Perfunctory Notes on “Love Letters”







Perfunctory Notes on “Love Letters”


This poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.

-          John Ashbery

 “The fires of hell feed on your desires. People do not burn you; you burn yourself.”

-          Su Shih, Odes of the Icons of the Water-Land Ritual – Lower Eight Seats – Denizens of Hell



The quote marks (“ ”) around titles separate and distinguish content, luring us to read while admonishing against an unbroken flow of reading, preventing or standing against the muddling of discursive forms.

In this way, Jiang Zhi’s “Love Letters” are not Jiang Zhi’s Love Letters.

The latter belongs to that unique individual recipient. Its private structure, its love, its attachments, its implorations, its condemnations, its summonses, and everything which falls outside of the “ ” part, as well as the meanings which can only occur upon an action – a response? an affirmation? a non-response? – are things that are entirely invisible to the eyes of the reader or viewer.

The love letter is a naked power relationship with no place for a third person. The acts of loving and being loved, of confessing and listening, do not reveal their inner emotions and are not moved by us. Only the “ ” ensures that a love which is not in the least bit exposed, yet is total in body and mind, is once again released, transcending giver and receiver to visit upon the other, who has no rights in the matter.

Our perceptions or doubts can only be manifested, in either rich and complex or simple and crude textures – but certainly self-moderated – through such assurances, with such manifestations encapsulating, supplementing and comparing the object within the “ ” without any shame or discomfort.

Placing it within the “ ” is like a naked person donning a hastily grabbed article of clothing (or bed sheet) before truly coming out to face a sudden visitor.

Here is the unfolding of readability, the opening up of the artwork, the blossoming of the text. The object, which does not require an informed identity, is consulting with us, seeking a dialogue, imploring us for contact, grasping for our curious gaze: look, this photo, Jiang Zhi’s “Love Letter”…



The “ ” also implies that the object – the love letter – this text, this work of art, this complete object, is presentational and open, something that can be read, can be viewed from various angles. It can, and must, be placed within the various genres to examine its position and open its multiple meanings, rather than sealing it away from the beginning: classification, filing, top right corner, first cabinet, third shelf…

Opening up its text (artwork) is a statement with a subject and a predicate, an assault on its text, forcing it to open its doors. It assumes that an open text does not exist or refuses to make an admission: a transcendental “near existence” can never descend as a true “existence” without passing concretely through my experience. Art must be “made.” Action must be taken. My known and unknown conditions must be employed to remove the barriers around the artwork. It must either be invaded with writhing tentacles, or its lewdness must be avoided altogether.

No matter what is here, it must pass through our “usage” of language and find a “niche” before it can reach the scene within the texture of language.

These 22 photographs by Jiang Zhi, known as the “Love Letters,” require us to personally set out and construct their visual aspects, meanings, beauty, concepts, and within this process, we must work while simultaneously dismantling the theoretical scaffolding on which its discussion depends – unless this vision is farsighted and the will is staunch. Otherwise, it will merely amount to this:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world.

- Excerpt from The Panther, by Ranier Maria Rilke. Translated from the Czech by Stephen Mitchell



But there is a “world” behind the artwork; there must be.

Also, it is there, but we cannot use its visual beauty or power of expression to forestall it.

The purer a visual perception, the more striking the sense of “I get it.” The more accumulation and impurities below, the louder my exaltations of its beauty, which implies that the things held back behind such exaltations are more vast and taciturn.

So, what I must say towards this incontrovertible beauty in Jiang Zhi’s works is inevitably no longer its “beauty.” I should first attempt to retract this word “beauty,” affixing to it a chastity belt, wrapping it up in black clothing and making it remain in the shrine, mourning for the rumored death of its king – Odysseus.

The flowers, bushes, rocks, implements, floors, walls and everything else burning before us, these burning or burned images and their reflections, visual manifestations and presentations – where and how do they move us? Is it one, or more? Is it the certainty or the uncertainty? Is it the faithfulness or the unfaithfulness of the photograph? Is it a scene of something that really happened, or is it just a fragmentary visual trace?

Ahh! What is it?

We have seen and experienced so many “burnings.” They leave only to return, are extinguished only to be rekindled. When they suddenly stop for a moment, they leave, leap off the tracks, staying there like remnants. Is this in itself enough to astonish us? No, of course not. That is our astonishment towards photography; an eternal, universal, tiring astonishment.

And then what? Is it an Aristotelian “tragedy”? Is beauty being destroyed before your eyes? It is not! Here, nothing has been destroyed, no two aspirations are struggling against each other, though the intellectuality and common sense that I project onto this scene tells me, and implies about this event that: the flower, after this burning, will rapidly wither and dwindle… but this is not to present us or provide us with a different world. This splendor in itself exists perfectly, slightly scorching, but tragedy does not emerge within.

The needle points to the next moment, but never reaches it, moving towards something just a little bit ahead (in Zeno’s sense), suspended, always falling, perpetually returning…. Once the sense of tension emerges, it can never again recede or diminish. Instead, it is constantly viewed with new eyes, while never providing a satisfactory or definitive moment.

Yes, an object reached the position determined by the artist, forcefully called and held here, in this form: you are under arrest! As for the crime, I cannot comment…



The tragedy has not appeared. But the shadow of K seems to have emerged with no warning whatsoever…

In the photographs, there is a K. This is perhaps that phantom that has always wound itself around our speech – through the likes of Benjamin, Barthes and Sontag – but has never been clearly expressed. It would seem that the sages are in accord: ngh, unclear expressions are more suited to the essence of K.

At this moment, however, the material evidence called into the court by “Love Letters” – the flowers, the flames – are scorching my tongue, inciting me to risk the question on their behalf: why? Why do you wake us from the dream of nature? Why do you drag us out of our own existence? Why do you bring us together before the camera? Why am I shrouded in grief and sorrow that I do not know? Why have I been called under your investigative and skeptical gazes?

Is it not so? The camera turns self-contented objects into helpless visages.

This implies that there are no more self-evident things. Everything here makes the same exhortation: give me an explanation!

-          “If you don’t give me an explanation, I’ll give you one!” (YJ)



Here, when we mention the incarnations of K or YJ, it is first a sociological pseudo-concern; secondly, it is an attempt at literary film critique; thirdly and fourthly, it is a feinted pawning of one thing for another, causing the accustomed arrangements of speech between the words flying off the keyboard to take on chaotic positions.

On this line (or the one below it), the discourse keels over or collapses. Speech begins on this line (or the one below it).



Photography is a cage. There certainly exists a continuous, massive and ceaseless arrest, entrapment and declaration of guilt. Aside from the force that stems from the artist (wisdom or obsession is also a form of force); there is nothing in the world imbued with such courage to resolve to become an embargoed object.

This is the core of the artist’s contemporary work: blockage, blockading, attempting to seal off as many things as possible from escaping to the next world, even forcing the next world itself to remain here before our eyes.



What Jiang Zhi captures is “fire.”

He uses intoxicating methyl alcohol to lure the flames on the body of the object, creating scene after scene of unexpected calamities.

This “fire” is alcoholic, lustful, addicted, Dionysian. It sips the from the pollen, flower petals, stalks, leaves and even the surface of the vase, sucks from within the stems, licks from every crack in the stones, lapping up every last drop of the alcohol.

At any moment, when this kiss of the wine god departs, the object it caresses and embraces follows along.

This is the moment of the “fires of retribution,” where self and object engulf one another, intoxicated, absentminded, even obsessed in a passing moment of truth.

Passing? Yes, passing. As a poetic inscription for Jiang Zhi’s artwork, it is this word that resonates – because only that which is passing is real. The long and healthy life is only a vain fantasy of man.

With this wanton flame, Jiang Zhi has posted and sent this love letter via fire to some murky figure separated from him, or perhaps posted a response to a long past: whether here or there, the real phrases, whispers, prayers, condemnations and allegories known only to sender and recipient are only visible in the faint candlelight of our vision as mere traces or scattered reflections within these “Love Letters” that Jiang Zhi lays out for us. They crumple as they unfold before our eyes, their intentions long gone, or perhaps “moving backwards,” receding into the distance with each moment as they face us.



Alchemists believe that fire is not necessarily the definite material it appears to be on the surface. It is more of a masculine principle that all feminine materials depend on to gain their form (according to Gaston Bachelard).

Love, death and vision are perhaps feminine materials that do not always possess form. Like the prophet Elijah, they pray for the coming of the flames.

But here, true love and death have been washed away and transformed within these love letters that Jiang Zhi has sent to another place. Only that vision, which is instantaneous, extended and transferred to within the “Love Letters” still dozes here.

In the photographs, the sleeper meets our inquiring gaze with a murky stare from within the depths of the flames. Nothing exists, only the visage of objects.

These “Love Letters,” as visages of objects, gather and condense all moments in the now: here the abandoning protector and the wishful thinker, the masculine-feminine hybrid, bathes in the flames.



“All flowers are sparks – sparks that wish to become light.” This is the formula that Bachelard purified for Novalis-esque dreamers. The flowers and flames in “Love Letters,” however, share no real connection to the romanticist call in this formula beyond the metaphorical allusions to nothing ever being able to escape through sheer luck.

The existence of such spatial elements as grounding wires, stairs, tabletops, corners and highly common wallpapers tell us that the properties of this space do not comprise a transcendent construct. In these everyday living spaces, the flowers and flames have the qualities of an “incident,” though still marked by tones of a “fortuitous event” or a “miracle.” The everyday properties of these spaces, however, have annotated these tones, ensuring that these miraculous scenes remain in the realm of structuralism, belonging, with the smallest of differences, to Barthes’ so called “grasping, then rearrangement of reality.”

The existence of arranged flowers or potted plants in the composition is another assurance of this structural reality. They have even been engulfed and consumed, becoming the object of the wine god’s desires.

These flowers, often seen in flower shops and frequenting man’s various social engagements and rituals, present with commodity and consumerist properties, while also enhancing the complexity of these structural intentions…

This is not a sentimental expression of regret, an exclamation or the possession of poeticized philosophy. These things have no perch for existence in the stable, completed world of meaning. Instead, they shift, flee and escape from their own properties to other properties, even to the margins of possibility, or to the artist himself. He may quickly toss them behind him out of concern for the original intent.



“Love Letters” seventeen to twenty-two

From indoors to the outdoors, from urban spaces to natural environs, from consumer objects to things-in-themselves, even pitting stone against fire. As Jiang Zhi roams with fire in hand, he faces an utterly different space: this is an uncontrollable, possessed land. In even the least wild of natural settings, man’s intentions can be blurred and altered.

Our thoughts may turn to “self-immolation” and its implications. We may also be attracted to the psychological image of the “arsonist” that Bachelard attempted to resolve.

But in the face of so called nature, structural man is powerless in the end. We can only listen intently for the cultural and emotional information inside, and, as Barthes described, perceive the “trembling of mankind” from its reverse.

Is this a Lu Xun-style subterranean fire? A landscape of purgatory? Perhaps the flames licking across stones and bushes are oriental material grief and the edge of the next world? Are they the things and states that cannot be described with clarity, and must rely on this unclearness to be understood?



Man is an aesthetic simpleton. When this superstition is activated by art or poetry, the promotion and borrowing of all other values becomes inappropriate. Any knowledge or tools from physiology, psychoanalysis, or any of what Benjamin Bloom called the “hated disciplines,” even the slightest bit, amounts to an affront that incurs a drastic response.

Unless, however, we enter into special circumstances, or are willing to step over the void below the tightrope of logic, actively casting doubt on the various associations and imitations based on color, form and shape, and the impressions constructed atop them, our so called aesthetics will always be defeated in the struggle.

“In art, substances are spiritualized, media dematerialized. The work of art is therefore a world of signs, but they are immaterial and no longer have anything opaque about them.” If there is substance to Deleuze’s words, then we can only return to our own separate visions, not to seek out beauty, but to look, and to gaze:

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly—.  An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

- The Panther



“Love Letters” is gone in precisely this way.

2012年5月18 丽江

May 18, 2012, Lijiang