by Josef NG
NO WAY! is Gao Wei Gang’s most ambitious exhibition to date and his second solo at Shanghai Gallery of Art. By making full use of the specificities of the gallery space, the element of folding and unfolding, of repetition - as exemplified in the structure of a typical staircase – the exhibition becomes an allegory for works that hide and reveal meaning in an enigmatic game of sophistication and seductive hollows and enclosures. Gao has conjured a place where memory, myth and material collide into each other.
In keeping with the artist’s reflection on materialization and its nature of communication, NO WAY! presents artworks made from his usual vocabulary of industrial raw materials – specifically mirror and stainless steel. The exhibition shows Gao’s reverence for the natural world and his faculty for shaping metal. Proportion also makes up the main impetus, and he develops this notion in formal as well as spatial terms. To unite two different bodies of work, one somber and the other gloriously theatrical, the artist acts as a translator of sorts, operating as an intermediary between spaces, composition and inter-connecting movement repeated across the gallery. More than mere installation and sculptures, which are judged on aesthetic terms alone, Gao’s artworks respond to the gallery structure and confront its imposing austerity without succumbing to forced monumentalism.
From the beginning, the artist wide-ranging practice implicates a nod to Contemporary Constructivism1 - minimal, pure, mysterious - as well as something more esoteric: he has brought elements such as light, recorded sound, and text into his work to link disparate forms and narratives. With their varied shifts in scale, sensory disorientation and mismatched objects, Gao’s manipulation of these seemingly random elements developed into a tight formal vocabulary. From obscuration to withdrawal, the Beijing-based artist uses the tension between material and surface, and between two and three-dimensional space, to address the physical presence of the gallery where viewers are encouraged and invited to move into and through.
This interplay between permeability and obstruction that collapse borders and invites transgression find its strongest manifestation in the main work that dominates and engages with the architecture of the gallery. Named after the exhibition title, the defining feature is its defiance of gravity. Comprised of 50 pieces, the installation is bound together by interlocking step-like forms, and hung like a giant serpent; suspended at various heights and angles, literally stretching across the majority of the gallery. Held in place by thin metal wires which possess a threatening precariousness as if Gao is playing with contrasts of heft and weightlessness, the imposing presence of unexpected symmetry transforms an arduous process into visual poetry. Biding their time, the intricate modular structures have effectively colonized the main areas of the gallery – if not just yet the sky.
In these long undulating swaths of mirrored stainless steel, punctuated by the diffusion of its golden hue, Gao has extended one of his signature motifs, the stair, as a point of reference, not only by alluding to the exhibition title but also by exploiting the dialectical relationship between opacity and transparency. He brings the gallery into full play and submerges the viewer into endless web of reflections, which distort, unsettle and reconfigure our spatial logic. The work floats freely, and yet creates additional obstacles to negotiate. Much is made of the expressive quality of this installation and the result not only changes the viewer’s perception of the gallery space but through its reflective materiality, also leave them with fractional and partial views of the other exhibiting artworks.
The interplay between image production and mediation also appears in the form of several sculptures and mixed-media works. Here, unlike the imposing presence of the overarching installation, Gao has transformed the tough materials of stainless steel and titanium into something delicate; conveying a sense of precarious balance that belies its solidity.
Stripped down to its bare essential, Up also has the form of a stair, though more properly defined and vertically floored on its own. Positioned adjacent to the gallery wall, the flight of steps are hollow, leaving only the thin golden outline across the surface in a gesture that permeates fragility. A stairway glistening with a shimmering coat yet impossible to walk on and leading to nowhere, it explicitly articulates emptiness of unknown promises that makes us question what we might perceive otherwise.
Lightness and weight are also echoed in two mirrored structures that appear to be in disarray and are irregular in shape. Cheekily titled as In One Breath, likening the form to the artist’s quick sketching of a scrawled outline. While abstract and kinetic in its composition, these walled sculptures are rendered with a clarity that belies their hallucinatory permutations, articulating a chaotic yet controlled illumination that could be read as a metaphorical reflection for human life itself.
Beyond pure abstraction, Gao alludes to nature and landscape in the relief paintings that engender light-altering patterns within the work’s surface and structure. The series, Vice, is produced by applying thick impasto paint, to a huge canvas with wide brushstrokes that lend the surfaces a sense of strength. The painting’s strong texture and intense coloration illuminate the tiny mirror glass fragments, which he arranges according to similar shapes and positions them adjacent as if to create a mirrored optical effect within the canvas. The carefully thought-out process behind Gao’s painterly exercise reveals that, despite the diversity of his artistic practice, the ongoing investigation into the potential of painting always lies at its heart. Be it chaotic as in the surface background or controlled in the deliberate positions of the glasses, he challenges the relationship between the production of painting and their consumption. By shifting his role as an artist from a distant creator to a facilitator of experience, the viewer could also actually look to themselves through the fragments of the mirrored pieces. Gao manages to make works that surpass the customary passive role occupied by contemporary painting.
The exhibition’s orchestration is almost rhythmic, each area, like a movement in a symphony, suggests a different ambiance, offering a progression to the spectacular finale on the main gallery area. By the gallery’s large vertical windows, there are patterned films, resembling stained glasses found in Gothic catholic cathedrals. Displaying a form of hyper-visuality, the tinted windows, bathed in its iridescent colours radiating from directional lights, address the connection between the exhibition as well as the context of the building where the gallery resides, with its surrounding environment. In the interior that is the hallmark of the historical structure, the patterned motif regulates light from outside, as it passed through and changed character with the time and weather. Here, light was considered not simply as mere colour or absence of substance or part of nature, but also as space – such as that residing between objects.
NO WAY! investigates and plays with various media to engender moments of confusion, uncertainty and ambiguity, therein lies it’s strength. Responding as it does to the challenges posed by gallery’s expansive layout, the folding and unfolding approach of Gao’s creations has a coherence and stylishness all its own.
His works may take different forms, but each component calls on the viewers to retrace their steps and reflect on how the installation can be experienced differently, depending on the viewer’s chosen path. Immediate in their sensory appeal and caught up in web of meaningful relations, each work holds a mirror up to all the other objects in its environment. The pieces suggest something inside or beyond their basic materiality: alternative realities that can be seen and even felt, provided viewers are prepared to break spatial conventions in order to reach them.
1. According to Wikipedia, Constructivism as theory and practice was derived largely from a series of debates at INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) in Moscow, from 1920–22. The First Working Group of Constructivists would develop a definition of Constructivism as the combination of faktura: the particular material properties of an object, and tektonika, its spatial presence. Constructivism had a great effect on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as Bauhaus and the De Stijl movement.
In an interview discussing our current global post-cold war situation, the philosopher Boris Groys correlates contemporary and 19th century art, going so far as to call today’s art “realistic”. His argument rests on the fact that while art of the 20th century rejected the audience in favor of an exclusive engagement with the problems inherent to art itself - in essence an attempt to create its own utopian reality outside of lived reality, the art of the 21st century is concerned about life as is: its social conditions, political events and intellectual trends. If the 20th century avant-garde aimed to change the world through its revolutionary, albeit obscure art tactics, the ‘realistic’ art of today, with its immediate references found in daily reality, has no ideological initiative or promise of a new horizon. Such is the crisis of contemporary art, and perhaps politics, and culture in general. There is no overall defining program. Not only is God dead but man has also fallen, killing off atheism along the way. If the 20th avant-garde truly believed that art could save your soul, today we are constantly reminded that there is no sense of orientation towards a new possibility or better future world.
It is interesting to view the art of Gao Weigang against this backdrop of ‘realism’ on the one side and cultural entropy on the other for several reasons. Not only is Gao’s affinity with the art of the 19th century on simply stylistic grounds quite apparent, but his empathy with a directionless world is equally explicit. His paintings, composed with subdued hues and broad strokes, are reminiscent of Courbet, the father of Western realism, for both their surface similarities and content. Just as Courbet overturned the Parisian art world in 1850 with paintings of the working class breaking stones for France’s new industrial revolution transport routes, Gao in Center, 2007 shows us the barely settled rubble of modern China’s demolition crews. Center is not purely a comment on China’s urban tabula-rasa strategy but a metaphor for our post-modern condition. ‘Center’ connotes importance, axis, it is a grounding point which organizes and keeps its surroundings coherent. It is also an architectural edifice with a defined purpose (shopping center, center for social welfare, art, etc.) but what we see here are small details scattered in an all over composition without a cohesive middle or sense of direction. For Courbet the notion of realism was not so much a question of technique as it was representation in the sociopolitical sense. For Gao these concerns resonate in the vanquished terrain of a globalized, 21st century.
As ‘capital’ has replaced ‘the people’ in terms of the aspirations of present day China Gao questions the endgame. In Boom! Boom! Boom!, a canon (unintentionally fashioned like a 19th century replica) fires upon the garish Pudong cityscape across the Huangpu River, metaphorically razing this city of 7 million, and along with it the quintessential emblem of China’s economic progress. Two canvasses exhibited nearby show two possible outcomes of this barrage. One portrays Pudong transformed into an industrial village while the other depicts the city bombed back to human scale. Gao is not so much concerned with the particularities of China’s economic reform as he is its pretense to greatness, its claims to progress, growth and moreover our blind faith in its program. Gao refutes the myth. He is a skeptic, not only of state propaganda or of advertising schemes- which are more looking like one in the same these days- but of universally acknowledged truths. His ontological attitude is echoed inside Shanghai Gallery of Art’s dramatic atrium where the artist has etched an enormous image of the Parthenon into a Styrofoam wall. This giant relief work, symbolizing Western architectural greatness, reminds us of not only of present power shifts in the world but also the dubious and flimsy nature of collectively accepted facts. Now towering above us but only surface deep, this icon is indeed important and powerful because we have been told it is.
The history of the arts is dense with a questioning of empirical truth; art in general can be said to be a laboratory for the science of immateriality. Yet while the metaphysical territory that Gao treads is not something novel it is something that he gives newly defined importance to. Today in a world where truth is continually compromised by information saturation, fundamentalism, and the politics of pluralism Gao’s conceptual strategy retains a poetic and sometimes humorous approach to this confounded human condition. For his first exhibition in Shanghai the artist inverts the title of Bob Marley’s celebrated song of hope and acceptance into a forecast of doom: Everything isn’t gonna be alright. Inside the gallery homage to the reggae hero, in the form of his image emblazon on a workers tarp, commemorates not so much the artist’s life as it does his premature death and the unfulfilled promise that everything will indeed be alright. Further inside and placed in front of the atrium space two marble pedestals reaffirm this sentiment. The attendant lions who should be sitting on these pedestals have abandoned their posts, leaving not only an implied sense of vulnerability but also a token of the lion’s apathy in the form of a little turd- a simple reassurance that ‘no little thing’s gonna be alright.’
Gao’s dark humor, or his manipulation of classical forms for contemporary aims are two strategies among many for this prolific and diverse artist. His other works see common objects reconfigured into enigmatic arrangements. Superstructure, 2011, a wall sculpture depicting a staircase in diminishing perspective functions merely as an abstract gesture. Stairs connote a sense of upward mobility, progress, and ascendance yet in this case it is constructed out of mirrored stainless steel, reflecting back our own distorted expectations and the fallibility of our cognitive faculties. You and Me is a scaled down rendition of the earth, cast in concrete and positioned upon a tripod of rusted steel tubing. In this piece the earth’s topography has been rendered in minute detail out of common yet robust construction materials, yet the implication doesn’t so much point to the ambitions of urbanization as it lies in an idiom suggesting everlasting love 海枯石烂 to the end of the sea, until the stone crumbles. Gao’s romance with the world is linked to his conception of it, though unrequited, punitive and petrified, it still remains resolute and enduring.
The golden stairs before us appear delicate and stable, impeccably balanced. Their three flights invite us upward. The large-‐scale paintings, precise and ordered, similarly beckon us. Distributed in an axially symmetrical way, their glittering glass fragments shine beneath the light, dreamy mirror images that convey a depth of field.
So goes the process of observing an artwork. We base our perceptions on visual stimuli, memories of past encounters, and a work’s cultural context, drawing conclusions from necessarily limited information. Artist Gao Weigang capitalizes on this process, laying out well-‐designed scenarios that lead his viewers to moments of misunderstanding and flawed interpretation. The so-‐called stairs he creates are unable to bear weight, a basic requirement for stairs, a necessity for supporting people. We apply the word “stair” to the object based on its appearance, but in actuality, it leads nowhere. Similarly misleading, the mirror shards are the products of a casual smash by the artist, who subsequently, painstakingly picked out similar pairs to create the appearance of symmetry. The pattern is deliberately arranged so that people overlook any differences between the individual pieces. Upon closer inspection, our interpretations – our perceptions of a functional set of stairs and of symmetry – are revealed as pure wishful thinking. We deceive ourselves.
Gao seems to delight in implicating his viewers in the scripts he conceives. In Fate (2012), he takes advantage of the material’s inherent qualities to prevent our recognition of it as marble. Shaped into a heart, the stone is disguised as the universally recognized symbol of love; in truth, it is merely a stone. In the series of paintings in Misapprehend (2008– 2012), the artist depicts common geometric objects in gray and white. Surrounded by exaggerated baroque frames, the paintings possess an air of significance and profundity. Within the context of contemporary art, the combination of ornamentation and minimalism suggests a greater meaning, one that will subtly emerge upon further consideration. However, Gao’s works are no more complex than they first appear. Creating a field of contradictions, the work challenges our common sense. As with many of Gao’s works, misapprehension is unavoidable and one of the artist’s intentions.
Though his methods vary, Gao’s oeuvre is united by a common thread: a consistent disconnect between a work’s external appearance and its ultimate meaning, a sense of misdirection that leads the viewer to question their initial perceptions. When faced with such a scenario, most will fleetingly entertain other possibilities before ultimately returning to their first impulse, trusting their intuition. Some may justify this method by referring to instinct or the subconscious, forces that guide us and direct our responses to the stimuli we encounter each day. Gao does not see our reliance on these things as a positive trait, however. Instead, he sees it as a weakness, a defect in human nature that one should try to overcome.
Even when we believe we have uncovered the artist’s true intentions – discovered his artful ruse – we may still be wrong. Gao is not interested in positioning himself above his
audience, in deploying traps for his viewers to fall into. Rather, his works’ intricate conceptual detours reflect the contours of his own introspection. They are both introverted and extroverted, the artists’own interior projected onto an external surface. Considering this, the artist’s preference for reflective mediums gains greater significance; the mirrors and polished stainless steel he frequently uses become a physical metaphor for the reflection of self and others.
Whether Gao’s work is calm and concise, humorous and mocking, or resplendent and magnificent, it is always concerned with the revelation of subconscious assumptions and their limitations. The artist considers this source of presumptive analysis to be a breeding ground for error, a dangerous force that can lead us astray. We humor ourselves by imagining ourselves to be objective, and congratulate ourselves in the successful interpretation of a thing, artwork or otherwise. Arrogance often prevents us from realizing the degree to which we deceive ourselves; such a stance merely compounds the endless illusions. Interpretation becomes a means of interpreting ourselves.
Gao Weigang (b. 1976, based in Jixi, Heilongjiang Province, China) is an intensely versatile artist, reveling in his capacity to turn from painting to performance and then to sculpture in the short space of a single project, emphasizing wild experimentation and bold initiative over style or unitary practice. The 2011 winner of the ArtHK Art Futures prize, Gao Weigang evades categorization of his artworks into a particular genre.
His language makes each piece both the apparatus and the product of experiment, transforming objects so they break through the audience’s natural and ideological perceptions of the material world. Gao Weigang’s creations are also personal: they are milestones in the artist’s quest of self-reflection and a constant re-examination of himself. Despite the many artistic forms and materials Gao Weigang adopts and the great aesthetic variations throughout his works, they all reflect his intention to challenge the viewer’s accustomed visual culture with a sense of humour and an overriding hint of skepticism. Whether it is painting, sculptures or installations, the artist manages to retain a strong sense of medium-specificity.