Hong Kong

Wang Gongxin, Dialogue, 1995, metal, wood, ink, motor, lightbulbs. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Kit Min Lee.

Wang Gongxin, Dialogue, 1995, metal, wood, ink, motor, lightbulbs. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Kit Min Lee.

Wang Gongxin

Wang Gongxin, Dialogue, 1995, metal, wood, ink, motor, lightbulbs. Installation view, 2017. Photo: Kit Min Lee.

Now one of the most important video artists in China, Wang Gongxin was largely an outsider in relation to the country’s avant-garde movement in the mid-1980s. As an outstanding student in Soviet realism–style oil painting, in 1987 he was sent to New York—a space-time drastically different from China, culturally and aesthetically, and already deep in postmodernism—to further his art studies. At first shocked by the art practices on the other side of the earth, Wang slowly shifted his painting to a more minimal and conceptual mode in the late 1980s. In 1993, he combined his new works with elements from painting, concepts of daily life, and a newfound ambition to deconstruct.

For “Rotation,” his new solo exhibition, Wang took a group of previously undiscovered kinetic installations, conceived in the mid-1990s as a departure from his earlier practices, to review and revisualize a transitional period between oil painting and the moving image. Dialogue, 1995, which occupied the first floor of the two-story exhibition, presented a shallow pool of ink contained in a basin supported by wooden legs. Above this table-like structure, two roped-together lightbulbs alternately descended into the liquid, creating rings of shimmering black ripples. The work tested two limits to reach a critical point: The displaced ink rose to the verge of overflowing, and the dipped lightbulb took on pressure to its utmost point of integrity. Through this continuous movement, the breaking points were reached and then relieved, the repetition building an intense viewing experience while mollifying it with gentle ripples. Meanwhile, the flowing rings of light, the undulating wavelets on the ink’s surface, and the reflections of moving radiance on the four walls echoed the light, shadow, and pastose texture of oil paintings. These immersive painterly effects in the surrounding environment in turn brought to mind an abstract, continually moving, multichannel video.

Liquid—whether rippling or floating, static or metaphoric—was an important material in the exhibition. In Horizontal, 2017, an installation based on a sketch from the mid-’90s, a slightly tilted table supported a shallow metal basin that was parallel to the ground. This created an illusion, however: It appeared as if it was the basin that was tilted. The metal vessel was filled with ink, which was intermittently disturbed by a hidden engine, causing the liquid surface to alternate between a sleek, mirrorlike surface and an unsettling, undulating image. Humidifier, 2017, invited viewers to peek through a hole in a mattress in a cradle, to see mountainous, misty scenery, thus offering an experience not unlike the one provided by Wang’s renowned piece The Sky of Brooklyn, 1995, for which he dug a ten-foot-deep hole in the ground in his Beijing home and at the bottom placed a television set showing a view of the Brooklyn sky. Here and elsewhere in this group of little-known works from more than two decades ago, viewers experienced uncertainty through the artist’s use of liquid: Wang was, once again, testing limits and breaking down established art forms and mind-sets.

Qu Chang