Installation view of WANG GONGXIN’s “Rotation” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy the artist and White Cube.


Wang Gongxin

White Cube
China Hong Kong

The first encounter when visiting Wang Gongxin’s exhibition “Rotation” at White Cube, Hong Kong, was not visual, but olfactory. An overpowering smell of ink wafted through every square inch of the space, readjusting our faculties for a multisensory presentation. A long, black table was placed squarely at the center of the gallery’s lower floor, with two naked light bulbs suspended from the ceiling, taking turns to descend and seemingly enter the surface of the desk. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the “table” is actually a deep pool of Chinese ink contained within the rims of a wide, shallow black container. The installation, titled Dialogue (1995), is visually minimal, arresting the viewer’s attention on the two light bulbs that dance in tandem. When the bulbs gently dip into the placid liquid—into the darkness of the ink—their glows vanish, engulfed by the opacity of the earthy, dark fluid, leaving behind only ripples on the pool’s surface.

WANG GONGXINDialogue, 1995, metal container, wooden table legs and motor, 89 x 300 × 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, Hong Kong.

Wang is renowned as one of the pioneers of video art in China, but White Cube did not underscore his creations that use moving images for “Rotation.” Instead, the artist’s ongoing exploration of mixed mediums and readymade objects was highlighted, foregrounding his tactile installation works from the 1990s—a period of transition after Wang moved from Beijing to New York in 1987, and before his return to the Chinese capital in 1995. The presentation featured three new works that had purely existed as concepts in the ’90s, and showcased Wang’s reflection on this period of unease. These and other installations remain in a state of physical tension, alluding to the artist’s questions on fixed identities.

WANG GONGXINHorizontal, 2017, wooden table, metal container and stone, 86 × 110 × 95 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, Hong Kong.

One such work is Wang’s Horizontal (2017), displayed in the upper-floor gallery. It stood in a corner of a room, featuring a rickety wooden table with one leg planted in a smooth, gold-painted stone, creating a slanted, lopsided posture that leads our eyes toward a black steel container placed in the hollowed-out center of the tabletop. This black insert at first appears skewed, but it is actually lying parallel to the ground. This precarious setup’s intricate construction belies its presupposed stability and function, and creates a visual tension between the contrasting elements: the frame of the traditional Chinese table harks back to the artist’s cultural roots, though its core has been removed and replaced with something newer and tougher. This work seemingly points to the discombobulation one might experience when integrating two distinct—even diametric—identities into ones life.

So too does the installation Unseatable (1995), which Wang created before moving back to his homeland. First exhibited at an artist-run space in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the work consists of a suspended light bulb that circulates above a formation of four steel chairs that face each other. Two seats are, as in Dialogue, filled to the brim with black ink, and the other two contain white milk, again filling the exhibition space with their rich aromas. The incense-like whiff of black ink and sweet scent of the white milk beguiles the viewer, while the motorized rotating bulb moves above the seats like a hawk that cannot decide where to land. Here, Wang demonstrates his ability to bestow complexity within his chosen mediums, transcribing the emotions of uncertainty he felt at a time of cultural adaptation and change.

WANG GONGXINUnseatable, 1995, four metal chairs, flashing light and motor, each chair 83 × 49 x 48 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, Hong Kong.

These works are emblematic of the artist’s shift toward an increasingly minimal and abstract language, which Wang sees as a “reboot” and “self-optimization” of his last 20 years. In his newer explorations of light, space and movement, Wang suggests that identity is something that can only be reflected on during moments of silence. Like the bulbs that hover above pools of milk and ink, and a table that is uncertain of its own weight and orientation, Wang delivers his delicate and ongoing questions of selfhood—prompting us to pause and consider life’s constant flux.

WANG GONGXIN, detail of Unseatable, 1995, four metal chairs, flashing light and motor, each chair 83 × 49 x 48 cm. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, Hong Kong.

Julee WJ Chung is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.

Wang Gongxin’s “Rotation” is on view at White Cube, Hong Kong, until November 11, 2017.

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