Henri Matisse was a court administrator before pursuing art, and Jeff Koons famously sold commodities. After Wang Tuo graduated from Northeast Normal University in his hometown of Changchun, China, in 2007, with a degree in biology, he spent some time working in an environmental science lab. But, after a couple years, he found himself questioning his career path. “Why am I living a life like this?” Wang wondered. “This life is, day after day, it’s the same. It’s repeating itself. I’m not really making thing.” Recalling this in a recent video interview from his apartment in Beijing, the 38-year-old artist shared what he decided: “I need to change, and I need to get out of here and do whatever I want.”
Wang soon returned to school—this time to pursue art, getting an M.A. in Beijing and an M.F.A. in Boston. In the almost decade since, he has gone on to make poetic, multivalent, and philosophical films. His most recent, The Second Interrogation (2023), is a striking two-part affair (each part just under 30 minutes), and it forms the core of his incisive, heartening current solo show at Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong. It seems likely to cement his status as one of China’s most important emerging artists. As in much of his previous work, The Second Interrogation delves deep into history, using what it finds there to craft a sharp lens for examining the fraught present. “The subject matter I care about most is reality in China,” Wang told me, “and how to solve all kinds of problems.”
The Second Interrogation involves an intricate back-and-forth between an artist and a censor about the relationship between art and politics and the role of an artist in an authoritarian environment. It begins during a public Q&A and continues in private spaces, as their positions change, artist becoming censor and vice-versa. Central to their conversation are the notorious performances staged as part of the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show in Beijing, which came to be known as the “Seven Sins”: Wu Shanzhuan selling shrimp, and Xiao Lu firing two bullets into her installation. Hong Kong’s M+ museum has on view documentation of the performances, which led to the shutdown of “China/Avant-Garde.” Soon after, the doomed protests began in Tiananmen.
“China had an underlying possibility to reform more than 30 years ago, even if it was only for the system’s self-protection and continuation,” one of the film’s characters argues. “But just like the ‘seven sins’ that caused the system’s reactive suppression of contemporary art, the movement that happened that year strangled the possibility of the system’s reform in its infancy.” Photos from the protests appear, and there is footage of the performances being restaged by the artist character. It is a two-channel production, and both screens largely follow the same action (from different vantage points), but Wang has angled them so you cannot take them in at once and notice where their narratives diverge. Where you stand shapes how you understand the piece.
Wang showed this first part of The Second Interrogation at the Art Basel fair in Switzerland last year, and he has been clear that it would not be possible to do so in mainland China. “You’d definitely get in trouble or punished,” he told me during the call earlier this month. “In Hong Kong, they say the context is much better, but it’s getting there.” He has viewed his exhibition in the city “like a test,” he said. “I’m a little bit concerned about it.” But, he added, “Everything will be fine. I hope people can understand it’s just art.”
At Blindspot, Wang is also premiering the second part of The Second Interrogation, a newly finished one-channel video that follows the artist character as he rehearses a group performance in a large exhibition hall, which features banners with the logo for the “China/Avant-Garde” show: a no U-Turn sign. There are a few dozen young people on hand, and they move in formation, jostle each other, and at one point scream wildly. The censor from the first part is there, too, and (partial spoiler alert) he has a gun.
“I think this performance is about how a great mass of people in China could be awakened, and to gather as a collective, and to restart the Enlightenment process in China,” Wang said. In another sequence, a different artist character talks about politics, history (particularly China’s 1919 anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement), and how to bring about change with a ghost-like figure who is cloaked in a sheet (a reference to Ren Xiaoying’s “Seven Sins” contribution). At one point, the obscured person offers this: “To decide how to live is the original ‘power of the powerless.’ ”
When Wang decided to change his path, he enrolled in the painting program at Tsinghua University, and at Blindspot he is presenting intimate portraits he has painted of unnamed friends—artists, journalists, musicians, and poets. “Their way of living, to me, is the best way of resistance nowadays in China,” he told me. “They don’t want to get a job. They don’t want to be complicit with this system.” His view is that “as long as we have these kinds of people in China, I think this country has hope.” These lucid canvases, which are richly colored and slightly abstracted, have a bold title: “Weapons.” In China, people do not really have weapons, Wang said. “The basic tool we have is the body and also the way of living is sort of a weapon.”
Near the end of our interview, we got to talking more about how Wang has developed as an artist, and he brought up Lu Xun (1881–1936), who quit his study of medicine to become an influential, politically engaged writer, thinking that, “as a doctor, he could just only save lives—comfortable lives—but if he could be a writer, he could save the mind of the Chinese,” Wang said.
He paused for a brief moment before adding, “Yeah, so I think I just believe in the power of art, a lot. I think art can really change people.”