Wang Mai’s Dire Straits
Philip Tinari

Wang Mai uses art to frame and express a subjectivity—a specific and unique perspective on the world that is informed by, and constantly changing alongside, the development of larger events. He understands himself to be part of a particular historical moment, and his materials to derive directly from the forces that structure that moment. To talk with Wang Mai is to encounter a joyous naysayer, a heartfelt critic of the state of the world and China’s place in it who still knows how to think and to live. For him art is, as von Clausewitz famously called war, “politics by other means.” Of all the artists who moved into the decommissioned chambers of Factory 798 in the early years of the new century, his work somehow makes the most sense in its cavernous context of one order superseded by another. For many years and to great effect, he mined the artifacts left by the bygone factory, its tools and die and furniture, finding in the forms of an earlier sort of productivity the seeds of an artistic language. The postindustrial condition of Beijing, far from being incidental to his practice, was substantively at its very root.

Held during the summer of 2012, Wang Mai’s exhibition Dire Straits took these similarities and historical overlaps to an entirely different level. The exhibition consisted of an immersive environment that completely filled the soaring Nave at the physical and mental center of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, transforming it into a spectacular, absurdist landscape that was part waterway and part forest. Wang Mai’s environmental sculpture offered an analysis of both a disappearing past and an uncertain future. The metaphor of the strait — a narrow divide that must be controlled and that often creates tension — allowed Wang Mai to posit a parallel between the physical space in which the exhibition took place and the wider geopolitical background against which it unfolded. A geographic and geological feature of an implicitly fraught nature, a strait creates a physical divide alongside a conceptual union. It is the separator, that in separating, brings together—think here of the Taiwan Strait which lies between the mainland and its “rebel province,” or the Strait of Gibraltar, which demarcates a boundary between continents and civilizations. Add to this that the English title “Dire Straits” (pardon the pop-music reference) was an intentional mistranslation of the Chinese title, which would be more accurately rendered as “Straits of Ullens.” For Wang Mai, the UCCA—an institution which arose at the center of the Factory 798 area just as he was preparing to leave it, and which makes explicit use of its position there—functioned as a symbol artistic and cultural capital, able to confer approval, offer opportunity, and drive value. For this reason he saw it as analogous to a site of military confrontation and conflict.

Wang Mai’s deep interest in geopolitics is made most clearly manifest in his choice of materials. For this exhibition, the walls of the space were papered in blue foil wrappers taken from Zhongnanhai cigarette boxes—an iconic Beijing brand named after the compound were the central leadership reside. The floors were covered in pieces of corrugated blue metal cut directly from the roof of Wang’s own nearby studio, pieces of painted steel like those which top so many light industrial and agricultural buildings throughout Northern China, instantly recognizable as architectural fittings of the most basic variety. For the exhibition, Wang Mai literally contributed his own roof, exposing his studio, situated alongside the Circular Railway Line, which runs just to the northeast of 798, to the elements. It seemed almost preordained that the opening date of July 22, 2012 saw one of the most damaging rainstorms in Beijing’s recent history, as if hinting at the same apocalypse foretold in the work.

Within the tense passageway created by his blue walls and floor, Wang Mai presented a walk-through collage. At the center of the composition hung an oversized cradle made from birch bark and a perilously suspended tent covered in cured fish skin. These materials, which take their inspiration from the nomadic Hezhen people—an ethnic group native to Wang’s home province of Heilongjiang—were visceral and surprising. The fish skin continued to emit pungent odors, even after having been dried and treated for many months, while the splintery bark threatened to disturb anyone who came to close. Together the materials played host to a grouping of boxy, metallic robots and lamprey-like “oil monsters”—sculptures which bore the insignia of global petroleum companies on their chests and elsewhere across their bionic bodies. These figures, and the logos of oil companies, have recurred constantly in Wang’s practice for the better part of a decade; petroleum and the politics which surround it form for him the one hard truth that can never be ignored, a natural point of departure and return for any artistic investigation.

If Dire Straits represented an advance in Wang Mai’s thinking and projection, this was most evident in how he used the exhibition to address themes beyond simply those of rising-power tension and competing interests, turning instead to the deep challenges faced not by a single nation but by all of humanity—environmental degradation and its implications for our lives. This is the subtext of geopolitical competition, and the deep inspiration for Wang Mai’s aesthetic sensibility. Thus sprinkled throughout the exhibition space were a number of objects referring directly to these dim prospects. Yellow plastic pipelines led nowhere, as if transporting oil and gas; a white louvered box hovered ominously over the scene, of the sort generally used to house meteorological instruments. These “weather boxes,” once ubiquitous and essential, now serve as nostalgic relics of a centralized yet pre-digital socialist system and the mass cooperative effort to gather information about the world around on which that system relied. Here they are reduced to ironic ornament. The overall effect of the scene was one of a playful dystopia, entreating us to ponder, if only for a second, China’s place in a newly unstable world and ecological order.

Painting has always been central to Wang Mai’s practice. His brush is ecumenical, never confined to particular conventions or subject matter. He is as likely to work in ink on paper as oil on canvas, and his paintings are palimpsests that allow him to work out the range of symbols and characters, as well as their possible relations, before they assume more exalted places in his sculptural tableaux. His painterly vocabulary borrows from folk traditions, political rhetorics, popular culture, and personal memory. For this particular exhibition, he created a new sequence of paintings entitled “Memoirs of a Loser,” (Diaosi Huiyi Lu) which position the artist’s own subjectivity against this historical matrix, reminiscing on texts such as “Heart of a Maiden,” a popular soft-porn romance novel that was transmitted mainly among young men in early reform-era China by hand copying. In positioning himself not as an artistic hero but as a concerned everyman, Wang Mai offers one vision of what it might mean to be a citizen of the People’s Republic today. At this crucial meeting point, Wang Mai attempts to juxtapose the ancient and modern, the lasting and the fleeting, all the while referring constantly back to a motif in his work that in this exhibition lies just beneath the surface: oil.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Wang Mai’s exhibition was the way in which despite its ominous and macabre connotations—this was after all a room coated in cigarette wrappers and filled with symbols of coming destruction—the site offered its viewers a deep sense of fun. Parents struggled to keep hold of children who ran back and forth across the creaky roof panels, or touched the tree trunks which lined either side of the space. Even more sophisticated viewers found themselves struggling to walk from one side of the strait to another, as the panels resisted and restrained their steps. The overall effect was one of a playground, in which the viewer was immersively and indefinitely trapped. If destruction is imminent, Wang Mai leads us to think, we have no better option than to enjoy the moment.

LINKS: Four Poems of Wang Mai
Wang Mai – Past Future.