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the greater politics of human interaction

shuxia chen: wang jianwei, muitimedia artist

Shuxia Chen is a correspondent for Art China, Shanghai, and, Beijing, and currently completing her Masters by research on Chinese contemporary art history at the University of Sydney. This article is in part based on an interview with Wang Jianwei, Sydney, January 2010.

Hostage, video still 2008, Wang Jianwei, single channel video, Edge of Elsewhere Hostage, video still 2008, Wang Jianwei, single channel video, Edge of Elsewhere
image courtesy the artist

A giant, uncanny, industrial apparatus occupies the central gallery of Campbelltown Art Centre. This is part of Wang Jianwei’s multimedia work titled Hostage (2008) exhibited as part of Edge of Elsewhere (a three-year partnership between Sydney Festival, Campbelltown Arts Centre and Gallery 4A to engage communities in Western Sydney with artists from Asia and The Pactific, Eds). The machinery seems overloaded with engines, valves, piezometers and obtruding steel pipes and it’s almost inundated by plastic foam. One feels haunted and trapped by this object of mythic proportions as if it is blundering through the gallery. I sigh with relief at the sight of a series of bright, framed photographs on the wall to one side: a worker, a farmer and a soldier. These lead the way to a darkened room where a more ambiguous film is screening as part of the same work. Again, my breath halts.

Obeying some invisible discipline, deadened looking people work and rest within a cabined space bound by three brick walls. They live in the era before Chinese economic reform, deprived of their individuality by heavy state ideology. We can only recognise their social functions: worker, farmer and soldier. Repeatedly carrying out their daily routines, they wake at the same time, do collective morning exercise and then work on their respective official duties: technical workers weld; farmers spray pesticides; soldiers keep their posts. Everything proceeds with the utmost propriety—everyone strives to achieve the same objective.

This system runs effectively and with total poise—an early warning that a storm is about to break. The walls are bombed by outsiders and collapse, the perfect order within this space is buried under debris. The system fails and crumbles. The film ends ambiguously with the people squeezed into a white van like sardines and driven away, into the unknown. The film is a metaphor for a system that either totally transforms or collapses when it reaches its maximum entropy. Calmly and sensitively unfolding his narrative, Wang Jianwei cinematically constructs a materially concrete scenario but one which asks unanswerable questions.

Using installation, photography and video art, the artist creates an undivided whole that probes the dilemma of humans seized like hostages by systems of power such as knowledge, history or ideology. Like Kafka’s Josef K, arrested by some unrevealed authority for an unidentified crime, these giant and invisible systems of power impose an imaginary identity which, without any alternative on offer, is accepted.

Born in the 1950s, Wang Jianwei shares the experience of many of his contemporaries—relocated to the country and drafted as a soldier. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, stifled by seven years spent drawing maps for the army, Wang commenced his career as a painter in the mid-80s and was highly acclaimed for his realistic style. In the 80s and 90s, as China filled with the clamour and mania of reform and opening up to the world, installation art, video art and multimedia art were being introduced along with other western trends. Wang promptly sensed the more flexible, expressive capacities of these new art forms to manifest the rapid variations in social structures. He shifted gear to practice video art.

Wang’s early video works had some similarities with the kind of documentary filmmaking used in sociological surveys. However, unlike documentary workers who attempt to catch public attention and advocate to solve social issues by exposing the truth, Wang modestly calls himself an "image collector." In this way, he carefully studies how complicated relationships overlap and interact within everyday space.

Wang's 1996 work, Production, is representative of the character of his early works. Juxtaposing the spaces of cultural production and everyday living, the work attempts to cast off the linear process of art production, which usually starts in the studio and ends in the gallery space. It documents the daily life of teahouses in seven counties of Sichuan. The teahouses in the video have no dedicated lounges or interior decoration, just a scatter of stained bamboo table sets—a world away from the middle class frequented high-tea cafés in the metropolis.

There’s an interesting mix of people in the crowd: some are reading newspapers, some playing poker, some having business meetings and some even washing their hair. They habituate themselves to this public but somehow intimate space, continuing the habitus of Sichuan’s history, its thousands of years of teahouse culture. Tension is triggered by the intruding camera: the guests stop their habitual activities, gazing into the lens with curiosity or courtesy. This space for daily leisure has been transformed with the intervention of the artist.

Hostage, 2008, Wang Jianwei, sculpture, Edge of Elsewhere Hostage, 2008, Wang Jianwei, sculpture, Edge of Elsewhere
image courtesy the artist
In 2000, Wang Jianwei departed from his documentary format to create works that mixed video and live performance with surreal theatrical expression, exploring the unusual in the usual. Ping Feng in 2000 marked Wang Jianwei’s new era of integrating visual art and theatre. Successively performed in Beijing and Brussels, Ping Feng harmonises video, performance and theatre into a whole vision: a man hangs in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a group of ghostly strangers with puppets in hand. While they creep and conspire in the dark, the screen at the back flashes with changing images, among them human limbs, a drowning bird and Chinese painting. Ping Feng's stories are drawn from the famous screen paintings, The Night Banquet of Han Xizai. The Southern Tang Dynasty (10th century) artist Gu Hongzhong was appointed by the emperor, who was worried his authority might be threatened, to spy on the reclusive scholar-official Han Xizai and paint what he had seen. To steer clear of suspicion and avoid political persecution, Han disguised his ambitions and capabilities with lustful nightly banquets. The mutual probing in this story interests Wang. He cleverly borrows the uniquely architectural element—the screen—as the theme of his work, and metaphorically indicates the psychological dodging and prying inherent in everyday life.

After Ping Feng, Wang Jianwei continued to test combinations of video, performance and theatre. His latest work, Time·Theatre·Exhibition (2009), is evidence of this consistent hybrid style, obscuring the fine line between art forms. The neat and spacious gallery is transformed into a temporary theatre. The curtain unfolds to reveal a mysterious, misty teahouse. People from different eras of history bridging thousands of years—Tang Dynasty officers, Qing Dynasty adherents, the general public of new born China and modern people—gather in this public space and indulge in a variety of pastimes: appreciating their birds, listening to music, urging their crickets to fight, gambling, flirting with prostitutes, taking drugs, singing karaoke etc.

As time and space are emerging into one in this video, struggling modern white-collars appear onstage. They run, stop, talk on the phone, yelling out the ridiculously increasing prices of the art auction or real estate market, losing themselves in the expanding desires of contemporary life. Wang Jianwei creates a live scene of overlapping time and space and proposes “we watch the exhibition in the same way we might watch drama; experience the drama just as we might view an exhibition—at the same time.”

As one of the most prominent conceptual artists in China, Wang Jianwei is difficult to label. He is neither Zhang Xiaogang who embraces the attention of auction houses nor Ai Weiwei who is made a dazzling object under the limelight of western media. Wang’s unique and profound thoughts distinguish him from his peers. Borrowing his methodologies from different disciplines to dig into the complexity of human interactions, Wang’s sheer professionalism in integrating art forms and creating, over a decade, his many investigative live works make him one of the earliest avant-gardists of interdisciplinary art in contemporary China.

The Edge of Elsewhere, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Jan 16-March 7; Gallery 4A, Sydney, Jan 16-Feb 7

Shuxia Chen is a correspondent for Art China, Shanghai, and, Beijing, and currently completing her Masters by research on Chinese contemporary art history at the University of Sydney. This article is in part based on an interview with Wang Jianwei, Sydney, January 2010.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 42

© Shuxia Chen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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