Have we walked on the Moon yet

0. Introduction

On the occasion of Wang Yuyang’s solo show at Boers-Li Gallery I want to cast an eye back over the artist’s work and my experience of it since we first met in 2007. Since then I have worked as his gallerist and have been privileged to be party to his working process over that time. The development of my experience and knowledge of Wang’s works has been progressive – over time I have seen him develop his pieces, talked with him and tried as best I can to help him clarify his ideas and the exact nature of his works. Not that he has needed much help from outside as his pieces present themselves with a confidence and strength that go beyond what you might expect from an artist early in their career. My first experience of his work was the installation Dust is Dust (2008), created for the opening of our CPU:798 space in Beijing, and from there I was brought rapidly up to speed with his earlier work and subsequently witnessed the creation of the new pieces.

Wang’s work seems to be naturally heterogeneous—it takes many forms—and the main thrust of this piece is to investigate whether the concept of progress really makes any sense when looking at the collected works that have been brought together for this show, as well as bringing in other works by Wang that may help to elucidate this. I will introduce some themes that Wang returns to in his pieces, and attempt to provide some sort of background and context for them within his oeuvre. But ultimately I have become aware that an idea of “progress” is unnecessary for an artist like Wang Yuyang, perhaps for artists in general, so I will consider why this should be the case.

1. Show

This show is the first chance to see many of Wang’s larger installations together, and obviously gives us the opportunity to hold them up to one another, make comparisons and find links through our direct experiences of them in the Gallery spaces. This is impossible to avoid, written into the structure of display even, but the question arises: is this useful, or counter-productive? Does this clarify or confuse? And how much is this a result of the presentation, or do the works themselves assist or abet this process? Could there be something about the works which avoids comparison? It is always possible to compare things, but does the basis for our comparison serve us well, or is it spurious – meaningless beyond the instant linkage that it makes?

At first glance the works seem disparate, the works of a number of different people, even. There is no consistent form or style that allows one to say, “this is a ‘Wang Yuyang’.” Looking in particular at the show-stopper which is Artificial Moon; the pseudo-scientific Exploratorium of Moon Landing Programme; and the cinematic set piece of Tonight I Will Consider Who I Am. These three works all take the Moon as a more or less defined subject, yet treat it in such diverse ways that it can no longer be taken as a dominant theme for the set of works. On the other hand, the pieces in the Breath series, which draw us in to their little worlds of contrived being, might be the key to our investigation as these are simple pieces which actually consistently “do” something.

One answer may be that Wang is still a “young” artist. He received his postgraduate degree from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2008, so maybe this disparity is simply a feature of one who has not yet “found their style.” But I do not feel that this is necessarily a bad attribute for one’s work – perhaps “finding your style” is the worst thing that could happen? Looking further afield, I have seen Chinese artists where they will be a pursuing a number of quite distinct styles concurrently. I might almost think this was a style in itself, or at least a tendency, which suggests that to question this is less than relevant to these artists.

After all, this is not painting or sculpture, where style, technique and some kind of consistency are an accepted and approved part of the artist’s work. So is this just a Modernist assumption I am forcing onto these artists, that they should progress “logically” and display a “commitment” to their works’ potential – this kind of thinking seems stuck in a formalist rut.

Wang Yuyang’s work is of course about ideas, and the presentation of ideas, I might call him a Conceptual artist in some ways. The definition of a Conceptual artist, coming from the West, is one who privileges the idea over the final form: but for Wang the form still holds essential meaning, not least because of his propensity to tell stories through his pieces, the form being an essential vehicle for this activity.

These stories, are only suggested, not explicit. There is room for multiple stories, the artist’s and our own, in the gaps left by the pieces, and a truth makes itself felt through these stories. These stories take many forms: from the presentation of a situation into which we can extrapolate a before and after – some kind of narrative; through the story as a history, an investigation of actual events and their slow slippage into fiction – the imagination of alternative histories; or stories in which we ourselves are invoked and have an active part to play. This slippage seems to give the stories the status of myths in Wang’s works.

I was immediately drawn to Wang’s implicit mythologies, and the awareness in his pieces of playing with mythology. He covers mythology in the broadest sense: these works both take on existing (“real”) events which have a special place in the public imagination (the Apollo Moon Landings, for instance); “literary” mythologies which we have adopted from other cultures and made our own (Artificial Moon as the presentation of an object that embodies the dreams of so many societies); and also leaves conceptual space for new mythologies to take root.

Mythology, as used in Wang’s pieces, automatically includes us in its workings. It’s not about an assumed culture, one that is presented to the observer but has no meaning to them. It’s about a culture that is actively taken part in – that is actively constituted when it is taken part in, through the whole gamut of belief and ritual – or even science and technology. At a very basic level this can mean simply observing an object, something out of reach, a thing upon which we can project. Something like the Moon.

2. To the Moon

It is a practical and economic fact that we very rarely get the chance to leave our Earth behind and enter space. Science, its organisations and institutions get such opportunities very rarely, and to have a human being physically go there has only been possible very few times. To get into space is one thing, to safely land at the other end, on another planet, multiplies the difficulty. The records tell us that there have only been six opportunities for humans to stand on the Moon – three visits by the various missions in US Apollo Moon programme and on each occasion just two people actually left the landing craft and walked on the Moon. So most of our information necessarily comes at more or less of a remove, through remote sensing, robotics, and inference from other phenomena. Science’s relationship with the Moon could be said to be mainly one of extrapolation from data, made up of leaps of logic and intuition. Within the realm of science we have here the imagination firmly taking its position – the role of belief in what can be the most logical of realms.

To place the imaginative exploration of knowledge alongside its scientific pursuit is one of Wang’s most powerful tools and produces a productive play of meaning that has resulted in a complex set of works addressing this relationship.

The pieces Artificial Moon, Moon-Landing Programme, Tonight I Will Consider Who I Am, and (obliquely) Dust is Dust, have taken the mythology and reality of our imaginative and literal explorations of the Moon as their foundation.

3. Artificial Moon (2007)

In a moment of pure sci-fi, Artificial Moon fills the space with its presence, both in terms of apparent mass (four metres in diameter) and the sheer amount of projected light from the random arrangement of bulbs and fluorescent strips scattered across its surface (a total of around 10,000 bulbs and tubes, all told). This piece presents the Moon to us as a blinding reality, not (as in the original) a source of light by reflection but acting as its own emitter.

The Moon has always been an object of fascination for humanity, to look up at this seemingly impossible object from our position on the surface its mirror image, is to take us outside of ourselves, giving us some insight into what means to be on Earth, but opposing our comfortable, homely feeling with this distant region of weightlessness and extremes of light and temperature. Our separation from the Moon confuses any precise analysis by the naked eye, but allows us to read our fantasies into the mottled surface of our satellite.

The hollow steel structure of Artificial Moon holds the lights at its surface, a surface made purely of light. In the installations, Wang brings his self-illuminated globe almost within touching distance, holding it within our field of view and inspection. As much as the light is blinding, potentially blocking any close analysis, the arrangements of bulbs leaves modulations in the cloak of light, leaving room for us to generate our own shapes and images, to picture our own mythologies within its forms.

4. The Moon-Landing Programme (2006–07)

The Apollo moon landings may have given us the first human contact with the Moon’s surface, but what evidence are we left with for this event? The premise for Moon Landing Programme is the attempted recreation of this evidence – this time on Earth, in a studio and the gallery context. Wang asks whether we can take what we are presented with at face value? There is a perennial theory that these landings never took place, and are all a fabrication. What happens if one then tries to recreate the evidence, the film, down to the very clothing worn by the astronauts and the artefacts that were brought back from the surface. What does that do to our belief in science and the “evidence.”

As a starting point, Wang took the original grainy television footage of the landings and attempted to recreate it in a studio, with a complete set of full-size props. The Moon Landing Vehicle, the astronauts in their heavy, white suits, the (improbably?) stiff flag planted in the grey regolith, all have been carefully reproduced. The lighting matches as closely as possible that seen in the original footage. In the gallery setting Wang’s footage is juxtaposed with the original in an attempt to verify the reality of both, attempting to analyze and judge the data by its reproducibility. It is impossible to match the two exactly, but what does that prove?

In the gallery, in a pseudo-scientific environment, the artist presents his attempts at the recreations alongside all the props and some samples of “moon rock” that he has made. Containment glove boxes allow the visitor to manipulate the rock, testing “with their own hands” the samples. All this in a further attempt to build up the veracity of the scenario which the artist is creating.

This was the first piece by Wang that I experienced, and coincided with my first visit to China. At the time I wrote that its “naive, almost childlike stance and extreme literalness with respect to the documentary evidence that was it’s material seems to reflect a view of the world vastly different from that based on Western assumptions.” For me, this alternative view of the world as I understood it was my first realization of the assumptions I had been living under before I came to China.

In the end it is never hidden that Wang’s production is all an illusion, but perhaps we are then less likely to take the scientific evidence at face value too.

5. Dust is Dust (2007–08)

The installation for Dust is Dust presents one with stark images of scenes where scale is indefinable or malleable, while in the floor crystal balls are embedded. The back-lit transparencies dominate the darkened gallery space and show stark monochromatic images of miniscule particles of dust at a magnification beyond our own senses’ capabilities.

The subject material for this piece is a direct development from the investigations of The Moon Landing Programme, but the emphasis has moved from the macroscopic to the microscopic. Wang takes a sample of his “moon rock” and submits it for analysis under a scanning electron microscope. At the extremely high magnification this equipment provides the artist finds a new world, presented as an almost alien landscape. The rock dust has also been embedded in the crystal balls that lie in holes in the gallery floor, as if they are meteorites impacted into the environment.

This use of the accoutrements of science as well as of belief, suggests that they both provide a mythological analysis of our futures: we are here peering at these elements, invisible to the naked eye, through the glass spheres and the microscope, searching for enlightenment.

The pursuit of truth is a strong and emotive subject, and one which is common to all of us in some shape or form. Closely allied with truth would be understanding, one step towards (or perhaps, away from) truth. The means we take in the pursuit of truth and understanding vary massively – many of Wang’s pieces investigate the place science and technology take in the formation of ‘truths’ through the facilitation of understanding. Their relationship is scrutinized by the artist and in the pieces also opened up to analysis by the viewer.

A corollary of this activity would be that the artist’s very actions are adding a further layer of complexity to the process. Analysis could go on forever, but at some point we stop, take stock and report on what it is that we have found. Written into that report is the awareness that this is very much a provisional state. This is an artificial, man-made point and one which is as much a construction as any in the subject matter.

6. Tonight I Will Consider Who I Am (2008)

The latest piece in this loose series of works develops the themes and materials of the previous works, but turns them in an unexpected direction, bringing narrative to the fore for the first time.

Using elements from the set of Moon Landing Programme, including the space suit and the Apollo Moon Lander, Wang refashions an alternative storyline to the alternative history he has already pursued. In this installation we are witness to the aftermath of some catastrophic event—perhaps taking place after leaving the Moon, on the return to Earth—which has left the astronaut stranded. The suit leans disconsolately against the wreckage of the craft, in darkness and a thin, cold atmosphere. The only hope lies in the piercing light of a welding torch amidst the broken up craft, providing some immediate relief from the gloom, as well as a point of attraction for any would-be rescuers.

Why should Wang take this particular route? I think it should be looked on as a gradual unfolding and opening up of Wang’s ideas in space. These four works—on the surface dealing with investigations of truth and meaning—perhaps more effectively represent a working out of Wang’s preoccupation with the life of objects. This is a meaning which is kept subtle in the four works mentioned above, but has been made explicit in his other series of works which were produced concurrently, under the heading of Breath.

7. Breath—TV (2006) / Breath—AC (2006) / Manager Zhao’s Black Cab (2008)

This series has an unassuming nature to it that contrasts with the power of the larger installations. There is a physical subtlety in these pieces that takes us by surprise, making us review our familiarity with these objects.

The works examine the idea of objects being invested with life and a spirit. They take their forms from common items, reproduced in silicon rubber and painted to match their real-life counterparts. Where they depart from their original substance is that the rubber is flexible and a fan has been fitted to the insides of each piece. The fan switches on and off in a sequence, creating a change in pressure within the piece, moving the rubber in and out, simulating the subtle motions of breathing. When transferred to an inanimate object such as the van (Manager Zhao’s Black Cab) or a television set (Breath—TV), this movement gives us an uncanny sense that the object is somehow invested with life, a visible manifestation of the potential liveliness of matter.

8. A heterogeneous practice

Although in its forms and methods Wang Yuyang’s work presents a certain heterogeneity, as I mentioned earlier this should not be mistaken for a lack of commitment or seriousness in his thought. We should not get too bound up in a fruitless and constricting concentration on consistency to rationalise these works, in understanding them, in interpreting them. Wang’s concentration on the multifarious forms of life in the works, is paramount and is something which all his creativity is focused upon.

Scientists seek consistency in their experiments; each one is a test of their hypotheses and assumptions which are laid out as arguments before testing begins. For an artist this method of working can be appropriate, but its nature as ongoing and potentially infinite must be stressed in the artist work: a single piece will never be enough to present the artist’s hypotheses; only a group of results has the potential to support an argument.

Understanding therefore becomes a form of analyzing the work into a set of potential attributes, like a postcode that could trace our route back to the work if necessary. Within this topography, we like to think we gain a key to the past and the future of the work, via processes of linkage, extrapolation and prediction, which the pieces then follow or diverge from in actuality.

But this tells us more about ourselves, and our thought processes, than about the work. Does it really help us to understand the work as the work? Misplaced understanding can be as much of a barrier as anything else, so is our concept of searching for a consistency in works misdirected? Wang Yuyang sits at the cusp of this mutual investigation, neither falling into an easy understanding, nor losing credibility by holding us in that relationship with the data.

Wang Yuyang’s investigation continues.

Edward Sanderson