Installation view of WANG XU’s Untitled Athena (foreground) and Garden of Seasons (background), both 2018, Hanbaiyu marble from Hunan, 220 × 130 × 85 cm; two-channel video with color and sound: 32 min 34 sec, at “Garden of Seasons,” Vincent Price Art Museum, Los Angeles, 2018–19. Courtesy the artist and Equitable Vitrines, Los Angeles. 

Wang Xu

Also available in:  Chinese

At the heart of Wang Xu’s solo exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), a monumental female figure standing more than seven feet tall carries an urn on her left shoulder. She extends her right arm forward, her fingers gently reaching out. Yards of fabric fall in pleats and folds from her wide, armored chest down to her sandaled feet. This contemporary statue in classical guise, Untitled Athena (2018), bathes in the glow of the two-channel video Garden of Seasons (2018) projected behind her, which depicts the creation of the statue interspersed with clips of an intense municipal hearing centered on a public sculpture.

These two works comprised “Garden of Seasons,” which was curated by the Los Angeles-based arts organization Equitable Vitrines. The organization had initially contacted Wang in 2016, with the idea to erect the artist’s statue Eve (2015) in Heritage Falls Park—a beloved communal space, designed in the 1920s, that features a multi-tiered waterfall and a statue known as Athena.
Eve was carved in the likeness of a Chinese woman Wang had befriended at a marble quarry in Quyang—the same quarry where a 2005 replacement of the park’s Athena statue was made, after the original disappeared during the Great Depression. The proposal was intended to spark conversations about representation in the sphere of public art, gesturing to the majority Asian and Asian-American population that resides in Monterey Park, as well as the historical and cultural conditions that shape the context of how the artwork is received and interpreted. However, a 2017 hearing with the city council resulted in pushback from residents, who protested the statue’s installation due to its ahistoricity and representation of controversial racial politics. Equitable Vitrines rescinded their proposal.

The exhibition was a response to the failed proposal and mirrored Wang’s practice in plumbing the underlying, slippery tensions that intertwine questions concerning collaboration, manufacture and value in a globalized world. Intended to complement her Quyang sister in Heritage Falls, Eve could not simply be moved into VPAM. Thus, Wang produced Untitled Athena, based on The Hope Athena, a 2nd-century AD Roman facsimile of a 5th-century BC Greek statue, currently in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work is a compendious tribute: Untitled is almost identical to The Hope Athena, but her arms are modeled after those of the lost Athena of Heritage Falls Park.

The film Garden of Seasons explores similar concepts of authenticity and site-specificity. Both screens feature footage and audio of Untitled Athena’s creation in Quyang, a long-established site for stonemasonry in Hunan province, China, as well as its journey to California. The left screen dips in and out of the hearing regarding Eve in Monterey Park while also displaying the dreamy industrial landscapes of Quyang and images of Heritage Falls Park. Every so often the two channels melt into one broad, expansive shot, connecting the various locales as the timeline moves the passage forward. We see little of the artist himself; instead, a viewer observes the many parties involved in the unfurling of this project, in a way that illustrates the idea of collective labor and process as being vital to the conception of the form itself, and that reject fixed perceptions of originality or legitimacy. 

The theorist Han Byung-Chul has used the cultural phenomenon of shanzhai—the catchall term describing the sophisticated knockoffs generated in China—to highlight contrasting notions of authenticity and truth in Western and Eastern philosophies. Han asserts that, in Western thought, “the idea of the original is closely linked to that of truth. Truth is a cultural technique that counteracts change using exclusion and transcendence.” He argues that the Chinese notion of the original is defined “by unending process, not by definitive identity but by constant change . . . that allows no essentialist positing.” Although Wang’s works do not explicitly address these themes, his considered reproduction of The Hope Athena and his insistence on instantiating the collaborative processes inherent in the creation of works like Eve or Garden of Seasons hints at an artistic interpretation of truth that relies on going with the flow.

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