Wang Sishun, Apocalypse, 2016–, copper, stone, aluminum, dimensions variable. From “Study of Things.”

Wang Sishun, Apocalypse, 2016–, copper, stone, aluminum, dimensions variable. From “Study of Things.”

“Study of Things”

Things are so sexy. That’s because they are dead. Or fundamentally useless. According to Heidegger, a thing is an object fallen. An object has use, real use, functionality; it becomes a thing when it is broken down and we can no longer use it—at least not for the purpose for which it was designed. A thing is therefore kind of like art, which, in some classical-modernist sense, is meant to have no function other than to impel reflection.

But objects have been asserting their thingness a lot as of late, thinging all over the place, in a hylozoic revivalism presented to us by twenty-first-century quasi-mystic philosophers such as Graham Harman and his fellow speculative realists. “Study of Things: Or a Brief Story About Fountain, Brick, Tin, Coin, Stone, Shell, Curtain, and Body,” the project of curator Tan Yue, took its inspiration from Jane Bennett’s vital materialism (which holds that objects are alive) and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (which posits an equilibrium between human and nonhuman actants and is more concerned with their relationality). The show, which comprised seventeen works by eleven artists, attempted two tasks at once: It proposed withdrawal as a vehicle for ontological assessment, pulling objects out of life and all the messy contexts that constitute contemporaneity and putting them into this state of “thingdom” so that we might better understand or else create new meanings for them, and it explored the socioeconomic and ecological entanglements of objects that more or less rule our lives, whether we are aware they are doing so or not.

Guy Ben-Ner’s Brechtian family drama Stealing Beauty, 2007, was filmed inside IKEA stores in various countries with the artist’s real-life family, using the showrooms as domestic interiors and ignoring the customers wandering in and out of the scenes. At first, I thought Ben-Ner had stolen the idea from IKEA Heights, a soap opera spoof filmed with an identical premise, but one of the super-objects that controls my brain, the internet, told me that IKEA Heights actually came out two years after Ben-Ner’s film. Anyway, I don’t remember the dialogue in IKEA Heights being nearly as witty as Ben-Ner’s: Marxist banter injected into an ABC after-school special.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology placed tin at the top of its 2018 list of natural resources required for the development of a future AI and internet-of-things technologies. Bangka, the Indonesian island where one-third of the global supply of that material is mined, is the setting for Riar Rizaldi’s meditative video installation Kasiterit, 2019, which explores how the quest for this material has led to human and environmental devastation. Hu Wei’s 2015 video The World of the Hard and the Soft speaks for the need of a “language of the body”—which is perhaps what all these artists are ultimately aiming for. For me: bodies instead of pixels any day.

These were just some of the things I studied in “Study of Things.” No ideas but in broken objects, strewn across the floor, sucked up into perspectival agency, now regurgitated in the form of (broken) writing. This reconnaissance of thingdom naturally appealed to the generalist in me, resisting any urgency to classify, to define. Like things, generalists are sexy—not because we’re dead, but because we don’t stick to anything; we’re like the sluts of the liberal arts. It means we can become obsessed with anything, as has Wang Sishun, who has been amassing a collection of humanoid-shaped rocks over the years. This ongoing work, Apocalypse, 2016–, was installed in a windowed room across the street from an enormous multiblock wastescape of a construction site, which both complemented and competed with these found sculptures. An entire neighborhood had been smashed and ripped out of the ground and was now teeming with cranes and dump trucks and drills and trailers, scattered holes and ponds filled with fetid water, tracks and foundations being laid in the mud. Later, I stood on the outdoor terrace of the museum studying this monumental work of unintentional Land art, so typical of China’s endlessly embattled project of modernity: large-scale destruction followed by large-scale construction, probably of yet another shopping mall, when a middle-aged lady standing next to me sighed approvingly, exclaiming, “That’s progress!”