Interviewee / Sonia Jia
Interviewer / Yumeng Zhang
Editor / Nikou
Typographer / Nikou
Sonia Jia / 贾西贝
Sonia Jia was born in 2000 in Odessa, Ukraine, and enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018. In 2022, she was admitted by the graduate school both of the Royal College of Art and of Oxford University. During her undergraduate study, she specialized in oil painting and filming. Her works are often inspired by her personal experiences and cover many fields including Bataille's philosophy, hedonism, family, feminism, and LGBTQ. Sonia is still exploring different styles and media.
Personal Website: xibeijia.myportfolio.com
Exploration of Different Media
Zhang: You have worked with different types of media including film, painting, and installation. What was the first medium you used? Also, your installation “Rotten Childhood” looks dark and eccentric, but at the same time artless, which reminds me of Louise Bourgeois’ “Cell (Black Days).” How did you move from painting to installation?
Jia: Drawing has become part of my life as early as I could remember. I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and was grown up by my grandmother there. Once, when I revisited the city, she showed me the sketchbook that I used in my childhood. Drawing comes naturally to each child, and it is something easy to start with since all one needs are a pencil and a piece of paper. For me, sketching is as natural as eating and sleeping. Never have I gone more than three months without drawing anything. I was asked to learn other artistic media right after getting into university. While trying all conceivable materials and tools, I found my interest in some of them, but not in others such as wood and plaster.
Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Black Days), 2006, The Easton Foundation/VAGA
Sonia Jia, Rotten Childhood, 2021, Installation
Zhang: Perhaps the hard and sharp texture of wood and plaster is not what you want, since both the brushwork and the colors in your paintings feel soft, despite their sting. I found that the style of your recent works is totally different from that of your early ones.
Jia: I agree. The styles are quite different. The intimacy that I have with my family, lover and friends have influenced greatly how I create and think. I used to be compulsively obsessive with what I would like to express through my works. Later, however, my interaction with others taught me that life also has a relaxing side and it is not necessary to act in such a stressful way all the time. This new life attitude has gradually changed my way of creation.
I have also been deeply influenced by Georges Bataille’s eroticism which says that sex, which breaks the boundary of the subject and the object and that of one’s self and the external world, is a meaningless consumption of energy. Such waste would not bring any material return. The fact is, however, in economics, consumption is indispensable to socio-economic development. In other words, many things that might be deemed useless and inefficient by most people in life, in fact, are of importance.
Zhang: All that seems to be meaningless has a meaning.
Sonia Jia, The Carnival in The Desert, 2021, Oil on canvas
Jia: Yes. For example, my painting “The Carnival in the Desert” captures the moment when people are “trapped” in a pure orgy, forming a community of shared joy and sadness, instead of remaining individuals. The painting has a solitary essence, but from the bottom of my heart, I hope to escape into the world in the painting for people living there fully understand each other. Sadly, it is impossible for people to truly understand each other in the real world, no matter how intimate they are.
Zhang: Similar to your early works, this painting also depicts solitude, but it has a touch of serenity beneath its ecstasy, which shows that you enjoy more your current way of creation compared with the one you followed in your early works .
Sonia Jia, Forever Child, 2020
Zhang: Are your installations, paintings and films interconnected?
Jia: Probably there are some subconscious connections, as proved by the themes of my works. Despite my intention of expressing my ideas and emotions, I deliberately make my works abstract, to give the audience the freedom of interpreting my works from their own perspectives.
Zhang: The films that you made are somehow blurry, reminding me of silk paintings. Meanwhile, the layouts of objects in some of your paintings seem to be designed intentionally just like movie sets. Has film making ever influenced the composition in your paintings?
Jia: Probably. I tend to capture my inspirations with the help of rough drawings, and express my ideas first in the form of painting before moving to other media, which explains why the concepts of my works are interconnected. I hope to communicate better with the audience by using different media.
Sonia Jia, Her Feather Her Body, 2021, Short Film
An Inward-looking Creative Approach
Jia: When preparing my portfolio to apply to the graduate school, I felt so pumped every day and immersed myself in creation. The day when I received the admission offer from my dream school, I was thrilled, having my long-held aspiration fulfilled. The day after, however, I came down to earth at the thought that I had to start a new life in another country, away from my family and friends. My bonds with others, for example, with my friends and family, has always been my source of happiness. Nevertheless, to pursue the so-called success, I must put aside what is the most important to me. This inconsistency between what I should do and what I cherish rendered me uncomfortable.
Zhang: That discomfort seemed to come, for one thing, from the uncertainty around the unknown and, for another, from the insecurity of being cut off from all your connections.
Jia: After embarking on my new student life in another country, I had to adapt to a new environment, one after another, make new friends, then go our separate ways, and start over again. It has become even harder for this kind of arrivals and departures now than in the past due to the pandemic.
Sonia Jia, “Chaos”, 2022
Zhang: It is part of life to adapt to a new environment.
Jia: Yes, it is, but is it too sad to think so? People keep saying, one should become decisive and cool, just like a snake.
Zhang: Compared with others, artists drift around more frequently. We have to accept the energy, positive and negative, such changes bring. I keep telling myself to live in the present. The future and the past are not as important as this very moment.
Jia: I live in the present when I have a specific goal, but once I start to doubt myself, I will suffer from anxiety.
Sonia Jia, “Lotus Eaters’ Thought”, 2020, Oil on Canvas
Zhang: Do you think your anxiety comes from your childhood? I have always felt that my childhood anxiety has kept influencing my perception of the world and my way of life. Artistic creation is a way for me to ease, or at least to accept, such a negative emotion.
Jia: Partly, yes. My work “Rotten Childhood” was inspired by the psychological shadow that I suffered from when my parents, due to some work reasons, left me behind alone in China to finish my primary school. That long separation left me with some unpleasant memories and forced me to become independent and learn how to protect myself.
The experience taught me in my early years that in many situations I need to deal with my negative feelings all by myself, since no any other person could really help me out. Everyone needs an emotional outlet, for example, someone who would like to listen to them, but no matter what the outlet is, it comes with a cost. Basically, all one’s emotional problems could be coped with by no others but himself or herself.
Sonia Jia, “Rotten Childhood”, 2021, Installation
Zhang: So artistic creation has become your main outlet.
Jia: That’s true. My works were mainly inspired by my family and life experiences rather than some social and political issues. These creations are external expression of my internal world including my ideas and emotions.
Zhang: At least, in this way, your works are genuine. It does not make sense that artists who show no interest in their own feelings would be concerned about social issues. Even if they really are, what they express about the issues would be hollow.
Sonia Jia, “Dinner”, 2022
Jia: Nevertheless, some artists excel at talking about global social phenomena. For example, Bong Joon-ho, the director of the movie “Parasite,” is good at telling down-to-earth stories, portraying someone from the underclass as the hero and showing life as it is through movies. His works are full of twists and turns, which shows me a way of thinking totally different from mine.
Zhang: Every artist has different life experiences and motivations. We can learn from each other, but it is not necessary for us to be exactly the same.
Sonia Jia, Me Looking at My Family, 2022, Installation
Plan for Future Artistic Creation
Zhang: What is your plan for future artistic creation?
Jia: I am working on something to show the emotional tie between my pet snake and me. Snakes are cold-blooded animals without much emotions to express. My snake may feel that I am nothing more than something not menacing, but I find it cute and feel satisfied while keeping it as my pet.
Zhang: You are emotionally attached to it.
Jia: It heals me. Although emotionless, it has kept me company in a quiet and cold way for a long time.
Sonia Jia, Morning is a Deer Sitting on My Forehead, 2021, Acrylics on canvas.
Zhang: As an animal carries various symbolic meanings, the snake has been used frequently in paintings and poems.
Jia: That is true. Snakes are often portrayed as something evil and sneaky in tales and poems. However, after keeping one by myself, I realized that this kind of animals is quite silly and is curious about everything. My snake, once put outside of the space where it is kept usually, will look around, or stay still for a while as if it is thinking. That is cute. I plan to create a room-like installation to show its habits and molting process as well as the relation between us. The name of this work would be “My Unilateral Love Toward My Snake.”
Zhang: You personified this kind of animals when describing their behavior. Anyway, like the shed snake skin, our corneocytes and even our dandruff are all evidence of the time elapsing.
Sonia Jia, Helpless (I), 2021, Mixed Media
Sonia Jia, Helpless (II), 2022, Acrylics