Time – Theatre – Exhibition, 2009. Performance view, Today Art Museum, Beijing, 2009.

I choose to think of the events that occurred within Wang Jianwei’s recently completed “Time – Theatre- Exhibition” at Today Art Museum as “site as situation.” Or perhaps regarding them as “situation as site” serves best in this short review, carrying out the dual functions of being a work and of showing a work. This implies a combination of practice and time—two words that sound similar in Chinese to “events.” Wang excels at the deft use of multimedia across forms as well as in effectively and expertly controlling the relationship between them, thus exemplifying the combination of practice and time. Ultimately, Wang uses these techniques to construct further obstacles: How can an audience member come closer to knowing the situation to which he has been subjected? Without the help of an explanatory text, what happens once he has the clear drama, careful composition and coherence of performance? Perhaps it should be called a strange, fragmentary and synchronic site of exhibition.

Intriguingly, isn’t this just what Wang hopes for—that the audience should arrive at a place that is “the best position reached under a natural state?” According to Wang’s own interpretation, a “natural state” is not shutting out standards of knowledge, concepts or language in order to return to a beginning; rather it is a temporary escape from these bounds, preserving the mutual pull between the explanatory text and the site as the work demands to be established as “another possibility.”

The audience enters the site prepared to experience the event under the potential restrictions of a named, existing framework; the audience uses its previous knowledge and experience of this kind of event to make “reality” appear on stage. As a counterpoint, people will also give shape to a site that transcends this nominal “accuracy” in a position that could be called experimental. Clearly, Wang Jianwei does not mind building his experiment with these simple methods. Therefore, in outlining the preset conditions for this “situation as site,” what we most need to investigate is just how Wang attempts to provide the audience with an alternate possibility for viewing. But achieving this possibility leaves me perplexed—is Wang Jianwei the creator of this work and exhibition? The organizer? The annotator? Yet another set of impossibilities.

Time – Theatre – Exhibition, 2009. Performance view, Today Art Museum, Beijing, 2009

In a change from Wang’s previous theater pieces, “exhibition” is clearly embedded into the title of this performance. Perhaps then we should call this “situation as site” a meta-exhibition. Understood in this way, the performers present the means of creating an exhibition to the audience and the work rather than exhibiting the work itself. The audience then uses this mechanism (exhibition) to address and make use of the work. The “fixed gaze” that Wang writes about in his written introduction to the show is not only a metaphor for the visual mechanism turning to subjectivity, and “narrative” is also not only a shift toward rewriting a history composed of myth. Out of Wang’s complex, multiple and layered exhibition we are reminded of a few limited “portents.” They are a series of (im)possibilities that can be repeatedly explained and accepted in order to gain a loose Brechtian grasp on this “situation as site.”

The objects most resembling installation art in this event are a few “old” tables and cabinets, held together and supported by a moving scaffold. Their individual boundaries are still distinct on the smooth and level surface they present. In a prior exhibition of Wang’s there was something similar, a large scale, vertically oriented assemblage overflowing to the brim and standing in a central courtyard space. And when this assemblage is pushed onto the stage by the contrasting, brightly dressed performers, is it a prop in a play? Or an installation in this exhibition? Or, do the two visual fields contained within the assemblage’s visible “age”—that of historical, textual identification and that of them as objects existing within time—reveal the coinciding of the conceptual and the practical, installation and design?

A tiny crumpled receipt is blown up and projected as a static image in the video playing in the background, its visual presentation direct. Gradually unfolding on both sides, unrolling like a scroll, is this receipt simply a de-familiarized or absurdist setting? Can the viewers themselves make a determined visual choice among the performers making dance-like movements, the stage lights from different angles carefully fragmenting their figures before the video playing in the background? It is nearly impossible to obtain a sense of place or atmosphere. Is it only under the focus of the beams of light, impossible to look at directly, that a disjointed appearance is spun into a sense of reality?

Time – Theatre – Exhibition, 2009. Performance view, Today Art Museum, Beijing, 2009.

After the performance begins, the mirrored cabinet that appears hanging at the top of the performance space is not only an object to be viewed but looks as if it has come alive through movement. But its animation is controlled, and when people cannot help but look up at it, doesn’t it constitute a kind of mutual gaze between the audience and object, both facing the same set of circumstances? A cabinet with an Alberti-esque viewing window fixed to one side is pushed toward the center of the stage, then rotated ninety degrees from its original position, as if showing it off before the magic trick. Is this the “moment” when the viewer, previously viewing the scene from the angle of the artist Dürer, accesses the view of the “painter” depicted in Dürer’s famous etching? If so then does all the reorganizing that occurs in our recounting of this “site as situation” represent Wang’s so-called “regression of viewing?”

At least we ceaselessly question, taking in these scenes and objects to create an internal dialogue that advances their relationship to the outside world. To a certain extent, Wang as an artist puts himself on the same level as a spectator. He too hopes to enter the theater as the diverse media of the exhibition site abolishes the original content of the piece and establishes a new set of connections.

Put another way, the coexistence of creative methods and viewing methods is not only visual for Wang. When another cabinet again returns to the vanishing point of our normal sightline, it comes alive and then suddenly explodes open in a fashion similar to the opening. This is a very restrained performance that does not pursue spectacular visual effects. At the end of the performance, Wang the annotator does not wish to provide any final answer or make the audience linger at a metaphorical, substantial destination. Just as Wang says: “Don’t make the work interesting, but don’t make it uninteresting, don’t make it very beautiful, but don’t make it ugly”—here we have to add one more line, between “site as situation” and “situation as site”—Wang the artist, “from start to finish, goes for the equivocal.”      Wang Jiahao