots of these natural scenes before digitally reworking them. “I wanted to reimagine the New Zealand landscape; reshaping it with this visual language formed by my own views of shanshui 山水 painting and the Chinese literati’s understanding of nature and the universe.”

Image from Eyecontact.
‘Silent,’ 2011, pigment ink on photo rag. Image from Eyecontact.
The Rules of Nature. Image from Starkwhite.
‘The Rules of Nature’ interactive visual installation, 2013. Image from Starkwhite.

However, it was not only the scenery that visually linked New Zealand and China for Jin Jiangbo.

2009. The Global Financial Crisis sends shockwaves through the economy; the same year Jin Jiangbo first came to New Zealand through the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.

The Eurozone needs bailing out. Manufacturing debris and cold concrete walls lie abandoned in China. The large-scale, wide angle photographs in Jin Jiangbo’s series The Great Economic Retreat (2008) act as a document of these deserted factories and buildings, the by-product of massive changes in the China economy.

“At that time, I was looking at the changes occurring in the global economy and how it was affecting places all around the world, as well as Chinese society and politics,” he says, “then in Patea near New Plymouth, I found a dilapidated factory that was similar to the ones in Dongguan, China. This connection gave me a sense of purpose.”

From the 'Freezing Works, Patea: The Taranaki Scene' series (2009). Image via photoforum-nz.org.
From ‘Freezing Works, Patea: The Taranaki Scene,’ 2009. Image via photoforum-nz.org.
“As a contemporary artist, it is impossible to separate the influence of political, institutional and economic impacts on our lives; they affect our behaviour and ability to think.”
Patea
From ‘Freezing Works, Patea: The Taranaki Scene,’ 2009. Image from China Art Weekly.

As an artist, one involves themselves in observing the current social and political situation with their own lens, to re-examine them and make their own judgments.”

Shanghai is no stranger to change. “The 2010 Shanghai World Expo followed the worst of the global economic crisis – everyone thought the economy was going collapse, with the state of the US economy and the debt crisis ravaging Europe,” he says. “But for China, in order to maintain high-speed development, GDP production and large investments in infrastructure… a direct consequence was the printing of more money, which done at such a speed and intensity that has subsequently brought inflation, rising prices, rising house prices and so on.”

The cost of living is an enormous pressure and we have all become mortgage slaves.”

生活成本压力巨大,大家都变成了房贷的奴隶.”

Financial department of a foreign capital television manufacturer, 2008. Image via Artsy.net.
Financial department of a foreign capital television manufacturer, 2008. Image via Artsy.net.

In addition to photography, Jin Jiangbo works with a range of other mediums in his installations under the umbrella of New Media Art.

“It is a dynamic concept,” he explains, “throughout the various stages of history, painting and art has always taken on new forms. For example, in ancient China before written word, we tied knots in ropes [结绳记事] and painted frescoes on rocks to record hunting achievements, to pay homage to ancestors, for marriage and childbirth ceremonies and so on. Then came paper, banana leaves and bamboo, followed by painting on paper and printing with etching presses. And now, in the modern day, we use cameras to photograph and record things. These things are all New Media Art, they are new against the backdrop of history and tradition. ­­­”

“Each form of media has a new interpretation, which bring a new style of language and cultural production, including how WeChat is now used more than email.”

This perceptive observation of modern society is perhaps reflected most acutely in Jin Jiangbo’s 2010 work God, Go Ahead With Chatting,《 天哪,你去聊吧》 – the striking and disturbing installation of a silica internet slave with his face twitching out on a computer screen, while other live screens hover above him.

WATCH: God, Go Ahead With Chatting:

“At the time there were mobile phones, but iPhones hadn’t been widely adopted, so people were still chatting on their computers with things like QQ, MSN, Skype, Facebook and chat rooms,” he says. “The world was enveloped by it. People would be chatting right into the night, myself included – it’s extremely tiring.” 

“A lot of these chat things are full of rubbish, but they provide a wealth of feelers to perceive the outside world. You can sing karaoke or play mahjong with people in chat rooms, some people even take English classes, check in with the stock markets, or even nude chat – all kinds of things. But you will eventually crash, because you can’t be in control in this digital world. So the idea is that before you collapse, the chat notification bubbles will still be floating around your brain, the online world continue on without you.”

As an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art with a PhD from Tsinghua University, Jin Jiangbo spoke of his approach to creating art from an analytical perspective. “Inspiration is sometimes fleeting, a lot of things cannot be considered as inspiration – they are more like a kind of research. I think it is important to study texts and contexts, researching history, news, the political situation – these things will prompt me in finding what I should be focussing on. Instead of a flash of inspiration or a ‘eureka!’ moment – I think dissecting things give me a kind of joy.”

“Art assists you to know this world – more precisely, to cognize a world that differs from what you have seen before.”

Having established links between the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University and friends at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, Jin Jiangbo feels positive about the opportunity for collaboration between both staff and students. “People here are very friendly and have a strong appreciation of art and life,” he says of his experience in New Zealand, where his immediate family are now based. “Last year we invited the Auckland School of Fine Arts to attend the Shanghai Design Biennale, the largest of its kind in the design world. Our teachers and students were able to share research on geological change in urban environments and disaster relief measures. It was very interesting for all involved.”

The future looks bright, as he speaks enthusiastically about plans for the 2nd International Public Art Forum to be held next year with the Shandong University of Art and Design and the Hong Kong Institute for Public Art.  “This provides a platform for more international researchers, scholars, artists, critics and curators to come to Auckland and discuss the relationship between public art and cultural development, in New Zealand and rest of the world,” he says of the anticipated event, “it is the highest international honour in the public art world.”

It’s nearly dinner time, the tea pot is empty, so I ask Jin Jiangbo if he has any advice for young artists.

“I am a young artist, too!” he remarks, and I wince at the inference I may have made otherwise. “For those starting out, you need to stimulate your own creativity instead of copying others, or following a path that has already been walked. You’ve got to uncover your own creative talent, your own artistic language… it is certainly a very interesting process.”

Read the full interview in Chinese here

Many thanks to Jin Jiangbo! Additional thanks to Wing for assisting with Chinese transcription and the VUW Chinese Language Club for a little translation help.

Special thanks to Djamel and Alex at Little Algiers on K Rd, for letting me use the café for the interview after hours! Legends!

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