View of “Yang Jian,” 2017. Photo: Li Sen.

View of “Yang Jian,” 2017. Photo: Li Sen.

Yang Jian

View of “Yang Jian,” 2017. Photo: Li Sen.

Near the entrance of Yang Jian’s solo exhibition “Constructing Ruins,” visitors encountered a short text typewritten on a small piece of paper attached to a length of rebar. The elliptical words tell the story of a crew of workers who run into trouble constructing a bridge. The foreman, disguised as a beggar, asks nearby villagers for two sets of children’s clothes. The workers nail the clothes to a post and, suddenly, they are able to complete the bridge successfully. Soon, however, the children to whom the clothes belonged die.

This tale was among half a dozen stories printed on as many pieces of paper dangling here and there amid this show on the second floor of Taikang Space. All of these texts—collected by Yang from the internet—address the practice of dashengzhuang, or the ritual of human sacrifice for important construction projects. Dashengzhuang belongs to an era long gone, but it never ceases to grip the popular imagination, as evidenced by the anecdotes presented here.

At the opposite end of the space, a vintage television set looped a sequence from a Chinese animated film from the 1960s, in which the protagonist runs up a seemingly never-ending staircase inside a thousand-floor high-rise with no elevator. An inefficient modernist skyscraper and a premodern belief that human flesh and soul give the structure strength—which is more absurd? Inspired by the bizarre building from the animation and by his long-term research on ruins, Yang Jian has made videos, sketches, and 3-D printed miniature models depicting all kinds of impossible or comically dysfunctional architecture, from a cottage shaped like a seesaw to a room consisting only of ceilings. In order to see every work, visitors had to tread carefully through a jungle of tangled rebar, which was recycled from demolished buildings in a nearby neighborhood.

Yang is fascinated by ruins, but there’s no Romantic impulse behind his interest or any longing for an original totality lost in the present. His ruins, in the gallery’s words, “start and end at the same point.” He also refuses an apocalyptic view of history, famously exemplified by Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who faced backward toward the debris of progress. That may be why Yang’s work often evokes a resigned lightheartedness. His documentary project A Man Wearing the Night, 2012, focuses on the experience of a Canadian artist friend who stayed in China illegally for eight years. Here, in excerpts from the film playing on an iPad, the Canadian reads his poems on a warm summer night. Where was he? Did he adopt the vagrant life voluntarily? There’s no way for us to know. All we could see was the murky figure on the screen, whose presence under the dark night sky was—like the thoughtful works on view in this exhibition—seemingly frail, yet strangely alive.

Du Keke