Shang Yixin, Group, Suspended In the Air, 2011 Installation, dimensions variable

Strictly speaking, “Light Bending Onto The Retina” is not a research or creativity-driven exhibition. But it is also not the sort of exhibition that we often see, those that conduct autonomous conversations with themselves. Rather, the exhibition is concerned with the audience, instilling inspiration at the visual level. The curator has chosen “light” as the theme, borrowing the epiphany from Einstein’s theory of relativity that “light bends around massive objects.” In this exhibition, “light” clearly reveals itself from within concrete contemporary art works. According to the study of physics and physiology, material light does not actually bend around the human retina, but within the scope of visual art, where light is understood as both signifier and signified, it is not only the external condition necessary for sight but also an essential component of participation in artistic conception and form. Thus, the “bending” referred to in the exhibition title is a poetic statement, professed with regard to the relationship between art and sight. In reality, this relationship is linked directly to our inherent ability to perceive, process, and feel an artwork. The curator seems to be intentionally reminding us of the phenomenological significance inherent in observing and experiencing contemporary art.

Perhaps precisely because of this, the works in this exhibition are even more like an example drawn in response to the theme, as opposed to an active probing of the experimental boundaries of “light.” This aside, “Light Bending on the Retina” is structurally clear as an exhibition. The exhibition hall is divided in two parts by Wang Nide’s installation work 55 x 18%. To the left are installation works by Shang Yixin, Xu Qu, and Jiang Ji’an; to the right are Chen Wenbo’s paintings and Jiang Zhi’s “Elegy” photography series. The obvious difference between the two sections makes the curatorial intent plainly visible. The left side takes light as a signifier, while the right side takes light as the signified. In other words, we can see light that is material in nature from the front, and light as a reproduction of concept from the back.

Though the works occupy the same exhibition space, the range of light-based experiences they afford the audience is extremely diverse. For instance, while Shang Yixin’s Group, Suspended in the Air and Jiang Ji’an’s Two Rooms both focus on the interplay between light and shadow, Shang Yixin’s work produces the sensation of immersion: a stone matrix fixed to the wall is exposed under two rotating bulbs; the shadows of the rocks move slowly, overlapping, with changes in light and shadow resulting in something just short of hypnotic. Jiang Zhi’s Two Rooms has the opposite effect, constantly jolting the eyes of the audience: in a room illuminated by shadowless lamps, Jiang sketches out shadows that are not actually being cast, fabricating a space that approximates reality but abounds with absurdity. The audience must constantly adjust its eyes, correcting for the “light and shadow” in an endless attempt to resume the normal activities of perception.

Meanwhile, Jiang Zhi’s “Elegy” series is a narrative of light. Light is a constant in Jiang Zhi’s photographic practice; he often uses it as a metaphor for the divine, for power, for brutality. But in his “Elegy” series, the hard light of past works is converted into nylon and fishing hooks— tactile “light”— piercing and tearing apart the “sacrificial offerings” featured in his photographs. Similarly, the light in Chen Wenbo’s paintings is an endlessly repeated visual reference. The light he paints— a beam of high light, as if formed by reflection or refraction through a small hole— dispenses a kind of cold materiality. In comparison to the light in Jiang Zhi’s works, Chen Wenbo’s has a certain transience to it. If the works of these two artists were narratives for the realities of Chinese society, then Chen Wenbo’s work would be a more of a wanderer in a big city.

Zhang Liaoyuan A4 and A4 and A4 2012 Installation, dimensions variable

Opening at the same time as this Shanghai exhibition is “La Chambre Claire” at Taikang Space in Beijing. Both exhibitions are designed according to similar example-based approaches. These are works that reflect upon photography by calling upon the experience of it without making use of the photographic medium itself. For instance, in Liu Wei’s installation series “As Long As I See It,” begun in 2006, the artist uses a Polaroid to take snapshots of objects, and then cuts away parts of the original objects to match the view presented in the photograph. Although the exhibition’s curatorial concept starts with a change in perspective with regard to visual form, the shape of the overall exhibition ultimately transcends a portrayal of the formal experience of the photographic medium, shifting into a broader and more ambiguous conceptual experiment. It is precisely this quality that resembles the non-technical (non-darkroom) language of Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire. If our understanding of “photography” now constitutes a “studium,” then there is a unique kind of “punctum” in the eye of each artist.

Wang Yuyang’s Let There Be Light is an interactive installation; a large, pitch-dark room is the artist’s parody of the camera. As the audience enters, a point of light appears on the wall. When they draw near, they set off the mechanism and a high-frequency drop-shutter fires off; a camera at eye level on the far wall has begun to shoot. As the ray of light goes through the lens into the room, it is as if viewers’ eyes have become light-sensitive film. Though the audience may not recognize the information hidden in the rhythm of shutter clicks (binary code for “And God said, Let there be light,”) the sound itself evokes the excitement and sense of satisfaction unique to photography. Another installation piece in the exhibition has an even more playful connection to photography: Liu Chuang has framed an entire context, constructing the process of “adjusting the projector.” The surface area of a blue square of light from a projector’s would-be “default” setting goes from big to small and back, never able to settle on just one point. This sense of endless process and preparation forms a startling juxtaposition with the decisive nature of photography; Liu’s piece brings to our attention the ritualized “freeze frame” of the exhibition system. Next, Zhang Liaoyuan’s A4 and A4 and A4 presents a landscape of “photo portraits.” The artist has purchased different brands of A4 printer paper in bulk, encased in same-sized packaging boxes, and stacked them all together. Although there is only blank white paper inside the boxes, the external packaging from each manufacturer bears a spectrum of advertisements and colors, such that every single A4 brand gets its own unique “headshot.”

With regard to curatorial direction, “Light Bending Onto The Retina” and “La Chambre Claire” are in search of completely opposite things, yet both think in terms of the experience of vision. Whether we approach the exhibitions as mere viewers, or through that which is internal to artistic practice, when it comes to contemporary art, “sight” itself is not often posed as an issue worth exploration or experimentation. Perhaps this is because, up against swarms of conceptual and surreal texts, the idea seems basic or elemental. But if it is underestimated or ignored, then where do the internal dynamics of art come from? Sun Dongdong (Translated by Katy Pinke)