Behind a typical grey exterior wall and a pair of metal gates, opened by a tiny old woman who struggles against the strong wind, is the cool and minimalist studio of distinguished artist Wang Jianwei, described by Artzine China as “a kind of sociologist or anthropologist”, an artist who “challenges the division between art and real life”.
I am a little intimidated to be meeting this august person, but, gentle and with an intense gaze through black spectacles, Wang is affable and ready to talk, makes me flower blossom tea and, through the heroic efforts of Stanley, my translator, we chat for almost two hours. When we leave, Stanley says “That was HARD!” Mr Wang tells me he like my questions, because most westerners just want to ask him about Chinese politics, and instead my first question was about his new show, ‘Yellow Signal’ opening at UCCA (the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 798) on April 1. He is disheartened that international audiences are still so focused on the work of the Cynical Realists and the painters of the 1990s, the ‘megastars’ of the Chinese art firmament, with their cultural revolution imagery.
Most comfortable and expansive when discussing the philosophical underpinnings of his works, which range from Chinese history, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism to the French structuralists and psycholinguists such as Lacan, he shows me a book by Slovenian philosopher Zizek, ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’ and tells me that this is the key to his new work. He tells the story of the Buddhist apprentice who asks his master ‘What is Buddhism?”. The master replies “Tofu”, or sometimes ‘Vegetables”. It strikes me at this point that Wang is very much like the Buddhist master in the story, confounding his apprentice with an unexpected and very abstract response which can be so opaque as to be almost impenetrable. This is ‘ji feng you’, something which cannot be expressed. I think I am as mystified as the Buddhist apprentice monk at this point!
The ‘yellow signal’ of the new work refers to the yellow light which is ‘in between’ the clarity and obviousness of the red and the green signals. It is a transitional and ambiguous space, a ‘liminal zone’, if you like, which most of us ignore because we prefer the simplicity and order of the red and the green with their command to action – either ‘stop’ or ‘go’. In particular, he says, for the last 5,000 years of Chinese history people have been controlled by clarity or certainty. He wants us all – and most especially the Chinese – to learn how to doubt. Chinese education does not teach students how to doubt, he tells me, and maybe this is why the political control is so tight. His mantra is ‘doubt everything which is certain’. What IS certain is that this work showing at Ullens will be quite extraordinary, although I leave with no clearer idea about what audiences might encounter. He tells me that through the period of the work’s exhibition it will constantly evolve and he will keep changing it. It will include video and new media but also other forms as well. He says it is not like the opening of a flagship store, full of branded goods, but instead it is a work in progress.
Trained in the rigorous academic Chinese system as a painter, the opening of China to the world made him realise the abundant possibilities of other art forms. The beginning of his shift towards a much more conceptual practice came in 1983, when one of his teachers returned from the USA and mentioned the word, ‘installation’. He said at that time the word confused him, but ‘this is the beginning’. He explains ‘To me the definition of what is art or is not art is no longer important – why don’t we just think about art as a collaboration of human knowledge? If the green light is the history of art and the red light is science, then contemporary art exists in the yellow light’.
I ask him, “If a student asks you ‘Mr Wang, what kind of artist are you?’ what would you tell them?” His long and measured response distils a lifetime of thoughtful inquiry. He says, “I am 53 years old and the most important thing is that I keep learning. The history I have lived through brings this legacy: when a person lost the choice of his own future, this was terrible. I want to determine my own future by learning, which includes making mistakes.”
We talk about this period of rapid change in Chinese society, and how people cope with this. He believes that Chinese people are overwhelmed by their economic success, and they have to learn how to enjoy it, and learn “how to be the big brother”. He says in his gentle manner “I don’t want to change the world”, but perhaps with his emphasis on developing a way of thinking which avoids the easy, the obvious, the simple and prefers the ambiguity of the ‘yellow light’ his work suggests the kind of change which is possible.
As I leave, once more I am really overwhelmed by the warmth and openness of China and of Chinese people – I don’t believe that a humble teacher would have access to an artist of such eminence in New York, or London, or Sydney for that matter. I hope that this is something which will not change with China’s increasing affluence and confidence.