Wang Jianwei: Working on the Boundaries

New media in China is probably the most rapidly developing medium used by contemporary artists in that country. As an art form new media characterises a form of communication with an almost endless capacity to be manipulated, making it the perfect tool to express a new artistic confidence. The intent of this article is the concentration on the work of one artist Wang Jianwei, whose work typifies many of the issues being expressed nationally through contemporary art. His is a practice differentiated by the way he slides from media to media allowing the intent of the art to govern the form of expression.

New media art in China is probably the most rapidly developing medium used by contemporary artists in that country. As an art form new media has come to express the experimental nature of the contemporary Chinese art phenomenon. Its characteristics as a communication media combined with an almost endless capacity to be manipulated seems to make new media the perfect tool to express a new artistic confidence.
In China itself there is a disproportionately large number of contemporary artists who have shifted from their original modes of expression to various combinations of electronic media, film, sound, animation, Internet, game, performance, theatre work and objects. These elements are used most often in combination. In this article I intend to concentrate on the work of one artist Wang Jianwei. Besides being one of the most interesting artists working in China today, he is also an artist typifying many of the issues being expressed nationally through contemporary art.

Wang Jianwei is not by any means alone in using new media in China. His practice is differentiated more by the way he slides from media to media allowing the intent of the art to govern the form of the expression, as for him new media is only a tool of expression, but one however which is stretched and manipulated. In the same way as what he is expressing, the final form tests the boundaries. Other artists, in their own individual ways, are also defining new media practice in China. Artists like Yang Fudong (experimental film), Gu Wenguang (documentary/performance art), Zhou Xiaohu (animation), Feng Menpo, (videogames) and Wang Bo and An Xu (internet based interactive art) explore a variety of media.

The first thing that must be understood about any form of contemporary Chinese art is that the history is short. The second characteristic is the strong craft base evident in most contemporary production. A further fundamental driving force is both the belief and the desire that visual art forms can influence societal evolution. It is part of Chinese heritage that visual artists are social commentators, a point which is often overlooked in exploring what motivates contemporary art production and the official response to it.

The year 2003 has been significant in Chinese artistic development in the staging of the first Beijing Biennale. This event followed the Shanghai Biennale and the Guangzhou Triennial of earlier in the year. The Biennale in Beijing was long anticipated as the final recognition that contemporary art had ceased to be officially discouraged in China. The exhibition, while conservative in execution, particularly in the official section, signals acceptance of contemporary art forms by the government at large. Only two years ago there was still the possibility that local officials could challenge even small-scale contemporary art events. The Beijing Biennale signals to those officials that contemporary art is now a soft threat.

For an artist dealing in multi-media formats the now diminishing threat of political sanction is very significant. These artists in the past have made up the least understood and hence most threatening segment of contemporary art practice in China. To illustrate this the artist Wang Jianwei has in the past used electronic media to make subtle but incisive criticism of government policy and co-ordination. Work produced by artists like Wang could only be expected to find open audiences outside China, a situation which for many contemporary Chinese artists was simply a fact of life. The Cynical Pop art that typified what the West was seeing in the early 1990s can be described as an art produced purely for an international audience. For an artist like Wang Jianwei that period formed the basis of his international career. However, he was in many ways in conflict with the intent of other Chinese artists. Wang's primary concern was always a domestic Chinese condition. The fundamental shift that is currently taking place means that work like his can now start to focus upon its intended audiences, which is primarily Chinese.
Multi-media art in China has always differed from other forms of contemporary art production. From its first appearance it always considered a local audience. The fact that it has been successful on a more global scale is more a testament to its universal themes and the imagination used in its production.

It is worth considering that in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the opening up of China, few Chinese artists had access to photographic media let alone sophisticated electronic equipment to make art. It is reflective of the nature of contemporary Chinese art, that not only have the artists involved embraced the medium so rapidly, but that they have become a significant influence on the way it has been developed internationally.
There has been a great desire by Chinese artists not to be seen as clones of western contemporary art practice. The electronic medium is new to all artists and Chinese artists embraced it as a one free of Western movements and models. This new medium has in reality presented itself as neutral ground in which Chinese artists' interpretations are as open to emulation as those of their Western counterparts.

What contemporary Chinese artists have done with new media art is to focus on its strengths and play with its shortcomings. They have been quick to identify ways of presenting new media art aimed at engaging audiences and are not afraid to appeal to audiences with the visual impact of their work often by using familiar visual devices which aim to engage a broad audience in what they have to say. This search for a broad audience is also a fundamental characteristic of artists coming from a background that is influenced by official manipulation of the population. A socialist background that promoted the need for populations to think as one, via many visual prompts, is also an environment in which the propaganda of new ideas can filter into the visual language already in the public domain.

If we look at artists like Wang Jianwei what we see is someone willing to shift media as he looked for different ways to engage an audience. Starting his career as painter in the late 1970s, he quickly saw the value of contemporary art as a tool to express contemporary thinking. Visual media has a long tradition in China of being used to express philosophical and political thinking. In what is really a continuation of this positioning, new media has been most embraced by artists wanting to comment on the conditions around them. By this I mean that new media in Chinese practice is not seen as a formalist means of expression or an end in itself. The desire to say something, even at times to preach to audiences, in many ways refers to the traditional philosophic positioning of artists in Chinese society. In the past artists were direct social contributors; using this philosophical precedent new media artists in China are trying to recapture this ground, seeing themselves as being the next stage in an ongoing cycle of change. Their expressions are geared towards causing a broad consideration of social direction.
Wang Jianwei's early work harks back to an illusionistic form of painting where each element carries own special significance becoming both superimposed and emerging from each other over the painted field. In the work the desire to find a more complex expression is evident. In the early 1990s Wang Jianwei began the transition in a series of installation works involving mechanical elements. In China at the time, many contemporary artists had started to work in various forms of installation art, but what sets Wang Jianwei apart is his restless spirit. All of the work he produces becomes in retrospect transitional. His art has increasingly become concerned with the edges of artistic language. He is fascinated by the terror in the boundaries between visual art performance and real life.

It was during the early 1990s that Wang began living in the countryside and the desire to find methods of communicating with a broad non-art audience becomes evident in the work. In one event he paid a local farmer to produce grain crops which were then delivered to him and on-sold by him. What he was doing was a very conceptual artistic reinterpretation of a market economy. The concept of placing the artist at the centre of economic reform and change was a way of causing common farmers to consider the value of change. This introduction to a market economy by an artist and not by an imposed new system used the value of the absurd to illustrate the realities to collective farmers of a free market approach. The work was not explained to those touched by it, rather it was left open as a starting point for debate.

Later, in a similarly open work, Wang convinced an official in the City of Chendu that a statue of Mao required cleaning. Slowly he convinced local people that this image of Mao should cleaned by them. As the process began he had scaffolding erected around the statue ostensibly concealing the cleaning process. On to that scaffolding he posted advertising, causing a homage to Mao to be supplanted by commercialisation. The cleaning process continued behind the advertising. Eventually the statue was clean and the scaffolding was taking down. This sequence saw the image of Mao 'cleaned and rejuvenated' and eventually emerging from the language of commerce. At no time does Wang Jianwei explain his process. Instead he enigmatically leaves those that have seen the process to derive meanings if they wish.

Shortly after this time Wang Jianwei became the first Chinese artist to be represented in Documenta. For this exhibition he produced thousands of rubber ears. Those attending were encouraged to exchange something in order to take one away. The artist had turned the tables and was setting up confusion between who was listening. By the time of his inclusion in the second Asian-Pacific Triennial video elements had begun to appear in his work. For that exhibition he showed a bed on which a monitor was mounted. On the monitor was an ultrasound image of a developing baby. The significance of the image required the audience, particularly one from the West, to investigate why this image was displayed. The intrusive birth control regulations in China demand pregnant women undergo repeated ultrasound scanning to ensure that the pregnancy is proceeding as expected. These scans become not the intimate health check connecting mother and child but public property capable of policing government regulations relating to the One Child Policy. In the art piece the mother is negated altogether. The ultra-sound image is made totally public property. Intimacy is stolen.

Via a continuing sequence of work Wang Jianwei has continued his intimate connection with the conditions of China. His social criticism is extremely subtle. He does not want anyone to be able to make quick assumptions. Wang Jianwei's connection with local people and his personal discourse about the role of the artist takes one of its most eloquent directions in what is effectively a two-hour documentary tracing the occupation of semi-completed villas by displaced peasant farmers on the outskirts of Chendu. Wang Jianwei's intervention is to become the unnoticed filmmaker. The process involved daily filming for over a year. The end result became a record of humour and irony that addressed much of the inequity apparent in China's rapid development as well as a very human look at those people discarded by the process. In essence this work encapsulates the artistic philosophy of Wang Jianwei. The selection of the particular circumstance that he recorded for over a year is not random.

More recently Wang has used combinations of projection and installation to present recut propaganda films to draw a history of revolutionary China. The work entitled Ceremony 1 takes film clips of the period from 1949 and by editing them together builds a map of the indoctrinated collective memory of China. He finishes this piece with a hymn of and to the Peking Opera, using it as a symbol of the lost culture and the restored culture of China. This theme is continued with Ceremony 2 which typically uses similar themes and new technology to challenge theatrical space. In this case the Tang Dynasty stories, as the greatest period of Chinese development, is related to the present. In this work Wang quietly questions whether China's historic legacy is its strength or its greatest weakness.
Wang Jianwei seems to be able to see the possibilities in everyday life for summarising the complexity of big picture. He continuously finds ways to use the ordinary and the personal to talk about universal truths affecting China today. As an artist his expression is never two-dimensional. In the middle of some of his most poignant statements he finds displays of humour, affection and empathy. Significant artists from any culture, as Wang Jianwei is to China, are rare people that base their art upon spiritual idealism not economic imperatives. He shows his extraordinary vision in being able to distil complex ideas into concise packages. His body of work is not however about control and there is ease about his expression. The ideas appear to almost happen by chance. It is only when you look at the remarkable consistency and how these ideas are expressed that you realise chance has actually nothing to do with it. Wang Jianwei's art is a representation of a truly insightful, empathetic and intelligent man.

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