Before visiting Wang Youshen’s recent solo exhibition at ShanghART, I had no idea that it had been 20 years since his last solo show in Beijing. But that doesn’t mean the artist has been inactive during the intervening decades. In fact, the exhibition revealed one of the central concerns of Wang’s life and art over this period: his moves from studio to studio and the impact that these displacements have had on his work.
The exhibition ‘Per Square Meter’ was named after an ongoing series of works Wang began in 2007. For years, the artist has been recording his day-to-day experiences – mostly through photographs, which he archives and eventually integrates into his artworks. Over the past eight years, he has been forced to move studios between three different areas on the outskirts of Beijing: first from Xie Dao to Ge Liang, then to his current space in Cui Gezhuang. Wang has suffered an ordeal common to many artists who have been attracted by the relatively low rents and open spaces of suburban Beijing: finding an underdeveloped district, signing a contract with a landlord, building a studio, establishing a routine and then, before long, being given notice to move out because the value of the land has risen so quickly. Under such circumstances, legal contracts between landlord and tenant are overruled by government demolition orders.
During this process of repeated displacement, Wang managed to collect objects, pictures, videos, sound recordings, sketches, contracts and documents related to his experiences, many of which he transformed into works that were presented at ShanghART. The exhibition opened with a self-portrait of the artist – painted in the style of a photo that had been ripped up and glued back together – standing on the remains of his demolished studio, wearing white gloves. The main gallery, meanwhile, was divided into ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ spaces by a wall that had been partially stripped of its plaster surface, revealing a steel skeleton beneath. The more contemplative ‘indoor’ space presented a silent video documenting the process of installing ‘Per Square Meter’, as well as a ‘new wall’ consisting of a collage of flat panels, each one-square-metre in size, made of glued-together fragments of plasterboard.
The ‘outdoor’ space on the other side of the ruined wall was more dramatic. Three opened wooden boxes, lids leaning on their sides, were placed amid a mass of plaster fragments. These shards were mixed with hundreds of photographs taken by Wang of the sudden and imposed demolitions of his two studios. Inside the boxes were three sound recordings made during the process of moving from one space to the next. Adorning the walls were two juxtaposed series of works that all had one-square-metre dimensions: nine flat panels made of glued plaster fragments beside nine panels of photographs that constituted one complete image of the ruins of Wang’s studio sites; three black and white photographs of landscapes; and a series of colour photographs of landscapes, which the artist had soaked in water. At the exit, Wang displayed several documents, including contracts and notifications, from his dealings with various landlords.
Wang majored in Folk Arts at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and his exposure to traditional Chinese comic-style painting has inspired him to narrate stories in a sequence of square scenes, an approach that appeared repeatedly here. He has also worked as a photo editor and as the art director of Beijing Youth Daily, one of the most widely read daily newspapers in Beijing. The influence of this commercial work is reflected in Wang’s artistic practice, in which he manipulates documentary photographs until figurative images become partially dissolved into abstract patches of form and colour. In previous works, Wang has been vigilant about not allowing an image to assert a definite reference. By washing out specific icons and visual indications in existing news photographs or his own photographs, he allows more open readings of them. The works in ‘Per Square Meter’ continued this line of thinking, though on a more personal level and with more willingness to reveal details – nonetheless, no conclusions were drawn, nor indictments made.