Featured in
Issue 202

Yang Mushi’s Light Sculptures Hint at Darkness

The artist’s second solo show at Urs Meile in Beijing uses abstract neons to comment on social realities

BY Nooshfar Afnan in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 21 MAR 19

Sculptural installations, forged out of white neon lights, illuminate the walls of Galerie Urs Meile. The works denote a significant aesthetic departure in the practice of the young Chinese artist Yang Mushi who, in his two previous solo shows, exhibited sculptures and installations in pure black. The new series, ‘Illuminating’ (2018), is characterized by brightly lit geometric shapes and patterns, rendered by narrow, twisting neon rods. Only three works from his ‘Dark’ series (2016–ongoing) form part of this current show, although Yang continues to investigate the possibilities of materials such as old tools, discarded wood and construction waste. Amongst these earlier pieces is Peeling Off – Piece (2017), made of discarded building models and featuring 200 delicate and variously shaped stars, carefully arranged to give the illusion of uniformity.

While the white neon provides a fresh visual experience, Yang’s work retains the same ideological footing: like the ‘Dark’ series, whose titles and materials make reference to manual labour, ‘Illuminating’ is informed by the everyday realities and challenges faced by ordinary people. The use of white neon, for instance, is inspired by both the domestic window grills frequently seen in China as well as by the signage on commercial premises seeking to lure in consumers. In limiting his palette to white, Yang reminds us of the cold florescent lights commonly found in offices and factories.

Yang Mushi, Peeling off - Piece, 2017, building model, density board, lacquer, 244 × 121 × 9 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing/Lucerne

Although the bright, harmonious designs of the neons in works such as Illuminating 3 (2018) might evoke a sense of beauty or even of nostalgia, to Yang this is only an illusion. The bent neon tubes are mounted on iron sheets carefully coated with textured paint to leave a rough, stone-like surface. By adding a coarse irregular background, only visible from up close, the artist hints at something harsher. A graduate of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, with his studio now based in Shanghai, Yang is familiar with both mega-cities. He has been observing a growing trend towards uniformity in these first-tier metropolises, where not only buildings but also people disappear, as rural workers are forced to move back to their hometowns under population-control measures. This is one of the concerns that inspired the show’s title, ‘Vanishing into Thin Air’. Like the neon installations of ‘Illuminating’, all is not bright: look more closely and you’ll find yourself confronting some deeply unsettling problems.

Through repeated experimentation and by employing the narrowest neon tubes available, Yang has been able to achieve some exceptionally compact designs, as in Illuminating 5 (2018). Carefully contorted, the neons permit a multitude of configurations that, when viewed from different angles, reveal yet more patterns. A play on the notion of ‘twisted’, these forms might also suggest the shadowy sides of contemporary society.

Yang Mushi, 'Vanishing into Thin Air', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing/Lucerne

While the ‘Illuminating’ works signal a shift in Yang’s practice, there is continuity with the earlier series and they complement and inform one another. Shapes conjured in wood are re-interpreted in twisted neon: Illuminating 6, for example, has the same hexagonal shape and displays the same long vertical lines as Overlaying – Branch (both 2018). The latter is fashioned from discarded wooden fences that were cut up, thereby symbolically erasing their history, and reassembled into something new. Covered with black lacquer, the fence posts’ pointed ends look menacing and retain their defensive quality. Neon tubes inherently do not allow for such sharp edges, yet jagged spikes appear on the metal backplates of some pieces – Illuminating 1 and Illuminating 7 (both 2018), for instance – allowing for visual and emotional continuity between the works.

Exhibiting a radically different body of work takes courage. Yet Yang, who is renowned for his industry and persistence, has succeeded, after two years of diligent experimentation, in creating another compelling addition to his already impressive body of work.

Yang Mushi, 'Vanishing into Thin Air' was on view at Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing, from 12 January until 3 March 2019.

Main image: Yang Mushi, Illuminating 10, 2018, white neon tube, iron sheet, stone-like coating, 60 × 215 × 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing/Lucerne

Nooshfar Afnan is an art writer and critic based in Beijing, China.