ART VIEW: HIS­TORY RE­BOOTED

Chi­nese video artist Wang Gongxin brings two decades of work to Hong Kong for his Ro­ta­tion ex­hi­bi­tion, push­ing bound­aries and evok­ing un­ease in his au­di­ences with ground­break­ing vi­su­als.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY DIANA D’ARENBERG

Wang Gongxin brings two decades of work to Hong Kong for his Ro­ta­tion ex­hi­bi­tion

“Com­puter users know that the best way to op­ti­mise your sys­tem is to ‘empty’ and ‘re­boot’.” This is the cryp­tic mes­sage that is fixed upon the wall at White Cube gallery and greets vis­i­tors to “Ro­ta­tion”. The ex­hi­bi­tion is Chi­nese artist Wang Gongxin’s first in Hong Kong and brings to­gether a body of his work from the 1990s along­side newer pieces cre­ated for the show – 11 in to­tal. Ro­ta­tion is a process of re­vis­it­ing and ‘re­boot­ing’ twenty years of artis­tic prac­tice for Wang, a com­ing back to ear­lier in­stal­la­tion works.

Born in 1960, Wang is a pi­o­neer­ing mul­ti­me­dia artist, the first in China to in­cor­po­rate video in­stal­la­tion into his oeu­vre. How­ever, he be­gan his art ca­reer as an oil painter. Amid the first gen­er­a­tion of art stu­dents to emerge af­ter the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Wang trained in the pre­scribed so­cial­ist real­ist style that trick­led down from the Soviet Union. It was only in 1988, while a vis­it­ing scholar on a cul­tural ex­change pro­gramme at State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Cort­land with his artist wife Lin Tian­miao, that Wang first en­coun­tered video work. While he con­tin­ued paint­ing por­traits to earn a liv­ing dur­ing his year in the States, this en­counter with video work by artists such as Bruch Nau­mann, Bill Vi­ola, and Nam June Paik had left an in­deli­ble im­print on him. Two years af­ter re­turn­ing to Beijing, Wang be­came a catalysing force of the Beijing avant-garde move­ment, turn­ing his home into a salon gallery space where artists could meet and show their work.

At this point the artist left paint­ing be­hind al­to­gether, cre­at­ing his first video project, The Sky of Brook­lyn—dig­ging a Hole in Beijing in 1995. Video of­fered a break from the con­straints of the for­mal and strict train­ing he had re­ceived at school in Beijing. It of­fered free­dom, a clean slate, and cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties. “It al­lows for more in­for­ma­tion to be brought to the work,” Wang says. “It en­com­passes ev­ery­thing – sound, light, move­ment – [and] it al­lows you to tell a more full story.” In 2001, he would go on to found Loft, one of the first me­dia art cen­tres in China.

The site-spe­cific The Sky of Brook­lyn was a catalysing work, set­ting the tone for a prac­tice that be­came de­fined both by ex­per­i­men­tal­ism and hu­mour, ex­plor­ing the re­la­tion­ship and bal­ance be­tween ma­te­ri­al­ity, tem­po­ral­ity and space. The artist dug a 3.5-me­tre-deep hole in the gallery floor in Beijing and placed in­side it a video mon­i­tor play­ing footage of the Brook­lyn sky, shot from the roof of his Wil­liams­burg apart­ment. Vis­i­tors could peer into the hole with the il­lu­sion of look­ing through to the other side of the world. The work was a tongue in cheek ref­er­ence to the ex­pres­sion “dig­ging a hole to China”, but it also re­vealed Wang’s per­sonal en­counter with the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal dis­par­ity be­tween the two places; an ex­am­i­na­tion of the ge­o­graph­i­cal and cul­tural dis­lo­ca­tion he ex­pe­ri­enced liv­ing in New York and then re­turn­ing once more to Beijing. The piece was ac­claimed by CNN as one of the “10 art­works that will change the way you see China”. To­day, the artist has been com­mis­sioned by the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in New York to cre­ate a coun­ter­part piece to the work, redi­rected this time to­wards China, as much of the world’s at­ten­tion is.

Wang broad­ened his artis­tic lan­guage be­yond video. Early on in his ca­reer he be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­cor­po­rat­ing ma­te­ri­als in his in­stal­la­tions that were mo­bile, “ra­di­ant” and liq­uid. Ma­te­ri­als like light bulbs, wa­ter and metal that re­acted to and played with the en­vi­ron­ment around them through re­flec­tion and move­ment were of­ten com­bined in his works. The ex­hi­bi­tion at White Cube fea­tures these ready-made in­stal­la­tions full of ki­ne­sis and light, which re­veal a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with time, mem­ory and space.

Take Wang’s 1995 in­stal­la­tion, Di­a­logue: In a dark­ened ex­hi­bi­tion room, two sus­pended light bulbs de­scend into a pool of black ink on a long black ta­ble. Each time the bulbs dip into the liq­uid, rip­ples are cre­ated on the dark, still and re­flec­tive sur­face of the wa­ter, break­ing the seem­ingly rigid geom­e­try and so­lid­ity of the work. Shad­ows play across the walls, ac­ti­vat­ing the space. The in­stal­la­tion – as its name im­plies – en­cour­ages a di­a­logue be­tween viewer and work, be­tween ma­te­ri­als (ink wa­ter and light bulb), and re­al­ity and imag­i­na­tion.

A rev­er­ent hush falls over the space as vis­i­tors stand be­fore the

work. “Ev­ery­where I have showed this work peo­ple are al­ways quiet in the room stand­ing be­fore it”, the artist com­ments. In­deed, there is some­thing par­tic­u­larly zen about stand­ing in the dark­ened room – the work in­vites con­tem­pla­tion and med­i­ta­tion. It is oddly hyp­notic in its repet­i­tive and rhyth­mic move­ments and in its min­i­mal­ist mono­chrome.

Wang works with a reper­toire of ma­te­ri­als, ges­tures and me­chan­i­cal move­ments for his in­stal­la­tions, high­light­ing a con­cern with tem­po­ral­ity. The knocks, rip­ples, dip­ping and ro­tat­ing of the light bulbs take place in a rhyth­mic and repet­i­tive man­ner. In Unseat­able (1995), which fea­tures four metal-framed chairs – each seat filled with ei­ther a milky white liq­uid or a black ink – a light bulb sus­pended from the ceil­ing ro­tates over each chair, its light re­flected back by the even, liq­uid sur­face of the chairs. Like in Di­a­logue, the se­cond in­stal­ment of this piece, this rep­e­ti­tion of move­ment is a marker of time com­pa­ra­ble to the even, pre­dictable tick­ing of a clock.

Yet at the same time, these works are heavy with quiet ten­sion and danger. Di­a­logue skirts with the danger of elec­tro­cu­tion or ex­plod­ing glass if the light bulbs are im­mersed too deeply in the liq­uid, and the danger that the dip­ping light bulbs will un­set­tle the equi­lib­rium in the vol­ume of the liq­uid, send­ing it spilling over the sides and onto the floor. The work plays with lim­i­ta­tions and bound­aries, ex­per­i­ment­ing with how far one can pos­si­bly go be­fore equi­lib­rium is lost. The artist had to care­fully cal­i­brate the vol­ume of wa­ter to en­sure that it sat at the very edge of the con­tainer, yet would not flow over the top.

Restor­ing bal­ance is a re­cur­ring theme through­out this ex­hi­bi­tion, although it was never some­thing that Wang set out con­sciously to ex­plore in his work. It was, he in­sists, a theme that re­vealed it­self as he pro­gressed in his prac­tice, with pos­si­ble an­tecedents in his train­ing as a painter. “Yes, it’s al­most like paint­ing. You know when it’s there and when it isn’t,” he says. “You know when you have a bal­ance of com­po­si­tion and colour.”

A more re­cent work, Hor­i­zon­tal (2017) fea­tures a square Ming­dy­nasty ta­ble, with one leg shorter than the oth­ers and propped up on a golden stone to even it out. On top, a tray filled with black liq­uid juts out at an an­gle, evening out the slanted sur­face of the ta­ble. A mech­a­nism un­der­neath knocks the ta­ble and sets the wa­ter into rip­ples, bring­ing what was a static ob­ject to life.

De­spite the striv­ing for aes­thetic bal­ance in the works, there is an el­e­ment of the un­heim­lich about Wang’s in­stal­la­tions. An un­set­tling and anx­ious feel­ing re­sults from watch­ing a ta­ble vi­brate and the wa­ter rip­ple, repet­i­tively and com­pul­sively, from an un­known ghostly source, or a light bulb dip­ping in­ex­pli­ca­bly in and out of wooden bench or a pool of black ink. Ta­bles, chairs, a baby’s crib – fa­mil­iar ob­jects that are in­dis­pen­si­ble to our ev­ery­day life, ob­jects that are part of ones ri­tu­als, rou­tines and per­sonal nar­ra­tives – are reap­pro­pri­ated and in­cor­po­rated into wholly strange and un­fa­mil­iar con­texts.

Just as Mar­cel Duchamp had once taken a sim­ple bi­cy­cle wheel or uri­nal and turned them into works of art, Wang too sub­verts re­al­ity, and con­founds and chal­lenges viewer ex­pec­ta­tion by re-con­tex­tu­al­is­ing hum­ble ev­ery­day ob­jects and strip­ping them of their orig­i­nal util­i­tar­ian pur­pose. He takes the or­di­nary, the banal, and trans­forms them into play­ful, at times im­mer­sive, visual po­ems.

THE WORK PLAYS WITH LIM­I­TA­TIONS AND BOUND­ARIES, EX­PER­I­MENT­ING WITH HOW FAR ONE CAN POS­SI­BLY GO

THIS AND OP­PO­SITE The in­stal­la­tions at Wang's Ro­ta­tion show aim to ex­per­i­ment with bound­aries and push be­yond the com­fort zone.

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