Images courtesy Julia Stoschek Collection
Weak link, vertigo of quotations: Wangshui at Julia Stoschek Collection.
There are many ways in which art can easily slip into playing a parody of itself. As illustrated by Jeff Koons’ flowers for Paris and sunken refugee ship brought to expo of 2019 Venice Biennial, the slippage can be monumental. The latest slippage can be observed in the realm of politics of change, inclusion and nuance.
Recently, Noble committee post-datum awarded the 2018 literary prize to the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and in one breath, admitted to being Eurocentric. Immediately following the award various online communities reacted negatively to Tokarczuk’s press images: her dreadlocks triggered the public sensitivity of adopting traditional hairstyle of distant from her cultures to facilitate one’s struggle, in this case of another white woman, the assumption went. Far from the bewildering “trans-racial” self-characterization of the American former activist Rachel Dolezal, Tokarczuk explains her stylistic choice as reference to pre-Christian polish tribes1. Tokarczuk also shares that she’d felt invisible2 prior to getting the contentious hairstyle, and here is where it gets interesting. Invisible to whom?
In their entirety, the cultures spanning the planet are unknowable in a single sitting of a mortal lifespan. To rely on Western media in English only in order to get to know it, would mean to trust in a kind of siphoning one can, with some effort, refuse to take for granted by learning other languages to start, by giving space to follow. And by listening closely to personal, niche and direct channels from across the globe. As cultural workers, we, based anywhere, could admit to not knowing 3 more frequently, and do better by wanting to find out, through more questions, and make fewer claims.
In 2019, Berlin-based Julia Stoschek Collection hired an American curator Lisa Long. A heavily American program titled Horizontal Vertigo is following her debut. Via press release, circulating through English-language lifestyle listings in Berlin, the upcoming exhibition by emerging artist Wangshui that opened at JCS in the fall of 2019, referred to itself as political. I can only think that this is done to distinguish these works from a fantasy of some other art, not framed by socio-political issues. In a recent lecture Claudia Rankin expanded on what she refers to as “American Lyric”. She described this more as a notion, than an allusion to the specifics of nationhood. American Lyric is an articulation incited by what she observed as academic tendency to divvy-up the lyrical and the political when discussing methods of writing; the poetry-poetry, she found, was set apart from this other stuff made by people of colour, others, foreigners.
As counter example, the market speculation on zombie formalism earlier in this decade, summed up succinctly in auto-bio-thriller Fuck Seth Price, was led by international art fair circuit, and by both the emerging and blue chip galleries. It certainly has not been irrelevant to the larger scope of history and politics. Zombie formalism is atomized society’s Impressionism, the new kind of colonial gaze of having the surface, anywhere, be whatever one decided it to be. The innocuous enough press-snippets served up by JSC are the symptom of the current momentum of slippage: a common mis-reading of art-making as cultural activity that is somehow parceled off from the world it populates; not unlike other divisions made between the humans and the ecosystem, or The West and the rest.
Through the textual accompaniment, Wangshui likes to simultaneously accentuate an identity, while simultaneously adopting a vocabulary of “dissolution” 4 . In the artist’s way of referencing materials for the exhibition, Weak Pearl specifics are dissolved into pastiche. Quoting anything from European architectural orientalism, to Qing Dynasty and to feng shui, anchoring of the references in works are illegible and indeed weak, they become all but a spun story of association by proxy. Ronald A. T. Judy diagnoses this tendency in 1977 (via Renee Green ibid) as “over professionalism’s appropriation of the political agenda”.
The Wangshui video From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances (2017–19) exhibited at JSC, promises much by the way of its too-long title. Contrary to the expectation of capitalist critique of the title, on MUBI the same video summary presents us with an identity thesaurus — “geomancy, remote-selves and therianthropy”. Without a doubt the majority of us would have to look this elevator pitch up in a dictionary. What the video delivers, is an abbreviation of a drone flight through a tower block. Brought up in the US, the artist is a visitor at the South China Sea where the video is shot. The skyscrapers in question come with a history of their own, though that never transpires. Instead we are offered a voiceover, of self-indulgent and dreadfully didactic narrative, overlaid onto shot by professional commercial DOP Jessica Lee Gagné, image. As opposed to heavy academic jargon that surrounds the dispersion of this artist’s work, it is Google search or Pinterest mood board that would make a better conjunction between Wangshui and the visual tourism these works offer.
Similar to the tropes and trappings of accelerationism spearheaded by New York’s DIS collective, Weak Pearl is shaped by the fashion industry and Silicon Valley. Unlike DIS’s latest venture into socially conscious documentaries, however, Wangshui, is evidently not self-aware enough to consider that the use of spectacular is all but stunning and stunting the viewers. Contextual to the current moment politically this work is not dissimilar to the mentioned earlier zombie formalism in its force-fitting of the depiction to jargon. The title work is a tastefully distressed get-that-runway-lewk LED screen. Distressing here is employed to obscure the image, making the screen into a mound of hardware, expiring minutely, already past date, last season discount isle, a prop, or a studio backdrop.
In Gardens of Perfect Exposure, another work at JSC, the viewers are invited to bask in the surveillance light-show of the open-concept cage quarters occupied by silkworms, projected wrap-around onto the surrounding walls in HD. Like so much of daily American, and even more so, New York life, where Wangshui is based, the Weak Pearl is about self-presentation amidst the screaming contest: of images, media personalities and marketing ploys. The exhibition is the opposite of nuance and fluidity claimed by the narratives that buttress it.
While the developed countries grapple with the concept of Earth, that seemingly unexpectedly fell right back onto them, with all of its varied populations, and ecosystem, at Julia Stoschek silkworms are hatching, excreting, and living in permanent sun of LED and projector spotlights. The miniature lab experiment enlarges the concealed processes foundational to the ascend of science: animal testing. The overview perspective of cameras and cage lighting recalls Russia-initiated project of lighting Siberia from space to facilitate 24-hour extraction of natural resources, described by Jonathan Crary in his book 24/7. As opposed to allusion to sensuality of haptic montage made by Wangshui in recent Mousse interview (ibid), we find ourselves submerged in a World of an American Artist with an HD Camera. A stylist, Wangshui fashions rhetoric of gender and cultural fluidity in the abstract, offering visuals entirely lacking in ambivalence in their content and volume. Rather, the images and materials here are placeholders for projected onto them, equally placeholder, ideas, further amplified to dominate visitor’s figure by the sprawling space of JSC real estate.
If Wangshui embodies anything, it is the contemporary time capsule of informational free fall. Blind sighted, and with no place left to think of what the dispersed materials are: animals, architecture, technology, history, what I am convinced of is that the use of identity politics can be all but another expression of productivity. Here art is an activity linked to checking off vocabulary of climate, optics and stats, while obfuscating the marketing conceit of the artist bio or artist statement. The superfluous relation to Silk Road references, and the artist name itself, are tropes reminiscent of calling a podcast, run by two Eastern-European-Americans, Red Scare. The distinction would be that the later, notoriously noxious and cynical project, intentionally frames their online talkshow with an embedded cliché. Red Scare chat show hosts emphasize the cliché for a good reason: what is the impulse to self-exoticize and who is it for? If paused for a moment, the habit of self-othering, what kind of work would be made instead and what would be the conversation around it be?
Opposing the critical position of “passing”, nor interested in a permission of a bio to engage with the subject of identity politics per se, what I find troubling is the very notion that a construct of bio, or background so to speak, can act as default equivalent to the artists’ emphatic investment in the subject of identity politics. Or that presence of “background” signals committed reflection on the subject of identity politics as part of institutional programming. Artists are not their work unless they are. Nor artists are obliged to perform their identities for consumption. Curators and institutions, however, are obliged to consider representation. This need not mean that the subject matter and the choice of inclusion must be revolving around identity of any given artist unless that is their chosen subject matter and is deeply evident in the work itself. Perhaps another Nobel ceremony can be revisited here, the 2009 peace prize awarded to Obama. A larger than life cultural indexing point, it was overdue and thus a symbolic gesture validating identities in the plural, including that of the recipient. The award was given to the incumbent US president prior to his embarkment on any policy or decision-making. Peaked too early, the timing of the award revealed the Nobel’s committee’s over-eagerness to catch a moment and slide-in alongside Obama to self-represent on a global scale in alignment with the political position of “change” in the US.
In the last 30 years the most prescient change in the art globally has been the rise of identity politics as an overarching criteria and the rise of the research-based practice. The identities, however, remain vetted via European and American Institutions largely by European and American curators: these are the territories with most of the accumulated composite of cultural and monetary wealth, and credentials. Furthermore, as discussed above, English language remains the international currency, and the peripheries remain segregated or pining for inclusion and approval. Next to this, the new merger of academia and free market under the guise of “research-based art practice” has given us all: artspeak. The vacuum of quotation is bottomless. However, despite the efforts by the emerging artist with all the relevant MFA credentials, such as Wangshui, to sprinkle gold dust of language atop barely there carcass of thought or a feeling, artworks will always relate to the temporo-spatial context and the audience. Confluent evocation of bio or cultural links in an artist statement, in order to valorize artwork, is a reductive technique best left for funding applications or, better yet, shed all together. Continuing the tradition of vetting content, previously largely dominated by the Euro-American white men, the question of participation hasn’t in and of itself brought about epistemological change in how art is made or presented.
The sincerity of the fluidity or engagement with history and identity politics, is certainly not found by rushing into the arms of the most bankable visual semantics, or in checking off theoretical footnotes, nor is it validated by having large-scale retrospective exhibitions at the beginning of one’s career – these are incentives of sales, or desire for accreditation, or for a quick path to exposure. The sincerity would be evident in the artist’s work and materials, and in grappling with understanding one’s position within all of the categories as a participant: categories of looking, making and mediating.
Attunement to multiple categories of selfhood and the surrounding, as Weak Pearl would want it but is short to deliver, is the kind of fluidity where ambiguity provides a revised idea of progress in the process of developing new methods of working. The ambiguity I am proposing is distinct from pastiche, cut and paste, or from algorithm moodboard, in that she is aware of her motivations and choices, and of her lapses into the not knowing. This ambiguity is willing to leave her comfort zone. In fact, perhaps more accurate would be to stress: her wellness is dependant on leaving it.
3 Renée Green – Hubert Fichte, Tour-isms, Negotiating in Contact Zones, and Contact – HKW (2019)