Shen Qianshi: Explanation - On Wang Zhiyi's solo exhibition 'Meaning'

Shen Qianshi

“Of all questions in the world, those debated on night boats are the hardest to answer.”

—Zhang Dai, Preface to The Night Ferry (17th century AD)


The seemingly absurd purpose of the booklet The Night Ferry, an encyclopedia drafted by scholar Zhang Dai, is summarized in one sentence appearing in its preface: “…don’t pretend to know what you don’t and thus make a fool of yourself.”[1] In his book, Zhang analyzed, documented and classified unrelated words in an effort to understand the meaning of the universe. This masterpiece became our reference for conceptualizing the Ming Dynasty. What the scholar has tried to achieve with his book is similar to the instinct that moves the artist to walk calmly into an exhibition and make minute adjustments to an artwork. This mysterious act is a clue to understanding the motivations behind the act of practicing art.


Multiple sensory experiences lead the artist to apply certain boundaries to his work. Wang Zhiyi places the frame on the ground, treating the canvas as a point of reference while the work unfolds three dimensionally. Chunks of pigment spread from the sides of the canvas, progressively reaching the surface, eventually shaped as fractal planes. In order to keep his senses sharp, he tries to break this repetitive practice by alienating his initial inspiration. An intentional naming process and geometric patterns complement each other to convey the meaning behind his creative practice. These actions can be compared to a toddler unconsciously twisting a Rubiks  cube, or an elderly man carefully folding paper cranes. He understands this perpetual act is tantamount to an eternal chess game.


Muscle inertia, technical precision, excitement, and fatigue have rendered the physical space of Capsule Shanghai more pleasing than to the naked eye. The entrance of the gallery is 45cm thick; the second door is 46cm and the third 70cm, each with varied widths. The artist sensitively discerns these nuances and aligns the doors, alluding to a delicate relationship between the viewer's body and the space. Human perception is like cat whiskers—our viewing habits are highly influenced by the scale of body. Therefore, the artist is also impeded by the studio space. Wang has relocated his studio four times. The dimensions of the frames and slope of the fractals’ contours also produce different styles.


As he sat in the first studio, observing the light of the setting sun refracted through the slanted window, he adjusted the frames to make the light and shadow cut through the surface evenly.


“[A] natural man, in deference to abstract space, is recast to fit its mold.”[2]


Origami generates a sense of restraint and moderation, allowing him to complete the work within more explicit confines. It has also become his self-tuning process before embarking upon a new work. René Descartes believed that substance is an entity without spirit that occupies space, while the soul is a spirit with no regard for space. The fluidity generated by the interaction between the two spaces encourages further changes in his creation within the world. Wang operates like a drone, planting metal grass on the lawn of Capsule Shanghai; like a civil engineer, casting models to study the center of gravity of his sculptures and bending sheet metal to create an aluminum sculpture inspired by the Sarajevo Winter Olympics monument; like a devout monk in monastery, applying colored film to the windows to alter the indoor lighting. Several of his narratives use the details contained in these spaces to inspire a thoughtful composition and add an alchemic experience to the exhibition. He uses mirrors to distort the murals and extend them into the infinite reaches of space. And here, I suddenly recalled a Magian priest in one of Jorge-Luis Borges’s novels saying, "Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men...."[3]

[1] The sentence, literally quoted as “don’t make the monk stretch his feet and despise” refers to an anecdote mentioned on the preface of The Night Ferry.

[2] Oskar Schlemmer, The Theater of the Bauhaus (1925)

[3] Quoted in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" - a short story by the 20th-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.