Wang Tuo

Wang Tuo on the emotional architecture of his video works

Wang Tuo, Distorting Words, 2019, three-channel 4K video, color, sound, 24 minutes 38 seconds.

Wang Tuo’s art is often likened to a maze, and rightly so. His multimedia works map the paths of lives both real and hallucinatory, branching into absurdist dramas that, through their sinuous timelinese and deeply felt politics, end up at new places to begin. The five videos viewable in Wang Tuo’s current online exhibition at White Space, Beijing, thrust a cast of characters into specific historical situations while placing history itself into an unorthodox narrative structure. Here, Wang Tuo outlines his recent work and upcoming plans. “Standing at the Crossroads” opened online on April 30 and continues through June 6, 2020.

MY CURRENT SHOW takes its title from a letter that the modernist poet and critic Lu Xun wrote in 1925 addressing the young people of China; although it appears to refer to our crisscrossed, contradictory present, I prefer to see it as a word of advice for artists and other creative minds alike. The “crossroads” to which Lu refers don’t mean the wrong paths, merely divergent ones. Crossroads signal a kind of choice. I hope to stand at these crossroads without forming hasty judgments about my surroundings, and to look at things alongside the course of time—to observe the objects of my gaze with a certain distance, with room both to go left and right, and to think a while longer.

Early on in my career, I did performance art. We usually think of performance as having to do with exploring the boundaries of the body. For me, performance is a kind of action, a process involving manipulation; the object or material of this manipulation might be the body, or an archive, an event, a person’s experience or memory. Action is the essence of performance, and that’s why I see this sense of performativity as the internal driving force of all my artworks.

When I lived for a few years in the United States, I developed an interest in Pearl S. Buck, in her private life as well as her career as a novelist, because her complex identity and situation as an American writer in China served as a useful reference for my life in the states. Based on Buck’s novel Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969)—her one work to be banned in China due to the story’s Cultural Revolution background—I produced the video Meditation on Disappointing Reading, 2016, intended to serve as an origin point for historical memory. In the work, I juxtapose the relationship between humans and ghosts with that between people and archival materials. In Meditation, Madame Liang’s daughters have forgotten how to prepare their late mother’s favorite dishes. After they fill a bowl with rice and pour a glass of alcohol, her spirit arrives, though they can’t see each other. As in Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting, 2019, I often dwell on intimate familial or social bonds, emotional relationships that become channels for passing on trauma. After returning to China in 2017, I slowly felt that my practice had brushed up against an object of inquiry so complex that I no longer began to search for answers. What matters to me is finding unexpected elements of emotion below the foundation of rationality.

Wang Tuo, Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting, 2019 single-channel 4K video, color, sound, 26 minutes 15 seconds.

After making my video Spiral, 2018, about otaku culture and urban planning, I tried to think through the question of how people might disappear within a building—a disappearance of body and spirit both. In Obsessions, 2019, the architecturally minded project that followed, the grand, socialist buildings of the Fusuijing Mansions—located in Beijing’s Xicheng District, which once represented the ideal way of living—become haunted houses. The popular collectivist fantasies of yore belong to a period of history that has been forgotten, even suppressed. The dialogue in Obsessions occurs between an architect and a therapist. The therapist hypnotizes the architect, and impels him to imagine himself as a building, thus beginning an exploration of one’s psychological blueprint. We see each floor of the building that is him; mental structures are replaced by physical structures.

I started my “Northeast Project” in 2018: Smoke and Fire, Distorting Words, and two other video works in progress will form a cohesive work in which Northern China’s shamanist roots play a hidden but significant role. I value shamanism not merely for archeological ends, nor as a kind of primitive religion, but rather as a kind of medium or prismatic tool. Repeated visits to my home in Northeast China over the past few years have offered me new insights. There, you can see how the logical and illogical coexist, how the contemporary blends with the “primitive.” Distorting Words has to do with a year I spent investigating Harbin—a Chinese city close to Russia—as well as my observation of a well-known, controversial homicide that occurred in 2018, in which a young man waited twelve years before killing three people to avenge his murdered mother. These are the sorts of things that will, perhaps without me knowing it at the time, inform my performances. Many of the questions I pursue are interrelated, and the complex structures that form between them might stand in for my understanding of the chaos of reality.

Translated from Chinese by Qing Zhang.