Yun-Fei Ji utilizes the structures and symbols of folkloric tradition to speak truth to power. Full of phantoms, demons, and other spectral characters, Ji’s paintings have frequently functioned as metaphorical critiques of oppressive power structures—and strategies of defiance. In his ink and watercolor compositions, these ghostly figures are stand-ins for the complex political undercurrents and cultural tug-of-war shaping rural communities in a rapidly developing world.
Ji is inspired by the ghost stories that he first learned growing up in the countryside during the late Chinese Cultural Revolution. He employs the stacked perspective and flattened space of classical Chinese painting to tell contemporary stories that, while geographically specific, speak to a collective human experience. The work often comments on political realities of both US and China, expressed in codes by using metaphor and allusion. There is a satirical streak, and his love of the grotesque is balanced with humor and a deep sense of irony. Each work is an act of resistance, insisting that narratives of displacement and environmental destruction are worth preserving.
In monumental scrolls like Village Wen's Progress, 2017 and After the First Seventh Day, 2016, Ji’s compositions are populated by individualized, contemporary figures that inhabit a landscape in perpetual transition. Suspended between modernity and tradition, the village becomes a metaphor for community. The ghosts of ancestors and animal-like folkloric figures that intermingle with these present-day villagers act as potent reminders of the time-honored cultural traditions endangered by this march towards “progress.” Although these scrolls are read from right to left, the narrative can be entered at any point, emphasizing a continuum of past, present, and future.
Several important bodies of work are rooted in Ji’s fieldwork, exploring communities affected by man-made and natural environmental disasters. These projects often document the involuntary relocations of entire villages to make way for ambitious infrastructure and urbanization projects, as well as the concurrent effects of climate change. The Three Gorges Dam and the devastation its development has caused throughout the Yangtze Valley have been subject matter for Ji's for a number of years. Its immense reservoir has displaced at least 1,500,000 people and submerged thousands of villages and valuable archaeological sites. Ji’s epic scroll The Three Gorges Dam Migration, 2008, records in an unfurling cinematic narrative the myriad effects of this social and environmental engineering. In 2009 the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art commissioned a major printmaking project in collaboration with the famed printing and publishing house Rongbaozhai. Titled The Three Gorges Dam Migration, this ten-foot-long horizontal image was hand-printed in China from over 500 hand-carved woodblocks.
Water Rising, 2006 is a major diptych scroll produced in response to Hurricane Katrina. The figures in the left panel of this unfolding drama are running toward the figures in the right panel as if they are due to collide with each other—they are fleeing with nowhere to go. Ji spent time in New Orleans during the aftermath of the storm, documenting the flooding and wreckage caused by the levees breaking. Subsequent works such as The Wreckage and Columbus Park, both 2008, depict a denunciation of the reality he found in the city in Ji’s lyrical, fluid brushwork.
Philip Tinari writes of Ji’s work, “While his formal explorations are formidable, Yun-Fei Ji’s real interest might be in depicting ordinary people in extreme conditions--both the reality of their predicaments, and the mythologies that emerge in our shared narratives of them. He attains clarity on these events and situations, which he ventures to share through his work, by actually going to the source, immersing himself in the visual details of these emerging histories in real time.”
Yun-Fei Ji was born in 1963 in Beijing, China. He earned his BFA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing and his MFA from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 2005, Ji was Artist-in-residence at Yale University where he conducted extensive research with the institution’s scholars. He received the 2006 American Academy Prix de Rome Fellowship and Residency and was the 2007 Artist-in-residence at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London. Major solo exhibitions include Ji Yun-Fei: Last Days of Village Wen at the Cleveland Museum of Art; Yun-Fei Ji: The Intimate Universe at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, which traveled to the Honolulu Museum of Art (2016); and Yun-Fei Ji: Waterworks at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, China (2013). Ji has been the subject of further solo exhibitions at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum of Art, University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA; the University Museum of Contemporary Art, UMASS Amherst, MA; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; the Rose Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham; the Peeler Art Center, DePauw University, Greencastle; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Ji’s work has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, including the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the 2011 Lyon Biennale, and the 2012 Biennale of Sydney. In 2008, his work was featured in Displacement: the Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art, an exhibition of four Chinese artists which originated at the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, Illinois, and toured nationally. In 2014, Ji presented a new monumental scroll for the Prospect.3 New Orleans biennial, curated by Franklin Sirmans. In 2016, his work was included in Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 2018-2019, Ji was featured in the exhibition Hand Drawn Action Packed, which traveled to five museums throughout the United Kingdom. Ji has been the subject of several monographs, including Yun-Fei Ji: The Intimate Universe (2016, co-published by Delmonico and the Wellin Museum of Art) and Yun-Fei Ji: Water Work (2013, published by UCCA Books). Ji’s work is included in the permanent collections of major public institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore; MD; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT and the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. Yun-Fei Ji currently lives and works between New York and Pennsylvania.