As the Baha’i saying goes, “Love me (so) that I may love thee,” so you must visit an exhibition for yourself before you dare speak of it. So much of what people say of exhibitions whiffs of a mixture of advertising, bribery, intimidation, and subterfuge. But even so, the temptation to go and see an exhibition generally overcomes our apprehension, and we end up taking the risk. For example, if somebody were to ask me about “Relating,” my first response, which is the only responsible response, is something similar to the above: “You must go to the exhibition for yourself so that the exhibition may come to thee.”
Video work is an important, if comparatively young, layer in contemporary Chinese art, such that the works of some of its founding practitioners, artists like Wang Gongxin, Zhang Peili and Wang Jianwei, offer in their markedly different oeuvres adequate clues to the emergence and development of video art in China as well as the obstacles and skepticism it has faced. In this way, video art is unique in that the parties responsible for its beginning can still be found. Wang’s 1995 piece in which he dug a 3.5 meter-deep hole in his courtyard home and placed a television monitor inside it was the first truly contemporary work of Chinese video art. I believe that anybody who saw that piece, entitled The Sky over Brooklyn, would agree with me that its vision and power has yet to be outdone.
Critics have paid attention to that hole-digger and the poetics and tension he exhibited in his early video works ever since. If this attention is as sharp as the artist and his work, then somebody must have already articulated and stressed the idiosyncrasies of Wang Gongxin even more profoundly than I shall here: for Wang, acceptance of the medium of video goes alongside suspicion of it. This renders video art into an unresolved state of performance, taking on graphic art’s appearance and structure, and imbuing it with something beyond its characteristic set of restrictions, presentation methods, and sculptural possibilities. In a word, Wang’s video works end up feeling more like installations. He even goes so far as to extend his personal definition of some of his pieces to include the term “sculpture installations.” Wang takes the medium of video art and de-centers it, inverting the paradigm of moving image as core. Or rather, he offsets video art’s center of meaning, as a necessary counterpoint for finding a center of true expression. As the only solo exhibition the artist has had in nearly four years, “Relating” is a concentrated embodiment of this thought process. It is still video art, but not at all in an obvious way.
“Relating” is comprised of four works. The way I see it, the two core works, the very “text” of the exhibition, are Relating—It’s About Dream and Relating—It’s About Ya. No matter how one analyzes the other two (Relating—It’s Not About Death and Relating—It’s About Feelings ) they serve as mere footnotes to the text. These two core works must clearly dispel models of socialization and inclusivity; hence in Relating—It’s About Feelings, the confrontation between the hard and the soft, the gold-plated skull and the monitor, and so on. The “textual” relations of “Relating” represent the artist’s mental turnaround, affirming not only the need for art to accept its relation to and responsibility towards society, but also for it to continue to stand its own ground, even if only symbolically. But again, how can this be possible? I believe the majority of people who see the exhibition in person leave with impressions similar to my own: Wang Gongxin’s proficiency in and focus on new technology and the possibilities it presents provokes both disgust and disapproval among the more persistently Hegelian of his con- temporaries. The use of such technology, in particular in the nine-screen video of Relating—It’s About Ya and its unparalleled resemblance to installation art, takes viewers to dizzying heights with its exuberant tones and the confusion it rains on the ears.
This “installation” occupies only a portion of the second floor, but its effects resonate throughout the entire exhibition space, even somewhat overriding other works. It is difficult to express this phenomenon in writing. Lamentably I can only recreate the tiniest tip of the iceberg: nine rectangular projections are carefully and deliberately placed in one corner of the gallery. And to the same extent that it is awkward, it is in a sense effective, guaranteeing that unless the audience follows the artist’s expectations for spatial relations, they won’t be able to locate a comprehensive perspective amidst the rapid screen changes and perfectly executed movement of sight and sound. But if you insist on not following the perspective the artist has designed for you, all you will end up with is too much on your hands to deal with, bits of fragmented stimulation and chaotic jouissance. If you are there in person, you will understand why restraint can so often be foolish. As for the content of Relating—It’s About Ya, if I try to give a complete explanation, I think it both inappropriate and overly risky. I prefer to maintain that this exhibition constitutes a symbol of the manic collective unconscious of China at present.
Describing the piece at the first floor entrance, Relating—It’s About Dream, is an easier task: it consists of two hundred mp4 players, one hundred of which show faces in deep sleep, as well as what at first glance we can assume to be the one hundred objects these faces are dreaming of. Sounds of snoring continuously rise and fall, gradually changing in rhythm, while the faces themselves are sometimes blurry, sometimes clear. The objects, meanwhile, display alternately as negative and positive images. All of these mp4 players have been cleverly placed on five beds that hover in dimly lit space. Fittingly, everything leads to a conclusion that even the audience is easily allowed to make, namely that the artwork is faithful to its name: it is about dreaming. I would interpret the work as using pop psychology to get inside China and its subconscious, examining the general anxiety and absurdity of our time, realized in a typically de-centered Wang Gongxin fashion. As for how “Relating” came to be, how it was made possible, well, I can’t go any deeper than my explanation has up to now. As for the truth, if for some reason you cannot pass judgment on your own, then I’ll have to be the judge and pass this “pending issue” as philosophical praise for the so-called “video artist” Wang Gongxin. He Wenzhao