Wang Gongxin

Arrow Factory

Tucked away near the Confucius Temple, in one of Beijing’s most quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, lies the antidote to the ostentatious exhibitions that have slowly become the norm in the city’s urban fringes. This latest work from Beijing native Wang Gongxin, It’s Not About the Neighbors, 2009, is such an unexpected encounter with art that you might just pass it by.

Hosting Wang’s work is the Arrow Factory, a storefront nonprofit art space founded last spring by an international group of artists and curators. Next door, a small family bakery does a brisk sale of flatbreads, stuffed cakes, and fresh pasta through a sliding window above an aluminum-framed display case. On the bakery windows, they advertise modestly with the characters for “flatbread” and “noodles”; there is no company name, no business hours. The title of Wang’s work is, in fact, ironic. It is about the neighbors. Wang’s work at the Arrow Factory is precisely a 1:1 scale reproduction of the adjacent bakery. The two identical spaces stand next to each other––one the genuine business, the other its superfluous imitation.

With the odd exception of opaque windows, the doppelgänger blends smoothly into its daylight environment, an inconspicuous sculptural work of mimicry. At dusk, the windows come alive with a looping, two-minute backlit projection of the actual bakers next door at work, filmed just weeks before. What is the effect of this artwork on its immediate environment? Neighborhood regulars buying dinner carefully ignore the eerie ghosting, but might ask what it is or how it got there. Art types photograph the evidence of their pilgrimage, and for a few twilight hours, reality exists alongside its projected image. Then the bakers retire, and the ethereal image lingers until morning. In this early-to-bed neighborhood, the dim vision of their toil reflected in video would seem a supernatural sign of life for any anomalous night strollers.

Historically, art appreciation in China has been reserved for an elite literati class, and excluding a period of centralized control over the production and display of art during the Mao years, this tradition of a privileged class claiming exclusive rights to interpret or enjoy artworks has more or less been adopted into the present-day understanding of contemporary art. For a population that seldom makes contact with art, in a place far removed from Beijing’s art zones, Wang breaches the sanctity of art with an accessible language of representation; he confronts his captive audience with definitions of art––if this isn’t art, then what is it?

Neighbors also refers to the disappearance of small communities and inspires nostalgia for traditional family businesses like this one. No stranger to site-specific exhibition contexts, Wang has been seeking out subjects rooted in mainstream culture since returning to China from the United States in 1994 following a seven-year stay. Food and its culture, of central importance in China, have also been a frequent focus of his recent works. Here, in a successful exploitation of such unique and unexpected contexts for art, Wang’s work shows that small spaces can be of consequence, and that contemporary art can speak to those communities and neighbors who feel most distant from it.

Lee Ambrozy