What makes an image intriguing or seductive? What makes an image beautiful? Why do we crave what ultimately makes us sick? Working with video, sculpture, and installation, artist Jiajia Zhang formulates a contemporary image archaeology motivated by her own entanglement with media technologies, tracing how their soft, pervasive power unfolds throughout rapidly appearing public and private spaces.
For our ongoing thematic focus on “opulence,” writer Dara Jochum spoke to Zhang about the physicality of affect, the subsumption of consciousness, and if there is hope for beauty in an age of over-saturation. The interview is accompanied by a series of images taken by Zhang.
DARA JOCHUM You have not one but two exhibitions that just recently closed in Switzerland: September Issues at Allstars, Lausanne, and You Left Something Behind at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen. In St. Gallen, I was struck by how you engaged with the institution as a type of space by including new works of your own but also existing works from the collection to create a specific mood or atmosphere that alluded to both public and private spaces. Could you tell me about how this show came together?
JIAJIA ZHANG You Left Something Behind was really invested in the circumstances I was in at the time. When I was asked to do the show – I can’t remember if I had either already given birth or was just about to – I was just about to enter one of the most private domains of life. At the same time, the idea of having an upcoming exhibition was a situation in which you’re very exposed, very public, and therefore also vulnerable. These two different spaces were very present. Then the architecture of the museum was very specific and not easy to exhibit in, but there was something about its bruteness that triggered me because I was in Milan for a residency around the same time, and that is a very urban city with lots of passageways that somehow reminded me of the formal appearance of the Kunstmuseum in St. Gallen. So I started to work through these coincidental circumstances and ended up creating a hybridity between private and public. It never was either/or, but both realms were intertwined.
The work “Window (script)” opens the show. I was trying to imagine what the beginning of the narrative would be. In Milan, I was always passing this restaurant with a typeface printed on the window, which I appropriated here. The work is a Perspex frame with a light-pink shutter inside. The words “area conditionata” are printed on the front with a strange time schedule. This was also the layout of the window in Milan, but I had misread the original spelling which was “aria,” meaning “air-conditioned space.” Instead, I read “conditioned area.” Something about this really stuck with me because I was thinking about both the institution as well as my condition as conditioned. After giving birth, the feeding and sleeping schedule was very intense and that was translated into the opening hours, which take up the whole day and run throughout the night. I was not at all aware of all these patterns and schedules before I had a baby. There were gaps and times when I had time to rest or work on the show, and all these circumstances contributed to the special conditions of the space I inhabited, and of my mind.
DJ These works made me think a lot about artists like Chantal Ackermann or Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who pointed to the gendered nature of public and private spaces. The public is the place of action and production, whereas reproductive labor happens unseen, in the home. When Ukeles wrote the Maintenance Art Manifesto, she declared “my housework is my artwork,” collapsing the distinction between these two realms. Do you think of your work as feeding into this particular feminist legacy?
JZ Yes, totally. I stumbled across Mierle Laderman Ukeles when reading Kate Zambreno’s “The Light Room” (2023). I find it interesting how she talks about these different temporalities of slowness and care. As a mother, you somehow feel like you’re putting so much time into just maintaining a status quo and trying to prevent chaos from taking over. So, it also feels as if you are stuck, not moving towards a more productive goal. Just to declare this act of maintaining as a work itself is a strong statement because it goes against the idea of the genius or the monument. In her performance “Touch Sanitation,” Ukeles met over 8500 employees of the New York Sanitation Department, shaking hands with each of them and saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” Especially moving through cities where architecture is so solidified and often associated with male genius, it’s an interesting way to hold a counter position to the idea of public space.
DJ And then there’s another disruption of the separation between public and private in your work, which is the relevance of the virtual sphere today, the omnipresence of social media.
JZ That is very much experience-based because, as we all know, our private space is infused with a type of publicness. I am always curious about how that affects our behavior. I guess we’re constantly shedding material wherever we go, be it in the bed, even in the most intimate spaces. What we think of as private has been invaded in a way that nobody really was asked about, through data collection and surveillance capitalism, and somehow, we just naively jumped on board and participated. So this virtual publicness is still a field that is very unregulated, very messy, and it is being exploited in certain ways.
I feel very much in the middle of the storm and not like an outside observer.
DJ You mentioned presence, being present. In You Left Something Behind, you showed a series of new drawings. There is one I particularly love and can relate to, which is a collage including a portrait of you breastfeeding your newborn while scrolling on your phone. These early stages of motherhood are so exhausting but also boring at the same time. After I gave birth I definitely felt a kind of pressure to “be present” and not on my phone. It’s funny that being on your phone is seen as being absent, as if you’re in a different world or different time-space.
JZ The drawings were made in Milan. I had set up a routine and made daily walks to the Piazza del Duomo, a very touristy place where I also gathered a lot of footage for my videos. There are street painters there who mostly draw portraits of tourists, and each one has a very distinct style. I was thinking about how this type of artist’s studio is placed in the public space. I made collages out of collected images, maybe in a similar way to editing or pairing my videos, and had them painted by a few of the street painters.
To get back to the second part of your question: During these first few months of motherhood, I was trying to find pockets of time to work on the show. So, spending time with my baby was also kind of a break and I really wanted to enjoy that as much as possible. I tried as much as possible not to think about something else while doing care work. At the same time, I was often looking at my phone for a mental break, or even just to find information about childcare, which was so new to me. I was constantly googling “if the baby does this, is this okay?” Also, my Instagram was filled with moms and babies and advice all of a sudden. I found it interesting how this niche was invisible to me prior to motherhood but then suddenly so present. The behavioral patterns and the language in this mum-influencer domain were something I was looking into – also as research for my video Social Gifts. What does it mean to be a mother and expose yourself to a huge audience, what does that mean for your own anxiety and visibility?
The flood of images surrounds us and one can simply jump into it. I don’t always have complete control over it.
DJ You have this very fine sensibility for how the hazy, intangible sphere of technology manifests itself in people’s lives and how it makes itself felt. The personal coalesces with these imposing outside structures.
JZ Yes, that is because it is something that I’m very much affected by. I feel very much in the middle of the storm and not like an outside observer. I am curious about and motivated by why I’m being side-tracked, why I am being engulfed in this behavior that is coming upon me, and then will try and think about it from a critical viewpoint but still remaining on the inside.
DJ In September Issues, there is an emphasis on trends, content, and the flood of images we’re exposed to. It made me think of a quote by Mark Fisher – “No one is bored, everything is boring” – referring to how people are perpetually over-stimulated but also exhausted, so they just watch whatever generic media to “zone out.” What draws you into this flood of images?
JZ My brain. Curiosity, a certain addiction. The flood of images surrounds us and one can simply jump into it. I don’t always have complete control over it. I feel like a lot of works are me trying to weave found images into my personal narrative, to find something in this generic flood that is still personal enough.
… the idea of removing the notion of certainty is interesting to me …
In September Issues, the basis of the video I made for the show was coming out of an emotion that I had at the beginning of summer, which was this feeling of knowing that I had to work and that having a child and having to work was going to create a messy summer. I was also thinking about the FOMO that comes with summer. People going on holidays and the kind of images that you are supposed to be producing during summer. This kind of loneliness and angst made me think of The Green Ray, a great film by Eric Rohmer. My parents were visiting, so I had problems of guilt and not having time for them, which is portrayed in links to Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu and finally, there was this deadline looming at the end of summer, which made me think of September Issue, a documentary about the making of Vogue magazine, which is a predecessor of today’s trend forecasting.
Around the same time, there was a lot of talk about Chat GPT and the future of AI, so I looked into a
lot of footage concerning AI and its hoax promise of saving us from loneliness and other dilemmas. I thought about how the problems that are being talked about in Tokyo Story and in The Green Ray are issues of the heart and how there are ideas floating around how carework can be taken over by robots, how script writing can be solved through a new intelligence, how predictions can be made about our futures through our data. All these informations brought me on this path to weave a new narrative together, made up from all these fragments from different sources. In it, I’m using a lot of AI-generated images to face the scripts from the analogue films. I confront oldfashioned problems with a set of solutions proposed through new technology. The outcome, at least for me, is both funny, melancolic, scary and a bit sad.
September became an allegory for all things past summer. For the future. Very specific personal things in my life led me to this new work. I just picked up the bits that surrounded me and played with them on the timeline. I’m trying to work with footage in a material way, destroying and adding to it.
DJ You do this with texts, too.
JZ Yes, the idea of removing the notion of certainty is interesting to me, especially with text. It’s so easy to feel like you know what you are reading or how your thoughts are constructed, and I like destabilizing this notion. I guess it’s a classic editing problem. But to take contradictory sources that point in different directions and then place them in the same stream creates something that allows the viewer to be activated.
I really like Gertrude Stein’s texts because of the repetition and the nonsensical aspect of them, which leads them to point in so many directions and means they are not in themselves conclusive.
DJ In Social Gifts, you use a recording of Gertrude Stein’s essay “What are Masterpieces and why are there so few of them?” and juxtapose it with written fragments of academic papers on marketing and the influencer. By laying them over one another you create room for thinking about rarefied versus ubiquitous image-making and how art relates to image distribution on social media.
JZ I really like Gertrude Stein’s texts because of the repetition and the nonsensical aspect of them, which leads them to point in so many directions and means they are not in themselves conclusive. When I was listening to this recording by Martin Burr while visiting the Piazza del Duomo every day – a ritual which I guess is also questionable – I realized how they overlapped. Stein could just as well have been speaking about the present, about what is happening on this square. But then again, not at all. What a masterpiece is is not clear and she remains vague.
DJ Do you feel that your background in architecture has an influence on how you perceive and navigate public space?
JZ When I studied architecture, I was trying to think about space in a cinematic way, with a narrative or a script. That translates into how I think about composing exhibitions. In Milan, I often went to look at specific architecture and thought about how these elements could be transformed through a different narrative. Who defines our public spaces? Measure and scale are taken as given, but who lays out these parameters?
Cuteness can be a trap.
DJ In your videos and photographs, you use a lot of footage from different cities you’ve travelled to. On the one hand, you show how these cityscapes all look similar, governed by neoliberal rules of consumption. But beyond that, you still harbor an attentiveness for specific cultural differences beyond the globalized flattening of culture which is also propelled by the online sphere. For example, in After Love (2021), you use a lot of footage from China and look into your own family history.
JZ After Love features archival footage of me as a child and also footage I shot myself, for example at my grandma’s funeral in China around ten years ago. There definitely is a lot of cultural assimilation on the internet. Even though things like food or beauty standards are still specific, these too are being adopted through their accessibility online. In After Love, for example, I used a lot of Asian extreme makeup videos: This is not something that I am surrounded by in my everyday life, but it speaks metaphorically about ideas of identity and authenticity. In After Love, I was thinking about how I have been influenced by all these different sources I had in my life. I included Asian pop stars, whose reception is very emotionally loaded in Asia compared to Europe, so I think something gets lost in translation when shown in a Western context. I paired the funeral of one of those pop stars, Leslie Cheung, with the funeral of my grandmother, thinking about what this person embodied for a generation of Asian teenagers. Cheung committed suicide by jumping to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hongkong. This is then paired with a voiceover of somebody commenting on Britney Spears, a Western icon who is facing restrictions and abuse through a conservatorship. So we have all these different levels of access to emotions through music and culture, but who is actually in control of these emotions? I guess there are these different channels and outlets, like music and stars, that young people’s emotions are guided through, but then there is still something like an authority like a parent or a state which has influence over you. I was trying to compare family-related issues with bigger political issues, thinking about how Motherland China was treating Hongkong, which was present in the media at the time of making After Love.
DJ I was wondering if you ever think about beauty. Curator Melanie Bührle wrote about beauty quite extensively in the text accompanying your show in St. Gallen. Is this a concept that is important in your work? How do you think about beauty in contrast to say, cuteness, which seems to be a dominant aesthetic form on the internet today?
JZ Before Melanie mentioned it, I wasn’t that aware of the presence of beauty in my work. I liked that she framed beauty as something life-affirming, rather than a prison-like definition concerning consumable goods. The beauty she is talking about is communal and has an underlying tone that everybody can relate to. It’s also such a generic term but everybody has a different association to it. This is what I find interesting, that it is endless, geared towards the limitless. It can be defined in over a thousand ways but is the opposite of commodifiable. When I go out with my camera and record the world, it’s very intuitive. I can’t describe what pulls the eye but maybe that has an aspect of beauty within it. In Milan, there is something generous about how people gravitate towards the city’s beauty and are compelled to share it. Even if the motivation is not always so pure, it still connects people. Cuteness, on the other hand, can be a trap. For example, the Paro robot seals that are used in Japanese elderly homes and featured in the September Issues video and that basically act as a surrogate for real human relationships. Something is affective about cuteness, as it speaks to people’s emotions but at the same time has a looming danger. I find this interesting because it’s so seductive and it’s easy to fall into the cute trap. Including for myself.
It is often very difficult to deal with the aftereffects of images and with an overload.
DJ So maybe beauty is the opposite of cuteness then.
JZ Yeah, beauty feels very important because it’s almost like a language that everybody shares but without it being defined. In this sense, beauty has the aspect of a masterpiece. When Gertrude Stein talks about governability or ungovernability, beauty can be viewed as something that is always escaping definition. Of course, beauty can also be limiting and standardized, but at its best beauty can be something that constantly escapes definition.
DJ Thinking again about Gertrude Stein’s masterpieces, which are not quite the same as beauty, but inhabit a similar intangible, ineffable category, do you think beauty can still exist in the online sphere, among the image flood? In this opulence of visual stimuli, where opulence, for me, always means too much, too over the top, can beauty only exist in rarity?
JZ I think it’s a problem of digestion. I think that we are actually able to consume a lot of things and also there is something in us that craves a lot. We’re basically fed what we ask for, a Frankenstein-type tale. So this opulence, this is for me, as you say, over the top. After you close your eyes or turn off the devices, it’s a question of what is left. It is often very difficult to deal with the aftereffects of images and with an overload. When this (virtual) boundlessness or endlessness is channeled through the body, it becomes something very physical. Same as with food or any other overconsumption. And that’s why even through the overload exists in my videos – as it exists in the world-, I still try and navigate it: I find my own package that I can digest and can make sense of, (or try and make sense of). And in this process, I try to make a more universal statement that is translatable outside of my own experience. But I don’t know how that can be referred back to the term beauty. I’m wondering if beauty is also something that can be physically felt, as a lightness that is able to carry the weight of the images.