Shang Yixin, +, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Yang Chow Studio.

Shang Yixin, +, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Yang Chow Studio.

Shang Yixin

Shang Yixin, +, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Yang Chow Studio.

Shang Yixin’s exhibition “— —” at the Beijing Commune presented the artist’s recent formal investigations into staging complex interplays of line, shadow, and light. The exhibition title is derived from an eponymous installation in the show (all works 2016), which features more than twenty flashlights positioned in a row, all facing a wall. The flashlights, each installed at a slightly different angle, illuminated a single line while simultaneously casting sporadic shapes and haloed shadows of various sizes against the wall. Shang set the flashlights on machines that moved gently from side to side, causing the lines and halos to merge into or move away from each other at regular intervals. The interactions between the projected forms were mesmerizing, while their juxtaposition with the unified line of flashlights themselves posed questions about the coherency of our visual perception.

The other installation in the show, titled +, tackled a similar issue. For this piece, Shang positioned about forty LED flashlights—glowing white, yellow, and pink—in a circle. He fixed metal shutters over the heads of the flashlights, all of which opened and closed at the same time. When the shutters released, the beams of light converged on the wall behind into a bright halo rimmed with warm tones. After a few seconds, the halo dispersed into a constellation of glimmering dots as the shutters closed. In both galleries, the freestanding iron machines that support and move the lights were prominent parts of the installations. By displaying both the illusion and the apparatus that conjures the illusion, the works point to the disjunction that often exists between physicality and perception.

Since 2008, Shang has maintained a consistent interest in exploring light and shadow in his installations. In Organization—Suspended in the Air, 2011, for example, the artist used long screws to attach rows of stones to a wall and lit the space with two incandescent lightbulbs attached to a swinging machine. The two light sources swayed back and forth, doubling and setting in constant motion the shadows of the stones. Compared with this earlier experiment, Shang’s latest installations demonstrated a more elaborate approach, utilizing not only motion but also intersection (in the case of –– ––) and superimposition (in the case of +).

The show also contained three paintings, which likewise exemplified the approach of combining individual components into a whole. The compositions, all part of the ongoing series “1 & N” started in 2015, each feature lines running across pieces of wood. The overall effect is subdued yet intriguing. The marks seem continuous at a distance, but upon closer inspection were revealed to be disjointed fragments divided by the gaps between each piece of wood. According to the press release, the artist created these lines by first drawing marks in acrylic paint across the wood pieces, in the manner of a carpenter, and then rearranging the painted segments. Shang attached magnets to the back of each piece of wood and installed the work on a metal plate; this way, the work adopts a new configuration each time he installs it. The serial title “1 & N” alludes to the infinite number of possible combinations and compositions. While the disconnected lines suggest the possibility of rearrangement, the works’ actual mobility and logic are not immediately accessible to the viewer. Placed in the first gallery room, they might have been more approachable had one already encountered Shang’s installations.

Shang’s work pays scrupulous attention to formal precision and perceptual investigation without making overt sociopolitical references. His approach makes one wonder if young Chinese artists are gravitating toward more implicit ways of expressing opinions, or if they are retreating from the sociopolitical realm entirely. In an environment where an open and inclusive public sphere has yet to exist, the answer could be both.

Xinran Guo