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ZI JIE AT EAST LAKE

Li Jun did not set out to become an activist artist. In 2010, he was living in Wuhan when he first heard about the local government’s plans to fill in part of the city’s East Lake, one of the largest urban lakes in China, for commercial development. The public art project “Everyone’s East Lake” spearheaded by two fellow artists presented Li with an opportunity to lend his voice to a chorus of protest. For the next five years, the artist, who works under the moniker Zi Jie, addressed environmental and social issues surrounding the gentrification of Wuhan’s East Lake through a multitude of mediums, from video to performance to illustration. The works have been collected together in the exhibition “Zi Jie at East Lake” at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City as part of Asia Contemporary Art Week, co-presented with Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation’s Creative China Festival. 
Drawing from his background in video art, the first work Li produced with the aid of his friend Deng Jinxin was East Lake Road Trip (2010). For the four-part film, Li captured over three hours of footage while touring the area on the back of Deng’s motorcycle. The hand-held shots reveal dirt roads, partially built highways and fenced-off construction sites along the banks of the lake. Two years later, Li rode the length of what was then a new public transit system, recording his journey in the video East Lake Bus Trip (2012). Observed through the bus window, the paved streets lined with newly planted trees offer a stark contrast to the landscape he recorded with Deng. Sitting with headphones, visitors could relive the sojourn through Li’s ears and eyes, listening to traffic noises, and observing the flow of bodies as they board and disembark the bus—and enter or exit the experience just like the passengers in Li’s footage.
That same year, Li conceived of a performance that drew further attention to the changes taking place. Free to Go (2012) contemplates the notion of access to that particular body of water, which is by any measure a public space. When he learned, for reasons pertaining to cost and liability, that the nearby university had dismantled a bridge used by students when they visited the lake for a swim, Li rebuilt the ramp. A five-minute video of the performance showed the artist walking on the wooden planks. Leaning against the wall next to the screen, a piece of wood with the Chinese words for “free to go” painted on it is the actual sign he had installed to invite swimmers to use the walkway.
Li continued to question the ownership and management of public land in One Night in the Fishery (2012), in which he camped overnight on a lot designated for a five-star hotel. Hanging from Mana Contemporary’s ceiling, an enlarged photograph of the artist silhouetted against the lake at sunset documents the performance. Another performance that revisits the matter of commercialization, East Lake Central Hotel (2014), welcomed visitors to an informal lodge that the artist had set up in a lakeside cabin he believed to be unoccupied. There, he provided guests with a guidebook and hammock, as well as two other items—a broom and mosquito net—that were included in the exhibition. The government later shut down the site, not knowing that the cabin was actually utilized by the cleaning crew that took care of the lake.
The artist also devised an elaborate scavenger hunt called Living RPG Game: East Lake Legend (2014). Li posted the game’s rules online, along with clues pointing players to specific locations around the lake. A handful of these clues, written in the style of a detective story, hung in one of the rooms at Mana Contemporary, while red string linked to the corresponding answers on an opposite wall of a second room. Some clues and answers were also integrated into other works on display, calling back to the real locales they directed players to. Li designed to game as a way to encourage local citizens to explore every corner of the lake, including more secluded sections that had been marked for use by the government and private companies. Again, he wanted to underline the loss of public space. Upon returning to the lake a couple years later, Li recalled that he came upon one of his old answers, attached to a bench; apparently, none of the participants had found that one. 
At the center of “Zi Jie at East Lake,” red signs framing the doorway between the two rooms that house the exhibition commemorate the performance and installation Dragon Temple of East Lake (2015). Li, who grew up Guangxi province, where he practiced a daily ritual of worshipping many gods, erected a temple adjacent to the lake as a monument to his spiritual upbringing, which doubled as a place for quiet reflection. An accompanying graphic novel on display details the process and rationale through illustrations and photographic documentation. Eventually, he witnessed locals in Wuhan accepting the temple as their own and paying homage to the dragon god imported from his home culture. The structure not only offers a spiritual backdrop, but also represents a disruptive space—autonomous from and positioned against capitalism, according to Li. The rise and disappearance of the artist’s works seem to imitate that of the lake itself, in the heart of land being claimed and reclaimed in an ongoing struggle between people and profits.