The Metaphor of Burning Incense

— An Interpretation of the Art of Jianjie Ji

To most Chinese, the phrase “burning incense” carries significant meaning as a common custom rather than a symbol of religious belief.  It’s not only a media that passes information from this world to the next, but also a symbol of the perpetuation of the ancestral tree.  In people’s traditional lives, ash from “burning incense” possessed miraculous healing effects.  In the past, this ash was used as a panacea to treat people who suffered from serious illnesses.  As a matter of fact, “burning incense” has been endowed with myriad meanings by Chinese people for thousands of years. 

How do we interpret the meaning of items that Ji uses in his artwork, such as incense ash, unburned incense sticks and candles, sacrificial money ash, other sacrificial offerings, etc.?  Obviously, they are not ordinary art making elements.  As Chinese, we are familiar with these items and related rites.  But, in today’s Mainland China, they are not an essential part of everyone’s daily life experience.  These elements are more thought of as traditional habits that represent old history and old lifestyles.  These customs are still around, but have already lost their original significance.

However, among overseas Chinese, these traditions have been robustly preserved.  It has become quite important to some overseas Chinese to visit temples and worship during traditional Chinese festivals, holidays and other special days.  This kind of behavior can not only be viewed as a type of religious activity, but also a special way for overseas Chinese to know their ancestors and seek cultural recognition and a spiritual home.  Through these special rites, they are able to send blessings and hopes to their loved ones beyond time and space, and view their past, current and future lives.

Therefore, in a sense, these materials are no longer actual physical substances.  They are a kind of vestige of human spiritual activities that contains other-worldly information.  This is why we feel awe when we see these materials in places other than temples and other places of worship because they help us to associate with realms beyond the world that we are living in now.  They aid us to awaken the deep consciousness, myths and sacredness in our heart of hearts. 

Without understanding this cultural background, we cannot interpret Jianjie Ji’s art work , which is filled with the aroma of “burning incense.”

Jianjie Ji was born and raised in Shanghai, China.  He went to America in the late 1980s when he was 30 , where he received an MFA degree from the University of Hawaii .  From then till now, he has lived in Honolulu, Hawaii and engaged in the creation of contemporary art.   

He is an artist with an open mind towards art concepts but also still possesses a strong passion for traditional Chinese culture.  His openness is reflected in his creative selection of materials and flexible methodologies. Traditional cultural themes are reflected in his all-encompassing and careful observations of Chinese culture and art, especially Chinese folk practices. He closely examines traditional Chinese society from a contemporary point of view, selects a distinctive perspective to approach it, extracts images and symbols of highly dense cultural forms from this tradition and ingeniously incorporates them into his art. Ji’s art expresses his searching, studying and questioning of his own cultural identity as a person who lives within the confluence of Eastern and Western cultures.  

Looking back on Jianjie Ji’s artwork completed prior to 2000, we not only see collisions and conflicts between traditional and contemporary culture, but also sense a strong and deep cherishing in his heart for his homeland. 

If we do a simple analysis, probably Jianjie Ji’s work from this pre-2000 period can be classified into two different categories:  one category focuses on visual issues and elements.  He tried to combine materials that have very different attributes.  For example, he integrated ready made objects , such as metal webs, electric wires, bike parts, and computer scrapes that symbolized modern technology and civilization, with traditional antiques like fragmentary figure wood carvings and copper padlocks to create intense visual contrasts and express cultural contradictions. 

The second category of work emphasizes culture, aesthetics and psychology.  This is reflected in pieces in which conflictual elements have been reduced. He utilized an approach that integrated ready made objects and painting techniques. The painting is succinct, harmonious and motley and, at the same time, blends well with its base colors.  Incorporated sketches resemble incomplete contour lines of folk religion images such as people, gestures and Chinese Zodiac characters. A solid, ready made object is mounted in the center of the picture and human figures in ancient costumes or partial self portraits are painted on it.  These art pieces demonstrate solid drawing technique and imply strong and deep feelings of reminisce and longing for the past. As a matter of fact, this kind of reminiscence and longing forms the principal basis for Ji’s art. These works can also be viewed as a prelude to Ji’s series “Somewhere/ Temple + Workshop” which he started after 2000.

In recent years, Jianjie Ji has been devoted to one major theme — “burning incense”. Living overseas for an extended period has allowed him to develop a broad and deep connection with overseas Chinese life and temples —an important link which unites Chinese feeling and emotions with their spiritual beliefs.  

As both a bystander and compatriot, his mind is overflowing with lingering memories of the temples he has visited in different cities. Filled with emotion, he has observed temple rituals and brought home incompletely burned incense, candles and sacrificial money and other offerings. Sometimes he reburns incense, candles and sacrificial money and sends his blessings to and prays for the deceased. Moreover, if possible, he wraps up burned ash and sends it back to families—who always sincerely appreciate his goodwill. 

Sometimes, he puts together items from the temple and combines them with resins, plastic boards and fabric, thus forming the complete materials and assembled items used in his new series “Somewhere/Temple + Workshop ”.  The word “Somewhere” can respectively refer to the following cities: Honolulu, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Shanghai, New York, Chicago, etc.. These places are only used as attributes for the word “ Temple” in order to denote specific temple locations from which items are obtained. The ash, sacrificial money, incompletely burned incense and candles are scattered and randomly held together by resins…which look like they are covered with accumulated dust and frozen in time.   

Some pieces only include incense … for example, in one work entitled “Honolulu/Temple + Workshop ,” incense is thickly bunched erect and organized inside three open wooden boxes. Only a circular group of incense sticks at the center of the work is burned and exhibits traces of ash. The rest of the incense is unburned … it is so new that it could not possibly have been collected from the temple. In short, this piece is visually dramatic and eye catching. It is abstract, brief and concise. The social message of the work is reduced but its aesthetic characteristics are enhanced.

  I personally think that Ji’s aforementioned paintings with burned incense and candles as well as his practice of returning incense to family members inspires people to ponder and are artistically appealing and extraordinary. His “burning incense” themed works provide clear evidence of his unique deeds.

  Recalling the feeling that I had the first time I saw Jianjie Ji’s art containing ash and other worship remnants, I thought that it was somewhat queer.  However, after I learned about the observation and actions he practices prior to starting his art pieces, I, anyway, felt relieved. His art not only exemplifies a special kind of philanthropic behavior, but it also expresses his own spiritual homecoming, nostalgia and imaginative pondering about “burning incense” — a native ritual from the Motherland.

Jiang Mei

Curator, Shanghai Art Museum

May 7, 2006


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