Critics’ Picks

Jia, untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 6' 3" x 10''.

Jia, untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 6' 3" x 10''.



Arratia Beer
Potsdamer Str. 87
October 15–November 21, 2015

One of Mao Zedong’s more insidious achievements in mainland China was the Chinese character simplification program. With the supposed intent of improving literacy, the program reduced the number of strokes deployed in writing characters, effectively neutering the written language’s pictographic and ideographic content. A lesser known component of the initiative was the elimination of nearly two thirds of all Chinese characters from official use. Naturally, this was also done for ideological purposes; it becomes quite difficult to voice certain thoughts that might be unpleasant to the ears of the ruling elite when one no longer has the language to formulate them.

In her exhibition “The Chinese Version,” Jia calls attention to this act of totalitarian cultural destruction with a series of paintings composed entirely of Chinese characters, many of them now officially extinct, rendered in the same font that was deployed by the first mechanical printing press in China. Often, it is the formal aesthetic qualities of the characters that are emphasized over semantics; so it is with two untitled canvases, both 2012, where characters with strong horizontal lines are strictly deployed, forming a series of wavy lines when regarded from afar. (Were one to read the characters out loud, the results would be a sort of Dadaist nonsense poetry.) Elsewhere, One Hundred Birds and One Hundred Fish, both 2015, feature repetitions of the characters for species that have become extinct. Much as they have disappeared, so has the language designating them; most well-educated Chinese speakers in the twenty-first century will be unable to determine what these signs denote. This isn’t concrete poetry; it’s the poetry of slippage, in a world where the concrete is something to be feared and defeated.