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Wang Haiyang at Capsule Shanghai

by Tianyuan Deng 

 

In Philip Roth’s wicked epic Sabbath’s Theater (1995), the protagonist, the salacious sixty-four-year-old ex-puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, does something stranger than even the strangest Roth characters. Upon the death of his fat mistress Drenka, he visits her grave. Overcome by stupendous jealousy of all the men Drenka fucked when she was alive—a possessive emotion he has never experienced before, as he cares about nothing—he jerks off at the cemetery. Licking sperm off his fingers, he chants out loud under a full moon: “I am Drenka! I am Drenka!”

Wang Haiyang’s latest paintings and videos at Capsule Shanghai spectacularly capture this Rothian moment—that is, the absurdist moment when Eros (sex) binds with Thanatos (death). This Eros-Thanatos bondage constitutes the logic behind all three works: the centerpiece, The City of Dionysus, a video narration of a death encounter charged with sublimated motions of sexual excess; Party in the Anus, a looped video performance of a farcically costumed wo/man party dancing; and the animation Skins, showing a tube-shaped object cruising above a pile of hairs, pendant to a set of paintings of atavistic monkey-wo/men.

At the beginning of The City of Dionysus, an ominous voice recounts the story of a granny found dead in her bedroom. Her body is already rotting. This was a true story that Wang heard when he was young, though he never met the granny. The artist revamped it after a visit to Hong Kong, where he attended an underground sex party. It was so dark that he could see nothing: no beauty or ugliness, no rich or poor, no man or woman. People fucked with an abandon that seemingly could only happen upon a radical leveling of all human difference—a counter-civilizational fuck. When the artist came back to his barren urban village on the outskirts of Beijing, somehow the silent rotting death of that unknown granny connected with the ridiculous Hong Kong party. Such is the genesis story that the artist tells, but it is one that makes eminent sense.

Sex, given its animal and primitivist potentials, has often been used as an inquisitive channel for or against humanity (this is why the whores in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907] also look like monsters).1 While Wang has dealt with sexuality since the beginning of his career, this death-initiated existential query has taken his sexual expression to a whole new level. With nihilistic electronic music droning, the granny story quickly gives way to climactic scenes of disgorging, distending, spilling, spurting, swallowing. Performed by amorphous agents with occasional heads or arms budding out, these movements sometimes look onanistic or masochistic, but ultimately they exceed any acts based on human behavioral vocabulary. You cannot tell apart the agents from the acts: they dissolve in a sea of Pollock-esque drips of color, only to climb out again like figures emergent from Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (1880–1917). They seem like cries for help. All these bodily holes and skin and organs that we are endowed with and confined by: What indeed are they in the very, very end? Like the seven holes in Buddhist thoughts, these biological entities must be embedded in an infinitely intricate and potentially unknowable world system. The acts herein are done with such furor that the agent (human or otherwise) seems to believe that s/he is not just acting upon a trail of intestine but a tunnel toward the light of our being. 

And how such furor implicates us! The colored liquid is not just thrown unto the screen in gestural bravado. Rather, it is ejaculated unto it in the same absurdist impulse that drives Sabbath mad at Drenka’s grave. At the same time the work incriminates us as the ones ejaculating, because the spillage comes from where we stand—in front of the video. As if to strengthen the participatory dimension of the work, the tempo also mimics the tempo of sex act itself: fast and furious towards consummation, followed by a sudden stop. End. Then feelings of emptiness. We are but one of those unidentifiable creatures roiling in the sea of sperm-pigment. 

The artist’s almost furious urge to know, to make sense of his own “maggot-like” existence, has completely redefined one of his most salient staples: matter transformation. Even the most skeptical viewer has to gasp at the wild imagination in his lyrically charged transformation in, say, Wall Dust (2016). A pig’s anus morphs into a pomegranate, whose seeds transform to human fetuses, which fall to the ground to become kneeling men, who then turn into a green lizard that skitters away. Sometimes they do share unexpectedly similar formal attributes, as in a pig’s anus and a pomegranate’s stem. But most of the time, it is the artist’s imagination exerting its cogency. The world here is a great reserve against which to trace the workings of the unconscious, the litmus paper to read the corrosiveness of desire. However, in Wang’s City of Dionysus, the clarity of transformation—from matter A to matter B—is gone. In other words, the basis of surprise—how can A be B?—and its attendant psychic tension are wiped out. Analogous to how Sabbath psychically merges with his mistress Drenka at her grave, the physiognomic boundary between different characters in Wang’s latest venture is utterly hemorrhaged.

In fact, the hemorrhaging constitutes the principal distinction of this series from Wang’s other video works. One function of the older series of transformative actions is to give the video a narrative structure, like an unfolding story. Here, quite unusually for him, Wang introduces verbal narration. In effect, the artist’s voice-over substitutes the narrative function of matter transformation (A turns into B into C into D), leaving the image to return to pure imagery. Now we have on the one hand frenzied accumulations of dripping liquid serving as some sublimated background, and on the other new inventions of composite organisms brought forth to our vision as a preconceived whole. These new organisms, no longer subject to relentless transformation, as in past works, seem nevertheless to convey what all those chains of transformations want to convey: the Buddha-like obese woman with primitivist breasts, for example, opens up her vulva, but inside we see what seems like an entryway to a dazzling universe. A video that starts with a tale about death climaxes with an emblem of procreativity. But if we harken back to Walter Benjamin’s admonition of the purging of death in the modern era—of how hygienic society has streamlined the process of death, severing it from the narrative of birth—procreativity and death are never separate in the first place. They have always been conjoined in the cycle of nature.

To be sure, the exhibition contains more valences: the farcically funny gender-fluid costumed wo/man in Party in the Anus; a floating hotdog or penis or worm or bacteria (it resembles all four) cruising in Skins. But the central voice pertains to the myth of life. The inexorability of Wang’s query is what gives these works their voice. Even the seemingly adjunct elements carry great weight, analogous to the way that the Higher Way is immanent in every small thing. Men metamorphize into atavistic monkey/men in the drawings of Skins, as if exploring a backward-looking solution to the problem of existential meaning. Dalí-esque elliptical bacterial or biomorphic creatures abound. As the most basic makeup of the material world, they seem to offer another perspective—a microscopic one—to understand our condition. Appearing as coming from both the far future and the distant past, they straddle the temporalities reached in the queries made by the works: oracular and primordial.

The artist’s next proposed venture will take up another Rothian strand: that of old age (remember that Sabbath is sixty-four and Drenka is fifty-two at the time of her death). Wang Haiyang has not cited Philip Roth as among the authors he reads, but what a delight to find an unknowing Rothian in the visual arts.

 

[1] The marriage of Eros and Thanatos in Les Demoiselles des d’Avignon is well established in the literature, see scholarship by Leo Steinberg, William Rubin, and Yves-Alain Bois on the subject. For specific reference, see the entry on Picasso in page 90-96 in Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-modernism, Post-modernism. ed. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois, David Joselit, et al. Thames & Hudson (2005).

 

at Capsule Shanghai

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