In Wang Wei’s recent installation, Two Rooms (2015), depictions of verdant planes against picture-perfect gradient skies physically and psychologically dislocated visitors to the gallery. The mural landscapes were based on those found in animal enclosures at the Beijing Zoo, which is a recurring source of inspiration for Wang. A camouflage-pattern-painted radiator (like one from the zoo) was displayed near the gallery entrance, and several overripe bananas were strewn across the floor. The installation as a whole emphasized the ways in which culture produces us at the same time as we produce it.
For some time now, our relationship with the built environment has preoccupied Wang, who was associated with China’s much-mythologized Post-Sense Sensibility movement of the late 1990s. While carrying out other important objectives—like countering blatant pandering to Western aesthetics and critiquing the oppressive Chinese government—the movement’s artists sought to comment on the lack of alternative exhibition spaces by showing work in unconventional venues. For the 1999 group show “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion,” curated by artist Qiu Zhijie and held in the basement of a residential building in Beijing, Wang lined the floor of a narrow hallway with a series of light boxes, inviting visitors to step onto photographic images of men and women submerged underwater (1/30 Sec. Underwater, 1999). More recently, for an institutional overview of the art movement, curated by Ullens Center director Philip Tinari and hosted by Hong Kong’s Duddell’s art bar last year, Wang installed a tiled mosaic based on the aquatic portion of the Beijing Zoo in the venue’s glitzy dining hall.
Rather than making overt claims relating to politics, or even aesthetics, Wang employs subtler tactics more akin to the transformative techniques of the readymade. He forces us to consider both the types of environments he highlights (e.g., “the zoo”) and the specific contexts in which he places his transmuted versions of them. Philosopher Jacques Rancière describes mimicry as a tool that can “redistribute the sensible.” According to this view, Wang’s displacement of forms from the visible world allows his subjects to transgress their original function, and it is this dislocation that breeds critical reflection.
Recently renovated, the Edouard Malingue Gallery now has exposed steel beams and riveting, revealing the physical workings of the would-be white cube. These structural details make Wang’s inquiry into constructed environments all the more pronounced. In his show, the type of murals created to establish a comfortable illusion for humans observing animals in captivity ended up enclosing humans wishing to observe art. At times, the expansive works made the viewer experience feelings of freedom. At others, the haphazardly placed screws and blotchy, painterly strokes in the imagery underscored the artificial quality of the environment. Drawing parallels between the zoo and art, the installation left visitors with the uncanny sense that they might be confined by their own illusions.