Wang Wei: Borrowing from Reality
By Pauline J. Yao, June, 2012


About a month ago I found myself on car trip outside Beijing with artist Wang Wei and a few other friends. Winding through the roads north of Huairou headed to a small mountain village, we cruised past the usual assorted scenery: recreational spots, farmland, one-story dwellings and streetside vendors hawking everything from fruit to carved wood sculptures. Down a woodsy lane, Wang Wei suddenly pointed out the window at a roadside vendor’s display of blue-and-white ceramics and said, “Look, it’s Ai Weiwei’s artwork!” I glanced to my right and saw an assortment of blue-and-white porcelains spread out by the side of the road and immediately recognized the resemblance—each vessel had been placed in neat, equidistant rows with generous space in between. If the backdrop were not a small patch of dirt and some shrubs the twenty-odd vases could easily pass as a knock-off of Ai’s Ghost Gu Coming Down The Mountain, 2005. A short while later we passed a building with a door opening that had been sealed up with bricks to prevent access and I commented that it resembled Wang Peng’s artwork (Wall, 1993). By this point all of us were looking out the window with fresh eyes, noticing objects or forms in this countryside village that we had previously seen in a gallery or museum, and what's more, even some ordinary items that looked like they could end up in a gallery someday. I began wondering what this mindset was about—what exactly was the difference between these “found artworks” and those self-consciously constructed ones that we regularly encountered in the context of the art world? What was it that allowed us to see or not see certain items as works of art?

These questions and others are aptly addressed in the work of Beijing-based artist Wang Wei. From zoos to historical residences, Wang’s recent installations are mindful appropriations of existing spaces, visual elements and three-dimensional settings he finds in his own surroundings. These already existing forms were never intended to be art but for Wang they bear particular visual, social or aesthetic value that he deems worth borrowing and reproducing, and in enlarging and adapting these existing forms to a gallery setting, he creates new forms of meaning and possibility. His process annexes these objects’ aesthetic properties in ways that conjure a sense of dislocation and, occasionally, discomfort in the viewer. Appropriation is nothing if not an active, engaged and motivated cause that demands attention to the situational and historical, but as Wang’s work demonstrates, borrowing or taking something as one’s own use simultaneously strips away context and invests new layers of meaning and areas for self-reflection. However, one should be careful here to avoid seeing Wang’s practice under the simple rubric of exploring relationships between art and life. Such views often align art with fiction and life with reality while Wang’s investigations are realignments that situate the artifice and veracity of life as art. Although he is interested in the decontextualized space of the art gallery or “white cube” art space, his transferal of everyday items into this exclusive space is not a Duchampian gesture aimed at discussing the de-skilling of the artist, or the power of selection which positions the unassisted readymade as a commercially manufactured object of everyday life that is transformed completely via placement in a gallery or exhibition context. Instead Wang’s tend towards architectural elements rather than images or individual objects, and are particularly concerned with forms and settings that exhibit the presence of human design, however conscious or unconscious it may be. Like the perfectly stacked arrangement of wood logs, or a bunch of colorful baskets cascading out of the back of a truck onto a patch of dirt—what unites these “found artworks” is their aesthetic value that signals involvement of the human hand. The notion of “found artworks” in itself may be seen as a misnomer, that is, if one subscribes to the idea that objects derive their status as artworks from being framed in the context of the art world as authored, unique, commodifiable objects intended for display and commercial exchange. It is therefore Wang’s interest to point out that natural forms of artifice surround us every day—it is merely a question of when we might happen upon them, and if we do, whether or not we are trained to see them.
Wang Wei’s artistic practice emerges from this set of chance occurrences and accidental moments of inspiration. Attuned to human relationships with the built environment, his installations encourage audience participation, often in the form of direct physical contact. Recent forays into appropriating readymade forms from zoos, historical sites, restaurants and vernacular architecture in southern China all came about more or less by chance through travels or random encounters. In this sense his working method belongs to the intuitive sphere rather than one overly concerned with political ideologies or lofty intellectual frameworks. He prefers instead to attack what is immediately in front of him—a site, location, cultural or historical element—and finds ways to engage and solicit certain reactions within the viewing public. Lifting certain elements from so-called reality and transplanting them into the timeless, locationless setting of the art gallery with only minor modifications to scale, material and appearance, Wang brings attention to a compounded fiction: naturally occurring forms of artifice transplanted within an already artificial space of the art gallery.

That questions of space, viewer interaction, sensory perception and a heightened awareness of three-dimensional space are a consistent feature of Wang Wei’s work is of little surprise, given his experiences as a member of the Post Sense Sensibility group of artists active in the late 1990s early 2000s. Following his graduation from the Fresco Painting Department (壁画系) of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1996, Wang Wei soon fell in with the ragtag group of artists (and curators) and took part in many of the group’s early shows while working concurrently as a freelance photographer for the Beijing Youth Daily Newspaper. The Post-Sense Sensibility shows were a series of self-organised underground exhibitions characterised by radical, DIY-style tactics and unrehearsed, sometimes shocking, forms of experimentation. With their short time frame – anywhere from two days to two weeks – and ad hoc spirit, these exhibitions more closely resembled activities or performative events rather than affairs of static display. Artists who took part were not concerned with challenging ideologies or producing veiled political statements; rather they aimed to carve out an autonomous space in which they could explore the immediacy of their own actions and solicit charged reactions to on-site conditions and limitations.

Perhaps as a result of this varied background, photography has always played a crucial role in Wang Wei’s artistic process, intricately tied to how he deals with space and on-site conditions. His contribution to the “Post Sense-Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion” exhibition in 1999 was a photographic installation entitled《水下1/30秒》1/30 Sec. Underwater. The set of color transparencies inserted into floormounted lightboxes were arranged in a darkened passageway at the entrance of the exhibition. In order to enter the exhibition, viewers had to walk through the corridor and across the lightboxes, their feet pressing upon a series of close-up images of young men and women trapped underwater. The careful positioning of the work inside the compressed, darkened corridor and depiction of large-scale faces appearing to be gasping for air creates an illusion whereby the viewers’ feet pressing against the glass adds a sense of heightened drama and claustrophobia. In contrast,《虚伪的空间》Hypocritical Room, 2002 offers the reverse, moving from an illusion of confinement to an illusion of expansive, empty space. The work again uses visual trickery with photography, but this time involves enlarged 360 degree photographs of the empty exhibition space enlarged and mounted onto a four-sided steel box frame attached to the floor with wheels. During the exhibition period, the giant room-sized square lightbox was pushed around the exhibition hall by four anonymous individuals, creating an illusion of extra space or mirrored space. These experiments represent Wang’s sustained investigation into space—constructed space, obstructed space, replicated space, constrained space—and the intangible dimensions of human sensory perception.

Photography continued to play a key role in Wang’s work and artistic process, most notably in the combined performance and documentary work Temporary Space, 2003which took place in the former Long March 25000 Cultural Transmission Center in 798. Taking place over the course of seventeen days the work was part public attraction and part willful obstruction of the exhibition space. The artist enlisted the help of ten migrant workers known as “brickmongers” in Beijing whose livelihood is comprised of collecting bricks from demolished sites and reselling them to new construction projects. Using 20,000 recycled bricks, the workers erected a square room inside the gallery space measuring a hundred square meters (100sqm) with walls measuring four meters tall. Slightly smaller than the existing gallery space, Wang’s structure left a narrow passageway around the perimeter just wide enough for one person to pass safely. A few days after being completed, the structure was torn down and the bricks were taken away and re-sold, completing the cycle. The entire process was documented with a set of twelve photographs which were mounted sequentially as each phase of the work was completed. In a subversive gesture that points to the time-based nature of the work and its opposing poles of construction and destruction, presence and absence, the entire set of photographs were only visible when the building itself was gone.

If Temporary Space represents Wang’s productive intertwining of photographic documentation and performative event, then his later installations work consciously to further undermine a sense of permanence by choosing certain materials that themselves are temporary. Continuing with the rhythms of constructing and dismantling as a form of ephemerality, in a set of later works Wang chose the material of metal scaffolding to create open-air pavilions in the style of traditional Chinese gardens. These《脚手架园林》Scaffolding Gardens are predicated on temporariness but also borrowed materials and borrowed space—at the conclusion of the exhibition the work can be disassembled and returned to the scaffolding rental company. For each exhibition project he encounters, Wang adapts new techniques, methodologies and materials to suit his conceptual plan. Photography plays a consistent role—inspiration often comes to Wang after studying his own photographs of various sites and settings—but his working method that actively disavows reliance upon a certain set of materials, preferring instead to be adaptable to a given space. His work fits the classic definition of an installation artist, which is to say, in Boris Groy’s words: there is no traditional material support like canvas, stone or film; instead the installation medium is space itself.

In 2007 Wang began a series of works inspired by the Beijing Zoo. Wang visited the Zoo in Beijing for other reasons but later was intrigued by the wall designs in the animal enclosures, particularly those in the crocodile and monkey houses. It was unclear if these decorations were intended for humans or for the animals themselves, perhaps, Wang thought, they were used to fool animals into thinking they were in the wild and not in captivity. His fascination for the simulated environments and decorative elements of the zoo led to his own form of imitation: the installation A Zoo, No Animals, 2007《没有动物的动物园》which recreated “natural” animal habitats within the space of the art gallery. Based upon actual animal cages, the installation uses tree branches, rocks, and various foliage to mimic these already highly constructed yet “natural” environments, including the same exact text descriptions from the original sign in lightboxes but with  all reference to the animals removed. Viewers were left with an ambiguous space that is neither zoo (no animals) nor actual habitat (vegetation appeared similar but was not exactly the same). In the case of the Long March Space installation, Wang chose to reproduce the habitats of nocturnal animals in a winding corridor that forced viewers to pass through at the entrance of the exhibition, creating a feeling of impending danger about what unseen animals might be lurking in the darkness.

The immersive environments Wang creates form a special type of appropriation that is reliant upon architectural space than pictorial image, contextual and historical fact than illusion. The settings he has chosen, when enlarged to fill the gallery space, become spatial worlds that visitors can enter and experience fully. His《故居》Historic Residence, 2009 is perhaps the most fitting example of Benjamin’s take on appropriation, which he frames as a transition from “cult value to exhibition value”. Here Wang faithfully reproduces—in exaggerated proportions—the private bathing quarters of Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing. Lifted from the couple’s seldom-used retreat in Shaoshan Dishuidong Hunan Province, the oversized rooms bifurcated the gallery space of Space Station into two side-by-side tile covered chambers. The original 1950s-60s architectural details are reproduced in every detail—porcelain bathtubs, sinks, cabinets, mosaic floor tiles and even glass light fixtures, and save for the dramatically scaled up dimensions of the rooms, they are near exact replicas of the twin bathrooms occupying the residence (now converted to a public museum). Traces of political inclination, the passage of time, and personal attributes are all embedded in the retro-styled color scheme: regal yellow for the Stately leader and apple green for the leading lady whose stage name contained the word “apple”. Accompanying the installation is a soundtrack with two voices repeating lines from the tour guide explaining the significance of the two colors. The sound element of the work may be easily overlooked but it is here that Wang’s clear interest in the symbolic significance of the colors, not to mention the absurd grandeur allocated to these private spaces, becomes apparent.

The modernist invention of the white cube exhibition space has received its fair share of criticism. As many critics have pointed out, the white walls and pristine floors is far from a neutral space, in fact it exudes many qualities: exclusivity, but isolation, commercialism and a sense of singular superiority. But most importantly the white cube signals a process of decontextualization, whereby the timeless, history-less environment severs art from its relationship to reality and transforms items into rarefied objects of elite status. Oddly enough, it is exactly this decontextualizing process that Wang Wei thrives upon. His installations make emphatic use of the white walls and hermetic power of the white cube to alter his chosen forms into “works of art” regardless of their origin. In doing so, the artifice, absurd logic or symbolic value contained within these preexisting forms are given new artistic license by virtue of their removal and re-positioning in a gallery space. Whether its engaging the services of bricklayers, erecting scaffolding or reproducing architectural spaces borrowed from distant locales, Wang aims not only to draw attention to our physical awareness of space, but to highlight the double fictions and absurd realities that reside within our daily surroundings. His selections, once modified and transplanted into the gallery, can act as powerful vectors for self-examination and reflection of hidden truths, or, as in the case of the mirror-covered Propaganda Pavilion, 2011《宣传栏》, as exemplary moments where our own reality is reflected back to us in mute form. It is through these oblique views on reality and borrowed forms that we can see the true nature of art—as a category that lends itself equally to the painstakingly crafted and the serendipitously ordinary.


王卫:借现实  Wang Wei: Borrowing from Reality

文:姚嘉善  Pauline J .Yao

大概一个月前,我跟艺术家王卫和其他几个朋友一块儿驱车出北京。汽车沿着怀柔北边通往山村的公路上盘旋,两边的风景照例杂乱无章:度假村、农田、平房、卖水果或木雕等各式物品的路边摊。开过一段两边都是树林的小路时,王卫突然指着车窗外一个兜售青花瓷器的小摊说:“看,艾未未的作品!”我转头往右一看,发现路边摆了一地青花瓷器。我立刻辨认出两者间的相似处——等距摆放的瓷器方阵,彼此间隔很大。如果背景不是土地和灌木丛,这二十几个花瓶还真容易被人当成艾未未《鬼谷下山》(2005)的山寨版。又过了一会儿,我们路过一座废弃的 房子,看到敞开的大门被砖头封得严严实实,我说这好像王蓬的作品(《墙》,1993)。这时候,我们所有人都开始用一种全新的眼光观察起窗外的景色,在这个山村里发现了各种以前在画廊或美术馆见过的物品和形式,甚至包括另一些看上去将来某天可能进入画廊展厅的日常用品。我忍不住想,这到底是一种什么样的思维模式——这些“现成艺术品”和那些我们在艺术界语境下经常看到的、被人有意建构起来的艺术品之间到底存在什么样的差异?是什么让我们认为某些东西是艺术品,而另一些不是?