Artist’s Introduction by Karen Smith
Wang Wei’s works are like successive experiments carried out in the cause of a sustained investigation into space. Each of his works explores the nature of physical space as it is experienced in human terms, more often than not as a psychological, rather than simply a physical, experience. This is primarily achieved in the installations Wang Wei makes when he invites the viewer into a constructed space. But it is also approached through other means, such as those brought to Temporary Space, the work that is included in The Real Thing. Here, the viewer was actively excluded from the work itself by the very act of its construction by a team of lay workers, whom Wang Wei invited to collaborate on the project. The nature of the metaphor and symbolism invoked in the process of building a space that deliberately sought to keep the audience outside, resulted in a work of immense force and impact.
Wang Wei is a relatively young artist, whose debut work was the remarkable 1/30th Second under Water made in late 1998, and shown as part of the exhibition Post-Sense Sensibility held in Beijing in early January 1999. 1/30th Second under Water comprises a series of colour transparencies set in luminous lightboxes that were inserted sequentially into the raised floor of a specially constructed passageway that was located at the start of the exhibition. Thus, viewers had no choice but to pass through the narrow confines of this corridor if they wished to see the show. This meant walking across the lightboxes, an uncomfortable proposition to begin with, made more so where each of them contained an image of a figure apparently trapped in water beneath the glass surface of the lightbox itself. Being on a one-to-one scale, the illusion of people struggling for air underfoot that confronted the audience, combined with the restricted space of the construction, provoked a powerful sense of claustrophobia. It is a good example of how Wang Wei uses art to make the viewer fully aware of his or her relationship to space: those successive experiments that work with varying degrees of ‘atmospheric’ pressure.
Wang Wei believes the fact that so often we are quite unaware of the impact that the spatial proportions of our surroundings exert upon us, is a direct result of how we experience the violent and unpredictable age in which we live: the protective barriers we seek to erect, the safe distance we maintain. The sense of distance that Wang Wei deliberately creates between the viewer and the figures in 1/30th Second under Water is an aspect he further plays with in other works, and to great effect. In e to
72kg and 3.2m2 2000, for example, he created the illusion of a figure trapped in a steel case just 3.2m2, in which the protagonist almost tears himself apart in his desperate attempts to break free—an illusion achieved through a combination of the video, which is shown through ‘portals’ in the steel case, the disturbing sounds emanating from within, and the strips of pork skin scattered around the base of the case.
Continuing his preference for siting works at the entrance to an exhibition, Wang Wei designed Close Contact 2001, as a mechanism for forcing viewers to weave through a small, glass-walled labyrinth that was barely wide enough to squeeze through sideways. This marked the start of a new ambition: to remove any barrier between the viewer and the work, and so deny any sense of security or comfort. Following Close Contact almost every piece Wang Wei has made dissolves the boundaries between the work and the viewer—the viewer is physically forced to enter the work—setting up a confrontation that has to be met and engaged head on. The artist leaves no room for circumnavigation.
Wang Wei has developed these interventions through a range of dramatic approaches, the most extreme perhaps being Temporary Space, which he made in 2003 at a relatively early stage of his career, but which he still continues to develop and extend. Trap 2005, is a case in point. A work of astounding ambition, Trap literally took the form of an enormous wooden bird trap measuring five metres by six, with a height of 3.5 metres, situated within a gallery and meshed within a web of iron scaffolding that created a second cage-like structure. That both structures had been expanded to occupy the entire exhibition interior, measuring almost four hundred square metres, took the scale far beyond the normal proportions of bird to cage or trap, or just simply reducing the viewer to the human equivalent of a bird. Wang Wei chose to temporarily constrain the audience in a cage of aviary-like proportions, which only made the sense of frailty and helplessness of a captive avian more potent because at no time did the ‘trap’ suggest the claustrophobic dimensions of a prison. This was encouraged by the fact that the wooden ‘trap’ was up-ended, its trap-door mouth gaping open at the sky, its function literally subverted. But if this momentarily suggested that the artist was trying to make a protest against the nature of hunting, or entrapment, then such a suggestion was countered by the cage in which the impotent trap was caught.
This installation pivoted on each element being trapped inside another. Although viewers could move as freely around the space as each of the three hundred birds that Wang Wei released in the work for the duration for the event, the nature of that motion was dictated by the spatial constraints of the structure. Every step taken further into the mesh of bars and scaffolding was potentially treacherous, as visitors were forced to navigate hurdles at both shin height and eye-level. The birds lodging in the uppermost reaches of Trap might have had fewer obstacles to navigate but, as many discovered to their peril, the glass of the windowpanes proved the most illusory trap of all.
Trap was a surprisingly beautiful work, imbued with a palpable air of pathos. Being physically enmeshed in the complex web of horizontal and vertical bars forced the visitor to consider how such an enclosure might be experienced by birds trapped in the confines of a cage: an unnatural habitat imposed upon a creature that humans see as the very symbol of freedom. Structurally, the weave of iron against wood, the symmetry of lines, and the minimalism of the materials used, combined to create a powerfully honest questioning of how space is experienced, and how individuals read and respond to constructed environments: why what, for some people, feels like an enclosure or a prison, for others feels more like a nest whose borders represent security. Trap is an important work amongst those pieces Wang Wei has created to date, but not one that can be easily recreated outside of China, where public concerns for avian rights would not countenance the use of living specimens in an unnatural public arena. Trap was recreated in America in early 2006, but without the birds.
Whilst Trap is an iconic work, the impulses that inspired Wang Wei to attempt such an ambitious project relate to his involvement with a group of artists who joined forces with the sole purpose of supporting individual practice and experimentation. Against the increasingly commercialised nature of the art world, where market forces are undermining the ambition of artists to be innovators, visionaries, or commentators, this loose-knit group of artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers, based in Beijing, was determined to explore alternative modes. Going under the name of ‘Complete Art Experience’, the group embarked upon a series of activities that began with an exhibition titled Incest. This comprised works individually produced by the group’s members, but which were then subject to manipulation—once a week—by a group member other than their creator. Wang Wei produced a series of monumental replicas of the type of architectural columns associated with Socialist architecture, but using a range of soft textures for the surface of each work. These were not fixed, but hung from the ceiling so that they could, if pushed, swing pendulously around their mooring. Against the natural energy and confidence engendered by the group dynamics, which certainly contributed to the scale and concept of Trap, Temporary Space is firm evidence of an innate talent and Wang Wei’s capacity for conceptualising issues using entirely innovative mechanisms to give them visual form.
Temporary Space is about structures in motion, which by the early 2000s, was a phenomenon being witnessed the length and breadth of the capital. The idea of injecting movement into usually static architectural elements was first invoked in an installation, Hypocritical Room 2002. In this work, Wang Wei made a rectangular, tent-like structure on castors, which allowed it to be rolled around the exhibition space at will, propelled by four people concealed within the four walls. Each of the external faces of the four walls bore the image of a section of the space, which Wang Wei had previously photographed and digitally reproduced on the canvas wall on a one-to-one scale. The ‘room’ was thus almost invisible when stationary, and suddenly, alarmingly visible when in motion.
As a concept and artistic process, Temporary Space also sought to make the invisible visible, and once again centred upon the construction of a room that confronted viewers with its external façade. Here, too, the action was controlled by those on the inside, who were only visible in the early stages of the work, and also at the end, when they deconstructed the space that Wang Wei had conceived for the exhibition space, this time at the Long March’s 25,000 Transmission Centre at the former machine tool factory, now more familiarly known as ‘798’, in the Dashanzi Art District in the north-east of Beijing. It is hard to imagine a more fitting location or environment for the project. 798 is home to many former workers latterly forced to hire themselves out as labourers, as factories within the city boundaries were systematically closed, and has itself become the site of constant redevelopment as the former factory units are refitted to become gallery spaces, design workshops, artists studios, and even privately funded museum complexes. Though just a few years ago, in 2003, when the volume of rebuilding work within the 798 complex had yet to reach recent proportions, it was the growing numbers of migrant workers in the neighbouring district of Wangjing, itself a satellite sector of Beijing that was initiated as recently as the late-1990s, which caught Wang Wei’s attention. It is relevant here to mention that after graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1996, Wang Wei was assigned a day job as a photographer for Beijing Youth Daily, the second most widely read newspaper in the capital. In this instance, professional and personal interests converged, and having completed his photo assignment, Wang Wei decided to invite a group of workers to eat with him, which provided him with an opportunity to learn more about their lives and the hardships they endured. In his essay about the project, curator Phil Tinari describes at length the workers’ origins, the economic pressures that forced them to travel to Beijing, often on the same donkey cart that then served as their primary asset for earning a living in the capital—albeit confined to the outer fringes of the city—and how the rapid expanse of Beijing, that today embraces six concentric ring roads (where, even as recently as the mid-1990s, to go beyond the half-constructed third ring road felt like entering a no-man’s land), provides small opportunities for these workers to subsist on menial labour.
Their work is labour intensive, and physically draining, and restricted to a market that is rapidly diminishing. For a brief period around the turn of the millennium, these workers collected bricks from the huge number of derelict or demolished buildings, which made for a ready supply. They took these bricks to the outskirts of the city, where, in their small make-shift communities, they were cleaned, the mortar that had held them in place painstakingly chipped away, until the bricks could be delivered to a wholesale intermediary ready to be used again. However, the rapid changes in construction techniques and materials used, has greatly reduced the demand for bricks at the same time as the bricks themselves are becoming scarce as the majority of the older buildings have now been demolished. Moved by necessity’s devotion to an exhaustive routine, Wang Wei relocated the process to an art space by inviting ten of the labourers to work for him on a project which took the form of a process of construction and demolition over the course of a three-week period. The migrant workers collected 20,000 old bricks, which they delivered to the exhibition space, to construct a space within the space, 100 m2, and four metres in height. Once completed, and the exhibition finished, the structure was dismantled, and the bricks taken away to be cleaned and re-sold. So a temporary space quite literally, but one that invited viewers in only to restrict their viewing experience to a narrow corridor of space that ran around the perimeter of the construction in progress. The work highlights the plight of the workers, and questions the force of such rampant redevelopment, and how many of the building projects are by their very nature creating divisive zones, effectively laying down exclusory social boundaries that would have as yet unimagined effects upon those ‘included’ as well as those inadvertently ‘excluded’.
Published in conjunction with the exhibition The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China at Tate Liverpool, 2007. Karen Smith is an independent curator and writer who lives in Beijing.