Artforum | Alice Wang

Travis Jeppesen, Artforum, June 1, 2021

A yearning for the otherworldly—for what certainly or seemingly lies beyond our reach—undergirds all of Alice Wang’s work, which trespasses on astronomy, geology, ancient history, and science fiction. Her recent exhibition consisted largely of sculptures, along with four black-and-white photographs and the video Pyramids and Parabolas II, 2021, a sequel to or a continuation of a 2019 work presented in a 2020 group show at this same gallery. Visitors were first confronted with a circular table topped with two-way mirrored glass, on which were perched six gleaming silver shards; like most of work in the show, this sculpture was dated 2021. The shards are actually pieces of iron meteorite found in the East Uweinat Desert of Egypt. (When Wang herself isn’t traveling to some of the world’s most remote corners for researching and filming purposes, she is trawling the internet for dealers of rare-earth and astronomical debris in order to obtain materials for her artworks.) Another sculpture consisted of fossilized Jurassic-period wave forms discovered in Eastern Europe: The work’s three hip-high components stood close to one another, forming a broken triangular whole. The most confounding of the bunch, however, was a table sculpture that occupied an entire room of the gallery. On it sat a prism, handmade white-gold tiles, air plants, fluorescent-pink isometric gridding, wet-plate collodion photographs on mirrors, glass microspheres, and a Crookes radiometer (a nineteenth-century invention for measuring electromagnetic radiation). What do these objects have to do with each other? Situated halfway between the science lab and a high-end avant-garde fashion-shop display, the carefully rendered parts left us with the pleasurable task of fathoming the connections between them.


The first installment of Pyramids and Parabolas included footage of Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact, a 1997 film about a scientist’s search for extraterrestrial life. In Pyramids and Parabolas II, the artist plays a role similar to Foster’s, constructing an observation post in the desert. The scene then shifts to the open sea—reminding us of what that desert once was—then to a sun-drenched mountain landscape somewhere in China, then to the Arctic Circle, where a lone wolf runs toward the camera. The film is inspired by the Crab Pulsar, one of the few neutron stars visible to the human eye. This astronomical object was born from a star’s explosion into a supernova in the year 1054, an occurrence documented by astronomers of the period. “These beacons in the sky are an archive of past events,” says the video’s narrator. The camera pans to the blinding white light of the sky before cutting to a prolonged sequence of a bumpy ride filmed from behind the dash of a snowmobile. Afterward, the scene returns to the desert, where we again see the artist constructing her frequency-listening device, this time beneath the pink-orange setting sun. The soundtrack plays a recording taken from NASA’s archives: the static noise of a solar burst.


Together, these works reflect Wang’s deep investment in issues of materiality. She reveals not just the pure metaphysical thingness of objects found or made, but also their unique property of extension, connecting us to historical and cosmological dimensions beyond the perceptible.


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