‘Myths We Don’t Outgrow’, Wang Tuo’s first solo exhibition at White Space, looks at the historical roots underpinning contemporary narratives. Across three video installations and a set of three realistic paintings, the artist suggests that class, human relationships and the self are all artificial concepts, constantly in the process of fabrication. In Addicted (2017), for instance, 12 well-dressed actors and actresses are positioned as though for a Vanity Fair-style photo shoot. In rigid, formal poses, each gives a brief yet revelatory monologue to the moving camera, confessing physical concerns and psychological frustrations. Juxtaposed with Dutch Golden Age paintings, the shots’ composition recalls the groupings of figures in schuttersstuk and regentenstuk portraits. We gradually come to realize that these people are attending a meeting for addiction recovery à la Alcoholics Anonymous: each confession ends with a ‘Thank you for sharing’ from the rest of the group. In fact, these supposedly intimate soliloquies are adapted from testimonials that these actors have performed before on TV commercials.
In the same gallery, another video, Roleplay (2016), dissects the concepts of the ‘middle class’ and the ‘perfect marriage’. Chosen from 2000 candidates, the ‘ideal New York City middle-class couple’ meet for the first time in a fancy rented living room for a session of couples counselling. The selected actor and actress – who are familiar from TV, where they typically appear in roles such as lawyer and housewife, respectively – improvise a dialogue about how they met in Paris, have raised two daughters, keep a summer house in upstate New York and are private about their sex life. Meanwhile, in a counter scenario, the two actors are alone in their own Brooklyn apartments wearing casual clothes and retelling stories from the classic American noir film The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) as first person narrative. The film’s dramatic plot of unfulfilled desire, adultery, crimes of passion and, ultimately, tragedy for the female protagonist bleeds into the actor’s skillful performance of the awkwardness of a ‘real-life’ relationship, blurring the boundaries between authentic expressions and artificial ones.
In the second gallery space, comparable discussions of infidelity recurr in the three-channel video Real and Natural (2014), in which a man and a woman stage monologues in response to a list of questions based on the narrative structures of Theodor Fontane’s critical-realist fiction Effi Briest (1894) and Émile Zola’s naturalist tale Thérèse Raquin (1867). Although the two books present very different ideologies, they share a surprisingly similar storyline about love, betrayal and tragedy. Interspersed with a comparative literature professor’s comments on the genre of melodrama, the narratives that the two actors recount mix real-life experience with the imagined intimate relationships of the books’ protagonists: a performative demonstration of the extent to which our perceptions of our own relationships are shaped by literary archetypes. In a supplementary Twin Peaks-style video, Questions for America (2014), the questions to which the actors in Real and Natural must respond is narrated in sinister tones while the murder scenarios discussed in the monologues are re-enacted near a remote, dreamy lake in the wilderness.
Research-based and mingling the legacies of classical literature and painting traditions, Wang’s practice reveals the inability of cultural documents to fully capture the human condition. By constructing situations in which the dramatic, humorous and, frequently, absurd aspects of contemporary society and everyday life are exposed, Wang reminds us that, just as all stories contain a grain of truth, reality is often stranger than fiction. Moreover, as a Chinese artist immersed in references from the Western artistic and literary canons, Wang critically evinces how imported cultural archetypes evolve when distilled from their original contexts.
Main image: Wang Tuo, Questions for America, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist and White Space, Beijing