Interview: Zhu Jia

The renowned video artist on falling asleep in front of Steve McQueen

All images courtesy OCAT Shanghai and the artist
Zhu Jia is seen as one of the pioneers of Chinese video art. As he unveils his latest work at OCAT Shanghai, he tells Time Out about moving from oil painting to video and falling asleep while talking to Steve McQueen

Having turned the wrong way out of Qufu Lu metro station and wandered straight into a building site, we arrive at OCAT Shanghai, the Suzhou Creek-side gallery where we’re due to meet renowned video artist Zhu Jia, brushing construction dust from our clothes. (For reference, it’s best to take exit 2 and turn right, then right again onto Wenan Lu.) Inside, a different kind of building work is taking place as the final touches are put to the space’s latest exhibition, LANDSEASKY. 

Organised in collaboration with Media Art Asia Pacific and curated by Kim Machan, the show, which began in South Korea and will head to Australia after its stint here, brings together a multinational cast of video artists to explore ideas of spatiality. The exhibition takes its lead from influential Dutch conceptual artist Jan Dibbets’ 1970s Horizon series, where the viewer’s sense of perspective is toyed with. Three works from the series are on display at OCAT together with pieces from artists such as Giovanni Ozzola from Italy, Shilpa Gupta from India and Barbara Campbell from Australia.

ControlOur visit comes a few days ahead of the exhibition’s opening and there are a number of workmen and artists setting up creatively arranged screens and testing projectors. In one corner, Zhu is engrossed in perfecting the settings on a pair of projectors pointing to where two walls converge with the floor. It’s a painstaking process as the artist employs a perfectionist’s eye to ensure that the projections of a hand sketching lines across the space are aligned just so. Somewhat ironically, this brand new piece is entitled ‘It’s Beyond My Control’.

When he’s finally satisfied, Zhu explains that scale is crucial to the piece. ‘If you enlarge the images, it becomes something else from a visual point of view. My other works can be enlarged and some other artists even shrink their works, but in this piece, I have to present it in its original size in order to bring realness to the images.’

Zhu’s works have often dealt with ‘realness’ and everyday life, though often in unconventional ways. One of his most famous pieces, 1994’s ‘Forever’, saw him fix a camera onto the wheel of a Forever tricycle and pedal it around the streets of Beijing. The resulting video is a disorientating, constantly spinning and almost nausea-inducing tour of the city.

Works such as ‘Forever’ and 2002’s ‘Never Take Off’, which features a plane infinitely taxiing along a runway, have established Zhu as a pioneer of video art in China, together with Zhang Peili. Despite their leading roles in China’s video art scene, both were classically trained at two of the country’s most prominent art academies, Zhang in Hangzhou and Zhu in Beijing. ‘Art schools back in our day did not offer training on “artistic awareness” – if you applied for oil painting studies [as Zhu did], you only focused on oil paintings,’ he says. ‘American artists could try numerous approaches as their teachers helped them understand which was the best medium to express their ideas. This is exactly what my generation missed, so I’m still in the process of learning.’ 

Nevertheless, Zhu maintains that for him, concept is king, and he will work in any medium that he believes can best express his ideas. ‘I am not confined to making videos, as long as the medium can present my concept well. But I’m in the habit of working in videography, film images and photography at the moment and I will keep on working with them.’ 

So does he see a stage where he makes the move into feature film production, à la Steve McQueen? ‘I actually met him last year in the US. He was presenting a screening of 12 Years a Slave and gave a lecture afterwards. After he finished his lecture, I went with a friend to grab a few drinks and McQueen was there, but I was so jet-lagged I fell asleep when they were talking to him.’ 

A missed opportunity perhaps, but Zhu isn’t likely to follow McQueen’s transition from video artist to film director just yet. ‘I watched one of his interviews and he said that the art world was too small for him, he needed a bigger stage. But we are quite different. He makes his films and tells his stories. I’ve used film language in my work before, but I’ve not told any stories because I don’t know how and do not like telling stories. I feel like I’m disengaging from my creative work if I’m telling a story.’ 

But while Zhu may shy away from a traditional narrative, he’s keen that his works are understood. ‘I want to present a simple yet real image to the audience and to grant the audience a direct understanding,’ he says of ‘It’s Beyond My Control’. ‘Some artists try to be aloof with their works, to be abstract, and maybe I used to think like that when I first started, but these days I tend to think that works should be clearly understood by the viewer, otherwise what’s the point?’

Equipped with this perspective, Zhu seems quite content to continue exploring in the realm of conceptual art, which – while he’s consistently producing such fascinating works – is of course great news for the rest of us. ‘I still like my “narrow” or “small” arts world,’ he says. ‘Even if conceptual art is too narrow, I enjoy it all the same.’

LANDSEASKY is at OCAT Shanghai until June 15. Click here for details.