Smoke and Fire, 2018, still from single-channel 4k video with color and sound: 31 min 18 sec. All images courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

Mind’s Eye

Wang Tuo

Also available in:  Chinese

“Madness fascinates because it is knowledge,” observes Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961). In his taxonomy of European sociocultural, juridical, and medical attitudes to lunacy, Foucault posits that the madman in late-15th- and 16th-century art and literature is an ambiguous figure, encompassing “menace and mockery, the dizzying unreason of the world, and the feeble ridicule of men.” It was after the Enlightenment that an unequivocal demarcation of Reason and Unreason took root, along with the mass institutionalization of the mad and other undesirables. The objective reality of the sane needed protection from the disruptions of the insane.

These lines are not so clear for Beijing-based filmmaker Wang Tuo. “I think reality is actually quite chaotic,” he told me in January, in the midst of filming his next two projects in Changchun. “I try to set up parallel structures of reality,” he said of his films, which over the past few years have probed various troubled psyches as analogies for deeper wounds in the collective unconscious, from the pressures of conforming to the “perfect” American family to the lasting trauma of China’s Cultural Revolution. In Wang’s art, private anguish has the ring of a cosmic drama, unfurled through nonlinear narratives and rapid stylistic shifts that beget hallucinatory, world-expanding disjunctures. 

Antic Dispositions

Wang’s unstable personas arise from an interest in the limits of selfhood, in turn bound up with notions of the body and performativity in his evolving practice. 

After completing an undergraduate degree in biology in 2007 at the Northeast Normal University in Changchun, where he was born in 1984, Wang enrolled in the MA painting program at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. By his account, the repetitive copying of masterpieces required for his training was dull, but it did spark an awareness of his body’s movements at the easel. In 2012, just before leaving China to commence his MFA at Boston University, Wang combined painting and performance in Paying Homage to Buddha for Three Incenses, in which he and his father were filmed cutting each other’s hair; the strands were then used to create abstract compositions on canvas.

He continued to create paintings and performances in New York, where he moved to in 2014 from Boston, but soon realized he was bored with “old-fashioned” performances centered on the artist’s physicality. What he wanted to explore was the body as a vessel for memories and experiences, and how its actions can be influenced by pre-existing forces and cultural referents.

Roleplay (2016) unites the main threads of Wang’s early thinking on the plasticity of performed selves. The film opens with a docu-style scene of a couple’s therapy session in their fancy Upper West Side apartment. Facing the camera from their sofa, they politely field questions about their relationship from an inaudible, off-screen therapist (played by the artist). This improvised conversation is intercut with scripted monologues—performed by the same actors—based on the 1981 film remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, a classic noir plot about adulterers planning to murder the husband. Shaky handheld shots alight on their beleaguered faces as they speak of their mutual disillusionment. 

Roleplay, 2016, still from single-channel 4k video with color and sound: 24 min 31 sec.

On the surface, Roleplay contrasts two performances, one defined by realism, the other by melodrama. “The funny part is that neither actor has real experience of being middle-class,” Wang said. “Their only resource was that they had played a lot of middle-class characters,” placing that performance “between real and fake.” Roleplay thus brings attention to the way that realism is intersubjectively defined by audience and actor based on established tropes and conventions, the authenticity of which is not easily parsed or quantified. 

The idea of a constructed self is more explicitly tackled in The Interrogation (2017), a short film composed of montaged still images. Again, the work braids two narratives, one inspired by Wang’s friend, who works at China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the other a retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (1966), in which an aphasic actress and a garrulous nurse find their identities blurring. While the characters in the latter are powerless and uncomprehending of their gradual psychological slippage, the CCDI officer elucidates the knowing pretense of communication, dissecting how interlocutors manipulate one another through tone and body language. The officer undergoes a sinister transformation himself: the narration begins with his interview for the CCDI post, and segues into his methods as a hired interrogator to extract information from unwilling subjects. The film’s imagery and editing correspond with the two models of interaction. Jump cuts between shots of the young man conversing with the senior CCDI official elide ongoing tension, with close-ups of hand gestures and other cues evoking the interrogator’s watchful eye. By contrast, soft fades between frames of sea views and hands on sheer fabric visualize the fluid boundaries of the actress’s and nurse’s identities.

The Interrogation, 2017, still from single-channel HD video with color and sound: 18 min 35 sec.

The Interrogation illustrates how human action is synonymous with acting, demanding a constant assessment of our own and others’ performance. As the narrator warns at the beginning of the film: “Many people envelop their experiences within a story. These people are usually unreliable.” In Wang’s films, the self is invented as easily as it is worn away, perpetually wavering between reality and illusion.  

The Center of the Maze

Upon returning to China in 2017, Wang began to inculcate a stronger sense of place in his projects, mapping the interior struggles of his characters onto wider psychogeographies. Settling down in Beijing, where the relentless drive to modernize manifests in near-constant razing and renewal, the artist was disoriented to find the place both familiar and not, unfathomable in its conflation of ancient and new, endogenous and foreign. He compared his impression to encountering a Big Dumb Object, a sci-fi trope referring to a mysterious paranormal entity beyond human comprehension. “But in a Lovecraftian way, the closer you get to it, the closer you are to madness,” he noted. “So in my work you cannot see China, only the people inside of it who face this complex reality.” 

Spiral, 2018, still from three-channel HD video with color and sound: 12 min 30 sec.
Spiral, 2018, still from three-channel HD video with color and sound: 12 min 30 sec.

The films Spiral (2018) and Obsessions (2019) use architectural idioms to probe the twisted psyches of their protagonists, who are architects themselves. In the former, an otaku protagonist speaks in voiceover to his online friend Rena, meditating on the concepts of desire, transgression, and the architect’s interdimensional toggling between a flawed 3D world and ideal 2D blueprint. The three-channel display is rife with spatial disjuncture, seen in voyeuristic shots of an office from multiple angles, and in a sequence where the protagonist descends identical stairwells successively, disappearing at the bottom-right of one channel to reappear at the top-left of the next. The live-action footage is also interrupted by sudden flashes of animation that mirror the protagonist’s reality—black-and-white renderings of a cartoonist surrounded by crumpled papers appear as the architect mentions working overtime; a palm sliding down a frosted-glass door is multiplied in a clip of animated hands grabbing at a girl. As these breaks in reality grow increasingly disturbing, it becomes clear that when the narrator speaks of the insuppressible “spiral” of desire, he is referring to his own obsession with his imaginary friend—the only Rena who appears in the film is the anime character from the horror manga franchise Higurashi When They Cry, briefly seen in the architect’s desktop wallpaper. “This is one of the Easter eggs in Spiral,” Wang confirmed. “The starting inspiration of this piece is [the 2017 abduction and murder of Zhang Yingying by Brendt Christensen, whose] viewing history showed that he was a big fan of Higurashi When They Cry.” 

Obsessions amplifies the un-navigability of the twisted mind by representing it as a labyrinthine interior. The narrator is an architect asked by his hypnotherapist to imagine himself as a building; he chooses Beijing’s Fusuijing Mansions, a 1950s model of socialist living that has fallen into disrepair. As the camera makes its winding passage through mildewed corridors decorated by red fortune banners and flickering colored lights, the narrator muses on the way a building is an expression of the architect’s subconscious. Wang’s visuals eradicate any sense of spatial logic as the camera turns impossibly into an unending series of corridors in a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). This sequence is occasionally punctuated by incongruous extreme close-ups, such as of a dark brown eye and of fingertips removing pills from blister packaging. The person is only ever perceived as fragments, his true thoughts buried under layer upon layer of acquired theories and anecdotes that unspool in his imagined journey through the maze. 

In both Spiral and Obsessions, psychological entrapment manifests as physical entrapment—the mind shapes the place. But Wang’s unreliable narrators also gesture to the opposite—the place shapes the mind. A world full of unspecified “shortcomings” pushes Spiral’s lonely character into a fantasy. In Obsessions, the dilapidated socialist monument represents the narrator’s self-conception as a “failed structure” left behind in a society that has abandoned old collectivist ideals. “These characters are all by themselves in the world, confronting something invisible,” said Wang. “I think all human beings face a certain void.” 

Smoke and Fire, 2018, still from single-channel 4k video with color and sound: 31 min 18 sec.

Shapes in Time

In the last four years, Wang has been working on a film tetralogy centered on the spiritual and historical heritage of Northeast China. The artist was mulling over how to approach the theme when he read about the shocking story of Zhang Koukou in the news. In 2018, the Shaanxi native stabbed three neighbors to death and set fire to their car. Twenty-two years prior, the 13-year-old Zhang had watched his mother die after one of the neighbors struck her over the head in a fight. “There are a lot of situations that could expose the contradictions and chaotic reality of China, and I think that’s a perfect one,” Wang noted. For the artist, the case revealed a clash of value systems, one based on the word of the law—rooted in China’s early-20th-century adoption of Western civil codes—the other on ancient principles of filial duty and righteous vengeance. “You could see this in public discussions of the case. Half of the people said, ‘We should give Zhang Koukou the death penalty for breaking the law,’ and the other half believed he was a hero.”  

Smoke and Fire (2018), the first chapter of the film cycle, transplants the Zhang Koukou story to the Northeast. Showcasing the artist’s signature style of rapidly intercut still and moving images, the film unfolds overlapping narratives of spirits and avenging children borrowed from Chinese literature and history. The work combines footage of a young migrant bricklayer’s journey home to exact revenge, interspersed with black-and-white photomontages of him exploring a film-studio warehouse and acting out stories he reads aloud in voiceover. One sequence sees the fictionalized Zhang donning an army uniform and wielding a prop firearm as he narrates an account of the real-life Shi Jianqiao, who in 1935 assassinated the warlord responsible for executing her father a decade before. 

Distorting Words, 2019, stills from three-channel 4k video with color and sound: 24 min 38 sec.

While the historical and fictional asides in Smoke and Fire are visually implied to be Zhang’s mental conjurings, overlaid time-spaces are presented as inherent in the world of Distorting Words (2019). The three-channel sequel was created the year that the real Zhang Koukou was executed, and a century after university student Guo Qinguang died at the anti-imperialist May Fourth protest, a turning point later characterized by the Communist Party of China as the first stirrings of revolution. In 1919, Guo was held up by the movement as a martyr even though he had died of complications of tuberculosis; like Zhang, he became larger than life by way of other people’s retellings. Distorting Words juxtaposes these two figures, seen in atmospheric scenes of Zhang alone in his squalid apartment the day before his fateful act, and a changshan-attired scholar pensively wandering in nature. Interspersed archival footage of early-modern railroads and shots of high-speed trains conflate journeys past and present. If Spiral and Obsessions are centered on the connections between the mind and physical space, then Wang’s latest project marks a higher level of abstraction, considering the ways that the body can access imprints in space across time, and thereby concretizing the artist’s concept of constructing parallel realities in his practice. 

This formulation is charged with an undercurrent of trauma, linked to an unsettling experience Wang had in Harbin, a few hours by train from Changchun. “Cities in Northeast China are quite similar. Walking around and speaking to people with the same accents and view was like being in a parallel world for me. The first week in Harbin, I had a lot of nightmares that exposed bad memories I thought I had forgotten. It made me realize that this kind of parallel world could be a trigger. In my city, I could not remember because the physical environment told my subconscious that those memories were dangerous. But in a similar parallel world, everything came back to me so vividly.” 

Synchronicities are sharpened by pain in Smoke and Fire, for example, where a nocturnal shot of Zhang lighting sparklers after his revenge is mirrored by a flashback of a child watching fireworks after failing to rouse his unmoving mother. In Distorting Words, a morose, coughing Guo appears as the narrator tells a classic Pu Songling tale, in which a suicidal scholar’s death wish summons the spirit of a woman who repeatedly hangs herself from a beam in his room. Wang’s filmmaking recalls philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the crystal image, where the formal devices of mirroring and circularity produce “short-circuits” of interior mind and external reality, visualizing the human temporal experience whereby contemporaneous action, reminiscence, and desire-projection collapse past, present, and future.

Installation view of (left) Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting, 2019, single-channel HD video with color and sound: 27 min 22 sec, and (right) Pain to Laughter, 2019, oil on canvas, 180 × 200 cm, at “Forget Sorrow Grass: An Archaeology of Feminine Time,” Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2019. Courtesy the artist; White Space Beijing; and Guangdong Times Museum.

This approach is particularly effective in a work outside of the tetralogy, Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting (2019), which follows a young Red Guard who becomes engrossed in a ghost story he finds at a ransacked archive and a present-day middle-aged man suffering writer’s block. As the Red Guard reads the ghost story aloud, the writer stands in for its protagonist, a scholar who is so racked with guilt at not having been able to repay his filial debt to his mother due to her untimely death that he begins to mistake his wife for his mother’s ghost and eventually hangs himself. Motifs such as the writer’s papered-over bathroom mirror and the sound of wind chimes connect the man’s home to the textual descriptions of the desolate house narrated by the Red Guard. The disoriented writer eventually finds himself transported to a dilapidated theater, where he joyfully recognizes his mother, an opera singer, rehearsing her movements—an illusion broken by crashing cymbals and a rapid-fire montage of black-and-white photographs showing his younger self forced to publicly whip his “bourgeois” mother on the same stage. After he awakes from the vision, he acknowledges aloud his inability to express what happened, and deletes a file titled 呵壘璉 (amnesia) on his computer. Yet, the film ends with the woman’s refrain from a celebratory scene in a still-popular Huangmei opera, bridging to another possibility—the triumph of song over silence. “I often take music and sound as a parallel narrative, with its own space and time,” Wang explained. “In my films, I try to talk about a lot of things that are not supposed to be seen or talked about. Music and sound could trigger people’s unconscious to access certain parts of history.”

Wang is currently finishing the final two parts of his Northeast tetralogy: Tungus and Wailing Requiem (both 2021). Shamanism—which is alluded to in Distorting Words via a narrated tale about a boy wrongly accused of the practice and the motif of a shaman’s drum—will be a main theme in Tungus, about the “awakening” of an unspoken power during the 1948 Siege of Changchun. Among the diverse shamanistic traditions are ritual spirit-possession and -communication, but Wang sees the shaman as more of an interdimensional traveler, capable of accessing different times and spaces. The artist devised an original concept termed “pan-shamanization,” which “isn’t about any genuine ritual, but about a trigger that makes you believe,” he said. In Tungus, the trigger is the hunger of thousands of civilians left to starve by the Communists encircling the city and the Kuomintang stationed at its heart. The collective will the victims unleash “could reshape the geography and reality of the Northeast, the reality right now.” Characters from the preceding films will return, notably Zhang and Guo, joined by two Korean fighters, inspired by the artist’s discovery that the Chinese Communists had enlisted Korean support. The film’s expansive view is portrayed in an accompanying suite of paintings, in which green-uniformed soldiers coexist alongside classical robed figures, with painted-over patches on the canvas that suggest rends in the spatio-temporal fabric.

Tungus 3, 2020, oil on canvas, 120 × 140 cm.
Tungus 3, 2020, oil on canvas, 120 × 140 cm.

If madness is a radical break with present reality, then Wang’s protagonists appear to teeter on madness. Yet, in their impenetrable struggle they invoke uncanny synchronicities across time and space, and it is here that they disclose their knowledge of the world’s eternal chaos—a wisdom shared by Wang’s dimension-hopping shaman. The other side of uncontrollable madness and self-dissolution is the mastery of transcendence and sight. Wang instantiates the latter in his attempt to get closer to the true complexity of an ever-shifting reality: “Shamanism is a tool for me to look at time,” he said. “The real object of my practice is history. I take the form of the shaman when I look at those moments in history. I fly up and see a great span of time and space down below.”

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