OCULA | Alice Wang

Akira Pontormo, OCULA, October 18, 2017

Alice Wang’s exhibition “Alice Wang” at Capsule Shanghai includes the artist’s recent sculptural works - Untitled (2017), Untitled (2017), and Untitled (2017). The sculptures are best recognised for the materials used: beeswax, iron meteorite, moss, mimosa pudica, clam fossils 100 million years old from Texas, even wind - the sculptures does not form a grander entity, and are proudly being independent from each other, operating and developing themselves orderly and naturally, and are related to entropy in a somehow stable fashion.

Although Wang emphasises a pre-intersubjective ontological aspect of her practise, she’d at the same time resist the speculative tendency of the market by composing and presenting unorthodox exhibition press releases and posters. All of Wang’s solo exhibitions so far has been titled “Alice Wang”, and almost all of her works Untitled (the only exception at the recent exhibition is Oracle, a collaboration between Wang and Ben Tong); political as it is, the decision of not giving exhibitions and artworks names means a resistance that is positive and powerful on both the level of ideas and that of practises.

In October 2017 Wang also launched at the Modern Art Base in Shanghai her first artist book Untitled (Capsule Shanghai + Sming Sming Books). Included in the book is a series of images from the 2012 London Olympics synchronised swimming games, featuring Team Spain, and a commissioned text composed by Shanghai writer btr. Very much like Wang’s presentation at the Capsule, the elements of design, images and the text of the artist book are quite independent from each other. And the fact that btr takes as his point of departure the story of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (as perhaps hinted by Alice Wang’s name), brings about an interesting comparison between an artist that is a recipient of a BS degree in Computer Science and International Relations, frequently using knowledges and experiences of “astronomy, physics, palaeontology, and biology”, interested in synchronised swimming, and an author that composed Alice in Wonderland, The Principles of Parliamentary Representation, and An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations.


I for a second wanted to frame you as a Chinese female artist from LA.


The idea of “from” is very problematic for me. I was born in Xi’an, spent time in Chengdu, Shanghai, Hangzhou, New York, Toronto, Paris, Maebashi, Los Angeles…… so far, LA for the longest time has been my home, but I still don’t think I am “from” somewhere.


What has been your impression of the Chinese contemporary art scene?


It’s apparently a very exciting time because of the instability I heard about here in China.


The whole of the press release of the recent show at Capsule Shanghai is:

H He Li Be B C N O F Ne Na Mg Al Si P S Cl Ar K Ca Sc Ti V Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr Rb Sr Y Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te I Xe Cs Ba La Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn Fr Ra Ac Rf Db Sg Bh Hs Mt Ds Rg Cn Nh Fl Mc Lv Ts Og Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr

Do you think there is a certain decoding involved in reading a press release like that, like reading a morse code? Do you think for a more informed audience it is more rewarding reading a press release like this?


Not necessary. Regarding the periodic table: the idea is a general knowledge, because I am a science geek, Chemistry is my favourite subject. It is so magical, but it is very much about the earth. We talked about this before, the press release as an extension of the artwork. I don’t want it to be just a form of marketing. So it was a way to bypass marketing, and insert something that is related to myself. Not necessarily myself even, but the work. For example the image in the exhibition poster is that of a mantis shrimp, a shrimp that can see a lot of different colours. It has 12 colour receptors, and we humans have 3.


An appropriate review of the show might be written in periodic table as well.


That would be great.


You talked about boxing when you were having a conversation with Carol Bove.


Yes, and it is like when you are in a driving or biking situation, in which you respond not with your conscious brain, but with a different part of your brain, that is not logical or rational.


You talked about also “reading” art. My impression is that, in China, people tend to “look at art”, instead of reading art. I guess by proposing “reading art,” you are presupposing that contemporary art is not superficiality itself.


The first time we met, the first question I asked you was how art history is treated in China. On the one hand I am glad that it is about the formal aspect of the work and the immediacy of the experience when they encounter the artwork; on the other hand, I am also conflicted. As an artist I try not to think too much about the legacy of art history but on the other hand I cannot ignore it. I feel like when I make art I am also in conversation with all those that made art before. That is a given. You cannot escape art history. A press release like that was about engaging with what is around. It is not something that is new, what I am doing. It is kind of difficult coming to China facing an audience that does not have the background knowledge of what I am engaged with. Specifically, when it comes to sculpture, you cannot ignore minimalism, conceptual art, earth works. When you leave the context you are coming from, the meaning starts to shift. But I don’t really want to control the work’s meaning.


You wouldn’t say you are frustrated if people just look at the artwork, instead of reading it.


This is where it is conflicting, because in America, I wanted to open up a space where people don’t read the work, because everyone reads the work. In that interview with Bove, we wanted to pinpoint the moment when conceptual art sort of opened up a little bit with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work, as you can read it in the institutional critique context - AIDS crisis, identity politics moment - but at the same time his works are so phenomenological: you eat the candies, you go through the curtains, there is warmth from the light bulbs. So I am trying to also open up that space. But in China that space is wide open. It’s like running, in the Olympics, the runners kick off. The kick off for me is the historical context. Without that kick off, I am in a vacuum in China.


But you wouldn’t say deliberately you are trying to deny knowing more or being known more in China.


I am just trying to be myself. I am not trying to be different. For every show of mine, press releases have always been this way. That’s not gimmicky. From my first show in 2013, I have always been experimenting with the form of language - how is the art language used when you are having an exhibition - and also experimenting with the format of exhibitions. Normally it is about explaining the works, and it becomes advertising. So it is difficult when you want to bypass that advertising language, it might also be to my disadvantage, because people will not “get the artwork”, and I would be buried in non-recognition. So I choose not to play the game this way. I risk my own non-existence in the art world. And that is okay with me.


Caught in-between Shanghai and LA, like in a J. G. Ballard work you once talked about. I was interested in the time you are living in as well. You don’t identify yourself too closely with the hip stuff today - the AI, VR and AR, what have you - do you?


That is just not my interest. I don’t know enough about it. I am interested in the materials and materiality. Also physicality. So a virtual reality has a physicality, but at the moment it is for me too cerebral - it has a lot to do with the mind. But the physical manifestation of it is not something that appeals to me at the moment. Primarily because I value the physical reality. You cannot translate chemistry into virtual reality. And even physics does not apply to that world. I live where I live, and Space-X is sort of close to where I live, an hour’s drive. I think my mind very much exists in here (the space between places). And also because I shuttle a lot between deserts, so Joshua Tree is like my second home. When I leave for LA I am going back straight to the desert, so all in all a long journey. Being so close to the stars, being able to see the stars, it’s really important for me. This physical existence is where my mind is.


And it seems to me that there is this very deliberate confusion of languages. From the language of art history, to sometimes the language of mediation - you are interested in Buddhism, Taoism and yoga - the language of physics, of chemistry… Deliberately you’d confuse these languages.


Regarding the spiritual, I had experienced the bodily or the chemical changed by meditation or qigong or by other means: your body starts to change and your perception of different dimensions changes as well. I think that is also why I am so interested in the physical reality of the world. For me, art is an interesting way to explore these other dimensions, specifically sculpture.

Regarding the confusion of languages as you put it, it is not something new. Back in the 19th Century, before Modernity, everything was intertwined, nature sciences, philosophy, nature, science… Newton was a big alchemist, but nobody wanted to talk about that, because they label him as this modern scientist that came up with mechanical physics. So this confusion or intertwining of multiple-disciplines exists for quite a while. The classic Laotzu for me is about philosophy, nature, spirituality, how to be a person… Separating everything and our different senses to me was what happened with the modern shift - mechanical and technical life.

It is more like a necessity to separate witchcraft and alchemy from science, that could be dated back to just about after the Renaissance. I don’t know whether for Da Vinci all his different practises are separate or not.

When I think about sculpture, I am interested in the forms, but also what the form does, its function, as in the Beeswax piece (Untitled, 2017), when the wind comes out. I wanted to incorporate immaterial elements - the wind - but also to use the metabolic material - beeswax, as coming from the stomach of the bees. What these mean to me comes from science. They are for me inseparable.

I don’t think this is very common though. I think it has something to do with my family background. The thing that comes close to this “Chinese confusion” is I think Greek mythology, when things were considered together. Or maybe the Celtics, before the philosophical, the scientific, the spiritual started separating themselves. My mom would teach me this Chinese idiom, I might say I don’t know about that Chinese idiom, then she would start telling me this story about this guy that was alive thousand years ago…… sometimes you don’t know whether it is real or not but it does not matter.


The Oracle is the only work that has a title to it? What about it that is special?


It’s my first collaboration, so I did not want to impose my own rules, I abandoned certain tendencies. In collaborations you don’t know when your work ends, when the other person’s work starts, and you need a sense of flexibility for something to work as a collaboration. We did not translate the title of Oracle, because it be too overdetermining. It’s called Oracle, because biosphere II is in the city of Oracle, so we like the double meaning of it being both a place and a thing.


But when you talk about your films and your sculptures, you said the former ain’t got much to do with the latter.


The Oracle is more a video than a film; before this I made two films, one of which is called Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. I made it back in graduate school, and it explored from my mom’s perspective the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to stay away from Greenberg earlier in our conversation, because I am to an extent a modernist, wanting to reconsider like Greenberg what is painting, sculpture, and film. Because film is so different. I know the cinema in the gallery or in the museum is quite a norm now but the film experience is so different, the ritual, you buy a ticket, go into a completely dark room, you sit in a comfortable chair, with a giant screen, and you are committed to sit there for the duration of the film, from the beginning to the end. This entire experience is so different from a screening in a gallery, watching maybe two minutes of it and walking away. That is why I consider them to be two different practises, formally. In terms of content, I have this weird romance of China. It’s because I left China, though always coming back. When parents raise their children outside of their home country, they constantly talk about memories of what they experienced, especially traumatic experiences. So I sort of inherited my mom and dad’s memories. My father was in university when the revolution took place in 1967; mom was teenager. They had different experiences. He was in the epicentre. He did physics in school, but his true love was classical music and violin. So he joined the orchestra, played the violin. He hand copied some classical musics that were banned. What a critical gesture that was not blatantly political! It’s like a resistance that’s so personal. My grandfather was in fact a spy for the Chinese government. So they got punished and sent down. I don’t have time now to explore further, but I’d like to.

It’s not a strategic decision because I just want to be responsible for the form. To apply some rigour to the practise. I have to consider it. When you are a musician, playing on the guitar has to be different from blowing on a trombone, using completely different parts of your body. Art making is that. Why am I exploring sculpture to think about what is art? To me looking at sculpture is looking at what the possibility of art is. Somebody asked me in Beijing why not painting or photography, my answer was I cannot speak on painting, because I never painted, so I don’t know the question of painting. But I invested a lot of time and energy thinking about materiality and the three dimensional world. And also the possibility of sculpture as painting, photo, or drawing.


Speaking of music, what music do you listen to? Coming from LA, with a violinist dad?

I am very interested in the fugue form, as composed by Bach. Fugue creates vortex in the soundscape. It could easily resolves in chaos, but Bach got these layers together, creating a different dimension. He used a lot of organ, and organ’s almost like a spaceship. It travels up and gets you almost into the heaven.

I am also interested in fugue in the tradition of poetry and literature. I am obsessed with the tv series the Wire that uses a similar form.


Who would you cite as your major influences?

Allan Sekula, Trisha Donnelly, Carol Bove - both Donnelly and Bove are my teachers, and they changed how I think about materials and the idea of sculpture and the idea of form. Because all mediums intertwine with each other today, I wanted to go back to the basis. That’s also why I like Bach, because a lot of his works are just exercises. I think with sculpture it can really open up some spaces that are really just invisible to me now. Also Sturtevant, Robert Smitthon and Lee Lozano among many others.


Your insistence on the term “sculpture”, instead of “installation” or even “immersive installation” - for you, it has to be sculpture and it has to be different from what is known today as installation, right?


I don’t do the latter. To me sculpture talks about ontology, the nature of being. What is being, what is the reality that being manifests? One of my earlier works is this photograph of a bonzai. The sculptural aspect of it is in your mind, in your memory of it it grows. Installation does not allow that sort of framework to consider the nature of being.


You talk about your show at ltd in LA, and you talked about feeling in the dark. That reminded me of Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind.


Yes it’s exactly about that!