Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
Art can tell us something about its world, and at the same time it can tell us something about our world. Aside from what we ourselves bring to the table, the artwork can do this by being clear or opaque in its meaning, both experiences worthwhile in their unique ways. However, where the artwork is opaque or self-absorbed, if it cannot or will not provide a space for the viewer to relate to it, this then becomes problematic. There is a suspicion that Wang Mai’s new exhibition, with its complex symbolic objects and imagery, no matter how visually interesting an experience it might be, is problematic in this way.
As one enters the UCCA Nave’s “strait” space, blue metal flooring taken from Wang Mai’s studio roof crinkles and deforms underfoot, preventing the audience from becoming too absorbed in a viewing experience; this destabilizing effect enforces an interesting level of awareness of your surroundings. The metal sheeting also creates a watery setting for the floor, fringed by a forest of birch tree trunks leaning against walls that are themselves papered with the blue packaging of the “Zhongnanhai” brand of cigarettes (Zhongnanhai also being the headquarters of the Chinese central government). In the “water,” atop pipes that pierce the metal sheeting, sit wooden constructions akin to oil platforms, manned by tiny figures and bedecked with multiple logos of petroleum companies. Flying off these, attached by arcing metal tubes, are several doll-like figures. These appear to be astronauts in stylized space suits, which double as animal costumes (a bird, a bear, and so forth). This otherworldly combination of the astral and the bestial seems to grant them a touch of the shamanistic, while the figures’ multiple, tool-wielding limbs give them a resemblance to Buddhist deities. Nearby, a tent-like structure is formed by leaning several of the birch trunks against one another and covering these with dried fish skins – an adaptable material used for clothing by a nomadic tribe in the artist’s home province. The tree trunks span into the second room, which focuses on the artist’s paintings. These add an extended, fantastical worldview to the more tangible structures next door, representing semi-abstracted arrangements of elements: a woman’s face in chiaroscuro, and an anthropomorphic ginseng root appear, for example. In some cases, the petro-chemical logos and the doll-like faces of the astral voyagers reappear in the paintings linking the various elements of this show together.
What seems to be the strongest theme in this exhibition is a concern with the exploitation of the environment, for oil in this case. Given the title “Dire Straits,” the results of this exploitation might be interpreted in a negative sense. Although the artist presents a setting that does not explicitly suggest a conflict over the extraction of oil, the indigenous fish skins, with their relation to a native people – and the fact that these are placed in conjunction with the constructions related to oil exploration – could conceivably be read as a reference to conflicts that have arisen between communities and the organizations that wish to exploit their locations.
But the fragmented nature of the exhibition denies this easy correlation with reality, leaving it instead firmly rooted in an artist’s imaginary speculations. Overall, it appears “Dire Straits” does not make a firm statement in relation to any issue. In artworks this is usually a good thing – heavy-handed moralizing is never attractive and can serve as a simplistic response that glosses over a reality. That said, in this particular show, it would have been more satisfying to see a closer connection to the issues at hand, even if it were through the medium of his imagination. Wang Mai obviously feels they are important enough to allude to, yet never comes to grips with their reality, simply exploiting them as part of the symbolic and imaginary world that his pieces represent.