Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir, Sisyphus Rotation, 2011, airbrush ink on wall, 20 x 20'.

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir, Sisyphus Rotation, 2011, airbrush ink on wall, 20 x 20'.

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir

Long March Space 长征空间

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir, Sisyphus Rotation, 2011, airbrush ink on wall, 20 x 20'.

Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir’s latest exhibition at Long March Space was the couple’s most abstract yet; even the meaning of its title, “Kuo Xuan,” is ambiguous. Ostensibly the romanization of a two-character Chinese word (though the artists have declined to specify which two characters), the term is evocative—in Mandarin, it sounds something like “expanding choices”—but its meaning is unfixed.

The gallery’s two main halls were given over to seven symbols mapped onto the walls in thin lines of various colors that towered over the viewer, mostly of cochlear spirals ricocheting off bisecting curves and lines; the gallery’s walls were rounded into mirroring coiled shapes as well. Three of the works—Sisyphus Rotation, Narcissus Recovery, and Recovery Position (all works 2011)—included human forms, outlines of bodies engaging the curves around them. While experimentations with the form and function of symbols are a hallmark of Wu’s earlier solo career, “Kuo Xuan” was a breakthrough: Where structuralist linguists speak to the signified and signifier as two sides of the same coin, “Kuo Xuan” was an attempt to create symbols whose relationship to meaning is expansive, full of their own regenerative potential. For this reason, the exhibition offered very little in terms of explanatory context to the viewer, beyond a gnomic quote from the artists at its start: “It dies just before it begins, and lives just after it ends.” Instead of stuffing their symbols with meaning, Wu and Thorsdottir invite you to project yours.

But if the artists are loath to tie the works of “Kuo Xuan” to any one meaning, curator Gao Shiming was eager to give the show an intellectual pedigree. His curatorial statement consisted of just four quotes: from The Communist Manifesto (“All that is solid melts into air”), the pre-Socratic philosopher Heracleitus (“The way upward and the way downward are the same”), T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“Before the beginning and after the end”), and the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin (“Schwer verläßt / Was nahe dem Ursprung wohnet, den Ort”—“A place of dwelling / This near the source is hard to leave”). These aligned the show with the intellectual roots of Marxist dialectics and modernism, Hölderlin being the man who turned Hegel on to Heracleitus, whose concept of duality inspired Hegel’s dialectics, which in turn became a cornerstone of Marx’s radical project. But Wu and Thorsdottir’s project is cosmological in scope, visualizing man’s place within cycles of endlessly reproducing potentiality. The Greek mythological characters mentioned in the titles of some of the works underscore that point: Echo, whose voice was doomed to repeat the words of others; Narcissus, locked in admiration of himself; Sisyphus, bound in perpetual labor.

But as much as “Kuo Xuan” is inscribed in dialogues of reproductive cosmology and leftist political economies, it’s important also to note its underpinnings. The project’s genesis is in Gao’s invitation to Wu and Thorsdottir to create a logo for the newly formed School of Intermedia Art in Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art, where he directs research. The slipping boundary between logo/symbol and brand/meaning also has the potential to powerfully inflect the project. What does it mean, for example, to present the symbols as towering figures on a gallery wall when they might have been disseminated just as or even more effectively in a digital form? To whom, or what, do the works belong, and how will they ultimately be used? The answers, like others, remain unclear as “Kuo Xuan” expands into its own possibilities.

Angie Baecker