Moving images

The young graphic designer Jianping He arrived in Berlin from China in 1997 in order to familiarise himself in a European location with the "Western" theory and practice of artistic design, full of confidence in putting his own artistic powers to the test in new surroundings. Already provided with a rich fund of basic experience in his country of birth, he found at the Berlin University of the Arts a wealth of possibilities. His choice fell on visual communication in connection with the teaching of art as a discipline of aesthetic instruction. To contribute with the aid of images and sign systems to social networking may – thanks to cultural tradition and training – have seemed an obvious course to take. Yet, with increasing mastery, his personal commitment to the medium of the poster developed into a passion.

Born into an epoch of the electronic revolution, his visual imagination does not cling to formal traditions – and certainly not to the painted iconographic ciphers of garish popular education. Rather, he is fascinated by everything that the most modern tools and design techniques produce in the way of new aesthetic qualities, and by the extent to which they display new potential. The poster seems to him to be a proven medium for sharing in innovative developments, and one in which he may even, wherever possible, make his own mark. In this respect, it is immaterial that "uncommissioned work" is produced. After all, that best enables him in searching for motifs to give free rein to his experimental interests. Indeed, the choice of subjects points to a humanitarian, i.e. socially committed orientation in which Jianping He invests his creative intelligence and his technical know-how.

The graphic motifs of his posters operate in many cases by way of a body language that disturb the viewer physically as well as emotionally. Naturally, it is the tension between the poles of fiction and the photographic reflection of reality that evokes the intensity of our perception. The small number of pictorial motifs confirm by exception the rule that object photography is a preferred working basis for He’s posters. Since poster design demands the "art of omission", he sees photography as a representational technique that allows highly reduced graphic forms, while its functionality complies with the perceptual habits of the public of today. Yet to avoid the small step between functionality and banality, and instead to give inspiring impulses in a direction that fire the imagination, sensitive and inventive fine-tuning is required, and this finds expression in the way he handles his motifs. The posters for amnesty international and for the Day of Human Rights display the uncompromising approach adopted by He in this direction. Both laboratory work and computer support are exploited to the full in order to achieve that compelling image quality that constitutes a poster.

Here, this iconographic fine-tuning points the viewer respectively in different directions. While the posters „Leid-Kultur“ (literally: Culture of Suffering, play on "Leit-Kultur", Leading Culture) and „Chinese artists living in MEZ“ make distressing reference to social problems, Mona Lisa, with the young women's legs in her arms, – the whole designed for the annual "Rundgang" event, an Open Week at the Berlin University of the Arts – displays a provocative treatment of a great icon of painting. This tendency, however, is rendered such a caricature by the doll-like rigidity of the limbs that the humour and youthful high-spirits vis-à-vis an art work of global validity are plainly apparent. With due honesty, technically produced colour modulations formalise the original image to such an extent that it is in fact turned into a quotation. In this poster, the combination of artistic inheritance, its optical transformation using modern resources of style and production, and its active reception by young people of our day, prove to be the right signal for the event announced.

A similarly respectful humour, but with an ascetic renunciation of colour, characterises He's approach in the poster „Chinese Fashion, Chinese Culture“. Photographic reproduction and the art of omission are here taken to extremes. Two forms suffice in this grey-on-grey composition to open up an enormous chapter of contemporary history moulded by the "Great Chairman", Mao Zedong. His normative dominion, which extended his influence as far as the abandonment of individual forms of clothing, is in stark contrast to the intentional tedium that, for us, the weighty motif radiates. This example directs our attention to a peculiarity of the traditional visual conception in China: The purpose of the "art of omission" is not primarily simplification as a means of achieving a striking perception, but the opening up of zones of associative thinking, i.e. zones in which the viewer can introduce himself into the subject of the picture with his own knowledge and feelings. In such zones, the most powerful encounter between the receiver and the transmitter of the visual message should occur, and the decisive impulse to communication be given. The poster design for the Kiel Regatta Week is also to be seen against this background. It is a design that seeks to illustrate neither the sailing regatta nor the festival on the banks of the Kiel estuary. Rather, the smooth merging of shades of the colour blue makes us conscious of the maritime basis of this international event. From this example, at the latest, the illustrative nature of our Western visual communication becomes evident.

Now, a poster generally consists of the two elements image and writing, and that cannot be unfamiliar to a Chinese designer. Nevertheless, Jianping He is cautious in his use of typography, except in those cases where he makes it the central design element of the poster. In a series designed for the international competition "Children are the rhythm of this world" he adopted this approach. The subject provided a musical aspect, from the sign repertoire of which he borrowed the optical intruders. In three different languages he placed the letters for "Children", backed with brilliant colours, in lower case against a black background. The disciplined, intelligent "description" of child-like improvisation and playfulness, each accompanied by a symbol from the sign codex of music, links contradictions together to form an optical barrier, questionable and obvious to all encountering it.

The threefold repetition of the same design element stands alongside poster themes that appear with two motifs. This enables He to gain the contents greater emphasis, and it is as though he wishes to escape in this way the limitation to reduced representation that is typical for this art form. His two anti-cloning posters, which make our flesh creep, are evidence of his inner creative strength, not content with a single design solution. This internalised dual thinking and designing is obviously aimed at a dialogue between a number of participants. He seems to be interested not only in the communication from transmitter to receiver, but also in the relationship between two parallel works.

Posters by Jianping He are always just a little different from what even experts are wont to expect. He possesses a particular talent for corresponding to the characteristic features of the medium and its potential effects without foregoing the intertexture of a personal strand in the overall design. We could go on to study other works in depth. Yet let me here sum up with the observation that He's works enrich the poster scene, and that their author is a promising prospect for clients that have a multitude of communication tasks to perform in the global village. Jianping He has already started to tackle them!

Dr. Frieder Mellinghoff
Director of the German Poster Museum