BEIJING - Can a Chinese artist successfully work with primarily Western cultural references?
An artwork taking such an approach can be particularly challenging in engaging Chinese viewers, who may not fully appreciate the historical underpinnings of the images, and Western viewers, who may expect something more Chinese from the artist. After more than a decade’s self-imposed exile from China’s frenetic contemporary art scene, Wang Luyan (b. 1956) recently unveiled a solo exhibition at Beijing’s new Parkview Green Exhibition Hall that would reestablish him as what curator Wu Hong called “one of the most important Chinese conceptual artists working today.”
For me, Wang Luyan: Diagramming Allegory, consisting of oversized sketches, drawings, murals, paintings, sculptures and installations that reflect the artist’s in-depth investigations of artistic creativity, is an allegory of civilization. Alluding to iconic Renaissance masterpieces that present a shift from a worldview centering on God to a worldview centering on man, Wang questions whether our machine age is a step forward or backward for civilization.
Wang Luyan's Revolving Madonna Litta D10-06 (2010). PHOTO: COURTESY OF PARKVIEW GREEN.
In China, Wang has earned the nickname “Proposal Artist,” referring to the fact that many of his artistic visions never went beyond the proposal stage and never came to fruition. A member of the Stars Painting Society, Wang was at the forefront of China’s avant-garde art movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, having subsequently founded the Tactile Sensation Group, Analyst Group and New Measurement Group. But in the mid-1990s, Wang gave up exhibiting his works publicly as he felt that market forces dictated formulaic reiterations of China’s revolutionary past and political history. Turning inwards, the artist was searching for the meaning of the subjectivity of artists, and by extension, mankind in today’s world.
“Relation” is the primal concern for Wang’s art. Revolving Genesis D10-03 (2010), from his “Sawing or Being Sawed” series, inverts the relationship between God and Adam from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the fresco of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. For Wang, Michelangelo’s Genesis itself was a re-telling of the story of God creating Adam. When God’s divine finger was about to touch Adam, God saw the future of his creation and how it deviated from his original design. In Wang’s version, the bodies of God and Adam are made up of saw-like plates and God’s creative power has turned into man’s creative power, which in turn has transformed into the creative power of industrial machinery.
Revolving Genesis D10-03 (2010). PHOTO: COURTESY OF PARKVIEW GREEN.
With Revolving Madonna Litta D10-06 (2010), Wang also reversed Da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, which represented Madonna’s sacred love turning into universal human maternity, to be rigid machinery that faces the future of the 21st-century. For the artist, backward glancing equates looking into the future. W Symmetry Watch D11-06 (2011) combines altered M-16 and AK-47 weapons that shoot in both directions, and underpin the reversibility of the killer and the killed. In other words, a slaughter is not a relationship between a killer and the killed, but between a killer and a killer.
W Symmetry Watch D11-06 (2011). PHOTO: COURTESY OF PARKVIEW GREEN.
As if it were a gesture of self-deconstruction, Wang’s visionary world relies on the object of his critique: mechanical and glossy on the surface, but cold and self-destructive beneath. At the entrance of the exhibition hall, a sculptural installation titled W Fire at Both Ends Automatic Handgun D13-01 (2013), equipped with artillery facing both forwards and backwards and the shells shooting in both directions at once, is not pointing to the target but at the shooter himself. Therefore, pulling the trigger becomes an act of self-destruction.
W Fire at Both Ends Automatic Handgun D13-01 (2013).
Under the glass-roofed skylight terrace, The Walkers D12-01 (2012) shows a group of human figures, made of mirror-finished stainless steel, marching in two directions at the same time: moving forwards while moving backwards, and moving backwards while moving forwards. Perhaps this is what the artist sees as the great paradox of civilization.
Trained as a mechanical engineer, Wang populated the exhibition space with calculated architectonic drawings, which set the preparatory framework for a church setting that resembles the seamless cogs of modern machinery.
By grafting Western cultural references onto a Chinese context, Wang is also telling a narrative about a society that is trying to fanatically catch up to industrial production. Another contemporary artist Miao Xiaochun appropriated Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco in his The Last Judgment in Cyberspace (2006) for similar provocation. Using digital technology, Miao built a computer-generated model of the Apocalypse, architecturally structuring the tiers of Christian afterlife and replacing each of the 400 figures in Michelangelo’s iconic work with his own image.
The grandeur of Wang’s vision probably would have not been possible without the support of commercial interests. Parkview Green, a multipurpose building containing retail outlets, offices and a hotel, is the first commercial building to obtain the LEED certification in China. Taiwanese real estate magnate Huang Chien-hua, at the helm of Parkview Group, which developed the project, has more than 500 artworks installed throughout the premises, including 42 pieces by Salvador Dalí, as his family boasts the largest collection of sculptural works by that artist outside of Spain.
Parkview Green shopping plaza view.
Such collaboration between artistic vision and commercial development has become a new model for public exhibition space in China. Another example is developer/collector Dai Zhigang’s Zendai Art Hotel in Shanghai. In China, building white boxes requires little effort, but the ensuing private museums are often left without the critical support of permanent endowment, professional management or curatorial resources. Sitting atop a glass-steel structure, Parkview Green Exhibition Hall offers more than forty thousand square feet of space—it allows experimental artists like Wang Luyan to experience a Renaissance style of art patronage once accorded to Michelangelo.
Wang Luyan: Diagramming Allegory
Parkview Green Exhibition Hall
Level 10, D Tower, Parkview Green
No. 9, Dongdaqiao Road
24 March 2013 – 23 June 2013
T: : +86-10-65005511 ext.8568
Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China.