Walking Between “Looking Up and Looking Down”, Observing the Life Mystery of Jiang Jie

Aug 03, 2023 TANC

“Between looking up and looking down, she discovered the small and ambiguous mysteries in life. However, she did not try to solve them, because the struggle and affirmation, completeness and flaws, swelling and shrinking of these mysteries, when pulled together, are the closest to the truth of life. Her art is a glimpse of this truth, a portrayal of the flow of thoughts.” On July 8th, the solo exhibition “Looking Up and Looking Down” by artist Jiang Jie, who currently teaches at the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, opened at the He Art Museum in Wuhan. Curated by Cui Cancan, the exhibition presents the exploration of the theme of life by this female artist active in the field of contemporary Chinese art.

As curator Cui Cancan said, the observation of life and the concern for the human body have always been the main themes in Jiang Jie’s work: the collision between the body, relationships, and material textures is a common image and subject in her past works. From the fragile bodies of several babies carried by fragile media in her early work “Fragile Products” to the huge and alien muscle structures wrapped in soft lace in her sculpture “More Than One and a Half Tons”, Jiang Jie has continuously described the issues of the fragility and complexity of life in new ways. The exhibition is divided into four parts: “Spirit and Thought”, “Broken and Whole”, “Feeling and Knowledge”, and “Observation and Action”, which summarize the themes of Jiang Jie’s works presented in this exhibition. The exhibition title “Looking Up and Looking Down” is taken from the artist’s new work of the same name, which metaphorically refers to the process and state of being “in between” with the words of Wang Xizhi’s “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection”, pointing to a certain unintentional and concrete relationship that exists in life, as a clue running through the entire exhibition as a portrayal of life.

640Artist Jiang Jie

“Concrete and Microscopic”:

“In Between” as a Continuation of Concerns for Process and Life

In the dimly lit space, deep blue walls surround the works in the exhibition. Five ambiguous media form an irregular structure suspended in mid-air, swaying with slight movements in the space’s gentle airflow, unnoticed by most. The complex and winding projections, reflected on the cotton square pads covering the walls, reveal the ambiguous relationships within the works. They are also linked to the excerpt on the exhibition wall, which reads, “Looking up at the vast universe, looking down at the abundance of things.” Created in 2023, the new sculpture “In Between” opens a dialogue with the audience as an introduction. It becomes a performer under the spotlight, highlighted by the background and lighting. Its deformed and recombined materials and shapes create a gentle yet fleeting mystery for the audience. The cotton square block on the back of the work comes from the compression and reprocessing of old bedding, creating a misreading of its properties through changes in shape and thickness, leading to associations with everyday objects. The process of the irregular sculpture hanging in the front and the quilt in the back, and the unstable “in-between” state, give birth to an undefined back-and-forth, which exists spontaneously without deliberate attention.

The same observation also appears in other works in the exhibition. In Jiang Jie’s video work “The Falling Flowers Have Words,” created last year, she captured the shape and scene of the falling flowers she accidentally observed. In the video, a withered and curled peach blossom struggles and trembles in the remaining petals. The unopened flower bone stops at a semi-mature state, but has a wrinkled texture due to premature death. The audience can even see the surrounding petals that are large enough to wrap around the flower bone itself. The artist did not provide too much interpretation for this video, but returned the story’s subject to the flower bone with the words “have words.” For the artist, the most important thing is not to provide a standard art history-style interpretation, but to provide what she sees and the object itself, which can lead to infinite imagination in different and endless individual experiences.

“This is actually our view on many issues: what you think is often not the fact,” Jiang Jie explained when discussing her work. “The reason why I feel sad when I look at it is that it is different from Daiyu’s burial of flowers, which buries petals. But when you see it, the feeling of a struggling flower bone will give you many associations and attributes to it.” “Untitled,” shown in the corner of the exhibition hall, also presents a similar texture to “The Falling Flowers Have Words.” The artist captured the ripple-like light and shadow she accidentally glimpsed next to the sculpture. The image cannot frame its entirety, leaving uncertain guesses and extensions to the external environment.


Capturing chance occurrences seems like a casual stroke here, setting aside repeated writing on grand themes, and subtly wrapping the artist’s understanding of life in feelings and serendipity. Both “Between Looking Up and Looking Down” and “The Words of Falling Flowers” were created after 2020. For Jiang Jie, the special three years have increasingly turned her attention to the unnoticed and uncaptured existence in life. Curator Cui Cancan expressed a similar observation in an interview with Art News/Chinese Edition, saying, “Inspiration is for giving birth to inspiration, for liberating experience. Only when inspiration appears can it escape from experience. Reason cannot remove experience. So this is also a very interesting part of the exhibition, where you can see a lot of subtle, inconspicuous, personal observations that we overlook, and finally present them as works.”

The Interweaving of Life and Time in Mysteries

In addition to focusing on daily and subtle phenomena in life, Jiang Jie’s works have also shifted from more clear themes to a vague and uncertain language. “Everything Becomes a Fable to Me,” located in Hall 2, more directly presents the reflection of time’s flow on Jiang Jie’s artistic language. This sculpture, which almost occupies the entrance of the exhibition hall, is composed of a gourd-shaped sculpture supported by a huge white tile platform and a chaotic support structure. The “gourd” head has a cloud-like white fluff spreading down along the base. Compared with previous works, the artist replaced the iron frame at the back of the gourd-shaped sculpture in the center with a more chaotic and massive wooden structure. The dark part that evokes scars on the “gourd” and the particles stuck to the fluff are no longer visible, and the neutral-colored sculpture appears more gentle and everyday under soft light. The replacement of materials allows more complex symbols to enter the work’s semantics, gradually freeing the work from its past context, forcing the audience to update their existing knowledge and interpretation, and re-experience the contradictory relationship between softness and hardness, clarity and complexity.
Jiang Jie’s “Everything Becomes a Fable to Me” in 2023 is exhibited alongside “This is Drama,” which challenges the audience’s perception of daily life in a more dramatic and unfamiliar way. The latter consists of three four-meter-high pajamas that alter the scattered parameters of familiar daily scenes, such as unusual sizes, quantities, and occasions. As a result, the relationships in daily life become ambiguous and thought-provoking, and the previously clear clues lose their usual order in subtle changes, calling for the audience’s interpretation and imagination. In other words, the artist creates a puzzle for themselves and others using life, but does not fill it with an answer. However, the authenticity of life lies precisely in these gaps, where what people see is never a clear story or endpoint, but a chaotic and vague uncertainty.

Curator Cui Cancan proposed a trend in Jiang Jie’s new work, which is a more sincere expression compared to previous works that revolved around art history or a hypothetical reality. “For Jiang Jie, she is growing every day,” he said. “Even though art is full of mysteries, you don’t have to try to solve them.” Faced with a new reality order, Jiang Jie chooses to present the mystery of life on the natural flow of time, silently observing a more gentle and poetic interweaving and development, rather than urgency, shouting, intensity, or sharpness.

The last exhibition hall only displays a single work, “Crack,” as the finale of the exhibition. The work more intuitively incorporates the subjectivity of the audience as part of the artwork. Just as the fluttering of falling petals calls for the viewer’s imagination, the sculpture suspended in mid-air creates a striking process, and the theater composed of enlarged pajamas triggers the imagination of reinterpretation. Many works in the exhibition pose the same question to the audience: how do we perceive the existence and phenomena in life? What kind of collision occurs between our own experiences and emotions and the objects we observe?
At the exhibition “Jiang Jie: Between Looking Up and Looking Down” at the He Art Museum in 2023, focus is required as the audience must hold their own light source and search for it themselves. A sculpture that is ten meters long is inverted on the ceiling of the spacious and dark exhibition hall. Its form undulates, stretches, intertwines, and is chaotic, resembling a crack that has opened up on the surface of the ceiling, or natural lava or mountains formed in a cave. It stands as a classical and lonely monument, requiring the audience to return to a certain classical trajectory during the viewing process. In the vast exhibition hall, only scattered and faint light sources are found along the edge of the ground. The space remains dark and quiet, allowing only ten viewers to pass through. They need to hold candles or flashlights and discover their own direction of travel and observation inch by inch. The sculpture at the top forces the audience to look up and raise their arms, actively using the concentrated light source to depict the shape and characteristics of the object, reminiscent of the viewing method of temples and cave murals. In this process, viewing and searching become a self-evident premise, and the audience’s senses obtain different experiences with their own movement, selection, and peeping.

The end of the exhibition subtly connects with the opening: the order formed by the audience between searching and looking up echoes the “between” process implied by the five sculptures containing separation and reunion relationships. In the end, the audience cannot obtain a declaration, an answer, or a script provided for art history in the exhibition. Instead, it is the soul and meaning perceived while walking “between,” as well as the way to depict the existence and changes of all things.