ArtCo | The City of Dionysus: Wang Haiyang Solo Exhibition

Paul Bu Sheng, ArtCo Monthly, February 11, 2019

It was easy to miss Wang Haiyang's solo exhibition which opened at the beginning of November among the various openings and events during the busiest season in Shanghai, but although Capsule Shanghai is tucked away in a Western-style house in a courtyard at the heart of the former French Concession, it did not prevent the words about Wang Haiyang's solo exhibition to get around town, regardless of the gallery discreet effort to publicize the show during this "Art week".


The entrance of the gallery space has been remodeled into a circular area draped in blue curtains to enclose a space from other works of art, and the alternating black and white rings on the ground in this narrow and somewhat ambiguous atmosphere houses the video work Party in the Anus playing in loop on a monitor. One has to put on the headset to hear the dance rhythm. A transvestite in spandex dances with the music in the cavity of the human intestine, and the creases of intestinal lining resonate with the black and white rings on the ground. While the music and being engulfed under the blue velvet curtains appeal to the viewer to dance along with the figure in the moving image, into an interactive "party".


Queer humor often reveals a kind of self-mockery that masks as a self prescribed solution for internalizing negative opinions about being queer. Subsequently, it has formulated into a unique kind of queer language, especially given that the queer community is constantly "besieged" under negative views. At the same time, the sensibility in their observations has provided them with the necessary condition for humor.


Stepping out of the blue curtain and entering in the room on the left, on view is the video The City of Dionysus (2018), a hefty work about death generates perceptual contrast and disparity to the work at the entrance. The narrative of The City of Dionysus tells the story of the lonely death of an elderly lady, interlaced with the stories about her life told through the voice-over narrative of her neighbor. This series of stories span across different times: a proud and aloof female who has never been married dies in her apartment, and was only discovered days after her death. Its imageries are rendered with a surrealist approach. Over the ruins of demolition among the dust and scraps, a giant silver face emerges; the human-like figure with tentacles appear on an empty square, then disappears again with the moving camera lens. The second half of the video breaks free from the previous narrative entirely, where the artist animates his hand-painted compositions of the human body and sexual organs, as well as the tentacles based on the archetype of sexual organs and floral variations. If the first half of this video is conceived as a realistic take on a magical realist novel, then the second half emanates the viewers into an illusory stream of consciousness composed of images. They convey the very essence from oppositional perspectives: the two aspects Dionysus represents, suffering and ecstasy. This is also where the title of the work comes from, at the same time, it also reveals Wang Haiyang's dichotomous positions in appropriating "Dionysus and Apollo" from Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, unlike the order and formal beauty that Apollo represents, Dionysus is symbolic of the irrational and ecstasy. They are manifested through suffering and unhinged desires. The viewpoint of Dionysus-Apollo does not only concern the making of tragedy but can be also conceived as two entirely different approaches in addressing the complexity of the world. "The delirious Dionysus, his destruction of the everyday boundaries and rules, therein, we find the ambiguous component that all of one's personal past is imbued."[1] For which, we are able to perceive the ways in which Wang Haiyang has represented pain and bliss, juxtaposing them to visualize this kind of "inebriation", one that makes suffering seem romantic and bliss seem bitter, both of which are indeed a complex emotion.


In the adjacent space, the work Skins is set up in space where the floor is covered in animal skin and the walls are painted in the same blue as the drapes at the entrance, perhaps that's a realistic representation of the artist's name "Haiyang" (ocean). A pink phallic object pokes in and out from underneath the fur in this video, while the drawings on the walls portray the various actions and behaviors of atavistic men and women. And this atavistic couple, commonly known as suffering from hirsutism, would often catch the attention of the general public (in comparison to the atavistic phenomenon of having tails, hirsutism is more conspicuous). Historically, those who suffer from hirsutism have always been the subjects of research due to their visual conspicuity, in other words, before they are treated as normal individuals, they couldn't be accepted by the human society. Many of them became members of the "Freak shows" in the early circuses of Europe and America, who spent their lives in the exotic gaze and laughter. The obsession with hair to a certain degree precisely provides the example for androgyny in queer culture. When the "bearded woman" is no longer a permanent player in the circus in the 21st Century, and many drag queens chose to keep their manly beard, the iconography of the androgynous finally evades the fate of stigmatization. Body hair is no longer the bona fide quality for "masculinity" and "manliness", it returned to the ambiguous territory where it should have been. 


Among these paintings, Wang Haiyang assigned poses to the atavistic men and women to imitate classical paintings, for instance, René Magritte's The Lovers, where two people kiss through their veiled faces. Although these references may seem humorous, but as mentioned previously, the hirsutals have always been stigmatized historically, that underscore the same type of stigmatization for the queer community that continue to suffer from discrimination and oppression, or even conceived as the "exotic" and "eccentric", as they try to find a balance for equal rights and "overt political correctness". For some, the subject of queer culture has always been like this unnecessary body hair, it's too cruel to get rid of, and a nuisance to keep, so they choose to be oblivious about it.

[1] Frederic Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 1872. Commercial Press, 2012, Sun Zhouxing Trans. Chapter 7.