Space represents people’s desires. There is never enough space, and everyone always wants more.
The history of contemporary art in China is still quite young; it began more or less in the 1970s after the Cultural Revolution. Could you explain how this artistic development began? What are the origins of contemporary Chinese art?
During the Cultural Revolution there was only Socialist Realist Art. Art in this society was used only for propaganda. After the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s China’s opening and reform period started. It was at that time that a lot of books about Western philosophy were translated into Chinese. This had a huge effect on China’s intellectuals and artists. Artists’ ideas were heavily controlled up until this point, and suddenly everything opened up. It was a very exciting time. Through studying and borrowing forms from Western contemporary arts some artists could openly express their social criticism and personal feelings about living in such a repressive society. Thus, from the start of China’s experimental art history, it has always had a strong sentiment of social critique.
What was the influence of European or Western movements in art on the development of Chinese art? To what extent did Chinese contemporary art accept Western avant-garde movements at the beginning of the century, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism or those after the middle of the century like Minimalism, Concept Art, Pop, etc.?
The influence of European avant-garde and Western Modernist movements on Chinese contemporary art was not felt through the art education system. For a long time Chinese avant-garde art had the sense of being an underground movement. Information about Western contemporary art was limited so an artist had to actively seek out different ways of expression by themselves. When they saw something that could appropriately capture their concepts, they readily borrowed these forms to express their ideas in the most direct and pointed manner possible.
What is the relationship of China to its history, philosophy and identity? It is said that history exists only in a very fragmentary way in the consciousness of the population and is hard to access. Isn’t that a great disadvantage for a profound engagement with artistic themes such as memory or identity?
Traditional Chinese culture was early to mature. Over the course of its development it absorbed many outside influences and created a unique world view. In the last 100 years, social changes and upheavals have caused much pain and suffering. It’s made intellectuals re-examine this culture and look for other ways of developing this culture.
Fragmentation always exists. This is not really a problem. Issues of identity and memory are common issues for all of humanity. Expressing these ideas and creating a dialog through art is very appropriate. As long as the sentiment is honest, it is possible to affect viewers.
What is the relationship of contemporary Chinese art in relation to its own traditional art techniques and aesthetic styles?
Chinese contemporary art has an internal connection to traditional arts. Chinese traditional arts have a unique aesthetic and sense of time and space. These ideas have an active role in influencing the development of contemporary arts.
How is Chinese contemporary art seen inside China itself today? In the past few years we have witnessed an international Chinese art boom - there have been countless exhibitions of Chinese art, under titles such as Alors, la Chine?, Mahjong, The Real Thing and many more besides - how is this art perceived by the general public at home?
Contemporary art is a reflection of the world around it, regardless of where it comes from. It will exhibit the state of a society as well as its problems and issues. Chinese contemporary art has the same characteristics. The issues that we are facing in Chinese contemporary art are the same as those in this society. China is in the midst of high-speed economic development and the societal transition related to that development. Chinese experimental art’s transition from underground to above ground has been a very short five-year period. To me, Chinese audiences are very open to the changes around them, and this includes contemporary art.
As for the China-themed exhibitions that are happening in the west, they are helpful in that they allow western audiences to see and directly experience new art from China. However, because these large shows don’t happen in China, some of the works are not seen in context of the society that created them. If audiences don’t know that much about China in the first place, the exhibition becomes one of the only ways that people get impressions of China. Sometimes that can be misleading. The current situation is influenced by the international art market, which dictates taste. There is a portion of works that are made that are designed to satisfy the market’s taste for the exotic.
You are known, in particular, for your temporary spaces made of brick, which you are having set up inside exhibition spaces and gallery halls. A room that is built up only to be destroyed again, actions marked by irony and their very absurdity; which symbolic significance and which conceptual deliberations lie at the bottom of such works?
My process in the last few years has been to build, change and affect existing spaces. Temporary Space was an early manifestation of that type of work. This work deals with time and space. I was interested in time and issues of speed – in this piece the normal process of building and demolishing is compressed into a 17-day period. Space represents people’s desires. There is never enough space, and everyone always wants more. These themes have surfaced in all of my subsequent works in the last few years.
Which socially critical aspects do you pursue in works like What Does Not Stand Up Cannot Fall? Have there been any reactions to your work, for example, from official quarters?
In What Does Not Stand Up Cannot Fall and my other recent spatial installations and performance works, I am trying to examine the impact of the fast-changing living space on human beings and to reveal the social motives behind this kind of over-rapid development. Responses to this work have mainly come from the art circle in China and the Western art system. The video documentation of this project is being exhibited, at the moment, in the Tate Liverpool gallery.
Is censorship still a problem for artists in China today? How is the art system operating, in terms of being a communications system, or a marketing system or simply a system representing the interests of the artists, and museums, collectors, gallerists, the state, the sponsors and the general public?
There is not a single place in the world that has absolute freedom. We simply go by different rules of games. Sometimes certain restrictions can inspire the artists more and bring out more challenges from artworks. The present art system in China is in the midst of constant development and change, as is her social system. There is an upper structure – the official art institutions and museums; there is also a lower level structure – the very active non-official galleries and art spaces. But the middle level that connects these two is missing – the collectors and art foundations. This is due to the fact that in the current social system in China there is not yet, in its real sense, a general public. There is only the division between the official and the non-official. That’s why, right now, China’s experimental art can only work closely with non-official capital in China and the Western art system.
Your projects frequently have a performance-like character. You document them with a video- and a photographic camera. Which role(s) do these documentations of the performances play? Is the art just to be found in the action itself or is the documentation also a part of the art?
This is one aspect of my work, I like that the work is changeable and fluid, the audiences’ reaction and emotional state are important to me. At a certain point, I also become an audience member to my own works. I use photo and video to record the changes, so while these are documents, they are also a way of expressing concepts.
At the project space of the Kunsthalle Wien, you erect a Panda Bear enclosure, albeit without any animals. This is again a space that is not traversable, not accessible to visitors wishing to enter it, and which I view very largely as a comment on the urban situation and the infrastructural nodal point that I see in the Karlsplatz setting in Vienna. How site-specific are your works?
The space in Vienna looks like a glass box to me. Its location in the center of the city seems to be a sharp contrast to the classical buildings around it. When I began to think about this work, I was interested in having visitors view the space from the outside of the building. The work is an artificial environment that people are barred from entering.
Could you comment on your exhibition project for the Kunsthalle Wien?
The main theme of this piece is “zoo without animals.” I’ve “moved” an abandoned animal cage into an art space. It’s an artificially created space that no one can enter. The space is based on a specific description of an environment somewhere in the world. It’s meant to be relatively dislocating and disassociating for the audience and kind of existential.
Can your work Trap be interpreted similarly as There Are No Pandas Here which you installed at the Kunsthalle Wien: a cage without animals – a trap without a bird?
Yes, in this work the existence or non-existence of animals serves to have the audience question their own position in the environment. It’s just that in Trap the forms were a little more abstract, while in There Are No Pandas Here the forms were a bit more specific.
You seem particularly interested in achieving spatial experiences of various kinds. You create claustrophobic effects, destabilisation and insecurity about space, spatial illusions. In Pillars you have pillars hanging from the ceiling, Ever Widening, Ever Narrowing acts as a kind of labyrinth, Hypocritical Room shows a room that is justified by the reflection of the surrounding space on its outside walls. What is the binding element in these works?
There is a common idea of ‘borrowing’ amongst all these works. They use specific everyday actions, relationships and situations that are transported into a gallery setting. They use a dramatic form of visual expression to create feelings of absurdity and misinterpretation in the space and in viewer’s minds. The work lures viewers into a psychological state and experience. This mental and physical state becomes part of the completed work.
How do you live as an artist in today’s China? Do you make a living from your art?
I work and live like artists from other places. I began my artistic practice eight years ago and I had also worked as a news photographer for eight years. The income from that job allowed me to live and produce work. It also gave me a chance to examine the society from a close distance. I have only resigned from my job and became a freelancer recently. This might be a bit risky, but I enjoy this sense of freedom.
Wang Wei in conversation with Gerald Matt and Angela Stief on the occasion of the exhibition Foreign Objects at the project space Kunsthalle Wien in 2007.
Wang Wei, born in 1972 in Beijing, lives and works in Bejing.