BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 01 NOV 07

After more than a decade of almost complete withdrawal from the frenetic Chinese art world Wang Luyan’s recent solo exhibition offered a valuable opportunity to survey the artist’s work from the last two decades. The exhibition – consisting of drawings and manuscripts of his proposals, which date back to 1988, paintings and installations – summarized, in deservingly grand fashion, the difficult career of one of the most important Chinese Conceptual artists working today.

Actively engaged in China’s avant-garde art movement since the late 1970s, Wang was deeply involved with the New Measurement Group, a three-member initiative of Conceptual artists that existed from 1988 to 1995. The founding of the group was spurred on by the fascination these artists had for Western philosophies – an interest they shared with many others throughout China – after experiencing decades of intellectual suppression under Mao. Introducing the rules of analytic geometry into their practice, the New Measurement Group explored the possibilities of communicating experiences and perceptions through quantities and measurements as opposed to erratic individuality. When the group eventually disbanded, its members destroyed all the documents and materials relating to the their practice in a fire, preferring to maintain its legacy conceptually.
Unlike his fellow group member Gu Dexin, who rose to prominence mainly on account of his site-specific installations featuring fresh fruits or meat deteriorating over time, which played with direct visual and sensual experiences, Wang’s own Conceptual practice remained overshadowed by the fame of the New Measurement Group. The artist’s subsequent descent into obscurity epitomized one of the predicaments that had been facing Chinese contemporary art since the early 1990s. After the political unrest experienced in 1989 the country was steered onto the fast track of mindlessly pursuing economic development, leaving little room or appreciation for non-pragmatic thinking and cultural discussion. When recently asked why he had given up exhibiting his works from the mid-1990s, Wang remarked matter-of-factly that there was simply no suitable ‘soil’ for his ideas to take root in. During that time Western influences and market forces practically hijacked the dominant narrative within Chinese contemporary art, promoting a homogeneous practice that thrived on formulaic and graphic reiterations of China’s revolutionary past and political reality, and excluded multifaceted, in-depth investigations of art itself. ‘It was just meaningless to show works without the right context’, Wang concluded.

The context Wang yearned for – an open and diversifying art scene – has been slowly emerging in China since the turn of the millennium, thanks to growing national and economic power and confidence. Recollecting the idealism of the 1980s, recent attempts to revitalize Conceptual art practice have become something of a trend and constitute a welcome alternative to the primitive commercial operations previously prevalent in the Chinese contemporary art world. In Arario Gallery’s
largest exhibition hall many of the drawings in which Wang kept his Conceptual ambitions alive over the years were displayed prominently at the beginning of the exhibition, providing a historical and contextual introduction to the installations and paintings that were later realized from several of these drawn works.

The exhibition’s central work, and the one that lent its title to the show, was Sewing or Being Sewn (2007), a 13-ton saw-like structure, based on a design the artist made 17 years ago, which featured one central vertical blade cutting into, and being cut by, two horizontal blades. While a pool of grease on the dais supporting the blades gave the impression that this was a working machine, the complex, glistening structure was ultimately without function.

In the middle of the second gallery space loomed two identical, oversized, stainless-steel set squares (W-Set Square, 2007), their presence conjuring childhood fantasies in which everyday objects are blown up to monstrous sizes. Closer inspection, however, revealed two entirely different sets of measuring scales engraved onto the set squares, inducing us to reflect on the arbitrariness that conditions the parameters within which we operate.

These two installations appeared to hint at Wang’s profound distrust of established ideas and systems – a viewpoint echoed in the series of Minimalist paintings that formed the rest of the show. These cleanly depicted designs for machinery, guns, tanks, screws, wristwatches, scissors and bicycles all had one thing in common: the lack of utility. Weapons whose bullets flew in both directions to harm not only those they were aimed at, but those who fired them as well; wristwatches whose additional set of hour and minute hands meant they could never be used to tell the time. Although minor, and not always easily perceptible, the changes clearly negated the purpose and utility of these mechanical devices. After years of silence Wang’s critical voice could once more be clearly heard in this wide-ranging investigation of forms, which proved as appealing to the eye as it was challenging to the mind.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.