ArtSlant: Private Philosophies

Yu Bogong: At this Present Moment

White Space Beijing, Caochangdi, Beijing, China

8 January – 27 March, 2011

In my review of Carol Yinghua Lu’s You Are Not A Gadget (at Pékin Fine Arts), I focused on the connection between that show to her work in general, and mentioned Yu Bogong’s At this Present Moment running concurrently at White Space Gallery, which she also curated and which I’ll focus on here. The spare surroundings of the gallery’s double-height space provides an appropriately ascetic setting for Yu Bogong’s collection of contraptions, arrangements, tools and drawings.

The Gallery is dominated at one end by a large, cream sheet with a black border, hung from the ceiling by ropes at its corners, one of which dips down to shield the area beneath its expanse. The ropes converge at ground level in the belly of a small stone figure in front of the sheet. The cross-legged figure emerges from the rough stone from which it was hewn, the ropes passing through its body to emerge in a knot tied behind it, effectively acting as an anchor for the sheet billowing before it.

Along the back wall, beneath the sheet, runs a long blackboard, neatly chalked with texts and diagrams, charting the creation of mandalas—heavily symbolic, schematic representations of the cosmos and concepts, often appearing in the traditions of Ancient Indian Esoteric Buddhism (here combined with Chinese theories of the Five Elements)—more of which appear on a series of circular blackboards hung along either side of the room. In one corner, a freestanding example stands alongside a set of artfully abandoned geometric tools. In many respects these reminded me of tidier versions of Joseph Beuys’ pseudo-didactic blackboard scribbles, certainly in their form (and possibly in content and meaning, too).

At the other end of the room, a four-wheeled engine sits beneath a suspended mass of twisted, plastic tubing pumping a golden coloured liquid through them up to a balcony above. The wheels point in all directions and sit splayed relative to the floor, working against each other to prevent movement in any direction. The engine sits on a metal structure atop the wheels, and appears to be both electrical and petrol-powered, but when I visited it was not running so it was difficult to make out its exact purpose (although it was certainly used for pumping liquid through the tube). On the motor’s black casing esoteric words and marks in English had been added: “Appearance,” “△ Trinity,” “◻ Spiritual Territory,” “Original Point,” “= Natural Conditions – Energy Release,” “Magnetic fields.” On the walls around this machine, mandalas similar to those sketched out on the blackboards are re-created in brilliant white neon, lighting up in sequence.

The suggestion of a depth of information presented in this complex set of works was somewhat bewildering – I felt lost amongst all this arcane material, making it difficult to understand and connect with it. I wanted to understand the data being presented, but was very aware that there was much left (perhaps deliberately) beyond my grasp here.

It’s apparent that I was not alone with this feeling, as attached to the walls, a series of texts gave an account of the curator’s own attempts to learn the systems informing the works. There Carol Yinghua Lu describes four lessons with the artist, at the end of which: “Yu Bogong worked on a drawing depicting the elimination of the isolation of the material self, and the melding of human and heaven. I did as I learnt in the first three lessons, determining a point of origin on a piece of A3 size paper and drawing a circle with a 110mm radius. But after this step, I was stumped.” The (unintentional?) humour in this situation becomes a relief from the heaviness of the works, as Lu comes to realise the systems act as what she calls a “camouflage” for Yu Bogong’s own “subjective and arbitrary” knowledge, leading her to conclude, “This so-called knowledge has no basis for certainty or generalisation because, in a sense, it cannot be ordered and then replicated and reproduced.”

Lu recommends the artist find some order amongst his thoughts that can be used in more general circumstances, and might eventually “become a philosophy.” It becomes apparent through the curator’s working through of the ideas inherent in the works, that this installation is a set of experiments on the way to understanding – the artist is simply expressing his thoughts in a way that makes sense to him, practicing them on real life. For the curator to engage with the works in the way she has, adds a bathetic note to the proceedings, potentially saving them from their own overly arcane impenetrability.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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