Things that should not be

Versatility has always been a virtue in the Beijing art community: artists and curators are expected to alter working methods not only with the coming and going of styles and ideas but also according to circumstances ranging from the political to the architectural. Wang Yuyang consistently espouses a versatility of a different sort, seemingly melting and remolding a set of core ideas to expand or contract to fit the contextual vessels of exhibition and publication; working without a studio but rather splitting his time between overseeing the fabrication of his work in production factories and educating students in the environment of the academy, his practice has veered from the narrative to the highly abstract. Some installations seemed particularly suited to the new media festival circuit, while others owe much to the legacies of gallery-based sound art. Still others are at home within the spectacular and colorful environments of Chinese contemporary group survey shows. This split personality is not uncommon in a world in which painters are often encouraged to exhibit installation due to a perceived inherent conservatism of their medium, but Wang Yuyang rather uniquely organizes his objects and images around a core set of spatial concerns and pockets of affect – he tells rich stories and builds up intricately structured systems of meaning and presence, certainly, but at the center of each lies the shared question of possibility and justification. He delivers instances of materiality that should never have come into being, presenting very tangible situations that represent the very impossibility of their natural emergence. These are philosophical objects as physical objects, ideas—wrong ideas— that somehow constitute flesh.

The fleshiest manifestations of this tendency toward the uncanny object all belong to the rather extensive series Breathe, which fabricates disconcerting hybrid entities that occupy the physical space of the sculpture while also exerting a claim upon the particular form of biological life that is essentially if vaguely claimed by the human subject. It is a complex relationship of destabilized subject to ascendant object that is brought into play with these pieces: prosaic objects including a window air conditioner unit, a thick television, an old-fashioned green refrigerator, a freestanding ATM, a countertop cash register, a fancy washing machine, a copier, a simple plinth, and a beat-up breadbox minivan are designed in thick rubber shells attached to industrial-strength fans controlled by a periodic timer, causing their painted skins to heave every few seconds. As these familiar forms inflate and deflate as if they were breathing, the craft of the artist is painfully visible within the sheer artifice of the contrived scenes; it is truly a spectacle to be surrounded by sundry inhaling appliances, but it is the scale of the minivan, subtitled Manager Zhao’s Black Cab, that ultimately threatens the psychological wholeness of the viewer. While the smaller objects are more or less silent, the larger automobile sputters and rumbles as if it were on its last breath, much as an actual engine might behave in the same situation. For the artist it is the fact that these cyborgs breathe the same air as their human audiences. Both rejoicing in and unnerved by the roles such machines play in the marking of time as it typically applies to the passage of human life in the urban environment, Wang Yuyang views the skin of these inanimate creatures as a dual limit that points to a set of relationships not directly evident at first glance: that between painting, called into being here as a foil representing the fetish object of art history, and the body, useful for its reverse metonymic reference to the skin. The artist creates these objects because they speak to both sides of this void, which stands in for the work of the artist in an idealized studio environment: the membrane between paint and skin. With no logical right to exist in any context outside the exhibition space, these sculptures become confrontational only within the privileged sphere of art.

Wang Yuyang raises this key problem again in Invisible Sculpture, a sardonic attempt at fabricating abstract forms reminiscent, at least conceptually, of dark matter. Appearing in the gallery as massively inoffensive pieces of metallic or ceramic public art of the sort that might be scattered around city squares or suburban sculpture gardens—one even resembling a miniaturized Infinity Column—the actual aesthetic interest of these shapes lies in their invisibility: each one marks a blindspot to advanced microwave radar technology, designed in conjunction with physicists in the field based at the Harbin Engineering University. It is perhaps the rote normalcy of the sculptures, their almost absurd failure to excite the senses but moreover their inability to present themselves as objects somehow removed from the exhibition context or the broader field of art, that combines with their parallel existence in the scientific research community to launch a violent attack on the convenience of recent approaches to the legacies of modernist aesthetics. Where Breathe proposes objects that cannot exist according to the standard definitions of the subject-object or viewer-work relationship presumed by the gallery context, Invisible Sculpture advances a nominal opposition in the form of objects that actually do not exist, at least by some measure; this slippage of intelligibility or legibility serves to undercut the work of the artist by transforming formal choices (and, indeed, the question of style itself) into technical question with no relation to the idealized exhibition viewer. In some ways the most powerful gesture at work here is the supposition of a second audience, an invisible audience to which the sculptures exhibited would actually appear invisible.

These sculptures, or their visible manifestations, differ from Breathe primarily in that the exhaling rubber skins are decidedly representative of the aesthetic sensibility of the artist, while the Invisible Sculpture objects mirror only his taste for the humorous and media-aware, leaving no possibility for any lingering doubt that the physical forms belong to a compelling category of analysis. In this reading sculpture, for Wang Yuyang, is a categorically suspect label that is validated not by aesthetic success or even appearance in the exhibition context but rather along an axis of impossibility: rather than the construction of charmed objects that create their own space independent of architectural environment, sculpture is now the birthing of things that were never meant to be. Existing only within a particular architectural space, these impossible things parasitically leech off of the flow of the exhibition, appearing only for a brief and bounded moment before disappearing again into the nothingness of a studio that, by all accounts, cannot exist.

Robin Peckham