GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | OCTOBER 31, 2014 – FEBRUARY 16, 2015
Wang Jianwei is one of China’s most important conceptual artists investigating the themes of knowledge, society, and ideology. Born in 1958, he trained as a painter in the academic style of Russian Realism, and from the early 1990s moved to work in video, theater, and socially engaged projects. Wang’s major concern is epistemological: he views art not as a tool for personal expression via material manipulation, but as a structure of knowledge, a cognitive attitude that starts with materials but has to eventually transcend them. Time Temple is a convincing proposition for this kind of art practice. Its success lies, first of all, in the power of individual art works, their aesthetic and poetic potency produced by the artist’s skills, experience, and sheer manual labor—and then in the exhibition’s overall structure connecting the multiple works and ideas into a meaningful constellation. The result is a system of conceptual and emotive relationships, which resist any straightforward interpretation but open up new possibilities for understanding
Wang’s solo exhibition, consisting of several sculptures and paintings, a 55-minute-long film, and a piece-in-progress, which began with a live performance on the opening night and will culminate in the last week of the show with a new theater production, is carefully orchestrated in time and space. The multiple artworks have been made specifically for this exhibition, and despite the differences in form and style, they exist in a precarious equilibrium, like segments of a four-dimensional Chinese puzzle.
At the core of the show’s conceptual architecture is a densely packed gallery containing two paintings and a series of hand-crafted wooden sculptures; each work is also titled “Time Temple” (2014). Of the two paintings, one appears to be an abstract composition showing a bright yellow rectangular shape outlined in black, on an orange background; according to the wall text, the imagery represents a microscopic view of human skin. The other painting, although unquestionably figurative, is no less ambiguous. Painted in a photo-realist style with impressive economy and precision, the four-panel canvas depicts grave-looking men and women in official dark suits sitting around a long empty table, with three attendants standing nearby. Slightly away from the group, a man sits in a chair by himself, his hands on his knees, his whole posture tense and subdued. The room is lit with a harsh white light; the atmosphere is strange and slightly menacing. What at first glance seems a realistic depiction of a physical space on close inspection turns out to be a composite image made of four partially overlapping frames—some of the figures are doubled, others cropped. These ruptures are made more apparent by the variable thickness of the framework enclosing the individual panels. The painting’s fragmentation is echoed in the series of sculptures that take up the rest of the gallery. They are modular constructions sitting directly on the floor, their bulks built out of wood and a few selected details made in brass, steel, or rubber. With their geometric shapes and polished surfaces, the objects might be taken for pieces of extravagant modernist furniture, if not for the air of complete purposelessness and self-sufficiency they exude. They are arranged roughly along a straight line running diagonally across the gallery, with the tallest piece standing against the far wall—which makes them look like fragments of a tall obelisk or perhaps a monument of a roughly human shape, which had been toppled and broken apart.
Some keys to this mysterious installation might be found in Wang’s experimental film “The Morning Time Disappeared” (2014), screened daily at a vaguely significant hour of 1 p.m. The script, based on Franz Kafka’s famous short story, “Metamorphosis” (1915), is close to the original text except for some minor modifications: its action takes place in present-day China, and the protagonist’s body is transformed into a large fish instead of an insect. Multiple visual and symbolic links connect the film with various parts of the installation. The four-panel painting, although based on images from a different video, restages the film’s psychological drama: a tragic confrontation between a group and one of its former members, who is inexplicably singled out and set apart from the others to wait for their decision on his future fate. The other painting’s image of an epidermis is echoed in the film’s close-up shots of the protagonist’s human face and fish-like body. These and other parallels multiply and reinforce each other, weaving a flexible network of connections.
More clues to the overall meaning of the exhibition might be found in Wang’s elaborate opening-night performance. In this work, a number of people selected through an open call were gathered in the museum theater to expatiate on one of the topics selected by the artist such as “the universe”, “Frank Lloyd Wright”, or “Jorge Luis Borges.” They spoke simultaneously, and their voices were projected into the museum rotunda, where they mixed together and reverberated through the ascending tiers of the spiral ramp. The strange poetry of this piece was created thorough an elegant conflation of several concepts: the tower of Babel and its traditional image as a spiral-shaped construction, Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Guggenheim museum reproducing the same shape on the inside, the notion of a museum as a repository of culture, and Borges’s metaphor of “The Library of Babel” (1941)—the vision of the universe as a giant repository of texts, some of which contain all the conceivable information about the world, while billions of others are filled with pure gibberish. The performance will be used as a starting point for the upcoming theater production, “Spiral Ramp Library,” which is to be presented in the exhibit’s last week. As any architectural construction, Time Temple changes its appearance depending on the perspective from which it is observed, and will undoubtedly reshape itself somewhat when seen from this new aspect.
Wang is known as a cerebral artist with a strong interest in philosophy and literature. His publications and interviews are filled with references to many thinkers and writers, and his works contain allusions to diverse philosophical texts and ideas. It might be tempting to suppose that a careful exploration of these conceptual underpinnings might yield some kind of unequivocal meaning behind Wang’s works. This would be a false notion. As Wang Jianwei noted in his interview with Emily Wasik, “What I say cannot be used to interpret my work.” What he probably means is that the artist’s thoughts or conceits, and the various sources that might inspire his practice, cannot alone explain his art. Each artwork is a fragment of a new reality that comes about through an unaccountable metamorphosis of materials, processes, and ideas.