Sites of Construction and Encounter: An Interview with Wang Wei

Nav Haq


A rising star in China, Beijing-based artist Wang Wei has been receiving much international attention of late for his recent works. Producing ambitious, large-scale installations, the artist creates architecturally reflexive, at times labyrinthine experiences for viewers. Often the work is made from materials common in the construction industry, such as bricks and scaffolding, consciously contextualized in contrast to the white cube of the gallery.


The artist was recently in London for three months between January and March 2007. Undertaking a residency for this period at Gasworks, he was in the process of preparing for the first two major presentations of his works in the U.K.—an installation at Gasworks for the exhibition Slash Fiction, and a presentation at Tate Liverpool for their survey exhibition of art from China, The Real Thing. 



Nav Haq: Having met you in Beijing last year and whilst you have been doing your residency here in London, I’ve gotten to know your practice well. One way to describe your work is as “architectural intervention.” It’s a form that is quite untypical of practitioners in China from my own observations, apart from a few practitioners such as Ai Wei Wei, for example. I thought it would be interesting to find out how you developed this way of thinking in terms of producing art?


Wang Wei: Initially I came from a strict academic background doing painting, but subsequently faced choices of different alternatives in terms of approaching my art. I was always interested in developing forms, and I am not happy to have something remain as a concept. I like to have a big presence for the viewer and actively look to formulate some kind of interaction with the viewer. I don’t want the work to really look like a work of art, but more like a publicly accessible space—more like a “site,” a place where something will happen or something has already happened. I think the viewer’s experience is very important. Most often I think the audience experience is part of the work, and this guides my practice.



Nav Haq: Was there a certain moment or period where you made this decision to work in this way, or was it influenced by something in particular?


Wang Wei: That’s a very interesting question, I think. In China, I graduated in 1996, and that same year I went to a lecture by a professor of performance  who talked about a performance college he taught at. I felt that this kind of thing was intriguing for me. It’s from him that I know a lot about performance, and also about such people as John Cage. He taught things like this, and he could show the line between Western performance or conceptual art. I found this interesting, as I didn’t know it before. It got me thinking in terms of possibilities.



Nav Haq: There is definitely a spatial and phenomenological approach to your production. It’s about the body in relation to architecture and space, resolutely. Do you consider your work in a way to be an extension of Body Art?


Wang Wei: It relies on the body to activate the work. Yes, I think so. I’m interested in thinking about that. I’m not a performance artist or video artist. I’m more interested to mix different ways of producing and to try things out. I like to try to use sound, or smell even, or touch. That’s all possible in the process of art.



Nav Haq: Being reflexive and aware of the white cube gallery format for exhibition spaces does have a history within postmodern art and theory. I wanted to ask how aware you have been of some historical examples such as Daniel Buren or Michael Asher?


Wang Wei: I know the work of Daniel Buren because I saw an exhibition in Beijing at Gallery Continua. This is how I know his work, but I think he works in a different way. My work has a more personal approach. I started the “space series” works in 2002. I did the work Hypocritical Room in the exhibition organized by young Shanghai-based artists like Xu Zhen, but the space was not an exhibition space. It was a market, actually, and they rented it out for a month to prepare for the exhibition. The exhibition was quite underground and was on for just two days. They invited me to make a work there. Beforehand, I was unsure what to do, but then I made a mirror of the space, within the space. Many ideas come from real experience of putting on shows and not strictly predetermined concepts.



Nav Haq: One example of your work that you did for the Long March Space last year in Beijing was made from scaffolding. It is a material that is specifically used within the construction industry. Can you tell me how you decided to use this type of material?


Wang Wei: Before I used scaffolding in the Long March Space, I had used it already for the work Trap. Also in the work Temporary Space, the workers used scaffolding to build the brick walls. So I had used it before and know it well. I just thought about these materials as I see them everyday on the street. It’s everywhere. Beijing right now is a big construction site. The whole city is like that. It’s like a landscape for me. When I learned how to use it, I thought maybe I could use it to make some corridors and pavilions, and other constructions. I thought it was worth trying.



Nav Haq: The work Temporary Space, which you have already talked a little about, is an interesting work as it is not just about being reflexive about of the space it is in. It is a space within a space. It is also interesting because you employed skilled construction workers who are from villages in rural areas. There is something there about an economy, and a supply and demand relationship within the making of the work that I find very interesting. Can you say something about the development of this work?


Wang Wei: I think this work is quite complex. There are many different tracks of thought. One is about space within space. Another is talking about time—I show the whole process. This is important for me—the time element. It converses about speed, and it happens very fast. The third track is the idea of economic exchange. Basically, I want to make the work have more tracks than just a single line of enquiry. I didn’t want to make the idea too clear, as ambiguity is interesting for me. Some tracks appear after the work is made. Before its production I didn’t think that I had clear concepts already. I make the work and things emerge.



Nav Haq: The idea of what is called “performativity”—a transparency of the production process—seems to be quite significant in your work. Like, for example, you implicate the workers in Temporary Space. You seem quite conscious of playing out a relationship between the way the work is produced physically and a visitor’s encounter with it. Would you agree?


Wang Wei: I want to make the audience think that something has happened, that builders have just freshly built a wall for example. They use donkeys to deliver the bricks, which are everywhere. I want to give an essence of this. This is essential for me. I want to almost confuse people into thinking that it references real life but is somehow stranger. But real life for me is very strange.



Nav Haq: Hypocritical Room is another example of a work that possesses a performative aspect. It consists of a construction that contains imagery that mirrors the architectural features of the space it is in. Then it also moves around the space. What kind of reaction did you get to this work?


Wang Wei: I’m not absolutely sure, actually. This space I create is something that people can’t get into. It’s useless. When the room moves towards them, they need to find a way around it. It’s a bit of a fight. People find it intriguing to fight with a room.



Nav Haq: The piece that I saw last year for the Long March Space seems to be one of your more ambitious works. It visibly takes on an identifiable traditional Chinese architectural form. Can you tell me about the work and the specific theme that it responded to?


Wang Wei: Recently, I have been very interested in doing research into Chinese traditional constructions. I found the corridor and the pavilion actually more common in the Chinese tradition. This kind of architecture is not for use or for people to live in. It’s useless architecture when looked at on the level of functionality. It’s about making a relationship with nature. You usually have it in a garden, and not on a street for example. This really intrigued me, and I thought about putting this in different sites. I feel it would be interesting to do something slightly absurd and see the reactions.



Nav Haq: Some of your practice is very spontaneous, and I think you often respond to specific invitations is quite untypical ways for Chinese artists. Have you found a way of surviving without making your work overly commercial, like many artists do?


Wang Wei: It can be sold! I’m joking. For me, art starts with what I really want to do. Money is important, but most of the time money does not affect my creative choices. It’s easier to do the kind of practice that I do in China, rather than, say, in England. There are more extensive resources and also more materials, making it easier to make large-scale installations. For me it’s great. I am actually represented, but this is slightly detached from my practice somehow. In most of my work, I pay for the production of myself.



Nav Haq: It seems at present you are starting to get a lot of international recognition. You recently presented your work in San Francisco, and also you have work soon to be presented at Tate Liverpool. Do you think this is partly due to your practice being seen as site-specific in a particular way, thus making it is easy for people to draw parallels with art practices in the West?


Wang Wei: It’s an interesting question, but it is complicated. Maybe. I’m not sure.


Nav Haq: To talk a little about your new project here in London at Gasworks: it is taking your practice again in a slightly different direction. It is going to be again an ambitious architectural intervention; however, it enters more the realm of exhibition design. Your work will be developed in relation to the other works that will be presented within the space, offering a highly mediated route. How have you felt about this slightly different approach to working?


Wang Wei: It’s different, but perhaps I’ve been leading towards it. For example, I made scaffolding works in a gallery that engulfed the whole space. That was a group show with three other artists. I talked about it with the curator before I gave them a proposal, and I think that introduced to me the idea of working in relation to other works, and to even see other works through my works. I’m thinking quite functionally, and it’s not a big difficulty for me to work this way. I am very open to the idea, but it has different sets of limitations when mixing with other artists’ work. But this has the possibility for interesting things to happen. I would certainly like to try it out. You’ve given me some kind of brief, and I have tried to develop a methodology for using the space. I want to make the space look as if something is happening. It’s a kind of situation that fascinates me.



"Originally published in Yishu- Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Number 6, Volume 2, Summer/June 2007"