Wang Jianwei

Zendai Museum of Modern Art | 证大现代艺术馆

It is unsurprising that Wang Jianwei’s epic solo show at Zendai moma, “Hostage,” was inspired by a reading of the works of Pierre Bourdieu. Like Bourdieu, whose “theory of practice” was grounded in empirical data, Wang might also be considered a cultural sociologist of sorts, basing his theories and art on firsthand study. In his 1995 film Production, Wang’s fly-on-the-wall observations of the flow of information among the patrons of a traditional Sichuan teahouse could be read as an endeavor more ethnographic than artistic. The same could be said of Living Elsewhere, Wang’s 1998 video documenting the lives of migrant workers as they squatted in the concrete shells of Western-style villas—a construction project gone bankrupt—on the outskirts of Chengdu. In his latest solo show, based loosely on his communal farming experience during the Cultural Revolution, the artist posed the question: Are we hostage to our systems of knowledge and history?

“Hostage” consisted of four disparate parts that occupied the entire museum. On the lower level, an ensemble of goofy sculptures, their aesthetic cues taken from a wide range of industrial to sci-fi sources, basked in theatrical spotlights. The centerpiece, General Report, 2008, was a long, multicolored mess of plumbing pipes, dials, and irrigation machinery that spewed what looked like a gooey white substance. This ambiguous polyurethane blob has made reoccurring appearances in Wang’s recent sculptural work, and like the machinery parts below, it evokes the abject underside of a burgeoning materialistic culture. In my recent conversation with the artist, he stated that the equipment he used to compose the form hasn’t changed since he worked with it thirty years ago on a farming commune. The implication was that while technology and modernization have done much for China, the culture still remains benighted by agricultural backwardness.

The second floor of the museum was dominated by the film installation Money, 2007. Using an image from China’s 1965 renminbi banknote as a point of departure, the artist produced an intense thirty-two-minute, high-definition work that reconstructs the daily life of a Cultural Revolution–era commune. On a spartan sound stage flanked by leafless trees and a surrounding wall of red brick, up to sixty actors at a time perform their daily activities without speaking. They exercise, read, get dressed, work with machinery, conduct meetings, and so on. The action is choreographed so that what is happening, what has just happened, and what will happen are experienced simultaneously, without sequence or spatial division. Occasionally the actors freeze, allowing the camera to pan around a significant action. But it is the ominous outer wall that provides the symbolic foundation of Money. According to the artist, the wall represents not only the two antithetical sides of the banknote—on the one side an illustration of joyous, united people, on the flip side a reminder of the oppressive authoritarian state—it also represents the logic that shapes China’s global outlook even today: We are in (nei) while everyone else is out (wai). Moreover, the wall figures the boundary between what has changed and what remains the same. At the end of the film, a strong outside force brings the wall tumbling down. Watching soldiers remove bodies from the rubble, one could not help but think of earthquakes past, like the Tangshan earthquake at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, and those to come (the Sichuan earthquake of last May happened a week before this exhibition closed).

Mathieu Borysevicz