ArtWorld Exhibition Review | Alice Wang: Untitled

Manuela Lietti , ArtWorld, October 12, 2017

“Alice Wang,” the first solo exhibition in China for artist Alice Wang (b. 1983 in Xi’an, China; lives and works in Los Angeles, USA) held at Capsule Shanghai, brings together works that span sculpture, installation, film, and digital printing. The works on view are distinctive yet cohesive in that they are the ideal reflection of the artist’s incessant investigations into multilayered practices, diverse fields of knowledge (geology, astronomy, and physics, among others) and artistic genres that overlap and nurture one other; they are living organisms rather than fixed entities, evolving naturally, as well as according to specific conditions, enhancing and shaping a truly unique synesthetic experience in which the perceivable mixes with the tangible, the illusory with the real, and the natural with the artificial. The viewer undergoes a sensory yet conceptually challenging experience in which the senses and the mind are invited to act and react; daily cosmogonies unfold in front of one’s eyes through a continuous chain of visual and conceptual musings that temporarily crystallize in spatial interventions in a constant state of becoming.


One of the first pieces that the viewer encounters when stepping into the exhibition hall is a pot of mimosa pudica, an untitled piece, like almost all of the works on view. This is much more than a linguistic choice; it is an operative one that reflects the way in which the artist has often worked since 2014. She tries to provide suggestions that cause the least interference with the viewer’s response and try to transcend the larger limitations of language. The mimosa pudica is a creeping plant often grown for one curious property: the leaves curl inward or droop when they are touched or shaken, shielding themselves from damage only to re-open minutes later. The viewer is immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of derailment: is it sufficient to visually enjoy this lavish spectacle or it is necessary to physically participate in it in some way, possibly and ideally with the touch of one’s fingers? Is it a living sculpture endowed with consciousness or is it the viewer who, by awakening his own consciousness, not only witnesses a small natural wonder, but can even become an active part of it, according to how he positions himself spatially and mentally? The piece questions what acting as an alert being actually means. The rather unique feeling of self-awareness that characterizes this humanized plant co-exists with the mixed reactions of the viewer, who may feel uncertain if a trick is being played on him (will something else happen?) or may just mechanically ignore changes that are too minimal for a fast eye that often confuses subtlety with nothingness.


The mimosa pudica is not the only piece in the show with a highly metamorphic nature. Most of the sculptural works on view turn out to be pervaded by a sense of instability and uncertainty, not simply regarding their mysterious provenance, function, and “use,” but in terms of the phenomenological changes they undergo. These changes are made possible by the use of highly perishable, transient, and sensitive materials. The intrinsic nature of certain materials associated with extrinsic factors (air, atmosphere, weather, human intervention, or just human presence) determines the in-between condition of Wang’s pieces, which should not always be considered a result, but an open process. This is the case of a moss sculpture arranged on the floor as if it were an object from another dimension; it resembles a portion of nature found by, and at the same time made by, the artist. It sets a new pace for the gallery space and for the exhibition itself. Another example of this processual approach is an etched copper plate with a patina that constantly changes as it oxidizes, arranged in the hall next to the moss; the copper plate engages the viewer with its visual appeal, colors, and unexpected changes. The textures of the moss and copper pieces are particularly rich: eye-catching, sensual, and responsive, but never intended for mere aesthetic pleasure. The two works above resonate with one of the most mysterious objects in the show—a piece of an iron meteorite arranged on the wall facing the moss. Next to the copper plate on the floor lies a piece made of glazed ceramic that resembles a map of an unknown territory, the Earth’s landslips, or the cracks of glaciers. A group of silver-coated clam fossils in the same exhibition hall are both primordial and man-manipulated; they are prehistoric relics that also resemble postmodern “waste;” they are simple, elementary cells involved in an alchemical process that seals and preserves them further. High and low materials, organic and inorganic traces, man-made and natural elements coexist and raise questions whose answers may lie in the evolving processes at the core of these pieces, in the untold stories behind them and not necessarily in the “completed” versions shown. The pieces represent just one of the many existential possibilities for these artworks, which act as open discourses and can radiate their potential in various ways.


It is interesting to note that human presence does not make any direct appearance in the works, even though in some cases, it is the human presence of viewers that activates the work. It is no chance occurrence that two sculptures based on wind (a Dyson blade-less fan covered in silver and beeswax) and vapor (a triangular structure covered with punctured beeswax that exhales vapor) function as the viewer approaches them, even though their functional mechanisms remain unknown and the effects of their function is not at all obvious. Here, technique is used neither to fabricate visual entertainment that simply pleases the eyes, nor to stimulate simplistic interactivity to please a more ludic audience. The almost invisible extension of a precise methodology is intended to engage the viewer, making him step out of his contemplative comfort zone toward action.


Oracle, the only titled piece on view at the entrance to the gallery, can be regarded as the “soundtrack” for the exhibition, its ideal beginning and end because it summarizes the mood of the entire show. Shot in Biosphere 2 located in Oracle, a town in the Arizona desert, the video focuses on the largest closed ecological system ever built. In the 1990s, eight human test subjects were sent there to validate the possibility of living in a completely sealed and sustainable environment, a man-made Earth on Earth. The experiment failed but raised highly valuable questions about interpersonal relationships and confinement.


Perhaps what Alice Wang tries to do is present her own version of a possible biosphere, not based on any monolithic system, but on fragments coming from different times and places that collide, overlap, and lead apparently unrelated lives, even though they are part of the same master plan. On one hand, Wang’s work may present the consequences of our present time, the Anthropocene period, defined by the heavy impact of human beings on the cosmos and its inner workings; on the other, it may be an alternative to entropy itself. Only the viewer decides which option suits him or her better, transcending any conventional reading of the artworks and challenging any fixed cognitive processes.