Your body appears on a series of screens lining the walls. You’re in motion, grainy, and caught on camera from several angles. But what camera?
In the centre of the space, two glowing, 3D-printed light bulbs swing from the ceiling like pendulums or a deconstructed Newton’s cradle. They skim pools of water, one dyed black, the other white. During the exhibition run, splashes from the bulbs will create a small exchange of liquid between pools, meaning that neither will remain black nor white.
We still don’t know where the camera is hidden, but we do know that this is Swinging Gray (2021) a kinetic video installation by Chinese artist Wang Gongxin as part of ‘In Between’ at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London.
It’s a show that examines dualities: East and West, artificial and natural, individual and collective, spectator and spectated, and crucially, the often intangible space in the middle of these poles.
As a student, the Beijing-born artist trained in the modelling techniques of the Soviet School and used Socialist Realist techniques to imitate the Neo-Realist styles of the West. He was also inspired by 1960s minimalist sculpture and Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho’s concept of ‘grey space’. In his London art exhibition, he expands on the core thesis of Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro’s 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows. In this influential text, the author argued that light is used differently in the East and West: Western cultures seek illumination and clarity; East Asian cultures embrace shadow and subtlety.
Wang has long probed the contrasts between his native China and the United States, and the dazzling, sometimes stifling complexity of living in a globalising world. Pieces such as Readable Scenery (2019) combine traditional Chinese landscape painting and Western conceptual art.
‘After arriving in New York, as I hesitated to give up the two-dimensional plane, I experimented with partial abstraction, abstraction and minimalism, before eventually experimenting in three-dimensional installations of various materials,’ says Wang. ‘If there is gradual enlightenment here, could it perhaps be found in this gradual progression of my practice? If you ask what motivation or drive was behind it, I think that the work of the artist is driven by an obsession with creativity and pursuit of a complete spiritual world.’
Three wall-mounted marble panels bear words associated with landscapes, including ‘horizon’, ‘river’, and ‘farmland’. These are carved into the backs of the slabs, readable only when lit from behind. Attached to the marble are 3D-printed objects: ornate picture frames, more light bulbs and electrical cords and a bar of soap. There is also a row of real coat hangers located in the upper left-hand corner of a panel, a nod to Trap, Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade which repurposes the same type of hanger.
Wang’s work, often black and white, but never straightforward, composes a dynamic interchange between the work’s movement and that of its viewer. When people are involved, tightly controlled elements are at risk of unexpected outcomes. The spectator sees the work, and is the work, as humanity sees the conundrum, and is the conundrum.
Wang Gongxin: I’n-Between’ White Cube Mason’s Yard, until 26 February 2022. whitecube.com (opens in new tab)
Harriet Lloyd-Smith is the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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