It’s been 20 years since Beijing-born artist Wang Gongxin returned to China after a decade in New York City. In this solo exhibition, he reflected on the ideas and events that have shaped his work.
The show opened with a series of photographs documenting Wang’s 1995 project The Sky of Brooklyn: Digging a Hole in Beijing, for which he dug a deep well in the courtyard of his house in China. At the bottom of the well he placed a monitor that played a video, made before leaving Brooklyn, of the sky in New York. Visitors to the courtyard were thus treated to the illusion of looking through the well to the other side of the world. A play on “digging a hole to China,” the work neatly turned an idiom connoting a futile pursuit into a metaphor for possibility.
From there, the show jumped to the present with three recent video installations, all inspired by historical works of art. Whose Studio (2014), for example, reenvisions Gustave Courbet’s critique of French society, The Painter’s Studio (1854–55), as a sociological study of Chinese citizenry. In it, images of various groups of people—nude models, construction workers, hipsters, office managers—appear on nine mural-size screens as if all classes of Chinese society are flooding into the exhibition space. Far more allegorical is Blood Stained Auction (2014), which takes a depiction of peasants bringing a cruel landlord to justice from Wang Shikuo’s 1959 painting Blood Stained Shirt and updates it as a scene of a contemporary art auction. Interspersing slow-motion shots of buyers bidding on artworks with images of overflowing glasses of wine (or is it blood?), the piece comments on the cruel impact that the ever-increasing commercialization of the Chinese art world has had on artistic innovation.
Whether younger viewers will recognize Wang’s reference to a pre–Cultural Revolution academic realist painter is debatable. But Wang makes a convincing case that one cannot escape the power of the past, even one that this artist has spent most of his life rebelling against.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.