The Cracks in Pragmatism
-Wang Wei in conversation with Anthony Yung

Through his art, Wang Wei has always revealed his unique way of observing the
world. His works are insightfully concise, always relevant to reality and not at all influenced by popular trends. His works often transplant visual elements and spatial structures from reality to exhibition sites. By forcing them into the context of art, he alerts us to the ways in which we perceive daily space and scenery: artificially constructed spaces always involve people’s choices, whether conscious or unconscious, which go on to shape the way we see the world and life in ways we may not realise.

Anthony Yung: First of all, I would like discuss your understanding of the concept of an “artwork”. You graduated from the Fresco Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1996. Although you’ve told me that being a student of the Fresco Department was not that special, as what you were learning there was not so different from other painting majors, it is interesting to see perhaps a coincidence that your works in recent years have been concerned a lot with concepts of publicness and functionality, which are all important aspects of fresco art. You pay attention to the most ignored decorations in real life, such as the basic mosaic patterns of outer walls of unimportant buildings, low-cost decoration designs in restaurants, and murals in the backgrounds of animal enclosures in zoos.

When looking at the development of your practice, it’s not difficult to trace how you must have contemplated and handled the concept of an “artwork”. The first time you gained public attention was with your performative photography and installations, such as 1/30 sec. Underwater (pg. 90, 1999). Not long after this, you participated in the historically important exhibition series ‘Post-Sense Sensibility’, whose investigations were about the art of improvisation, process and site-specificity. And these investigations continued in your later works, the most well-known ones being Hypocritical Room (pg. 86, 2002) and Temporary Space (pg. 80, 2003). Most interestingly, although you use heavy architectural elements such as walls and bricks in these works, what you represented was, on the contrary, change and temporality and the actual ‘artwork’ of these pieces were processes and experiences instead of any physical objects. This is why I said that you have been continuing an exploration of ‘Post-Sense Sensibility’, only replacing the improvisation, absurdity and sensational excitements with a self-reflexivity that points to social realities. Since then, your ‘artworks’ have become more concise and more methodological, similar to social anthropology. Through your works, what you introduce is a method for observing reality. It is highly applicable in the sense that it allows us to use it to observe different aspects of everyday life.

Can you talk about this? How do you handle the concept of an ‘artwork’?

Wang Wei: In August 2012, I participated in a project called ‘Pulse Reaction’ organised by the Times Museum in Guangzhou. The project invited artists to form discussion panels and carry out forums in the museum’s exhibition hall. We were asked to raise three topics that were the most important to our practice, and by gathering and discussing these topics, the project attempted to thoroughly reveal the creative and intellectual conditions in Chinese art. I mention this because the three topics I raised at that time may respond to your questions. They were: 1) in-between abstract and figurative, in-between chance and certainty; 2) How to begin an artwork? How to become an artwork?; 3) the distance to reality.

Indeed, the relationship between ‘artwork’ and ‘reality’ is a core question in my
practice. In reality, I like to search for things that are artificial and unintentionally resemble an ‘artwork’. In an exhibition site, I try to create a kind of ‘reality’. By doing so, the boundary between ‘reality’ and ‘artwork’ is constantly being blurred and things become suspicious.

In some of my works, ‘ideas’ are almost diminished. Motifs and elements are presented in the exact same conditions as they are seen in reality. In doing so, I intend to put all my concentration into the choices I make – what familiar or unfamiliar subjects and objects do I choose to use in a work? And the emotional motivations behind these choices will also be slowly revealed. I want to create such a tension: what seems to be a cold and indifferent object, reflecting the traces and temperatures of human beings. This may be the ideal of an ‘artwork’ to me.

AY:You were born and raised in Beijing. This city must have greatly affected your observations and views on life and the world. For instance, your strong interest in history, urban space and architecture must be the result of being a Beijinger. Curator Carol Lu has rightly pointed out that temporality of architecture is a recurring theme in your works, and it is related to the experience of having lived in Beijing and witnessed all its changes in the last 30 years[1].

You live in the inner second ring road area, the very core of Beijing city. Here, there is a complex mixture of heritage from different periods of China – from ancient times (as Beijing has been the capital since the late 13th century) to the country’s immediate past (one can imagine what changes have been made since it became the capital city of Communist China and went through such political turmoil as the Cultural Revolution). The city’s uniqueness also comes from the fact that much of its historical architecture has been altered for today’s practical purposes. You’ve told me that you are especially interested in siheyuan (tradition courtyards) and how they were remade to become dazayuan, which refers to old courtyards that are occupied by many households. Families living in dazayuan are usually from the working class. They each have very limited private space, and thus have to invent ways to make the best use of shared public space. Such a unique urban phenomenon must be an important memory for artists who grew up in Beijing in the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, Song Dong made a piece that was dedicated to all the wise inventions and the brilliant installation art from dazayuan (Wisdom of the Poor, 2005-11).

Compared to Song Dong’s work, you seem to be concerned less with the novelty
of forms. You pay attention to those unconscious aesthetic decisions hidden behind functional purposes. Would you talk about the influence of Beijing on you, and how you make use of your passion and knowledge about history and architecture in your artistic practice?

WW: Elements related to urban change appear in my works: I use them as a creative resource. In fact, most places in China are still going through the process of drastic urbanisation. It is such an obvious issue that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, some of my earlier works, such as Temporary Space and Trap (pg. 76, 2004-05), were closely related to the topic of urbanisation, but I saw them more as metaphors for discussing the finiteness of human desire. Gradually, my concerns and methods of observation have evolved. In the more recent series Natural History (2009-present), my methodology has been reproducing an environment and recontextualising it. In some of my recent works, elements from the Beijing Zoo have repeatedly appeared because it is a place I frequently visit and a place I like to research. I always find new discoveries there. Some other resources I have used have been, for example, things that I’ve seen by chance during my travels. But behind all of these, what I am really interested in is something fundamental and universal. Perhaps it can be described as the fundamental nature of being human.

My interests in Beijing’s history and architecture were inspired by the writings of the scholar of historical geography Hou Renzhi, especially his essay ‘From Beijing to Washington — A Contemplation in the Concept of Municipal Planning’, which compares and analyses how the urban planning of Beijing and Washington represent two different political institutions. Most interestingly, the two cities were both built with a master plan — Beijing was built with a singular central axis, symbolising a strong imperial authority; Washington as the capital city of the United States was designed to show the political ideal of the separation of powers. This essay demonstrates how we can see and understand the relationship between urban planning and political ideology, between a city’s architectural arrangements and the nature of its ruling power. Hou Renzhi’s writings have opened my eyes. After reading his writings I found things that I was never aware of despite the fact that I have been living here for so many years. And looking back, the thinking introduced by Hou Renzhi has probably influenced my works, especially the Natural History series.
AY:To better understand your latest project realised at Edouard Malingue Gallery, I think we have to put it in the context of the Natural History series. You named this project Two Rooms, and it is the reproduction of the murals in the baboon house at the Beijing Zoo. The two paintings represent the same grassland, one during the daytime, another in the evening. I see this project as a continuation of the themes and methods of Natural History: you reproduce a scene from reality without adding anything to it, and move it into an exhibition space. Its new context highlights its paradox – although they are paintings, they don’t provide a focus; they don’t invite viewers to appreciate or even pay attention to their style, content or meaning as paintings. The awkwardness of the situation urges us to think about the environment from which these paintings came from, and the environment in which they are being presented now. And this is the project’s major purpose — to destabilise our perceptions of space and function and to challenge our well-established habits of seeing and thinking about art.

Natural History incarnates the core ideas of your recent practice, where complexity is actually interestingly included in the series’ title: your Natural History is actually a history of artificiality. What it concerns is all the people’s decisions. Meanwhile, we can also see these unconscious, unimportant decisions as the ‘Nature’ of human society, as they are so generic, intuitive and non-ideological. Can you talk about your thoughts on the Natural History series? How did its concepts and methods evolve? How will it develop?

Also, what makes Two Rooms at Edouard Malingue Gallery special? Why did you
choose to use this topic? What considerations have you made during the execution of the exhibition?
WW: In Natural History VI, which was realised at Observation Society, Guangzhou, I used murals from the Beijing Zoo. That’s why Two Rooms can easily be associated with the series. But in fact, it is more a continuation of another project, which is A Zoo, No Animals (pg. 70, 2007), because here I emphasise the reproduction of an environment and the reconstruction of a specific space. In a way, Natural History focuses more on decorations from daily reality and thinks about them in a more detached manner.

Two Rooms was an appropriation of two mural paintings at the baboon rooms of
Beijing Zoo, and I found them especially interesting because I saw them as what
the zoo mural painter unconsciously imagined and invented as an unknown faraway place. Two mural paintings appear in a gallery to create a multi-layered and absurd imagination of space. The heater and banana on the ground are also important elements, as I attempt to create an indiscernible, ambiguous spatial condition. Making this piece in Hong Kong is also to a certain extent responding to my perplexities about the current conflicts between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Natural History discusses the ways we can observe. It takes cases of aesthetic judgement to highlight the things that we tend to neglect because we take them for granted. The series continues to develop. Recently I tried to make use of some architectural structures. For example, in both Natural History VI (pg.46, 2013) at Observation Society and Panorama (pg. 42, 2014) done on the rooftop of the Times Museum, I made use of a ’panorama wall’, an element commonly used in theatrical stage design. Again, I tried to trigger a discussion about the ways we see, and it is about the disappearance of focus. I’d like to complicate the internal logic of the works by adding new aspects, but I always like to keep it very concise. Creating a specific atmosphere at the site is always the most crucial element.

AY: My last question is about how your ways of thinking and your art negotiate with the era and society in which you live. Your art career began in the 1990s, when you studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and where you started to make and exhibit your works. At that time, the dominating mission of China’s society was to develop economies and to improve the material life of the general public. The social philosophy then instructed people to act according to efficiency and actual payback instead of political principles. Making money and seeking material benefit were thus legitimate, rational and even moral. This was when you formulated your earliest artistic concepts — how did you respond to such a social atmosphere? In a highly pragmatic society, art always struggles to justify its value. But your art is precisely about people’s imaginations and aesthetic preferences, unconsciously reflected in the most realistic daily situations, and only through these can we get to a more subtle understanding of our humanity and society. In this sense, your art is about looking for the cracks of pragmatism in human society.

This is a broad question, but can you talk about the background from which you
formed your views and ideas about art and the world? What specific social situations do you respond to, and why did you decide to use art to deal with your

WW: My generation has indeed experienced the entire process of China’s shift from a planned economy to a market economy, although such a social transformation is still far from ending and has many uncertainties. I was the last year of students to receive a free education. And at the time, university education was elitist. There was a strong intellectual idealism. But the education of the art academy was very conservative. It was still strictly following the methods of socialist realism. Yet students were already very aware about how they had different beliefs in art to the academic authority. During my four years in the academy, my interests changed a lot. I was getting more and more interested in non-traditional ways of expression. Soon after graduation, I met artists like Liu Wei and Qiu Zhijie. We all participated in ‘Post-Sense Sensibility’ and the experience of working together as a collective then was very influential on me. We had a radical attitude and experimented with different possibilities to expand the boundaries of art. There was no art market. We all had to have a job to survive. Liu Wei and I were working at Beijing Youth Daily. But that was a time when art activities were radical and pure, and from today’s perspective it was still a very interesting time.

In my works, I constantly try to create a kind of real perplexity. And such perplexity is a symptom of our times. To face such a reality, we need a more human, artistic and wise way to find a solution. Therefore, what I attempt to do now is to represent and contemplate reality by an aesthetic of uncertainty and ambiguity. I think this can lead us to get closer to the core of ‘reality’.

[1] “In this work (Temporary Space), the hurried urban construction process happening beyond the
gallery walls was mimicked and condensed through an art happening, a series of documentary photographs
and a video within the gallery. It addressed the contradiction between the time and spatial
temporality of “building in order to demolish” and our general imagination of architecture, projecting
an absurd connection between temporality and eternity.” See “Playing With Space - Wang Wei’s Installations”
by Caorl Lu Yinghua, 2005.

- 對談王衛

王衛的藝術始終致力於呈現他獨特的世界觀;他的作品深思熟慮,與現實息息相關,不受流行風格的影響。他的作品往往將現成的視覺元素和空間結構移植到展示現場,將它們塞進藝術的文脈中,從而喚醒我們對日常空間和景觀的警覺性 -每一個由人建成的空間都涉及建造者許多有意識或無意識的選擇,而這些選擇則在不經意間影響我們對生活和世界的感知。


翁子健: 首先,我想討論你對「作品」這個概念的理解。你於1996年畢業於中央美術學院壁畫系。儘管你曾告訴我壁畫系的教學並無什麼特別,跟在其他繪畫專業學習的事情大同小異,但出於巧合,你近年創作中的公共性和實用性又與壁畫的性質十分吻合:你關注及轉化現實生活中一些毫不起眼的裝飾元素,如建築外牆上的馬賽克、餐廳中的廉價裝飾設計、動物園內的壁畫等等。
追溯你的創作歷程,不難看到關於「作品」概念的一條有趣的思考路徑:人們知道的你的最早作品,是一些有行為表演成份的攝影及裝置 《水下1/30秒》,( pg.90,1999年);不久後,你便參加了具重要歷史意義的「後感性」展覽系列,其探討重點是一種即興的、過程性的、現場創造及拆除的藝術體驗,這樣的探索在你後來的主要作品中有所延續,特別是《虛偽的空間》(pg.86,2002年)及《臨時空間》pg.80,2003年),有趣的是這些作品利用的是重型建築元素如牆及磚頭,表現的卻是它們的流動性和臨時性,只以過程和經驗而不以物質為最終產物,這就是為什麼我說它們延續了「後感性」的一些實驗,只是「後感性」中的即興、荒誕和感官刺激,變成了一種針對社會現實的反省。從此,你的「作品」就演變成一種類似社會人類學的研究方法,其特點是針對現實,具有簡便的通用性,可以在生活中無時無刻找到可以觀察的對象。


王衛: 2012年8月,廣州時代美術館組織過一個名為「脈衝反應」(Pulse Reaction)的項目,當時邀請了一些藝術家在美術館的展廳內做分組討論,每個人要先提交三個議題,希望以這樣一種方式對國內藝術家的創作與思想現狀做一個相對深入的了解。我當時提的三個議題,可能可以部分回應你的這個問題。我的三個議題是:一,抽像與具像之間,偶然與必然之間;二,如何開始一件作品?如何成為一件作品?三,與現實的距離。確實,「現實」與「作品」之間的關係可算是我創作中一個核心的語言。我喜歡在現實中去搜尋那些人為的、有意無意中带有「作品」痕迹的事物,而在展覽現場我又試圖去製造一種「現實」。面對這樣一個現場,「現實」與「作品」之間的界限變得異常模糊,現實也開始變得十分可疑。

翁子健: 你在北京出生和長大,我想這個城市對你觀察和思考事物的方式會很有影響。其中一種影響即體現在你對歷史、城市及建築的濃厚興趣。策展人盧迎華曾指出,你較早前的一些作品表現了一種建築的臨時性,這與過去三十年來居住並見證著北京城市的變遷有關係 。你住在二環內,這個地帶是真正的北京城,這裡混合著古代歷史(八百年的首都史)和現代歷史(自共產中國以來的種種政治文化運動)留下的痕跡,構成一個極之獨特的面貌。在北京,有很多具有深遠歷史價值的建築物,被改造成當下的用途。你就提過,你對四合院和大雜院特別感興趣,因為那兒很多草根階層的普通人為了盡量利用非常有限的空間,發明了很多實用和美學的辦法。這個獨特的城市現象一定對於成長在北京的藝術家帶來深厚的記憶,比如宋冬的《窮人的智慧》(2005-11年)就是他在大雜院找到的很多充滿智慧的發明,它們看來就是精彩的裝置藝術。

王衛: 在我的作品裡出現一些城市變遷的元素,更多是作為一個素材來使用的。中國的大多數地方也都還在一個城市化的過程當中,所以這是一個自然而然需要關注的問題。確實,我的幾件早期作品像《臨時空間》和《捕捉器》(pg. 76,2004-05年)都涉及到這方面內容,但更多還是在以一種隱喻的方式去討論「欲望的有限性」這個問題。但逐漸隨著作品關注角度的變化,在近期的《自然史》系列(2009年至今)更多是采用環境複製與情境轉移的方法,而一些作品中出現北京動物園的元素也剛好因為我生活在這個城市,去做實地研究就比較便利,而且也確實每次去動物園都會有一些新的發現。還很一些創作素材實際上就是來自旅行期間的偶然發現。我更關注的是在這些表像背後一些普遍意義上的、也就是更加本質的一些東西,或許可以說我關注的是人性的本質。


翁子健: 針對你這次在馬凌畫廊做的項目,我想應該將它放在你的《自然史》系列中討論。這次的作品命名為《兩間房間》,複製的是北京動物園中的狒狒居住的房間,它們的圖像是同一片草原,只是一個是白天,另一個是黃昏。我認為這個項目延續了《自然史》的主旨,即將來自現實中的某些景像,不添加元素地搬進了展覽的空間,經過重新安置文脈,它的悖論性在於:它雖然是兩幅畫,卻不提供讓人觀看的焦點,我們不需要去欣賞和考究畫的表現方法及內容奧妙,反而要去思考其本來所屬的環境,並從而想到這個空間本來的屬性。它的目的是動搖我們感知日常視覺和空間及首先體驗藝術的習以為常的方法。


也請你談談這次在馬凌畫廊實現的「兩個房間」的特殊性。為什麼選擇這個素材? 實施上涉及了怎樣的考慮?
王衛: 在2013年,我在觀察社實現了作品《自然史VI》,( pg.46, 2013 年) 其中就使用了動物園的風景壁畫,所以這次在馬凌畫廊實現的作品會容易令人聯想到《自然史》系列,但我覺得《兩個房間》更多是延續了2007年的《沒有動物的動物園》(pg.70) 那兩件作品中的一些想法,即在作品中更強調某個具體環境或地點的複製與轉移。而《自然史》系列則更加聚焦於日常現實中的裝飾物,作品也是以一種更加抽離的方式來呈現。


《自然史》系列討論的是觀看的方式,以一種審美的方式聚焦於現實中一些人們因習以為常而視而不見的東西。這個系列作品到目前一直在持續演變當中,目前也開始出現一些建築結構上的元素,像在觀察社的《自然史VI》和去年在廣州時代美術館樓頂上的做的《全景1》(pg. 42, 2014年),就開始出現「全景牆」這樣一個舞美設計中常用的置景概念,這還是一個關於觀看方式的討論,也 就是與「視點的消失」有關。總之,目前我希望在另一些層面上嘗試讓作品的內在關聯變得更加曲折一些,但又始終會用一種很直接的方式 - 我更喜歡用一種很直接的方式去表達,現場的氛圍還是至關重要的。
翁子健: 最後,我感興趣於你的思考方式和藝術與你所處的時代及社會之間的談判。你的藝術事業起始於九十年代,當時你在中央美術學院學習及開始創作藝術、參加展覽,當時中國社會的大目標在於推動經濟建設,改善國民的物質生活,其社會哲學指導人們以物質實效而非政治原則作為行動的綱領,這樣的話賺錢和考慮實際利益是合法、合理,甚至合乎道德的。在你的藝術理念的形成過程中,怎樣回應這樣的社會氛圍?在這麼一個以實效為先的社會中,藝術必須說明自己並非不切實際的,而你的實踐似乎恰恰是在以一種最現實的方法,找到人們不經意透露了他們的審美偏好與想像的地方,而通過關注這些地方,讓我們對社會和人的狀況達到更為細致的了解。這樣看來,我認為,你的藝術實踐似乎是在實用主義的時代精神中尋找縫隙。

王衛: 我們這一代人確實算是完整的經歷了中國社會從計劃經濟向市場經濟轉型的過程,當然這種社會轉型到現在也還在一個反復的過程當中,充滿了不確定因素。我屬於接受公費教育的最後一屆畢業生,而之前的大學教育實際上是一種精英化的教育模式,本身帶有極強的理想主義色彩,藝術在某種層面上還是一種很純粹的精神活動,只不過美術學院的氛圍太過保守,過度強調社會主義現實主義的創作方式,一些學生也很能意識到自己與學院教育之間在價值取向上的不同。在美術學院的四年學習過程中,我的興趣已經發生了轉移,我對非傳統的理念及表達方式更加感興趣。畢業後不久,我認識了刘韡、邱志傑等藝術家,其後參加了歷次《後感性》展覽活動,這種小組式的緊密工作在我早期的創作中起到了關鍵的引導作用,大家在一起更多是以一種激進的態度去嘗試各種拓展藝術邊界的可能。當時沒有藝術市場,我們幾個人也都以其他職業為生,像我和刘韡都在《北京青年報》工作,所以那段時期的創作既很激進又十分純粹,現在回看仍是十分有趣的一段時間。



[1] 他以藝術事件的方式,通過現場,攝影和錄影的紀實手法濃縮了超速度都市化的建設流程,再現了“建即是為了拆”所產生的時間和空間的臨時性與我們對於建築物所擁有的普遍期待背道而馳,臨時與永遠在此滋生出一種荒誕關係。
見「空間遊戲 — 王衛的空間裝置作品」,盧迎華,2005年。