Jiandyin Friction Current: Magic Mountain Project (2019 )#Dr. Caroline Ha Thuc
March 17, 2021
Research-based art practice

Friction Current, 2019. installationview at the Asian Art Biennial, Taichung.

Friction Current: Magic Mountain Projectis a multi-media research-based installation by Thai artists duo Jiandyincreated for the2019 Asian Art Biennial. Inspired by theBiennial’s theme of Zomia, and by the mountainous zones overarching variousstates of Southeast Asia, the work delves into the illegal jade and drugstrafficking that unveils a border-free network of transnational connections flourishingacross the region. It aims to turn visible these fluidtrans-disciplinary relations that link the political, social, economic,cultural but also scientific and medical spheres within today’s systems ofpower. As such, the installation is the artistic embodiment of the artists’foray into the fields of geology, chemistry, economy, culture and politics. It mainly consists of a sculptural water fountain made from marble andjadeite, and operating with drug-contaminated urine instead of water, asingle-channel documentary video depicting the carving of the jadeite piece, andvarious drawings and artefacts that dialogue with these two main artworks.  Allthese elements crystalize and condense in a very original manner the complexityof the regional context and the issues at stake, inviting the audience tophysically perceive the hidden violence that sustains jade mining and methtrade.  

Established in 2002, Jiandyin is an interdisciplinary collaborationbetween Thai artists Pornpilai Meemalai (b.1968) and Jiradej Meemalai (b.1969)who live and work in Ratchaburi, Thailand. The artists, who work also ascurators, mainly explore the impact of capitalism andstate authority on humans and communities. They oftenengage in fieldwork and community-based projects. In particular, with theirseries Dialogue: Seeing and Being project (2010 – 2017), they have beendrawing portraits of various people from very different communities across theworld, establishing with them intimate and unique relations.

Artists at work, Asian Art Biennale, Taichung 2019.

Contextual framework and artists’ drive

Friction Current: Magic Mountain Projectis part of a larger and long-term project entitled The Magic Mountain,named after Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel. In particular, it derives from theartists’ research project The Ontology of Gold: Magic Mountains (2017)during which the artists engaged with 10 villagers from the Ban Khao MoCommunity in central Phichit province in Thailand. Because of the local goldmining activities, the place has been strongly polluted with heavy metal andthe local population is suffering from arsenic contamination.[1] The duo establishedcontact with the community and proposed to draw the portraits of some villagers,opening a space for trust and dialogue to arise. The villagers told themstories that they usually do not share, allowing the artists to betterunderstand the situation and the consequences of metal or minerals mining bothon humans and on their environment. Observing in particular the high level ofamphetamine consumed by the workers within the mines, they decided to furtherinvestigated the connection between jade mining and drug trafficking. FrictionCurrent explores these complex interactions and the fluidity of thesenetworks that flourish at the crossroad of legality and frontiers in SoutheastAsia.

Geological and political frictions: jadeite

Jiandyin, The Alchemy[22] (2019)

C10H15N Human urine, Refrigerated cabinet 120 x 120 x 200 cm.,Jadeite Ø 12.7 cm., Marble sphere water fountain Ø 60 cm. x 50 cm., Immersionsturgeon waterproof contact microphone, USB audio interface, Controller, 6sound speakers, Water pump.

Myanmar jadeite, located in north Myanmar and in particular in theHpakant area, is famous for its high and unique quality in gemology. Also called the imperial jade, itdiffers from the more common nephrite gemstones and is the rarer andthe most valuable type of jade.[2]It probably formed during the Precambrian and Cenozoic geologic eras when important uplifts of the earthand collisions between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plaques formedthe mountainous regions oftoday’s Southeast Asian peninsula.[3]Jadeite emerged from these extreme geological and chemical frictions, underhigh-pressure conditions and deep turbulence.[4]

Today, Hpakant in the Kachin State is well-known for its jade mines covering 14,000 hectares, also famousfor their dangerosity: repeated landslides have recently caused the death ofmany jade pickers in search of a better life.[5] Most of the workers are often drug addict: on site, heroin and methamphetaminepills are cheaper than a pack of cigarettes and allow them to work withoutbreaks. These laborers search for the precious rocks with their bare hands andsell them on the black market.

The jade mining industry is very controversial and its business isshrouded with secrecy. What some calls “the government’s big state secret” was indeedprobably worth as much as US$31 billion in 2014, which amounts to 48% ofMyanmar’s official GDP or “46 times government expenditure on health.”[6] Yet very few revenuesreach the Burmese people. The trade is indeed “wide open to corruption andcronyism,” and dominated by the Burmese military elites, targeted by US-sanctioned drug lords and ‘crony’ companies which are companiesthat emerged and prospered during the military junta.[7][MOU3] The tradeis deeply connected to the Burmese complex political situation and to the ethnicconflicts that date from the 1960’s, and in particular to the guerrilla thathas been opposing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to the Myanmar army fordecades.[8]While the multiple ceasefires do not solve the conflicts, the state militaryand local ethnic armed groups have found common grounds to bargain over thejade trade. The business is also directly linked to the drug trafficking acrossthe region, famously known as the Golden Triangle. Drug lord Wei Hsueh Kang,who also supports the United Wa State Army ethnic armed group, is for instanceknown for owning a group of jade companies that are arguably the most dominantin Hpakant.[9]

Despite a political and human rights-based boycott of the jewelrytrade from Myanmar by the United States, and calls for changes within theKachin State, the jade business in Myanmar continues to thrive, operating in agrey zone between what is licit and illicit, making itsslippery nature difficult to apprehend.[10]

Economic, social and political frictions: the rise and prevalence ofthe amphetamine market

In the Golden Triangle, the production of heroin and opium has beendecreasing since the end of the 1990s, compensated by a surge of themanufacturing of methamphetamine pills, much easier to produce and transport.[11] Methamphetamine (or meth),also called ice, yaba (mad drug) or ‘little pink pills’ in Thailand, wereoriginally produced legally in Bangkok.  In the early 1990s, productionwas banned and most of the meth factories moved to the country’s remote hillsin the north, and then to the Wa area, a semi-autonomous province in Myanmarbordering China and Thailand. For the Wa state, it was a good opportunitybecause they needed money to pursue their guerilla with the state.[12]

Just like the jadeite trade, drug trafficking is indeed deeplyconnected with the political and military situation of Myanmar, with both localwarlords and pro-government militias involved in drug smuggling. “Officially,Myanmar’s government has sworn to defeat this ‘drug menace.’ (…) Yet, “thegovernment is quietly fueling the underground narcotics trade. Some of thetrade’s new key players are, in fact, militias created by the army itself.”[13] According to the UnitedNations Office of Drugs and Crime, the meth trade is approximately worthbetween $30 billion and $61 billion per year in East and Southeast Asia. [14] It is difficult to enterthe northernmost regions where meth is produced: controlled by ethnic armedgroups, they are also covered by jungle and hills and appear as no-go zones.While heroin production can be estimated by analyzing poppy fields fromsatellites, “meth production is far less traceable. It is synthesized insidehuts and hidden factories that look completely unremarkable from space.”[15] As such, drug traffickingescapes any attempts to grasp its functioning. What can be said for sure isthat meth pills are pouring into the region across porous boundaries, and inparticular into the jade mines’ camps where they turn even children into drugaddicts. They are also very common in Thailand, where the artists come from,with Thai people being the first consumers of meth in Southeast Asia.[16]

Jiandyin, Magic Mountain, 2019

Wooden shelf - Black acrylic 29.7 x 42 cm., 5g. NaAlSi2O6 Powder,courtesy of the artists.

Beyond frictions: a complex yet fluid network across Zomia

Friction Current, the installation’stitle, directly refers to James C. Scott’s famous book The Art of Not BeingGoverned that theorizes the concept of Zomia in the Asian uplands, definedas a zone of anarchy and refuge.[17]Their remoteness creates what Scott calls “frictions of terrain,” geographicalconstraints that have confronted the various lowland states with inaccessible,therefore ungovernable, territories. Its inhabitants were not primitiveancestors, as it was previously thought, but “barbarians by design,” fleeingthe authority and rules of the state.[18]In fact, most ethnic groups from the Southeast Asian Massif cannot be definedby their nationality and are transnational.[19]They continuously straddle borders and redefine territories outside thenational frameworks.

The jade trade between Burma and Thailand relies as well onnon-state regulations.[20]Wen-Chin Chang defines it as an “underground trade,” “black market economy” or“shadow economy” taking place in a grey zone across the Burmese, Thai andChinese frontiers. In fact, according to the researcher, about 80 per cent ofBurma’s total consumer goods before 1980 originated as smuggled merchandise,mostly from Thailand, and this mode of trade prevails today.  Herdescription of long caravans routes that used to cross boundaries remind usthat national frontiers should be perceived as “interfaces” rather than fixedborders, echoing again the concept of Zomia.[21]As for the drug’s market system, it operates throughcash only, beyond any state jurisdiction.

The local people from the highland have their own version of thebirth of their world and cosmology. The jadeite stones are “rocks from theheaven” and a local tale says that “mountains are wrinkled lands, sewn byspecial thread.”[22]Drawn by this poetic description, Jiandyin investigated these invisible threadsthat sow these lands together. In Friction Current, they seek to revealthe deep trans-disciplinary connections that link the political, social,economic, cultural but also scientific and health spheres across the stateboundaries of the region. Due to the implication of high-level members of theelite from all the countries involved, the topic tends to be taboo and is notpublicly discussed, especially in a region where the freedom of expressionremains limited.[23]The artists like to refer to it as a form of black magic and feel the urgentneed to address it.

The artist-researcher

Connecting the dots: excavating invisible threads

Cover of the book Shan State: History and Revolution,courtesy of the artists.

Jiandyin’s research for Friction Current began in February2019, when the artists started exploring the various possible threads betweengeology and biology that would embody the human tragedies caused by the jadeiteand drug’s trafficking. They searched for a tangible metaphor of this complexyet underground trans-national network, responsible for the death of so many. Accordingto them, in Thailand, meth is everywhere. Citizens are used to be stopped bythe police in checkpoints on the highway, and be asked to proceed to a urinetest. This routine experience gave them the idea to delve in biochemistry andto investigate the molecular structures of the jadeite and of the meth.

The artists work as a team and do not divide work. Their researchpractice involves both scholarly research and fieldwork, for they complete eachother. Delving into the historical context and archives allow them to interpretand imagine things. On the other hand, in-situ research, visual perception andcollection of oral histories embody their findings and trigger more emotionalresponses. They also write in order to support their research processes, whichhelps them to articulate and analyze the visual development of their work.

Among their key readings were notably the reference works ofanthropologists James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed; JeanMichaud’sHistorical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast AsianMassif and Jinba Tenzin’s study of a Post-Zomian Model, which allowed themto apprehend the region from a trans-national perspective.[24] The first Westernvisitors’ accounts of the Burmese mines, Burma's Jade Mines - An AnnotatedOccidental History by American gemmologist Richard W. Hughes led them tobetter understand the wildness, remoteness, and the extreme terrain of thesites where jadeite was formed.[25] The artists also delved into the geopolitical situation of the region, forinstance with studies about the Thai-Burmese borders or the history of the ShanState and various news’ articles about drug’s trafficking.[26] In terms of scientificresearch, they investigated the chemical formation of the jadeite and meth and studied their molecularstructures, respectively NaAlSi2O6 and C10H15N.[27] The visual representationof their chemical components inspired them to carry further the network’smetaphor, supported by their reading of French anthropologist Bruno Latour andhis enlarged vision of society as anetwork of multiple forces entangled in what he calls the Actor-Network Theory.[28] Finally, the artistsexplored the local folklore of the region and were strongly influenced by twonovels, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain which gave its title to their MagicMountain Project (2015- ), and Soul Mountain by Chinese author GaoXingjian. In both cases, the narrator escapes in mountainous regions to reflecton his life, decay and illness on the backdrop of a deep crisis, World War IIfor Mann and the consequences of the Cultural Revolution for Xingjian. Themountains, yet, keep their secrets and hidden talismans. Their image stimulatedthe artists’ imagination and conceptualization of a black magic that woulddominate the region.

Investigative journalistic fieldwork

Jiandyin, Urine sample bottles.

The duo did not visit any jade mine in Myanmar, and their fieldwork tooka more original path. While they used to meet local people and engagerelationships with them around their portraits’ drawings, they did not meet anyjade picker and the installation does not feature any human being, even thoughtheir presence can be felt behind every piece.

The human dimension of the situation remains essential for theartists, yet they wished to respect the privacy of the people involved.Therefore, they decided to use meth-contaminated urine instead, as a strongsymbol of the ubiquitous drug addiction and of the interconnectedness between thejade and drug trades. Besides, in order to understand how the jade marketoperates, they embarked on a journey to buy one stone from Hpakant in the Kachin State. Their research process resembles here themethodology of work of investigative journalists who follow secretly specificpersons or goods, and reveal their illegal networks. They documented alikeevery step of their investigations, although did not display much of it, forthey are politically too sensitive. Unlike journalists, Jiandyin preferstransforming their research outcome into visual clues and artisticinterpretations.

For the artists, the human body’s secretions, and urine inparticular, became an artistic material. Through the intermediary of friendsand of the police in Bangkok, they met meth users and managed to collect 8liters of urine samples that contained traces of more than 37 different methsources. They worked in collaboration with a specialist from the Department ofForensic, Faculty of Science, Silpakorn University in order to learn theprocesses of urine testing and collection. Since their request was notconventional and raised many legal issues, they finally used the urine samplefrom the Narcotics Control Office of a nearby district in Ratchaburi province.As such, they already experienced the crossing of the border that separatesillegal and legal activities. Yet the journey was not over as they needed totestify officially the traces of the drugs in the sample. Working with the RegionalMedical Science Center, Ministry of Public Health, they received thecertificate proving the presence of C10H15N in the sample, which was thenshipped to Taiwan according to the legal regulations.  

Jiandyin, Jade certificate.

In parallel, the duo searched for a piece of jadeite from the minesof Hpakant, using the underground network of this black market. They firstcontacted a Taiwanese-Burmese gem merchant who had been living in Thailand for20 years and whom they trusted. He works at the Bangkok Jewelry Trade Centerand can reach local stone sellers who are familiar with jadeite. He introducedthem to a small shop selling jadeite rocks from Hpakant behind the door, at MaeSod District in Tak Province at the border of Thailand with Myanmar. They wentthrough the network of middlemen or black merchants in Mandalay, which is thebiggest jade market in Myanmar. To make sure that they bought real jadeite andnot nephrite jade, which is much more common, they tested some samples fromtheir stone at the laboratory of the Department of Geology, Faculty of Science,Chulalongkorn University, and obtained a certificate of the mineral componentsof their pieces. At the same time, they collaborated with a geologist whohelped them to better understand the jadeite molecular structure.

These various research experiences, both intellectual and empirical,allow Jiandyin to physically apprehend what could be at stake behind the jadeand meth trafficking. All combined, they alimented the artists’ imagination andconceptualization of their multimedia installation.

Artistic transformations of the research findings

Jiandyin, The Alchemy (2019): fountain draft for the AsianArt Biennale.

Metaphorical translations

In chemistry, a covalent bond is what provides atoms some stabilitythrough the sharing of electrons. Inspired by the biological composition ofjadeite (NaAlSi2O6) and meth (C10H15N), the artists searched the covalent bondthat would link the two molecular structures, in other words, they searched fora chemical relationship that could bind them together, in the same way thatatoms are bound together when they share electrons. Metaphorically, this bondwould bring some stability to the system, just like the jade and drug’strafficking complete each other in the process of money laundering. Since theywished to work from raw material and human secretions, the duo came up with theidea of a fountain where the contaminated urine would never dry. On thecontrary, it would replace water as the basic dynamic of the water flow: justlike meth stimulates the central nervous system, theurine activatesthe movement ofa grand jadeite sphere, located on the top of the marble basin. In order topreserve the stability of the system, the artists placed the fountain into aglass refrigerated cabinet so that the temperature could be maintained.

At a glance, the audience can thus perceive the great fluidity that accompaniesjadeite and meth traffics in, from and across Zomiawhen all relevant authorities turn a blind eye. In this fountain, entitled TheAlchemy (2019), the massive jadeite ball rolls on itself, mobile, almostlight, glossy and well-polished under the action of the current flow of thecontaminated urine. The lubricated interplay between the liquid and the solidelements suggests the liquidity of the boundaries which separate the legal andillegal areas but also the spheres of business, bureaucracy and politics. Thereis no trace of workers, no human disruption except the intervention of themuseum staff who injects weekly more contaminated urine in the fountain: aftera few days, the meth tends indeed to evaporate. This repeated gestureillustrates the continuous need for labour exploitation that supports the wholesystem, but which remain invisible.

Jiandyin, The Assembly,2019[MOU4]

Paint 29.7 x 42 cm

Also metaphorical are the two images hung behind the fountain andtitled The Assemblage (2019): oneis an archival photograph featuring a cosmonaut in the space, and the other is anA3 illustration of the C10H15N and NaAISi2O6 molecules’ compounds. Perhaps thecosmonaut stands for the artists who tried to approach the complex topic of thejade and drug trafficking, which remain out of reach, just like the northernparts of Myanmar where the trafficking is taking place. Further than Zomia,these activities operate indeed outside any known territories, in grey areasthat could be compared to space. To this inaccessible reality, the artistsoppose the known chemical reality, and the perfect imbrication of the molecularelements of jadeite and meth. Their drawing, in the hues of blue, resembles anabstract composition where all the geometrical elements interlock perfectlywell, reflecting again the good functioning of the chain of money laundering. Jiandyinalready used this mode of representation in their animationfilm Khao Mo Sanatorium from their series The Ontology of Gold: MagicMountains (2017), featuring moving 3D geometrical patterns that embodiedthe structure of a cyanide molecule. The work was projected in an abandonedtemple of the village nearby the gold mines that caused the cyanide poisoning.Hence, on the one hand, the infinitely large, and onthe other hand the infinitely small, juxtaposed as if there was nothingin-between. Again, this metaphorical representation denies the role andpresence of human beings, as if they could be erased.

Jiandyin, Friction Current, 2019

Single-channel, Video full HD, Black and white, Silent, 20 min. 09sec, Loop

In the corner of the space, a 49-inch monitor plays a 20-minute blackand white and silent video. It documents the cutting and shaping of a marbleball which stands for the jade ball from the fountain. The imagesfocus on the polishing of the stone, and onthe machine process of work that took about 72 hours. The piece of marble,carved geometrically in multi facets, stands in the middle of an almost emptyfactory workshop. Everything is still to the exception of a giant and circularblade that is slowly getting closer to the stone. Since the machine needs to beconstantly humidified, some water drips from the blade. As it approaches thesurface of the stone, it resembles a beast that would salivate in front of itsprey. The camera is following its movements and close-ups bring the viewer asclose as possible to the points of impact. The friction is violent. Eachincision is filmed like an aggression, yet the process moves on, automatically.In fact, the machine is very precise and the violence is perfectly undercontrol. The black and white images are highly aesthetic and the cinematographiclanguage used by the artists resembles black and white suspense movies.Shadow’s effects and slow-motions strengthen the tension and dramaturgy of thescene. There is a strong contrast between the violence of the process, as it ismetaphorically represented with the marble stone, and its final result, whichis the perfect and beautiful ball of jadeite. Similarly, one could imagine thecontrast that separates the fineness of a jadeite piece of jewelry displayed ina luxury vitrine, and the labor it took to extract it.  

Jiandyin, Friction Current, 2019

Single-channel, Video full HD, Black and white, Silent, 20 min. 09sec, Loop

Therefore, every elements of Friction Current can unfold intomany layers of meaning. A small glass vitrine contains a Chinese banknote datedfrom 1990, the date when China started to expand itspower over the region. One side of the banknote features a mountainouslandscape from the Yunnan Province, which refers here to the region of Zomia.The artist juxtaposed the banknote with some jadeite powder, originating in thecutting of the stone. It obviously resembles crystal meth powder, which is thepurest form of methamphetamine. For the artists, it suggests the influence ofChina and its role in jade mining. Jiandyin stamped the back of the banknotewith Chinese letters in black ink quoting the phrase of the folklore tale: “mountainsare wrinkled lands, sewn by special thread.”

Curating a science-fiction laboratory space

Installing the microphone, Asian ArtBiennale, Taichung 2019.

Friction Current occupies a whole space,curated by the duo like a laboratory. Besides the fountain, which stands in themiddle and strikes by its original and voluminous presence, the audience isimmediately attracted by a noise that pervades the room. It is in fact theamplificated sound made by the vibrations of the pump that operates the flow ofthe urine in the fountain. The artists have indeed inserted waterproof microphonesthat record and relay every pulsation that take place inside the refrigeratedcabinet, whether the urine overflows, drops or touches the surface of the basin.The rhythm of the sound is nevertheless controlled by the artists who havedefined a time-lapse of 3 minutes for the sound to go from a soft to a heavy tempo.The loop allows for a moment of silence to happen in-between. During thatmoment, the space is absolutely silenced since the video is also mute.

This atmosphere conveys a strange feeling. Nearby the drawingsmentioned above, two original certificates document the authentication of the jadeitestone and the presence of meth in the urine sample, which fit well in a factoryor a in laboratory space. However, there is no trace of human beings in such alaboratory. Except for the weekly intervention of the museum staff, the devicesseem to operate by themselves: the continuous flow of the urine on the onehand, the blade from the video on the other hand. The chosen materials are alsocold and dehumanized, from the marble to the empty factory workshop where thestone has been cut. A lot of empty space has been kept between the artworks andit seems that this strange factory is run by ghosts. In fact, after someconsideration, the viewer realizes that the opposite wall of the entrance isnot totally white and that some blurry silhouettes become apparent.  Theyare the black faces’ silhouettes of all the people the artists found connectedto the jade and meth trafficking during their research process: politicians,economists, geologists, chemists, drug lords, money launderers, chief ofmilitary, merchants, jade mine traders etc. from many different nationalities.The artists first draw their face on the wall in black, just like shadowcut-outs, then added various layers of white paint so that they only appear ina very opaque way. Their faces rather float on the wall, pale yet tenaciouspresence of all of those who are behind the complex networks of Zomia’strafficking. It is difficult to recognize them, and this is the intent of theartists who do not wish to single out any of them. Besides, the issue is toosensitive for pointing to any specific responsibility. Some viewers might infact not even see that there is an artwork on this wall, or might chose toignore it, just like people can deliberately ignore the situation in this areaand the people involved. What nevertheless dominates is the impression that ateam of invisible persons is operating the system behind a veil, and that itworks well. From time to time, though, the disturbing noiseof the fountain recalls that it is not all smooth and stable.  

The artist covering the silhouettes with white paint, Asian ArtBiennale, Taichung 2019.

Hence, the staging of all the elements that creates the atmosphereof an abandoned factory, or an absurd laboratory, allows the artists to tellthe viewer a story, although incomplete and hinted. It is a journey of spaceexploration involving chemistry, scientific techniques and biology, although itdoes not lead to space per se. The science-fictional part derives from theopacity of the objects displayed that seem at first useless, orincomprehensible, and are deprived of humanity. We enter another dimension,where all of them have in fact hidden meanings, and where the usual rules ofsociety do not apply.  

A personal perspective: wiping out the human beings

Jiandyin are not the first artists dealing with the entanglementbetween jade and drug trade in the region, yet their chosen perspective is verypersonal. Journalists emphasize the precarity of those jade pickers who areoften drug addict, a precarity which contrasts with the high value of jade andwith the money involved in the meth market. Similarly, Man Ra analyses theprocess of ‘precariatization’ at stake in the two documentary films Jade Miners (Wayushi deren, 2015) and Cityof Jade (Feicui zhicheng, 2016) by Midi Z.[29]The Chinese-Burmese filmmaker follows his brother who works in the Hpakant mine,and, while drawing a family portrait, delves into the laborers’ daily life. Inhis series The Price of Jade (2015), Burmese photographer Minzayar Oofocuses as well on the conditions of the workers in Hpakant, emphasizing theirfragility and vulnerability. The jade pickers are seen like millions of antssearching the mountain, exposed to every possible risk, moved by their hope tobecome rich and stimulated by the drug’s effects.[30]  

Minzayar Oo, Small-scale jade miners search a huge pile of rubblebeing dumped by mining companies as they scavenge for raw jade stones among thewaste, Hpakant, Kachin State, Myanmar, April 25, 2015. © Minzayar Oo

Unlike these works, Jiandyin focuses on the stability andimplacability of the system that instrumentalizes and crushes these laborers tothe point that they cannot be represented. In theinstallation, only material things seem to have agency: it is not a human beingwho makes the fountain runs, but his/her urine. It is not a human being whooperates the blade, but an invisible hand which reminds us of the capitalism’sinvisible hand. Molecules, dust of jadeite, bank note or marble… this cold anddisembodied universe has erased human beings and seems to have found its ownindependent pace, out of reach. At the same time, the absence of human beingsis blatant and the relative emptiness of the room conveys a feeling of lack. Theinstallation also questions the responsibility of the individuals and the groupbehind such a well-established mechanism. Only the shadow of the people’s facescan be discerned and, from afar, they almost look all the same. Their presenceis thus above all collective as if their individual responsibility could vanishbehind the system they created, drowning their blameworthiness in the group.  

Friction Current refers to a longtime-line, from the geological times when jadeite was formed until today’s hiddentrafficking of the stone orchestrated by the drug market. Implicitly, it givesa sense of fate to the work, as if the current trade was part of a naturaldevelopment of the region. What could be conceived as cynicism on the behalf ofthe artists is nevertheless compensated by the exhibition’s time, which is muchshorter, and during which Jiandyin introduced a real-time interaction betweenjadeite and meth. In the fountain, insidiously, theacidity of the urine attacks indeed the stone and, in a long-term process, iscorroding it. Hence, with time, both the urine and the stone mutuallytransform. What if the precious jade loose its purity? Would it break down and,with it, the whole system?


Working like investigative journalists, the artists have accumulatedknowledge about jade mining and drug trafficking across the region calledZomia, from scholarly research and fieldwork. They wrote about their researchfindings but did not display this discursive part of their work. On the contrary,and based on their own interpretation, they focus on the symbolic and metaphorictranslation of these findings into a visual and sound artform able tocrystalize the issues at stake. Because it attracted the attention of the mediafrom 2015 onwards, the topic of jade mining and drug trafficking is alreadyknown by the general public, although probably superficially. Hence, theinstallation does not produce any new knowledge per se but allows the audienceto embrace in one glance the complexity and opacity of the topic. As such, itgenerates another form on knowledge, based on the physical encounter with theartworks and on the viewers’ personal feelings, thoughts and on the intuitionsit triggers. Unlike many research-based artists, Jiandyin did not contextualizethe installation and, except for the two certificates, they did not display anydocumentation about their research process. The cutting of the jadeite stone,even though it documents the shaping of the jadeite ball, remains purposelymysterious and there is no voice-over that could comment it. The viewers arethus left alone in front of these eclectic elements and multi layers ofmeaning. They need to fill the gaps with their own investigation and activeparticipation. While the artists acknowledge that the subtext included in theinstallation could be simplified, they are not worried about generatingconfusion among the audience. Since the topic they address is complex, theyfeel that this confusion is inherent to this complexity. Moreover, theyintroduced some clues for the viewer to build back the jigsaw puzzle theypropose. The small size of the video and of the drawings makes it difficult forthe viewer to totally immerge in the work, yet the powerful image of thefountain, and its disturbing noise, are strong enough to feel and project into thehidden network that rules over Zomia and its shadow economy.  

[1]Since 2015, the closure of the gold mineshas been under discussion for health and environmental reasons. See forinstancehttps://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-australia-mine-idUSKCN0Y11KU

[2]Although a few other countries produce jadeite, 98% of the productioncomes from Myanmar.

[3]More on the genesis of Myanmar jadeite seefor example Qiu ZhiLi and al., “Age and genesis of the Myanmar jadeite:Constraints from U-Pb ages and Hf isotopes of zircon inclusions,” ChineseScience Bulletin, vol. 54 no4, (Feb. 2009): 658-668.

[4]The phenomenon is known as the orogenesisprocess in geological language.

[5]More than 350 people have been killed since2015 and the mine was supposed to close in June 2020. See Muller Nicholas, “ADeadly Gamble: Myanmar’s Jade Industry,” The Diplomat, July 13, 2020.https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/a-deadly-gamble-myanmars-jade-industry/

[6] Global Witness, “Jade: Myanmar Big StateSecret,” (Oct. 2015):5.

[7] Global Witness, “Jade: Myanmar Big StateSecret,” (Oct. 2015):10-12. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been ruled bythe military or junta since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962. Despite the 2015free elections and the victory of the NLD (National League for Democracy), the militaries are still occupying most of the positions in thegovernment. See for instance BaranayZoltan, “Exits from Military Rule: lessons for Burma,” Journal of Democracy,Baltimore Vol. 26(2), (Apr 2015): 98.

[8]More on Myanmar’s recent history andcurrent state see in particular Simpson Adam, FarrellyNicholas, & Holliday Ian (eds), Routledge Handbook of ContemporaryMyanmar, 2017.

[9] Global Witness, “Jade: Myanmar Big StateSecret,” (Oct. 2015):12.

[10]Chang Wen-Chin, “The everyday politics ofthe underground trade in Burma by the Yunnanese Chinese since the Burmesesocialist Era,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 44(2), June 2013: 298.

[11]Chin Ko-lin. TheGolden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia's Drug Trade.Cornell University Press, 2010, 9.

[12]Chin Ko-lin. The Golden Triangle: InsideSoutheast Asia's Drug Trade. Cornell University Press, 2010, 127-128.

[13]Winn Patrick, “Myanmar’s state-backedmilitias are flooding Asia with meth” Global Post Investigations (Nov12, 2015). Available online:


[14]Figures from 2019, quoted in BerlingerJoshua, “Asia's meth trade is worth an estimated $61B as region becomes'playground' for drug gangs,” cnnedition online (July 18, 2019).Available at https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/18/asia/asia-methamphetamine-intl-hnk/index.html

[15]Winn, 2015 Ibid.

[16]Cohen Anjalee, “Crazy for Ya Ba:Methamphetamine use among northern Thai youth,” International Journal ofDrug Policy, Vol 25, issue 4, July 2014: 776-782.

[17]The region of Zomia, originally invented byDutch social scientist Willem van Schendel, includes five Southeast Asiancountries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) and four provinces ofChina. Its area is comparable to Europe. See Scott James C., The Art of NotBeing Governed. Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2009.

[18]Scott James C., The Art of Not BeingGoverned. Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2009, 8.

[19] On the local population across Zomia, see in particular Michaud Jean et al., Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of theSoutheast Asian Massif. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Secondedition, 2016.

[20]Chang Wen-Chin, “Guanxi and Regulation inNetworks: The Yunnanese Jade Trade between Burma and Thailand, 1962–88,” Journalof Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (3), October 2004: 479-501.

[21]Chang Wen-Chin, “The everyday politics ofthe underground trade in Burma by the Yunnanese Chinese since the Burmesesocialist Era,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 44(2), June 2013: 292-314.

[22]The artists found this quote in the Yaomythology. The Yao are an ethnic minority from the Guangxi autonomous provincein southern China. They share some beliefs with the people from Zomia.

[23]See for instance the ranking established byReporters Without Borders published online: https://rsf.org/en/ranking

[24]Tenzin Jinba, “Seeing like Borders: Convergence Zone as a Post-Zomian Model,” CurrentAnthropology Vol58, issue 5, Oct. 2017.

[25]The article traces back the history of jademining in Myanmar from the early 19th century and reveals themysteries and tragedies that have always accompanied this trade, but which havehitherto not been discussed. It is available online: https://www.lotusgemology.com/index.php/library/articles/283-burma-s-jade-mines-an-annotated-occidental-history

[26]See for instance Chachavalpongpun Pavin, APlastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations, UPA 2005;Tun Sai Aung, History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962.Silkworm Book 2008.

[27]Methamphetamine was discovered in 1887 by Romanian chemist LazărEdeleanu (1861-1941). The compound C10H15N in methamphetamine was synthesizedfrom ephedrine in 1893 by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi (1844-1929). In1919, crystal methamphetamine which is the most extreme form was synthesized bypharmacologist Akira Ogata (1887-1978). See for example Jumlongkul A. “Amphetamines: A review of forensicmedicine,” Chula Med J. 60(4) July-Aug 2016: 399-412. (in Thailanguage).

[28]In particular, the artists were influencedby Harman Graham, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.Re.press, 2009. Moreon the Actor-Network-Theory seeLatour Bruno, “Reassembling the Social – An Introduction toActor-Network-Theory,” Oxford University Press, 2006.

[29]For an analysis of Midi Z’s films see inparticular Man Ra, “Homecoming Myanmar Midi Z’s Migration Machine and a Cinemaof Precarity,” in Independent Filmmaking across Borders in Contemporary Asia,199-227. Amsterdam University Press 2019.

[30]See for instance an interview of theartist-reporter on Lens Culture: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/minzayar-oo-the-price-of-jade. The series was exhibited at Charbon art space, Hong Kong, in March2018 as part of the exhibition Documenting Myanmar curated by theauthor.

© Art Museum of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts