Wang Mai – Past Future.
Klaus Siebenhaar
Notes on the Berlin exhibition of Starke Arts Foundation

If one wants to understand China and its artistic development, one has to think in generations. Wang Mai belongs to a generation born in the seventies. This generation was socialized under the dynamic changes and transformations of the time after the cultural revolution. This generation has been influenced by: China’s opening up to the world, new, unknown aesthetics and artistic possibilities, “new wave”, but also skepticism, criticism and political disappointments. Wang Mai is a child of this period − ready to experiment, full of stylistic diversity in China’s eternal tension of tradition versus Western modernity. These two poles of (subjective) experience and (objective) expectation, of reflected past and a possible future have influenced Wang Mai’s work both historically-philosophically and aesthetically throughout all formats and genres.

Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual-historical category of a “past future” defines experience as “contemporary past” and expectations as “future rendered present”, laying the foundation for an changeable, stretchable, but ultimately unavoidable difference. It is this very difference from which Wang Mai’s socio-critical, thematic and aesthetic positions derive. He observes the global world, his own rapidly and radically changing Chinese reality from the distanced position of a contemporary artist who is aware of art’s proper time and space and who thus confidently confronts the world and comments on it with his own modes of expression. This has little to do with superficial provocation but rather with subtle irritations and connotations, with alienations and with playful interventions. In these endeavors, Wang Mai is capable of drawing from the nuanced fund of the Chinese Avant-garde from the eighties and early nineties − a cultural heritage which is so very important and present, particularly in his generation.

Wang Mai is a master of fantastic realism. A relation of time and space ever full of tension: of historically and contemporarily charged spaces which seem bizarre, grotesque, surreal, alienated, but also dreamy. His figures and protagonist − be they small oil monsters, fairy tale or comic creatures or poetically-real elevated humans − immigrate into these spaces, seem to get confused or dreamily lost in them, mysteriously graceful.

Wang Mai is a traveler in time who interweaves world time, the time of nature, history and life, thereby creating a curious levitating state between timelessness and embeddedness in time. Past, present and future are thus interlaced in a completely unique way − as memory, vision, utopia. Wang Mai is a contemporary Chinese artist conscious of tradition who inspects and investigates the paths to lost values. Mythological and historical aspects of Chinese culture are absorbed in pop-cultural quotes, they constitute a strangely hovering time proper of the nuanced work or art. Wang Mai has tried his hand at various artistic genres and formats: painting in oil, drawing, sculptural objects, multi-media installations, concept art, performance − in all of these different genres, his very own, distinctive style is to be found.

The cosmos of Wang Mai brings together a subjective view of the world with themes and perspectives from the global world, but above all also deeper layers as well as abstract phenomena of the development of Chinese culture and society. Anyone who enters this cosmos of pictures, objects and installations instantly feels irritated and captivated. Different layers of reality are obliterated, there is something enigmatic that escapes positive definitions and clear localizations. Beauty, the abyssal and the terrifying, even the repulsive can be found right next to each other. The implications of historical and social critique are transmitted subcutaneously and demand for a second or third look. The viewer is taken by a feeling of uncertainty: What he sees is not what he sees. Frank Stella’s pop-cultural credo (“What you see is what you see”) is revised in a specifically Chinese way here. Every recipient gets entangled in a subtly woven, often deceptive and luring net of references. Consequently, the possibilities for interpretation are myriad.

The leitmotiv of the net, omnipresent as the central, spatially connecting installation of the Berlin exhibition, therefore seems all too fitting in its very ambiguity. The net serves as a multi-layered, universal metaphor beyond intercultural specific attributions: it gives live, but also threatens it, it lures and destroys, it masks and hinders. Nets are human tools, they are directing and dominating media, instruments of social relations, powerful forms or organization. On entering the rotunda of the Löwenpalais in Berlin through Wang Mai’s multi-referential net, one hears a soft ringing, produced by dozens of little bells woven into the net. Is it a warning, a seductive call or just the well-known ring that announces the entry of a customer in many small shops to this day? Or is it not rather the shining blue-white costume in which we feel protected and sheltered?

The cycle of seasons, with its airily-beautiful, grotesquely-alienated design, seems equally mysterious: four differently formatted oil paintings which both with their titles and in their iconography give an impression of fairy tale and myth. Following the cycle of the time of nature, four attractive young women − a ice skating princess, a nurse, a harvest thief, a treasure seeker − are moving dreamily and lost in memory, in artificial, apparently far-removed spheres. Growing, blossoming, withering − these eternal themes, this eternal cycle Wang Mai contrasts in a calm and contemplative fashion with the hectic and destructive ideology of progress: nature gives, capital destroys. Hence the Chinese artist Wang Mai remains a traveler between worlds and their times − autonomous, strong-willed, independent.

LINKS: Four Poems of Wang Mai
Wang Mai’s Dire Straits - Philip Tinari