Jia Jia’s Power Cords
by Nicole Seisler
Where does power originate and how can it be accessed or thwarted? This question has permeated Jia Jia’s practice for the last two years. As a Chinese citizen living and studying in the United States during a pandemic and a period of political and social upheaval, Jia is keenly aware of disparities in power — across and within cultures, the ranks of government and family, and ourselves. Jia’s practice strives to convey the complexity of these dynamics while simultaneously carving out the space and time to be present in herself, which is perhaps best witnessed in her absorption of the colors of her environment; since moving to the United States, the golden autumn of upstate New York, the shiny bright pop of Southern California, as well as the greys that make the greens so vivid in the Pacific Northwest have functioned to ground the artist in place and self.
Jia’s particular attention to the color green is apparent in her ongoing experiments with grass: an icon inherited from the aristocratic estates of England, the ubiquitous lawn of western civilization, and a symbol (and hue) of wealth and leisure. For Jia, the humble material of grass reveals cultural, societal, and geographic divisions, yet it also serves as a symbol for “ordinary people.” In Chinese, the term for grass is root, which Jia interprets metaphorically as the root of humanity, stating “grass represents all of us; each individual blade grows in the same soil, the same land.”
To illustrate dynamics of power, Jia tests the limits of grass by applying heat and constriction to the material with simple tools. In a recent series of sculptures, she overheats and overwaters a piece of sod with a humidifier and applies gusts of wind to another with a commercial hand dryer. In a companion series she uses colorful elastic bands and zip-ties to aggressively bundle and segregate blades of grass. In what is perhaps Jia’s most effective experiment, she gives voice to grass to speak to its own condition: using a clothes iron to heat a small patch of grass in her backyard, the material yellows and withers after two days but eventually rejuvenates and regrows after two weeks. “This was really interesting to me,” Jia said, “because the direct and oppressive heat didn’t hurt the root. I see the grass as a community. The neighborhood of grass blades helps this small, ironed patch of grass grow back. This moment feels really powerful to me.”
Jia further explores this sense of personal power in a sculptural situation where she tightened a blood pressure pump around an inflatable globe. “It was very satisfying,” Jia said of the experience. She was in control; the world was literally in her hands, losing air under constant pressure, and Jia has the video documentation to prove it. “Of course,” she said, “the inflatable globe is merely a product, a plastic representation of our world, which means that my sense of control is equally false. We don’t have the power to control the real things in life.” This work is at once a cathartic exercise, a sublimation of her own anger, and a gesture towards the seemingly endless escalation of personal, political, and planetary tension.
Sculptural experimentation serves for Jia as a simultaneous articulation of and escape from exhausting questions of scale and power. The next step in Jia’s practice is a literal and metaphoric “untying” — of the materials in her work, of restrictive social structures, and of stifling links with family. Through this untying, perhaps, Jia can reveal where her own power emanates from, and how each of us can access internal power amongst the whirl and complexity of external parameters and powers.